In Defense of Reading Pagans

In Defense of Reading Pagans January 18, 2019

Guest post by Stephen E. Lewis:

Last week, a controversy erupted over a book I assigned in a five-student advanced literature seminar at the Franciscan University of Steubenville (FUS) during the Spring 2018 semester. Not wishing to further divide our university community, I trusted that my superiors at FUS would handle the matter appropriately and I refrained from public comment. But many observers have assumed that Franciscan University’s decision to remove me from my role as chair of the English Department confirms that I assigned the book out of hostility to orthodox Catholic belief. Because nothing could be further from the truth, many friends have urged me to explain why I put Emmanuel Carrère’s The Kingdom on my syllabus in the first place. Now that some time has passed, I feel a duty to the Franciscan University community and others concerned by the uproar to provide an account.

My course focused on twentieth-century French literature about the Bible. During the semester, we examined selected works on the Bible by prominent French writers and philosophers like Charles Péguy, Paul Claudel, François Mauriac, Jean-Paul Sartre, Roger Caillois, Carrère, and Jean-Louis Chrétien. The majority of the readings were works by central figures in the twentieth-century Catholic renaissance in France, while Chrétien’s work is part of the vital Catholic stream in contemporary phenomenology. Sartre, Caillois, and Carrère are agnostics or atheists who, among other things, wrote works on the Bible. We read and discussed each work on its own, and considered it in the context created by the reading list. Where pertinent, we also explored the works in relation to some of the approaches to the Bible that have characterized the modern period, including the historical-critical method, modernism, existentialism, and ressourcement, a scholarly movement that has revived patristic and medieval approaches to Scripture. Each student wrote approximately twenty-five pages of argumentative prose during the semester.

I chose to include Carrère’s book on the syllabus because it lent itself particularly well to two distinct themes central to the course. One was the theme of Christian witness. This theme emerged when we juxtaposed the Catholic phenomenologist Chrétien’s account of the Christian concept of witness with Carrère’s efforts to train his sensibility to recognize what “rings true” so as to distinguish between what is eye-witness material and what is simply made up in a testimony (the Gospels being the primary but not the only testimony he is concerned with). We also considered his book in relation to the historical-critical method, which has of course been incredibly influential in biblical study.

As is well known, the Catholic Church, though initially skeptical, has embraced the insights of the historical-critical method, while recognizing its limits. The Church’s initial skepticism was in part due to the fact that the historical-critical method was first promoted by figures hostile to, albeit well-versed in, orthodox Christianity. The nineteenth-century French biblical scholar Ernest Renan’s The Life of Jesus (1863) marked an important step in the development and spread of the historical-critical method, and in my course we read parts of the book as preparatory context for our reading of Carrère. Renan, an ex-Catholic, argued that the history of religion can only be written by lapsed believers:

To write the history of a religion, it is necessary, firstly, to have believed it (otherwise we should not be able to understand how it has charmed and satisfied the human conscience); [and] in the second place, to believe it no longer in an absolute manner, for absolute faith is incompatible with sincere history. But love is possible without faith. To abstain from attaching one’s self to any of the forms which captivate the adoration of men is not to deprive ourselves of the enjoyment of that which is good and beautiful in them.

In other words, whereas a figure like Pope Benedict XVI believes that history only gains its true meaning when studied in the light of faith, Renan believed that history could only be understood from the perspective of apostasy.

Carrère tests this hypothesis by explicitly adopting Renan’s viewpoint as he investigates the mysterious dynamics of his “Catholic period,” a three-year stretch in the 1990s when he was a believer. As part of this self-inquiry, Carrère undertakes an in-depth historical investigation of the life and times of his favorite Gospel writer, St. Luke, whose approach to writing he believes to be fundamentally similar to his own. With the extreme self-consciousness typical of his narrative persona, Carrère acknowledges at many points in his memoir that this ideologically-driven effort to reach the truth about himself and about Christianity through autobiographical reflection and historically-grounded speculation is questionable. The final lines of the book make this clear:

I wrote this book that I’m now bringing to a close in good faith, but what it attempts to deal with is so much larger than I am that this good faith, I know, is paltry in comparison. I wrote it encumbered with everything that makes me what I am: intelligent, rich, a man at the top—so many obstacles to entering the kingdom. Nevertheless, I tried. And what I wonder, as I leave it, is if it betrays the young man I was and the Lord he believed in, or if in its way it remains faithful to them. I don’t know.

As Cassandra Nelson noted in her review of the book for First Things, Carrère identifies with the rich young man in the Gospels who “went away sad, for he had many possessions.” Carrère sought to know himself, the faith he once inhabited, and the historical truth of Christianity from a position of self-sufficiency, of what Renan called “love without faith.” This effort left him unfulfilled.

