If you’re wondering why the European Union budget talks collapsed in November, you might look to the euro, the common currency of more than half of the E.U.’s member states, to gain a clue. I don’t mean the currency’s market position but the actual printed paper. All the euro bank notes display some image of a bridge, arch or gateway, each a highly stylized representation of a European architectural period—so highly stylized, in fact, that the images don’t correspond in any straightforward way to actual objects. The bridge on the five euro bank note, for example, might appear to be the Pont du Gard, but look closely and you’ll see just enough of a difference to permit an Irishman or a German to claim that the image is not that of the famous bridge in southern France.
The obscurity is by design. If the images don’t correspond to anything that anyone really cares about, the logic goes, then the images cannot possibly offend. True enough, but such images can hardly inspire either. The big question, of course, is whether the Great Idea of Europe, symbolized here by some imagined bridge, will enable Europeans to transcend the vast historical and cultural differences among them.
After all, this sort of thing has been tried before. It is a peculiarly modern fantasy that widespread allegiance to a great idea can bring about radical change in human living. “Come, let us reason together,” has been the mantra of Westerners from Norman Angell to Francis Fukuyama. The great idea, we’re told, can overcome all the legacies of warfare, the most entrenched ideologies, the most parochial of worldviews.
Ideas matter; they matter a lot. But they are hardly salvific. The violence and injustice that have disfigured European history are not the products of rational decision-making. More often, they are simply the products of original sin. The best explanation for Europe’s twin 20th-century cataclysms isn’t Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August or John F. Kennedy’s Why England Slept. The best explanation for those conflicts, indeed for all human conflict, is the first six chapters of the Book of Genesis. War-making, precisely because it is a consequence of sin, is irrational. Some work of human reason, then, untethered to faith, is pitifully insufficient to forestall human violence. Here, Christians can help lead the way; for our hope lies not in worldly utopian dreams, but in the saving love of Christ; our communion is revealed and realized anew in the Eucharist, not in the empty symbols and para-liturgies of the nation-state. We are disciples of Jesus Christ, not subjects of Leviathan.
What might a conversion of human hearts look like in the real world? This issue of America points to some possibilities. Tim Wadkins reports from postwar El Salvador, where the church is learning anew that lasting political change must begin with spiritual conversion. Margaret E. Crahan writes about how the church in Cuba, a country long oppressed by its own version of a great idea, is finding creative ways to fill the immense social and cultural vacuum created by the regime’s official atheism. Last, Ivan J. Kauffman argues that a truly Catholic approach to politics must eschew ideology entirely and that “American democracy will not survive unless we find new post-ideological ways” to solve our problems. Individual conversion, ecclesial renewal, post-ideological politics: not a bad start.
By the way, the European Central Bank has chosen a new image for the euro that will debut next year: Europa, the Phoenician woman after whom the continent takes its name. A seemingly safe pick. If Greece decides to withdraw from the euro zone, however, then having a Greek mythological figure on the currency could prove problematic. The E.U. bankers in Frankfurt would have to go back to the beginning.