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the Complete Review
the complete review - religion / politics

The Cube and the Cathedral

George Weigel

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To purchase The Cube and the Cathedral

Title: The Cube and the Cathedral
Author: George Weigel
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2005
Length: 177 pages
Availability: The Cube and the Cathedral - US
The Cube and the Cathedral - UK
The Cube and the Cathedral - Canada
Le cube et la cathédrale - France
  • Europe, America, and Politics Without God

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Our Assessment:

D : very poorly argued and presented

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
America A 20/6/2005 Nancy Hawkins
National Review A 25/4/2005 Randy Boyagoda
The New York Sun A 11/4/2005 Daniel Johnson
San Francisco Chronicle D 17/4/2005 John Brady

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A)n excellent read. It is clear, to the point and engaging, and encourages the reader to ponder questions that otherwise might be left to the Op Ed page of The New York Times.(...) This book should be required reading for any student of history. The questions, intelligently raised, are the essential questions for our time. Weigel is an excellent dialogue partner. He takes his audience seriously and respects the knowledge of experts in their fields." - Nancy Hawkins, America

  • "(H)is argument would be even more formidable if it engaged the ideas of "the people of the Cube" with a greater portion of intellectual sympathy tempering its muscular critiques. Offering as much might open otherwise stuffed ears to this book’s accomplishment: a consistently winning apology for Christianity’s preeminence in the formation of European civilization, an acute diagnosis of the maladies that have followed upon Christianity’s banishment from the European public square, and a clear-eyed brief on Christianity’s vital role in securing a redemptive future for the Continent." - Randy Boyagoda, National Review

  • "His latest tract (...) does not disappoint. It may look like a picnic, but it is actually a sumptuous banquet, stuffed with enough ideas for several books. Even to summarize the argument is a formidable task; Mr. Weigel's prose is so rich." - Daniel Johnson, The New York Sun

  • "He has written a shrill sectarian polemic marked by a simplistic analysis. Throughout his book, Weigel, elevating assertion over argument, takes considerable and highly dubious liberties with the historical record and, in the end, exhibits no small amount of moral bad faith." - John Brady, San Francisco Chronicle

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       There's an interesting idea somewhere in here (the perception that the Christian deity is being taken out of European politics, and the consequences thereof) and some interesting approaches (the title, the debate about what place mention of Christianity should have in the EU constitution), but Weigel's presentation and arguments are inept. In fact, there's little honest debate here: the selective (and misleading) examples make for a polemic shabbily dressed up as honest discourse. But even as polemic it fails, in never adequately explaining the ideals Weigel touts. It's a muddle -- and it's a shame, because even those who firmly believe religion has no part to play in contemporary government surely realise that the consequences of removing it from an arena in which it has played such a large role (as well as the fact that it has been influential in shaping contemporary society, in Europe and practically everywhere else) likely will be far-reaching.
       Weigel's book careens all over the place. Among the arguments made repeatedly and most forcefully is his ringing endorsement (though never put in these terms) of Catholic opposition to birth control (yes, this is also a book about demographics, with Weigel extremely concerned that (Christian) Europeans aren't procreating enough). He's also very emphatic about the role Christianity played in the formulation (or even invention) of the ideals of, especially, democracy and human rights. There's also lots of stuff about the apparent loss of faith in Europe and what a bad thing that is, and what a great guy Pope John Paul II is, and constitutional law. Quite a bit of what he says is true; little of it is helpful. (Mainly this is because Weigel is highly selective in what he puts on offer: okay, "When Pope John Paul reaches for a literary allusion, it is often to Paul Ricoeur" is a fun titbit, but without further explanation it isn't of much use -- indeed, it serves (as so much here does) only to further muddy the waters. But all Weigel wants to convey (in that case) is what a hip intellectual JPII is: appearance over content.))
       Weigel gets off -- very briefly -- to a decent start with his title. A bit unwieldy, but intriguing -- and it allows for a cover-picture contrasting the cube and the cathedral of the title, and then for Weigel to use the two as stand-ins for modernity cut off from the past versus deep-seated (religious) tradition. The cube is La Grande Arche de le Défense in Paris, the cathedral Notre Dame. And his first chapter ends with some provocative, interestingly-framed questions:

