Friday, July 1, 2011
Is There a God in Avignon?
It is a nice place to visit, and by all appearances, a nice place to live.
As I travel through this beautiful country, I find it impossible not to ask "what difference does it make to believe in God?" "What difference does it make for an individual?" And, "What difference does it make for a society?"
Here in France, if a person becomes a Christian, he is making a serious commitment: emotionally, intellectually and socially. He cannot simply drift into faith. He doesn't just go to church because that is what good people around him do. If he becomes a Christian, he is deciding to learn how to think differently than his neighbors. He is accepting the fact that many of his fellow citizens will think him strange. He is deciding to become a new person.
As I imagined what sort of analogy to use to describe French reaction to Christian conversation, the closest I could come to was this: to become a Christian in France is like joining a club where everyone believes in Bigfoot and spends hours talking with his friends in that club about proofs of Bigfoot's existence. No one is angry at you for believing in Bigfoot, they just think it a bit odd. Of course, they get irritated if you make a big deal about your private obsession in public.
The fact is, most French people do not feel a need for God. They have culture: an impressive culture. They have great food, a profound intellectual life and a truly impressive social infrastructure. Even though cathedral spires pierce the sky in every city and town, these are the artistic achievements of past ages. Modern French culture preserves them as relics, although small groups of worshipers do indeed continue to gather there. They are memories, not present realities.
And yet, life goes on. One hears a lot of laughter, good conversation and, of course, encounters great food at every turn.
What are we to say about this? Can we claim that belief in God makes a practical difference in our lives? Does our faith really impact our intellectual lives; and is that impact positive or negative? What about our social lives? Are we better friends and neighbors than non-Christians? Do Christians form more mature, more peaceful or more prosperous societies than humanists?
What are we to say about France? Or about the future of our own country?
This is an especially crucial question for Christians who are politically active. Whether they come from the right or the left of the political aisle, if they seek to transform society according to a social vision they believe derives from their faith, they must tell us what that look like once they succeed.
Will their society be a more just, moral, cultured or prosperous place than France?
The history of Europe requires us to approach this question humbly. Here, Christians have actually led countries, cities and empires. We have a track record here. And if we are ignorant of this record, I can assure you that the humanists are not.
The humanist know that past theocracies helped produce the present humanistic European states; (and helped form the present attitudes of American intellectuals toward religion, for that matter.) The miracle-working charismatic priest, Rasputin, provoked seventy years of Bolshevik rage against the church in Russia. The excesses of the Puritan governments in New England produced a hundred and fifty years of mockery in American literature and a culturally embedded cynicism toward religion in that part of The United States. An Anglican monopoly in Great Britain fused crown and crozier and provoked an outrage from the lower classes that left a bitter taste, in both religious circles and Marxist ones, for theology and liturgy of any sort.
Shall I go on?
The examples are many. They also represent most major expressions of Christianity. In fact, the only example I can think of where Christians dominated a state with good results over the long term is colonial Pennsylvania. There, Quaker governors shocked the world by actually behaving like disciples of Jesus. There are other examples surely, especially of short-term bursts of cultural advance under Christian governments.
I might even offer European Medieval society as an example of cultural advance under Christian leadership. Of course, that would provoke howls of rage and mockery from unbeliever and Christian alike, but that is because of the way the history of that era has been written as much as it is because of what actually happened during that period. Still, humanists can find plenty of material in Medieval history to make their case.
Christians make no better rulers than non-Christians. That is my point.
When in power, we tend to govern like anyone else, even if we pray fervently and quote a lot of Bible passages. In fact, overtly religious people can become terribly oppressive if they internally justify their cruelties and prejudice by wrapping their actions in authentic piety.
Christianity can be easily misused in ways that undermine its message and power. That has happened here. I sat among its ruins in Avignon.
The power of Christianity is first of all the living presence of Christ. Not our morals. Not our rules. But the felt, experienced, living presence of Jesus. Next, it is the teachings of the faith that gradually transform the human intellect and which molds human perception and judgement in ways that differ profoundly from secular ways of thought. Then, it the courage to put the teachings into action, in a spirit of humility and forbearance.
Without the intellectual formation of Christian teaching -- which does not occur without a battle with sloth and the embedded evil of our darkened minds -- without the sense of the living presence of Christ, and without the courage to actually live the values of the faith, Christianity becomes a pretext, an excuse, for controlling others. If such "Christians" rule, "Christianity" becomes a dead morality, an imposition of life-denying rules, validated and enforced by the soldier's gun.
Humanists with long memories resist Christian influence in society largely because of this often repressed scenario.
Many American Christians now call us to "take back our country." When the righteous rule, they say, the people rejoice. But who are these righteous people we want to govern our nation? Are they the leaders of our denominations? Which one? Are they our pastors?
Before we think about governing society, we should ask whether American Christianity is currently producing people whose intellect has been formed by a Christian way of thinking. Do such people have the necessary knowledge of the world to govern? Have they looked through their Christian lens at the world or used their faith as an excuse to retreat from it? Can they interact peacefully, respectfully, and knowledgeably with people of other persuasions?
If such people exist, will their fellow believers allow them to function in their area of knowledge without frying them alive with rumors, slanderous emails and half-baked conspiracy theories?
I am thinking about these things, here in the beautiful surroundings of Avignon. I am thinking of all the things that occurred here. A papal schism. St. Bartholomew's massacre. A bloody revolution. A restoration. A return to religious monopoly. Wars. A humanistic pacifism that is weary of all religion, nationalism or anything else that stirs public passions. Better to eat canard avec aubergine and drink Chateauneuf-du-Pape rouge. Better to make love. Better to ride a high speed train to Paris and go to the Louvre.
Then I read Les Miserables, arguably one of two truly successful Christian novels in world literature. I read about the godly bishop Bienvenu who led a criminal to Christ. That criminal became a successful business man. Then a mayor. He keeps his head through the revolutions and raises his daughter. He prays for the people and helps them find bread. All around him, the cultured and crude alike, wallow in their various forms of misery. Some take to the streets to make the world a better place. Some fight back and kill the Reformers. All are miserable and without a real purpose for which to live.
Meanwhile, the real reformation of the world unfolds in the work of a nearly invisible man named Jean Val Jean, who once one a wretch, lost and blind; was found, healed, and set free to serve. He walks through France like a Gallic Christ, silently pleading for the soul of his nation.
I think, sitting here in the Provence region, that when Victor Hugo wrote Les Miserables, he was begging for the church to appoint at least one Christian as a bishop, or perhaps for the bishops to please become Christians. He was begging for shepherds who did not desire to become despots. He was longing for Christians to understand what it means to be the salt of the earth, a city on a hill, and the light of the world.
Even today, if such people arise, they will not need to win an election or to wear a crown. They will be given a hearing, even here in France. Because a day comes when one has had his last taste of exquisite cuisine or has his last discussion about Voltaire, Sartre and Diderot or has had his fill of rides on high speed trains. There comes a day when he wants to know: " If a man die, shall he live again?" " And, " Why am I here?" "Why do I delight in conversation and well prepared food?" "Why do I love buildings that touch the sky and cause me speak in whispers?" "What am I that I should care about such things?"
When one finally tires of the questions, he longs to meet a truly good man or woman; someone who carries in their being the balm of Gilliad that makes the wounded whole.