The Pulse: Paris

Pinpoints of Light

Sitting in his small room at the seminary, Jean-Luc would often look up at the twin pictures of Saint John Paul and the ghost of Saint Francis. He would then stroll over to the Collège to attend a lecture or two.

The lectures were free. He didn't even need to sign up or reserve a seat. Like the first shot of heroin, he thought to himself. 

At times Jean-Luc could barely believe where he was: in a lecture-hall full of scholars reading along in Akkadian or hieratic. A half-dozen blocks from the gothic spires of Notre Dame. 

He wanted to face up to the facts. Or, at least, to what he feared were the facts. He was determined to come to terms with the 19th century discovery of a cuneiform text about an angry god, a Flood, an ark, and a sacrifice. This story pre-dated the Bible by thousands of years.

In his 1992 work Naissance de Dieu (Birth of God), the Assyriologist Jean Bottéro summed up the challenge:

C'est le 3 décembre 1872 que la Bible a perdu à jamais sa prérogative immémoriale d'être << le plus ancien livre connu >>, << un livre pas comme les autres >>, << écrit ou dicté par Dieu en personne >>.

It was on the 3rd of December 1872 that the Bible lost forever the immemorial prerogative of being "the oldest book known," "a book unlike others," "written or dictated by God Himself."

Jean Bottéro was eventually forbidden to return to the priory of Saint-Maximin, where they considered him to be (like Socrates) a danger to the youth. Jean-Luc thought to himself, Is the Church still in the business of forbidding? Visions of the Inquisition, of Galileo forced to recant, swam into Jean-Luc's head. This only furthered his resolve.

He was determined to sound the depth of his doubts, come hell or high water. If l'Ecriture Sainte was true, then there was indeed high water: there was a flood, an ark, and a covenant with God. Yet what if the biblical account was only borrowed from the Mesopotamians, or if it could be explained away by geologists? Then believing in Noah and his giant Ark was like believing in a second-hand myth or fairy tale. He loved literature and mythology, yet he didn't want either masquerading as history. 

To Jean-Luc, this was also the problem with Vatican II. To square the modern world with the heavenly circles of the Middle Ages was an impossible task. It wasn't so much like trying to square the circle as to circle the square. It was like trying to fit the angular geometry of a doric temple into the circular heaven of the saints.

The only apex that could fit within the Divine Scheme of Things wedged itself sharply into the radiating circles of the Empyrean. A universe of a million spokes. It was here that the gilded ladies gazed spellbound into the infinity of God.

Here at the centre of the cosmos lay Dante's Blessed Rose, and his overlapping triple circle of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Yet the geometrical perfection of this construction exploded when Jean-Michel considered the merest facts of astronomy. The fine triple circle into which all the angles pierced, and into which all the angels rose, blew open, like at the Big Bang, when he considered that the heavens above don't come together at all. There's no single radiating point — unless one subordinated Christian Time and Space to the Big Bang, which no one in the Church was willing to do. And if there's no single point holding the universe in place — a point like Heaven or God — then what's the point?

Jean-Luc thought of the article he read this morning, "Stanislas Breton: Questioning the Essence of Christianity," written by Joseph O'Leary:

While the scientific study of Scripture causes a retreat of Christian origins, no longer as secure, massive, unitary as was thought, the scientific study of the cosmos and of evolution causes the figure of the Creator to withdraw into a discreet distance, to become something like the Neoplatonic One, ungraspable, yet close at hand.

The study of Neoplatonism has helped Breton and others of his generation to avoid a troubled theological scene and to cultivate instead a path of thought that requires one neither to clutch at dogma nor to tilt at it, and that offers no basis for niggling about points of orthodoxy whether in doubt or in defense.

Always niggling at Jean-Luc was the notion that the more he knew, the more he knew he didn't know. Like the cosmos, and the God who controlled it, the world of his understanding just seemed to get bigger and further away. His God started to look like a glowing emanation from afar -- more gamma ray than sunlight. His predicament was like of Ungaretti in his poem "Pietà":

La luce che ci punge / The light that pierces us

E un filo sempre piú sottile. / Is a line ever more thin. ...

Dio, guarda la nostra debolezza / God, look at our weakness ...

Voremmo una certezza. / We long for a certainty.

Jean-Luc was determined to confront, rather than avoid, the troubled theological scene. He hoped to use his unorthodox training at le Collège not to confirm what he already knew about Divine Love — that thin light that still pierced him, no matter the darkness around — but to test what he feared about Divine Writ.

At some point he would ask even more inconvenient questions. Had he devoted his life to Jesus, or to some deep complex of emotion and intellect that Jesus represented, hallowed over millennia? Were all his feelings about divine love, forgiveness, and the beauty of the transubstantiation merely a function of his need? Were they only hopes, dressed up in the ecclesiastical garments he felt destined to wear? Were Calvin and Zwingli right to say that the bread was only bread, and the wine only wine? Was the Christian Scheme of Things what he wanted It to be, or was It really there? Was his belief in Christ really a hope rather than a belief?

Was love — not belief, but love — really at the bottom of it all? Could he say simply say that he believed in love? Could he dispense with the rest?

If he couldn't answer these questions truthfully, he was truly lost. And if he couldn't be truthful to himself, he had no business preaching The Truth.

 

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