Which culture, I wondered, would better protect human rights ? Which culture would more firmly secure the moral foundations of democracy ? The culture that built this stunning, rational, angular, geometrically precise but essentially featureless cube ? Or the culture that produced the vaulting and bosses, the gargoyles and flying buttresses, the nooks and crannies, the asymmetries and holy "unsameness" of Notre-Dame and the other great cathedrals of Europe ?
       A promising starting-point. Too bad he doesn't run with it. Oh, he lugs it along for a bit -- the cube and cathedral, and certainly what they represent, aren't entirely forgotten -- but the book immediately veers in all sorts of other directions: arguments briefly come into focus, but for the most part this book is one big blur.
       Part of the problem is the presentation: Weigel chops up his book into very many very short chapters. Some are nearly random interjections -- a list of 'Puzzles' ('facts' (often highly questionable or misleadingly phrased ones) about contemporary Europe that puzzle Weigel) or 'By Name' (a list of great Europeans motivated by "Christian conviction") -- peripherally relevant but thrown in without being adequately discussed. Worse are the chopped-up sections: some arguments are contained entirely within a chapter, others slowly unfold over several -- if there's a method behind it, it is not readily discernible. If issues were addressed in some sort of systematic manner the book might at least be easier to follow -- though given Weigel's arguments it still wouldn't do much to improve the book.

