Rémi Brague on European Identity and the Lessons of the Middle Ages

I read Rémi Brague’s The Legend of the Middle Ages several months ago and highly recommend it to any interested in the period. This particular section came to mind earlier this evening, and I thought that I would post it. Within it Brague discusses the sources of European culture.

It is also good to recall from where Europe drew the nourishing juices on which it grew fat. The answer is simple: they came from the outside. Europe borrowed its nourishment, first from the Greco-Roman world that preceded it, then from the world of Arabic culture that developed in parallel with it, and, finally, from the Byzantine world. (37)

He draws attention to the role of the Jews and Arabic civilization as intermediaries in the transmission of the texts that formed European culture.

In order to live by drawing from outside sources, one has to have a sense of lack and insufficiency: ‘We have to accept feeling inferior.’ Brague maintains that this sense of inferiority in relation to earlier and external sources characterizes the Middle Ages throughout. The very existence of the Middle Ages owed itself to the European sense of being ‘no more than dwarfs perched on the shoulders’ of foreign giants.

What made European culture – Hellenism and Israel – was not European, and the two cities that symbolize the two, Athens and Jerusalem, are not in Europe. For a European, studying them is not a means for appropriating one’s own past, but of getting outside of oneself. (39)

For Brague, this ‘getting outside of oneself’ is crucial.

They worked over these acquisitions, developed them, and prolonged them. But they never forgot that what they were borrowing came from the outside, and that its source remained outside…. Thus Europe became engaged in an endless dialectic. It found its motive force in the very foreignness of what it needed to assimilate and what – since it remained outside – continued to arouse its desire. (40)

Later in the book, Brague remarks on a very significant contrast between European Christian culture and Islamic culture in this area. He speaks of Islam and Islamic civilization as a ‘culture of digestion’. Once the Islamic Arabs had absorbed the learning of previous civilizations of other tongues into Arabic, the original writings no longer held any interest, but were to be abandoned like a deserted ruin.

The Islamic method of appropriation can be deployed only at the price of a denial of origin: Islamic culture claims to be an absolute beginning, and it crushes any awareness of owing something to an earlier situation, which it characterizes as the age of ignorance.

I might remark that this attitude regarding what had been handed down is not a chance occurrence. Its roots plunge deep into the very essence of Islam, the religion that has marked Arabic culture. We can find it, in fact, at the heart of the Islamic message: the books that bear witness to earlier revelations were, according to that message, falsified by the communities that had been charged with keeping them, the Jews and the Christians, but their authentic content was conserved in the Qur’an. In that way, earlier writings lose their interest, and the disappearance of their authentic contents loses its gravity. The Holy Book of Islam replaces the books that preceded it. Moreover, it does so to the extent that it incorporates those other books. (154-155)

Europe’s approach, however, was radically different, an approach illustrated within the Bible itself. This approach is one of constant reception and ‘inclusion’ of the Other, without digestion or final assimilation.

We can see a comparable attitude regarding the Other in the Bible, the most exemplary text in European religion. For Christians, the Bible is made up of two parts, a fact that for a long time Christians have not considered strange. And yet! It is unheard of in the history of religions that the holy book of a religion contain, at its side, that of an earlier religion. Moreover, the second book, the New Testament, constitutes something like a commentary on the first. More exactly, and using the technical term of Jewish exegesis, the New Testament is like a pesher of the Old, which is to say an interpretation that applies the text to the present situation and interprets it in function of a key event, here the Passion and the Resurrection of Jesus.

We could apply this concept to many phenomena in European culture. We might even describe that culture globally as a pesher of the cultures that preceded it. It constantly tries to show that Greek thought and the Old Testament throw light on current situations, a process that in turn opens up new possibilities for interpretation. (155)

European culture is pervaded by undigested portions of the past, which, while included, are preserved against any digestion, or dissolution into Europe’s own identity. On account of the ‘undissolved inclusions within it’ Europe’s cultural ‘stomach’ has become akin to a ‘gizzard’. Europe can ‘appropriate other cultures without feeling obliged to digest them.’

It seems to me that these reflections upon European (and Christian) identity may provide an illuminating point of departure for thought about the dialectical character of Christian thought and the relationship between Christ and culture. It might also be worth questioning the way that this attitude relates to the European practice of colonialism, and the distinct character that it took. Finally, I suspect that it could provide us with a thicker and more distinctly European perspective upon such things as multiculturalism and pluralism.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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