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The God Question

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The God Question

A conversation December 8, 2022
The Social Order

Editors’ note: This discussion between Finkielkraut and Manent was conducted by Vincent Trémolet de Villers and Eugénie Boilait for Le Figaro, which published it on October 26. It is translated and published here with permission.

Le Figaro: Pierre Manent, you have just published a captivating book devoted to Blaise Pascal, and, more generally, to the Christian proposition (Blaise Pascal et la proposition Chretienne [Grasset]). Why return to the author of the Pensées?

Pierre Manent: First, because I love him. He has the living presence of a person who is speaking to us. I experience the same feeling with Montaigne or with Rousseau, but they flatter us and encourage us to love ourselves and to cultivate our incomparable individuality. Pascal, for his part, does not flatter us; instead, he confronts us in an incisive and urgent way with a proposition for life that has been worn down by familiarity over time and that we now longer know what to do with—that is, the Christian form of life, a form that has exercised decisive influence, positively or negatively, over our destinies as Europeans. If I had to sum up very briefly our Christian consciousness, I would say that it has defined itself in relation to a founding event, the Incarnation, whose meaning extends into and is actualized in an institution, the Church, which provides the food of a “new life” by the service of the Word and the sacraments.

One might say that the Church imparts and communicates in time an inexhaustible treasure that was given at the beginning, but that it looks beyond time to the Day of God, when the redemptive project will be accomplished. This Church established itself powerfully in this world, while constantly referring its reality to another world. In the end, this tension wore it down. The Church is not made to govern this world, and the other world is yet to come. The impatience of Europeans began to show in the sixteenth century, but it was in the seventeenth that they made the big decisions. Two major decisions were taken to establish human sovereignty over the human world: on the one hand, the modern state; on the other, modern science. It was at this moment that Pascal intervened.

Europeans, an enterprising people, were working to seize the keys of the kingdom from an over-encumbered Church. Pascal lodged an appeal, not by attachment to the old ways, since he was a leading participant in inaugurating the new world of geometry and experimental physics, but because he judged that, by attempting radically to change their condition by means of geometrical reason, human beings were about to lose awareness of the human condition such as Christianity had given them to understand it. The emerging science was leading them astray by promising them a power that was in a way infinite. Pascal pushes back; he wants to bring people back to a knowledge of their true condition, that of intelligent and free beings, but beings whose freedom is fragile and fallible, and whose reason tends to get carried away, beyond its limits. Humanity is an incomprehensible alloy of greatness and misery, to which Christianity holds the key. Today, the state and science are on the verge of fulfilling their ambition. Nothing escapes the surveillance of the providential state, and nothing escapes the intrusion of the scientific vision. But what is the meaning of the “human condition,” when we claim to change it radically? What Pascal saw as a dangerous promise has become for us a demoralizing reality. And so I, with my poor powers, have sought support in Pascal’s strength, not to appeal to him in our disputes, but in order, with his help, to recover both a clear and vivid feeling for our condition and as clear a vision as possible of the Christian proposition for clarifying and healing this condition.

Alain Finkielkraut: Of course, I do not have Pierre Manent’s intimate familiarity with Pascal, though he is by no means a distant author for me. Indeed, Pascal is a companion who is present within me personally. I am in his debt, notably, for the distinction between orders: “The infinite distance between body and mind symbolizes the infinitely more infinite distance between mind and charity, for charity is supernatural.” There are, then, three orders: the order of the flesh, the order of the mind, and the order of charity. Charity is put at the summit because it testifies of God, and carries his mark. It is an influx of grace. This is a supernatural reversal of the “for itself” into a “for the other.” But the life of the mind is not its basis, according to Pascal; nor does it have to do with material existence. “All the splendour of greatness lacks lustre for those engaged in pursuits of the mind. The greatness of intellectual people is not visible to kings, rich men, captains, who are all great in a carnal sense.” Here, I think, is a rigorous definition of secularism. It is not a matter of granting to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s; it is a matter of uncoupling the life of the mind from its religious tutelage, without allowing it to fall into the realm of politics or of economics. Pascal affirms the independence of the intellectual order, as opposed to the classical metaphysical alternative between the order of the flesh and the religious order. He circumscribes and secularizes the mind’s territory.