       Weigel throws a lot at the reader, but limits actual discussion to a more manageable number of issues. Unfortunately, this leaves much inflammatory stuff uncontested out there: among the 'puzzles' Weigel throws out is, for example:
Why did voters in Spain give a de facto victory to appeasement in their March 2004 elections, days after al Quaeda operatives killed hundreds and wounded thousands by bombing a Madrid train station ?
       Leaving aside that it was trains (several) and not a station that was bombed, surely any discussion of this 'puzzle' must acknowledge the government's immediate outrageous (mis-)attribution of the attacks to Basque separatists as a major reason for the opposition victory in the ensuing elections. In one fell swoop the government showed that it couldn't be trusted -- no surprise to get a voter backlash there. (The 'de facto appeasement' issue is also more complicated: the presence of Spanish troops in Iraq was already deeply unpopular long before the events in Madrid.)
       So what of Weigel's actual arguments ? Alas, he's not much better on those. A favourite is the interesting example of the proposed European Union constitution, with Weigel making a very big deal about the fact that, after much debate, no direct mention of Christianity was made "in citing the sources of Europe's distinctive civilization". That sounds like a major debate and a major step, and Weigel has a lot of fun with it. Unfortunately, what he tells readers isn't anywhere near the whole story. Admittedly, the whole story is pretty long and boring, and deserves whole books of its own devoted to it (like, for example, J.H.H. Weiler's Un 'Europa cristiana, which he devotes considerable space to), but there is a good deal of information that Weigel fails to mention that seems relevant.
       The example of the EU constitution is, of course, ideal for Weigel's book: his American audience will have only the vaguest idea of what this thing is and how it came into being. Without any background, readers may well wonder -- as the author does -- "why a twenty-first-century European constitution that can accommodate 70,000 other words found no room for the word 'Christianity'". Familiar only with the American constitution (which comes in at about one-tenth the length), Americans may have different expectations of basic law. For your edification and enlightenment, a typical paragraph (in this case, Article III-128) of the EU constitution reads:
The languages in which every citizen of the Union has the right to address the institutions or bodies under Article I-10(2)(d), and to have an answer, are those listed in Article IV-448(1). The institutions and bodies referred to in Article I-10(2)(d) are those listed in Articles I-19(1), second subparagraph, I-30, I-31 and I-32 and also the European Ombudsman.
       (Actually, it's largely only the amendments to the American constitution that are nicely concise and pithy; the original nitty-gritty isn't as verbose as the EU constitution, but similarly detail-oriented.)
       Weigel gets some mileage out of the 70,000 word document, but in fact his focus is almost entirely on the Preamble. That's where he (and many EU politicians) figures a mention of Christianity would have been appropriate (or even necessary). It might have been worth mentioning that the the preamble -- stripped of the country and leader names -- amounts to a mere 243 words. I.e. this is one place where they kept explanations down to a minimum (and wound up with what seems like a perfectly reasonable if anodyne introduction). More to the point, a comparison to the American constitution would surely be of interest: after all, if there's a country that can really point to its foundations being found at least in part in religion, surely it is the US. So how often does the 52-word preamble to the American constitution refer to 'God' or 'Christianity' or the like ? None, of course. It reads, in its entirety:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
       The failure to (constitutionally) acknowledge the religious roots of American nationhood seems not to have been the terrible thing Weigel suspects it will be for the Europeans. How can this be ? (Oh, there are plausible explanations, even from his point of view: the Declaration of Independence is, after all, the document that really explains the political foundations of the nation, but he doesn't even bother bringing that up.)
       Weigel also makes it sound as though references to the European Union's roots in Christianity are an obvious part of any EU constitution, and that it is almost unthinkable that they not be included (and hence it's so outrageous a situation that they, in fact, were not included). Quoting both European supporters and opponents, Weigel gives some sense of the controversy -- but not how very little of a controversy it was. The conclusion was always foregone: words and posturing are all well and good (and necessary to appease religious constituencies back home), but there seems little question that it was essentially unthinkable from the first that Christianity get a mention. (Some may believe this an arguable point, but it isn't: much as there might be fervent and fairly widespread support for a constitutional amendment banning abortion in the US, some things just couldn't happen given current political situations.)
       Regardless of whether or not Christianity wound up being mentioned in the EU constitution, these events are certainly not the worst springboard for discussing European attitudes towards Europe's Christian heritage (and the role of organised Christian religion in contemporary Europe). Unfortunately, Weigel doesn't do a very good job of that either. Admittedly, it's not easy. For one, 'Europe' (which, for Weigel's purposes, more or less means the countries that are part of the EU) is far from a single, unified entity: to lump all European countries and people together is a gross oversimplification, but then actually considering the many differing attitudes found across the continent doesn't allow for generalizations of the sort Weigel likes to make (and, admittedly, would require much more space than he has at his disposal). (Conveniently, the supra-national EU does offers a good stand-in for 'Europe', but it's of limited use as that.) Occasionally, Weigel acknowledges that Europe is a far more complex place: he notes pockets of exception (much-loved Poland leading the way), etc. But for the most part he prefers to tar with one broad brush: European it is, and what that is, right now, is not so good.
       Weigel finds widespread "Christophobia" among politicians and intellectuals, and a denial of the role of Christianity in shaping contemporary Europe (blaming the detours that were the horrors of World Wars I and II on the fact that religion no longer played a guiding role in Europe). He sees a "crisis in civilizational morale" (and guess what ? Christianity could cure it !), and dislikes the focus on the present and the forgetting of the past.
       There are many problems with his arguments and statements. Most prominent and awkward are, of course, the sweeping statements: "civilizational morale", "Europe's present malaise", "a failure of self-confidence" (which he believes is: "surely tied to a collapse of faith in the God of the Bible"). Continent- or society-wide attributes should be treated with great care -- and they certainly have to be explained in greater detail. (Yeah, Europeans aren't having kids like they used to -- is that all there is to this malaise ?)
       Weigel writes of John Paul II's "powerful, compelling, even moving vision that ought to stir the emotions of everyone". Highlights of that vision ? The promise that: "The Gospel of hope does not disappoint !" Yeah, that's a real nice optimistic thought -- but doesn't help those who don't really get the whole Christianity (or religion) thing. Possibly the benefits of organised Christian religion in getting everybody on the same, right track are entirely obvious to Weigel, but despite some fine quotes from the Pope and a liberal sprinkling of lofty terms (freedom, liberty, human rights, democracy, and, of course, transcendence) the selling points of this particular route aren't very convincingly presented.
       One thing that Weigel does try to do is show that Christianity is worth keeping in the picture because it played such an important role in the creation of contemporary concepts like human rights. Even if this were true (and it's a big if), it's not entirely clear why the one should follow from the other: just because something got you somewhere doesn't mean you should cling to it. Often, like using Wittgenstein's ladder, it's best just to move on.
       Weigel is also selective in what part of Christianity's role in shaping modern Europe he wants to hold onto: he acknowledges the Church didn't always do right, but can, of course, find enough examples to suggest it's worth holding onto. Unfortunately, the same method isn't as satisfactory elsewhere: in Latin and South America, as well as Africa, Christianity is inextricably bound to colonialism, and focussing on Christianity's historical role wouldn't be nearly as morally fulfilling (no wonder he avoids discussion of much beyond Europe).
       One of Weigel's major concerns -- perhaps the central one in the book -- is that Europeans are "committing demographic suicide". He even claims they're doing so "systematically", though there doesn't seem to be a method behind it (just madness) -- unless one counts the systematic use of birth control so abhorred by the pope --; China is the country where they are "systematically depopulating" (with that brilliant one-couple-one-child policy). Weigel really seems convinced that: "Europe has stopped reproducing itself because most Europeans have stopped going to church". It's a theory, of sorts, but unfortunately he fails to consider other examples, such as the original (and likely still worst) contemporary case of demographic suicide, Japan. Hard to argue that a falling out of favour of Christianity caused that ..... And, by the same logic Weigel applies, one would be tempted to argue that Russian men were far better off under communism, as their life expectancy has plunged (as has the birth rate) since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Cause and effect are far more complex than Weigel is willing to consider. (He may be right, after all, but the evidence he offers does little to support it.)
       Weigel is particularly concerned about the declining Christian population in Europe because, aside from the obvious pressures it puts on those societies (too few young workers to pay for the upkeep of the retired and sick) it also might allow for an Islamic take-over of Europe. Those Muslims are willing to procreate (and immigrate) ! And he doesn't think Europe will stay the tolerant, human-rights respecting place we know and love (this tolerance, these human-rights, etc. all as Christian ideals, of course) if the Muslims become a majority.
       The changing demographics in Europe are a fascinating subject, and Weigel's scenario is a possible one. His cries of alarm, however, are a bit premature (and entirely too limited). In his 'Puzzles' he offers some terrifying statistics -- "Why will Spain's population decline from 40 million to 31.3 million by the middle of the century ?" -- and it is these nightmare-visions he relies upon in building his argument, but he fails to mention (save once) that he is extrapolating from present trends. 'Present trends' tend not to be very consistent over the long term (and the 45 year term he uses here is an eternity as far as population-figures go), and present-day conclusions often prove way off the mark (think Malthus). It is still unclear whether current low European (and Japanese) birth rates are an aberration or trend; certainly, if they stay at these levels much longer (or if they suddenly swing widely up or down) they will have far-reaching consequences. But what these are remains unclear; sure, if all else stays the same everyone's pension schemes (etc.) will go bankrupt -- but guess what ? none of these pension schemes (etc.) are going to look the same 45 years from now (retirement ages will be raised, benefits cut, etc.).
       Weigel's fears of Islamic domination are also problematic (though admittedly at least debatable). As always, he tends towards oversimplification (and omission), arguing for example that:
That no Islamic society save Turkey, which (forcefully) took Islam out of public life, has developed into a pluralistic democracy is not simply an accident of history; it reflects the deep theological and doctrinal structure of Islam.
       Surely, it must also be mentioned that outside forces played no small role in retarding the spread of democracy, especially in the Middle East. Iran made some tentative steps towards democracy more than fifty years ago but was thwarted by American interference, and until recently the US has been happy to prop up anti-democratic regimes in countries such as Egypt that might have advanced more in that direction otherwise. (The world's most populous Islamic -- albeit not Arabic -- nation, Indonesia, hasn't been democratic for very long, but also looks to be on a decent course.)

