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In Europe, a legacy of hope

‘Mosaic’ and ‘house’ were inadequate images for Europe, Bob Goudzwaard argued. Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, however, did justice to a continent which had declared its autonomy and was quickly spending its inheritance.

WINDOW ON EUROPE AUTOR 63/Jeff_Fountain 29 DE ABRIL DE 2024 12:22 h
An archive image of Bob Goudzwaard. / Photo: [link]Via Jeff Fountain[/link].

The name Bob Goudzwaard may not be widely knownbut it deserves to be. 



After his passing last weekend here in the Netherlands, aged 90, obituaries in both secular and Christian Dutch newspapers honoured him as a Christian political economist and scholar consistently anchored in biblical justice and love for one’s neighbour. 



His life, work and writings have been a beacon for me for over fifty years. One of his first books I encountered was ‘Aid for the overdeveloped West’ published in early 1975, the title of which pointed to a recurring theme in his work, the ‘economics of enough’. Other titles he (co-)authored indicate the constant source of inspiration he has been for me over these five decades in my own search for a public theology offering understanding of our world today: A Christian Political Option (1975); Capitalism and progress: a diagnosis of western society (1978); Idols of our times (1984); Beyond poverty and affluence: towards an economy of care (1994); Globalisation and the kingdom of God (2001); Hope in troubled times (2007); Beyond the modern age (2017)



Goudzwaard was well-known in circles influenced by Abraham Kuyper in the Netherlands, North America, Korea and South Africa. I first met him at the Dutch L’Abri centre outside Utrecht in 1975, shortly after I arrived in the Netherlands. He was, as one obituary noted this week, ‘exceptionally friendly and unassuming’.





Radicality



At that time he was guiding the merger of Kuyper’s party, the Anti-Revolutionary Party, with the Catholic and Reformed parties into the Christian Democratic party, CDA, having already served four years in the Dutch Parliament in the ARP. From 1971, he had taught economics and social philosophy as a professor at the Vrije Universiteit (Free University), founded by Kuyper in Amsterdam. As early as the 1960’s, he had advised the Dutch prime minister concerning the establishment of a European Economic Union. Later in the 90’s he chaired the European Ecumenical Commission on Development in Brussels. 



Constantly challenging the underlying secular assumptions of prevailing economics, Goudzwaard saw ‘the unique radicality of the Gospel’ as unmasking ‘the role of demonic power in a prosperous society’. Economics should be evaluated in the total context of human experience, he believed, including the ethical and faith dimensions. Preceding the 1972 Club of Rome report, his 1970 doctoral thesis, Non-Priced Scarcity, pioneered an ‘economy of care’ for environmental scarcities such as clean air, clean water and fertile soil, each being priceless yet having genuine economic value.  



Idols of our times developed his understanding of the ideologies of our time: capitalism, socialism, nationalism, conservatism and liberalism, for example. When an ideology absolutised part of God’s good created order, it became an idolatry, a false revelation of ‘creation, fall and redemption’ by offering a pseudo-solution to the perceived root problem in the world. 





Images



Thirty years ago he wrote in Trouw newspaper about the battle for Europe’s soul, questioning the adequacy of the various images used to describe a continent then emerging from the division of the Cold War era. Lech Walesa talked of fortress Europe, the self-enriching west still separated from the east by a silver curtain; Maggie Thatcher preferred Europe as a mosaic, while Mikhail Gorbachev spoke of the European house sheltering many under its roof. 



But these models missed the deeper, spiritual component usually shunned in political and economic discussion, suggested Goudzwaard. On the other hand, Jacques Delors – ’a politician with vision’ – had appealled to the churches of Europe to help find a ‘soul for Europe’. Here was the root problem, he analysed. Europe, cradle of democracy and modern science, had also been the cause of both world wars. The source of the world’s great revolutions, Europe now faced the bankruptcy of all her own ideologies.



‘Fortress’, ‘mosaic’ and ‘house’ were inadequate images, he argued. Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, however, did justice to the deep evil of a continent which had declared its autonomy and was quickly spending its inheritance. And yet that image also offered hope! Europe needed to come to her senses, throw off her illusions and return to the waiting Father. Only then could a prodigal Europe reconsider her origin and destiny, and find her soul. 



My last contact with Goudzwaard, over a decade ago, was at a conference on Kuyper at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, when he chatted freely with a small group of us over lunch in the cafeteria.



He is no longer with us – but his writings remain. As we gather in less than two weeks in Brussels, on May 9, Europe Day, for a European Studies Day in the Chapel for Europe, and then at the State of Europe Forum, May 10 & 11, we do well to draw from Bob’s legacy of ‘hope in troubled times’. 



Jeff Fountain, Director of the Schuman Centre for European Studies. This article was first published on the author's blog, Weekly Word.



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