There is something strangely comforting about a community that seems preoccupied with the notion that it is in crisis. Throughout what is commonly known as the West, there has been a slew of books, articles, and public interventions calling attention to the notion of a cultural crisis within. Such a phenomenon ought to be followed by self-reflection, self-interrogation, and retrospection. By and large, however, the past decade has seen far more of the opposite: The alarm surrounding crisis has been more of a call for “us” to attack and problematize “them,” which invariably leads to propositions such as “conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board,” as Douglas Murray, a hardcore right-wing pundit, once argued—not to mention conspiracy theories that blame all the ills of the modern world on those who look different than “us,” meaning white Europeans, or, worse, pray differently than “we” do.
The West does, of course, face challenges in an age when movements of people happen far more quickly across vast distances than ever before; an age in which the notions of meaning and virtue are more contested; an age where technological advancements and their corresponding impacts on society develop more rapidly. All of that has understandable impacts on how communities and societies think of themselves and conceptualize their common bonds. The question is, how do societies address these challenges and find answers that are likely to heal the rifts that exist rather than exacerbate them on the altar of “saving ourselves,” when the notion of “ourselves” is a wholly mythical construct?
A new book by the British writer Ben Ryan, who worked until recently for the religion and politics-focused think tank Theos, seeks to tackle this question. His book, How the West Was Lost: The Decline of a Myth and the Search for New Stories, takes this distinctly Western anxiety and characterizes what many consider to be “the West” as something of a myth that is reaching a point of decline that may lead to its extinction as an idea.
As far as Ryan is concerned, Westerners themselves are to blame for it—because a critical mass of them no longer seem persuaded by the current formulations of what it means to be Western, and thus the West fails to be a convincing proposition altogether. Yet, as Ryan posits, there is a chance to rescue the West from its own travails—if only Westerners could construct a new myth to gather around as they move forward in the 21st century.
Ryan identifies the West as an intellectual space, rather than solely a geographical one. His model of what the West entails has three pillars: “the belief in a moral endpoint; the trio of republican values (liberty, equality, solidarity); and universalism.” Ryan correctly points out that all of these pillars are in crisis—and yet, the situation is, he argues, “not entirely hopeless.” The final section of the book, following Ryan’s take on what has happened to each of these pillars, is about identifying ways to rebuild and renew those pillars. For Ryan, rebuilding them is a necessity, because the Western model remains the best hope for a future world order that finds its root in virtue and morality.
Ryan’s background within the world of political theology—which is evident in his writing, but also in his new professional capacity as a home affairs advisor for the Church of England, means that readers legitimately expect a discussion of higher morals and ethics, rather than a focus on the merely earthly domain of politics.
That’s an important element in the debate around the future of the West as well, which Ryan does touch on in terms of identifying the importance of Christianity to the formation of the West. In this regard, he’s not positing Christianity as a rallying cry for promoting difference—as Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban does—nor in some kind of secular tribalistic fashion—as Murray does—but as the source of positive virtues, and a recognition of what he considers to be the historical roots of the West.
Much of what Ryan writes is a good place to start. He is thoughtful and attempts to be inclusive, drawing far more on civic notions of patriotism rather than any reliance on ethnic nationalism, or even nationalism rooted in a religious identity. That approach gives readers hope for progress toward a better future. At the same time, however, some readers will be left hoping that Ryan had gone deeper and further, at times writing more critically than he does.
When it comes to conceptualizing themselves as a Western “us,” European Christendom has historically done so by positioning itself against the Muslims of the Mediterranean, be they Ottomans or Arabs.
Indeed, the construction of national identities throughout the European part of the West—and in places like the United States and Australia—have ended up viewing Muslims in a particular way, usually negatively. And when such societies consider how they go forward in the 21st century, that’s an obstacle that requires a massive rethinking.
That rethinking, if it is to be meaningful, needs to not construct new myths of the future—but rediscover large swaths of the past. It’s a project that institutions such as the British Council have tried to bring to fruition, through enterprises like “Our Shared Europe” and “Our Shared Future,” which sought to uncover the huge amount of historical evidence that showed that Muslims and Islam played much wider historical roles internally in the West than was hitherto understood.
At a time when the likes of the far-right Orban in Hungary claim they are defending Christian values, while carrying out patently xenophobic policies, it’s tremendously important to transcend such rank tribalism with facts that provide a bedrock for a sustainable future. Indeed, those inhabiting the intellectual universe of Christendom need to be clear that given the choice, they see the likes of Gabor Ivanyi—a Hungarian Christian minister who fought communism in the 1970s and now rails against Orban’s xenophobia—as their paragon, rather than Orban. Ivanyi may not be perfect, but a form of Christianity that focuses on solidarity with the oppressed, rather than promoting tribalistic hate against the “other,” is precisely what Europe needs more of.