       Weigel believes Europeans have (largely) lost their way, and that returning to the lap of the church would cure most of what ails them. He doesn't like a lot of what he sees in Europe (which includes everything from "expanded international jurisdiction" to attitudes towards the invasion of Iraq), and since Europe has become increasingly secular he's willing to put the blame squarely there (not a logically sound conclusion, but never mind). Indeed, he's convinced: "a thoroughly secularized world is bad for human beings" -- but unfortunately, nothing he says (and no one he quotes) convincingly demonstrates that (again: sorry, but: the world is bad, the world is secular, does not properly lead to the conclusion that secularism is bad).
       Though focussed almost exclusively on Europe, the book is clearly also meant as a warning for American audiences. And not just about 'losing' Europe but rather also as a warning about -- as those words in the subtitle have it -- Politics Without God. (As is almost inevitable in American books about religion and politics, the only deity of interest (the only "God") is the Christian one -- Weigel doesn't care much for the fact that his nightmare-scenario of a Muslim takeover of Europe might well allow a return to politics very much with god, since it is obviously the wrong god.) Weigel admits, en passant, that things aren't necessarily so much better in the US (for example: "there is probably no example of a European problem cited above for which one couldn't find a parallel example in the United States"), but he doesn't really dwell on these (and thinks "some things in the United States are in fact getting better"). But many of the things that bug him about secular Europe (a focus on the present, less respect for history and for the dead, growing internationalism, underfunded pension plans, and, of course, the removal of god from politics) have reared their ugly faces in the US too.
       An Islamic takeover by population-replacement remains unlikely in the US (where birthrates are nowhere near the catastrophic European levels, though they're something to keep an eye on), but otherwise his message of embrace the faith, etc. is surely meant to sway American audiences. In particular, his harping on the refusal of Europeans to acknowledge their Christian roots in their constitution is surely also a disguised commentary on the recurrent debate of religious foundations in American public life (such as the currently popular Ten-Commandment debates).
       Unfortunately, Weigel's arguments are not very convincing, his examples not very subtle (which would be forgivable if they were illuminating, but they're not) and the presentation of the material a mess. Weigel addresses important issues and raises some interesting questions about a rapidly changing world, but handles everything entirely inadequately. (Embarrassingly, the book doesn't even reach the stage of where one can debate whether he might be right or wrong: his arguments are simply inadequate.)

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The Cube and the Cathedral: Reviews: George Weigel: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of books dealing with Religion

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About the Author:

       George Weigel has written numerous books.

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© 2005-2021 the complete review

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