This separation forms the foundation of the republican idea of education. “The school is an admirable place; I love its bare walls, and the fact that external noises cannot get in,” said Alain [pseudonym of French philosopher Émile-Auguste Chartier]. But is this separation still at work today? It seems to me it is less and less understood or intelligible. Schools are now on the same footing as all cultural sites. Laurence des Cars, the director of the Louvre Museum, spoke of “transforming the Louvre into an echo chamber of society.” Today, one has the impression that society as an all-encompassing entity has put an end to the separation of orders and demolished all the walls.

Le Figaro: Pierre Manent writes in the foreword to his work: “Europeans no longer know what to do with the Christianity that has formed them.” What are we to do with Christianity today?

A.F. I will answer you in an existential sense. I read Pascal because of the lucidity of his description of our condition: greatness and misery. This is no irenic author: “The last act is bloody, however fine the rest of the play. They throw earth over your head and it is finished forever.” This is the opposite of Bossuet:

What therefore do you fear, Christian soul, in death’s approach? Perhaps that as you see the house fall, you worry about having no place to go? But listen to the divine apostle: we know, we know, he said, that we are not led to believe by dubious conjectures, but we know with surety and a whole certitude that if this house of earth and mud, in which we live, is destroyed, we have another house that is prepared for us in heaven.

I admire Bossuet’s eloquence, but his vision of death as a simple move out of a house does not speak to me. Pascal, on the contrary, speaks to me, precisely because he does not dissipate anxiety but returns us to it. He reveals to us even our most serious activities as so many kinds of diversion. Thus, he prepares us for the wager; he wishes to sharpen our longing for the infinite. In the Christian religion, what comes after death takes on “an intensity of presence that has no equivalent either in the pagan world or in ancient Judaism,” Pierre Manent writes. Here we have the Christian proposition.

I experience Pascal’s anxiety, but I do not make the leap of the wager, because this proposition has no hold on me. The non-existence of God is for me a matter of inescapable evidence. I do not say that I am right; here again I speak from an existential perspective. This knowledge that I believe I possess is not something I find fortunate; it is not a victorious or triumphal awareness; it is not the knowledge of a man who has driven God from his throne in order to take his place by progressively claiming the attributes of omniscience or omnipotence. For this kind of atheist, “libertine” is not the right word. He is an orphan; he does not have the feeling of having killed God in a gesture either intrepid or unconscious. No, it is death that for him has gotten the better of God; it is death that has put God to death. This is my sense of things. I could assume for myself the formula: “the misery of man without God.” And I find nourishment in Christian thought, for it cannot be reduced to its promise.

Le Figaro: What can this Christian proposition still mean for a world that has banished God from the heavens?

P.M. What are we to do with Christianity? We might recognize it as a fact, a fact that is meaningful in the present life of Europeans—a religious, moral, social, and thus also political fact. But this is not the case: though it is acknowledged, not without reservations, as a past fact, its present status depends on a precarious authorization. The spiritual quantity, the quantity of reality that Christianity represents in the history of Europe, was in a way negated at the moment when the new Europe, rather than situating itself in the continuity of its history, decided to be born anew in an innocent ignorance of this history. Europe then turned with a spirit of vengeance against the components of European life that are supposed to have caused the wars and acts of violence and injustice of our past, whether these concern nations or Christian confessions. The European project is based on the decision to refuse all continuity between the new Europe and what came before, as if it were protecting itself from contamination. In a country like France, the preservation of symbols of Christian life in the public space is dependent upon a precarious and deliberately humiliating authorization, a manger scene being unacceptable in the public space except as a folkloric residue.

