Faith and the future of Europe

YVES HERMAN REUTERS European Union Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn addresses a news conference on the interim economic … Continued

YVES HERMAN

REUTERS

European Union Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn addresses a news conference on the interim economic forecast at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels November 10, 2011. Euro zone economic growth will slow sharply next year as weak confidence undermines investment and consumption and tighter fiscal policies reduce domestic demand, the European Commission said on Thursday.

The world economy is on a knife edge. The future of Europe is hanging in the balance. No one is quite sure why it got this bad. They are even less sure of the way out. The global mood is tense.

The supreme irony of our current situation is that it came about in a secular age not because of a lack of faith but because of too much faith in the wrong things. Faith in the market as a self-correcting system. Faith in the securitization of risk, as if you could eliminate uncertainty by paying someone else to carry it on your behalf. Faith in regulatory authorities to rid the world of sin. Faith in the combination of the market and technology to generate ceaseless economic growth.

Someone somewhere should have remembered the lesson of the world’s first economist, Joseph in the book of Genesis, who first taught the theory of trade cycles, that seven years of plenty tend to be followed by seven years of hardship. All economic planning should factor in worst-case scenarios. The Judeo-Christian heritage teaches humility, the greatest defence against the overconfidence for which we are now paying a heavy price.

But we are where we are, and the only way to look is forward. The question for many of us must surely be: what is the best investment over the next few years? It isn’t the stock market. That may crash. It isn’t housing. Its value may fall. It isn’t works of art. Who knows what taste will be, ten or twenty years from now?

The best investment right now is in spiritual goods: in love, trust, friendship and forgiveness, in prayer and celebration and the life of the soul. Now is the time to invest in the deepest sources of happiness: in marriage, family and home, and the bonds of love between husband and wife, parent and child. Now is the time to invest in community and the supportive networks of people with whom we share our prayers, memories and ideals. Community is where our joys are doubled and our sadness halved by being shared with others.

Now is the time to invest in giving to others of our money and our time. Recent happiness research has shown that above a certain economic level, happiness depends less on what we earn than on what we give. This truth was neatly caught in an anecdote about the great nineteenth century British-Jewish philanthropist, Sir Moses Montefiore. Someone once asked him, “Sir Moses, what are you worth?” He thought for a while and named a figure. “But surely,” said his questioner, “your wealth must be much more than that.” With a smile, Sir Moses replied, “You didn’t ask me how much I own. You asked me how much I am worth. So I calculated how much I have given to charity thus far this year – because we are worth what we are willing to share with others.” I have known many successful businesspeople, some self-centred and miserable, others altruistic and deeply fulfilled. Sir Moses was right.

We need to recover faith in the Judeo-Christian heritage with its belief that we are here because of One who created us in love, lifts us when we fall, forgives us when we fail, and who believes in us more than we believe in ourselves. The deepest source of happiness is faith in the meaningfulness of life, the knowledge that we are here for a reason, and that though we walk through the valley of the shadow, we need fear no evil for we are not alone.

Towards the end of his recent book, “Civilization,” the historian Niall Ferguson delivers a stunning surprise. He quotes a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, part of a team tasked with the challenge of discovering why it was that Europe, having lagged behind China until the 17th century, overtook it, rising to prominence and dominance.

At first, he said, we thought it was your guns. You had better weapons than we did. Then we delved deeper and thought it was your political system. Then we searched deeper still, and concluded that it was your economic system. But for the past 20 years we have been in no doubt. It was your religion. It was the Judeo-Christian foundation of social and cultural life in the West that made possible the emergence first of capitalism, then of democratic politics.

It sounds absurd but it is true. Long ago the German sociologist Max Weber said the same: the Protestant ethic gave birth to the rise of capitalism. Economic recovery, like happiness, begins with religious renewal. A society is as strong as its faith.

Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. For further details and to subscribe to his mailing list, please visit www.chiefrabbi.org.

  • SODDI

    Sorry Rabbi, but there are far too many people bleating about faith and doing nothing. The only ones who have concrete realistic plans are the malefactors.

    Now only if these “faiths” would level their Old Testament punishing skills at the ones who are destroying civilization in their quest for personal profit and greed, instead of spending so much time and energy presecuting people who want to have sex…..

  • WmarkW

    Everything started falling apart when Nixon abrogated Bretton Wods in 1971. After that, it started being a lot simpler for politicians to borrow than to say “No.” And real simple to claim for voters to claim membership in an aggrieved group to whom society owed debt.

  • csintala79

    IIt seems that the soundest economies in the EU are those nations that have the highest percentage of the unchurched and non-believers. Religious observance is most noticeable among the nations along the Mediterranean and Ireland, i.e., those nations in economic trouble. There seems to be little correlation between economic success and faith.

  • Secular1

    The usual drivel from the pedlar of filthy fairy tales. It is the same mentality that sky daddy’s magic hand and purpose in natural disaster, that you find in this article. You hear all the time when a tornado or a storm goes through “Any Town” USA and when a silly church is in ruins and all the delusioned assemble in the aftermath that snake oil salesman called priest claims it was divine providence that everyone still assembled despite the ruins of physical church in a rubble. And of course if even a small portion of that silly church were to stand the storms, it is again pedaled as a divine providence and design that that little bit survived. It is the case of Heads we win Tails we did not lose.

    This fool wants to pull the wool over us to with this proposition that lack of faith caused this misery in Euro Zone. What about the one of the non-secular scoundrel Berlusconi – who apparently has lots of faith by the metric tonnes, His faith did not prevent Italy’s fall into the abyss. It is best these Charlatans keep their damn mouths shut and crawl under some rock, where they belong.

  • shilotoren

    nice to know that the secular don’t feel alone even if they don’t believe in G-d. They have their hatred to keep them company,

    If some one had really read what the Rav Sacks said, they realize that the message he brings is not so religious as humanistic. Or is it that charity is only a religious belief? It isn’t. Charity and good deeds are one of the most important elements in any religion, Rav Sack’s in particular.

    Sad to see that hatred that so called secular people espouse. It isn’t secularism but idol worship.

  • Rongoklunk

    I am accustomed to the idea that truth claims ought to be justified with some reasonable evidence: if one is going to claim, for instance, that a Jewish carpenter was the son of a God, or that there is a place called heaven where some ineffable, magical part of you goes when you die, then there ought to be some credible reason to believe that. And that reason ought to be more substantial than that it says so in a big book.

    Religious claims all seem to short-circuit the rational process of evidence-gathering and testing and the sad thing is that many people don’t see a problem with that, and even consider it a virtue. It is why I don’t just reject religion, but actively oppose it in all its forms – because it is fundamentally a poison for the mind that undermines our critical faculties.

    Religious beliefs are lazy jokes with bad punchlines. Why do you have to chop off the skin at the end of your thingie? Because God says so. Why should you abstain from pork, or shrimp, or mixing meat and dairy, or your science classes? Because they might taint your relationship with God. Why do you have to revere a bit of dry biscuit? Because it magically turns into a God when a priest mutters over it. Why do I have to be good? Because if you aren’t, a God will set you on fire for all eternity.

    These are ridiculous propositions. The whole business of religion is clownshoes freakin’ moonshine, hallowed by nothing but unthinking tradition, fear and superstitious behaviour, and an establishment of con artists who have dedicated their lives to propping up a sense of self-importance by claiming to talk to an in­visible big kahuna.

    It’s not just fact-free. Better to call it terrible nonsense.

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