Overall, the book provided my students with both insights into and questions about the meaning of the collapse of faith for contemporary men and women, from the standpoint of both believers and unbelievers. Carrère possesses more knowledge of the facts of Catholic practice and doctrine, the New Testament, and the history of the apostolic age than most believers do, yet he doesn’t believe. Discussion of the book, particularly of the ramifications of the position that “love is possible without faith,” helped the students to understand more deeply what it means when we Catholics affirm that Jesus Christ cannot be known outside the Church. The Church, as the ongoing presence of Christ among us, is the only way by which we gain knowledge of him. If you wish to know it, you have to try it. No amount of reading can impart this kind of knowledge. In other words, as Pope Benedict argued, understanding the true implications of the historical Jesus requires faith in Him present now.

As critical readers of this essay are sure to realize, we rarely endorse everything we read. Sometimes we read works with which we strenuously disagree. Indeed, humanities professors, who are professional readers, design their courses with this fact in mind, setting up for their students critical encounters of various sorts among the items on their syllabi. We do this because we know that learning takes place through engagement with reasoned argument.

Certain websites have taken a handful of obscene passages from the book and presented them to the public in a manner intended to shock and scandalize. While affecting piety, they spread blasphemies against Our Lady far and wide. In the name of modesty, they printed lewd words stripped of context. It is the same kind of tabloid hypocrisy one finds in scandal-sheet editors who print revealing shots of women—then dare to condemn their lack of modesty.

Such irresponsible and un-Christian methods are totally counter to my own approach. I assigned the book in an upper-level course to students whose maturity and intellectual preparation I knew well. Our class read the entire text, focusing not on a few lurid passages but on its appropriation of Renan’s method and its related atheistic concept of witness, so as to understand the superiority of Christian methods and concepts. The aim was not to shock, but to edify. I share the revulsion Catholics rightly feel toward lewdness and blasphemy, but in the end I decided that my students could benefit by reading this text.

The testimonies of the students bear out my assessment. Each has claimed to have grown in faith by reading the work, despite its ugly aspects. None has wished that it had not been assigned. One has even stated that she feels her current work as a missionary has been made more effective because she frequently encounters people who display features of Carrère’s mindset. As St. Augustine recognized in the Israelites’ plunder of the Egyptian’s gold, intelligent, well-formed Christians can profitably read the works of idolatrous pagans and put them to better use. And as Joseph Ratzinger wrote in his Introduction to Christianity, “the believer can perfect his faith only on the ocean of nihilism, temptation, and doubt … he has been assigned the ocean of uncertainty.” Precisely in order to further belief, we must engage with the pervasive and insistent forms of doubt that surround us.

Stephen E. Lewis is professor of English at the Franciscan University of Steubenville.

This article first appeared on First Things: https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2019/01/in-defense-of-reading-pagans

Photo by Jenny via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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  • Ken Cullen

    Thank you Stephen for your article on your reasons for setting Carrere’s work for study. I concur with all that you have written. Students learn very little if they are not “challenged” to do so. Anselm’s adage of faith seeking understanding rather than the reverse, is true here. Context is everything and when works such as these are taken from the context of what you are trying to teach,they become much maligned. In this unfortunate climate of today, it is very easy for those who are ignorant of learning to condemn what they do not understand. Our Lord knew that well. My own favorite author, Marcel Proust is also frowned upon in Catholic reading circles but In Search of Lost Time still remains as one of the great reading experiences of my life. I have taught English at undergrad and grad level, now retired, but still happy to see students extended in true Socratic fashion. In my opinion there is too little of that today.

  • Brianna LaPoint

    I believe that history has to be written by all points of view, because some people have their own perspective and everything is half truths anyways

  • JamesC

    “…we Catholics affirm that Jesus Christ cannot be known outside the Church. The Church, as the ongoing presence of Christ among us, is the only way by which we gain knowledge of him. If you wish to know it, you have to try it. No amount of reading can impart this kind of knowledge. In other words, as Pope Benedict argued, understanding the true implications of the historical Jesus requires faith in Him present now.”

    Christ can be known as He chooses. He is not the Church’s lap-dog, but its Lord. If He cannot be known outside the CC, V2’s warm words about “the separated brethren” are deceitful smoke-blowing, a pretty noise to deceive the ignorant & naive. The Papal Church is not in any sense the author or source of grace, let alone the grace of knowing God – God Alone is the Author and Source of these and all good things.

    Given their atrocious behaviour, it is a very bad joke to suggest that the evildoers in the Roman priesthood know Christ, and that good Christians who bring forth good fruit but are outside the CC do not know Him.