At the same time that Europe is emptying its public space of the symbols of Christianity, it offers an unconditional welcome to Islam. Islam is not only recognized as a religious and social fact that must be accounted for with justice and prudence but also receives its own special legitimacy as the token of the new birth of Europe, the sign that Europe is not a “Christian club.” Our history can easily explain that a number of French citizens are Muslims, that a part of France is visibly Muslim—but why do the institutions of the Republic require that the Christian part become invisible?

Le Figaro: Today, Pope Francis explains that in the past, Europe was too often focused on its will to power and forgetful of the evangelical message. The pope sometimes praises the idea of a world without borders and a kind of multiculturalism. For those who disdain it, Christianity, which was the soul of Europe, becomes its solvent. What do you make of this apparent contradiction?

P.M. In a social and moral atmosphere in which the Christian religion has confined itself to places of worship and where the faithful have lost the habit of defining and articulating the object of their faith in the public space, this object becomes vague and indistinct. It allows itself to be absorbed into the kind of religiosity that makes up what we might call the civil religion of Europe, and even of the West—that is, the humanitarian religion or the religion of humanity. This religion is based on what Tocqueville called the “sentiment du semblable,” a feeling of sameness with other human beings. Compassion for “the other human being” becomes the social feeling par excellence. It is understandable that this feeling should be confused with the love of neighbor that is a commandment of the Gospel. The effects of these two dispositions are in part similar. Still, considered in themselves, they are profoundly different.

In the feeling of compassion, which Rousseau analyzed very well, I identify myself with one like me who suffers; I put myself in his place. But of course I know very well that it is not I who suffer, and I even necessarily experience, as Rousseau says, despite myself, the pleasure of not suffering. Charity is directed not in the first instance toward one like me, but toward God, who is present in the one who is poor, or sick, or a prisoner. This seems “less human” than compassion, and in fact it is, but in this it escapes from the circle of a resemblance that is “too human.” Charity overcomes and rises above differences, but it does not suppress them.

If this were not the case, charity would not culminate in the commandment to love our enemies—that is, to love those with whom it is impossible to identify ourselves and for whom it is impossible to experience compassion. I wish simply to point out the fact that the Christian perspective is altogether different from the humanitarian. The latter sees humanity as gathered together by the irresistible contagion of the feeling of sameness. The similarity of human beings would render the differences among the ways of life of human beings secondary and finally indifferent. Christian charity does not judge these differences to be secondary or insignificant. How could it judge the differences between religions to be without true meaning, and finally indifferent, since for Christianity the sole true principle of the final unity of humanity resides in Christ?

A.F. Under the aegis of this pope, Christianity is truly becoming “the religion of the end of religion,” as Marcel Gauchet says, and it merges with the movement of modern society. Christianity is no longer a form of worship, but a form of morality: the effacement of every trace of the divine to the advantage of a “humanism of the other.” Here I deliberately cite the title of a book by Emmanuel Levinas, except that Levinas affirms that this humanism cannot be reduced to love, because humanity is not all of one piece, and neither is alterity. Humanity is human plurality. Thus, certain questions arise: who is my neighbor? Who is the neighbor of my neighbor? “Love,” Levinas says, “requires the wisdom of love.”

With the humanitarian morality in which neo-Christianity finds itself and reaches fulfillment, the wisdom of love is dismissed. The philosopher Gianni Vattimo has precisely articulated this form of morality: “The identity of the Christian must find its concrete reality in the form of hospitality; it must reduce itself almost entirely to listening to its guests and letting them speak.” What is the Vatican today if not a global NGO?

Le Figaro: Alain Finkielkraut, you said in an interview about ten years ago: “I am not a Jew by study and observance, but I have never stopped asking myself what it means to be a Jew.” In what way can the dialogue between this questioning and the Christian proposition be fruitful?

A.F. It is true that I was not raised in the tradition, nor am I Jewish by culture. I know only a few fragments of Yiddish, which was my father’s maternal language. But it goes without saying that I am Jewish. Levinas said: “Hitlerian antisemitism’s recourse to the racial myth recalled Jews to what is irremissible in their being.” I am Jewish by the tattooed forearm of my faither, but I also know that one is not deported from generation to generation. The condition of victimhood, so much in demand today, is not hereditary. I try therefore not to tell myself stories; I do not take myself for one who is persecuted, but I keep my eyes open. I am attentive to the metamorphoses of anti-Semitism. I observe its passage from the extreme Right, where it maintains a residual existence, to the extreme left, where its growth is driven by electoral politics, by clientelism, in the process of attracting new people. I also observe its change in language. Anti-Semitism is no longer a form of racism, but rather a form of antiracism. Israel, the apartheid state, the Jewish-Nazi state—this is the language of circles on the ultra-left. I also observe with anxiety the incompatibility that is coming to light between extreme modernity and Jewish perseverance or Jewish obstinacy—what Christianity for a long time called Jewish hardening.

I recall an article by Tony Judt in Débat in 2004, in which he wrote: “In a world of mixing, where obstacles to communication have almost all collapsed, and where those who have multiple, elective, identities are more and more numerous, Israel is a true anachronism.” That startled me. It updates the old indictment—also developed, it must be said, by Pascal—against the carnal Jew, the Jew of generation after generation. I have rediscovered this indictment, to my great stupefaction, in the argument of the latest book by Delphine Horvilleur, Il n’y a pas de Ajar. The hero of this monologue . . . does not pull any punches: “Merde à l’identité, merde à l’engendrement,” he said. He castigates forms of belonging; he appeals to Abraham in breaking off his filiation. Horvilleur invents a Judaism totally opposed to Jewish destiny. She accomplishes the miracle of rendering Jewish the case against the Jew by birth. For me this is a sham, and even impious. To move toward hypermodernity under the cover of Judaism, a mirror in which she laughs to see herself as so mixed an identity—this tour de force exasperates me.

At the opposite extreme from this exploitation of the faith of our fathers in the service of the latest fashions, Raymond Aron noted, in The Committed Observer:

Today, I justify my attachment to Judaism by a sort of fidelity to my roots. If, by some miracle, I should find myself face-to-face with my grandfather who lived in Rambervillers, and who was faithful to the tradition, I would not want to be ashamed: I would want to give him the feeling that, even I am not Jewish in the way he was, I have remained faithful in a certain way. As I’ve written many times: I don’t like to be torn from my roots. It is not very philosophical, perhaps, but one tries to live with one’s sentiments and ideas as well as possible.

To be sure, this is not philosophical, but it is perhaps religious in a certain sense. I do not, for my part, live under God’s eye, but I live under the eye of the dead, of certain dead, who are not all Jews, by the way, and I try to live worthily by them.

Le Figaro: Pierre Manent, what would you say concerning the dialogue between Judaism and the Christian proposition?

P.M. There is nothing that resembles the pair Judaism–Christianity in all of human history. It is one religion, separated into two branches, which, over 2,000 years, have rejected and reproved each other reciprocally. For obvious reasons, the relation between the two now tends to come down to the history of Christian anti-Judaism or anti-Semitism. And yet the question of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity remains after one has sincerely and completely disavowed anti-Jewish prejudices of Christian origin. The question of this relationship is all the more complex in that Judaism, the Jewish people, and the essence of Jewishness—these are not all the same thing as the Jewish religion, far from it. Christians believe in the God who brought the Jews up out of Egypt and who delivered them by his might from slavery; they believe in the God of the Jews in which so many Jews do not believe, or no longer believe. Jews have always sorrowfully and rightfully resented the claim of the Christian Church to be the novus et verus Israel.

Following the Vatican Council, the Catholic Church officially renounced the “theology of substitution,” according to which the Church took the place, the whole place, of Israel, substituting itself for Israel, leaving it only the humiliation of its blindness; and it recognized that the Jewish people continue to play an active and positive role in the plan of salvation of God-the-friend-of-humanity. This very welcome evolution may sooth the wounds and set aside misunderstandings, but it in no way modifies the terms of the question. Christians can and must renounce all forms of accusation against the Jews, but they cannot renounce the announcement of the Good News that was brought by the Christ of the Gospels, and that is the fulfillment of the Law and of the prophets of Israel. They can renounce requiring the conversion of the Jews, but they can hardly cease to await this conversion, since, according to Christian theology, it is the precondition of the final reconciliation of all human beings with each other and with God.

In any case, many Christians would express the wish that Jews try to connect in some way with the Christian proposition—not, once again, in order to consent to it, but to enter into a certain reciprocity with Christians. While many Christians demonstrate a lively interest in the Jewish scriptures and the history of the Jewish people, Jews are reluctant to engage the question of the place and the meaning of Christianity in human history, including Jewish history. It is understandable that they want to take back what is theirs, what belongs to them, which Christians over the course of history took for themselves and from which they excluded the Jews; but still, over the centuries, even in the age of the most virulent prejudices, Christians never ceased from reading and preserving the Jewish scriptures, and especially from praying from the Psalms, which are, as it is good and appropriate to repeat again and again, the common prayer of Jews and Christians. There, we have a communion in prayer, that is, a communion of intention, that we may well wish were better recognized, and recognized in a way that is more truly shared.

Le Figaro: Can European humanism, even as it issues from Christianity, respond to the religious and civilizational challenge that a triumphalist and political Islam lays down before Europe?

A.F. Humanism, such as we have inherited it from the Renaissance, is very well defined by Paul Ricoeur:

In contrast to the tradition of the cogito and to the pretension of the subject to know itself by immediate intuition, it must be said that we understand ourselves only by the long detour of the signs of humanity deposited in cultural works. What would we know of love and hate, of moral feelings, and, in general, of all that we call the self if these had not been brought to language and articulated by literature?

Eugenio Garin, a European master of the history of humanism and of the Renaissance, described the principle of humanist education in the following way: “We educate the human being by putting him in contact with human beings of the past, because, thanks to the treasure of memory, in conversation with others and confrontation with words that are precise and not false or banal, the mind is practically obliged to rediscover itself, to take a position, to pronounce in turn words that are adequate and precise.”

Humanism is not, as many often lazily believe, the passage from heteronomy to autonomy, but the discovery and the affirmation of another heteronomy, precisely that of culture. Religion has no monopoly on transcendence. This is the teaching of humanism. But with the ongoing progress of what Tocqueville called “the equality of conditions,” there is now nothing beyond subjectivism. All tastes are part of culture, and tolerance has become the unsurpassable horizon of the life of the mind, even in the schools. Alain Viala, a professor who participated in the development of courses of study in French at the beginning of this century, stated things very clearly: “Literature . . . is a matter, not of truth, which is scientific, but of verisimilitude, and thus of opinion. We encounter the space of opinions. Let us take it on and take responsibility for it as such.” Admiration for the classics is now also being taken over by the spreading spirit of criticism. From the earliest age, students are encouraged to be mistrustful. Under the influence of the virtue of equality taken to mad extremes, the humanist proposition is rejected along with the Christian proposition.

P.M. What is the nature of Islam’s challenge for us? And who is this “we” being challenged? The challenge lies in the fact that what is happening is that Islam is exerting considerable pressure on Europe, which should not have happened according to the grand progressive narrative elaborated since the eighteenth century—this philosophy of history, according to which humanity, under the leadership of the European avant-garde, was supposed to emancipate itself irresistibly from religious claims, dogma, and doctrine. The vitality that Islam as a whole has maintained, or rather reinforced, goes against a historical perspective that the weakening or “secularization” of Christianity seemed, to many, to validate. Islam is, in any case, the religion that refuses to come to an end and that affirms itself in ways that are manifestly public and triumphalist, casting doubt at least on the grand narrative of secularization. This challenges the consciousness upon which the self-confidence of modern Europe once rested.

Progressivism will not reconsider its approach to the religious question. What, then, does it do? On the one hand, it radically modifies its definition of progress in order to make Islam a part of the grand narrative. Europe no longer represents progress as the framework for the coming forth of a new association of humanity, of an industrial or socialist society, as August Comte or Karl Marx thought; on the contrary, it now represents progress because it has totally renounced self-affirmation and has reinvented itself as unlimited openness to the other—even when this other goes as directly as possible against our principles, particularly those concerning the equality of men and women. Since we now measure the quality of our progressivism by our disposition to welcome Islam unconditionally, Islam obliges us by confirming our grand narrative rather than refuting it. But since it is necessary all the same to take account of the fact that Muslim customs conflict with some of our essential principles, we decree with confidence (in a complementary strategic move) that secularism will take care of the problem by requiring Muslims to remove at least the visible signs of the subordination of women. While the first move boasts of its acceptance of Muslims as they are, the second promises that secularism will make them what they ought to be. Thus is removed all limitation on the welcoming of Islam, whether in the name of its present difference or in the name of its future similarity. Of course, this similarity will be slow in coming; progressivism lives by waiting.

Le Figaro: The Catholic and Republican frameworks that hold together French society have become dislocated, as Jerome Fourquet explains at the beginning of his work L’Archipel francais. And so, we seek alternative religions. The philosopher Jean-Francois Braunstein recently published La religion woke. Alain Finkielkraut, what do you make of the idea of looking at wokeism as a religion?

A.F. I am not comfortable with this metaphorical use of the term religion. I am not convinced by the concept of secular religions. The promise of a radiant future is not religious. In his book, Pierre Manent sets up a very illuminating debate between Pascal and Rousseau. Original sin occupies a central place in Pascal’s thought. Manent writes: “The claim to overcome human injustice by ourselves, the injustice in which we are born and in which we will live as long as God has not delivered us, is the beginning and indeed the height of our injustice.” Rousseau says the opposite; he excludes the hypothesis of original sin: “I have shown that all the vices imputed to the human heart are not natural to it; I have stated the manner in which they are born. I have followed their genealogy, so to speak, and I have shown how through the continuous deterioration of their original goodness, men finally become what they are.”

Rousseau replaces original sin by the original crime: property, inequality. Those we call the oppressors are the successors of this crime. For Rousseau, politics must take responsibility for the whole of reality, and its final purpose becomes the elimination of evil. This project can take no other form than the elimination of the wicked; this is what the totalitarian experience teaches us. This is why we see the unexpected return of a meditation on original sin in late nineteenth-century thought. We human beings do not have the strength to deliver ourselves from sin.

Now, with wokeism, we return to the original crime, as if totalitarianism had never happened. With wokeism, evil has an address: evil is the male, white heterosexual over 50. Evil must be eliminated at all costs. Thus, cancel culture arises and spreads.

P.M. The new ideology no longer sees in human bonds the expression and fulfillment of human nature, but what threatens freedom and injures the rights of the individual. The new progressive finds his way in society as in a suspect country. The sole common cause is the protection of nature—but protection against whom? Against human beings, who stain or destroy nature, in one way or another. Political ecology introduces a principle of distrust or of limitless enmity between human beings and with respect to humanity as such. The desire for an earth without people turns humanity against itself and thus feeds the project of effacing what is special about humanity, of making human beings animals like the others, and so, in the end, inoffensive. Thus, at the moment when we claim to base all collective order on the sole principle of human rights, we wish to remove from humanity all that is distinctive by promulgating the rights of animals, plants, and rocks against humanity. Those who speak on behalf of species incapable of speaking need fear no refutation. All of nature provides them with an inexhaustible supply of motives in their accusations against other human beings.

As I have said, contemporary progressivism would have us admit that our species has no real or legitimate privilege over other species, which ultimately have as many rights as we do. And yet there is one point concerning which progressivism absolutely refuses to consider us as animals like the others: it rejects the idea that our lives should be organized according to the difference between the sexes, the natural polarity between males and females. How can we be animals like the others if the human order must construct itself on the basis of the negation of this natural difference that we have in common with animals? In this way, contemporary ideology succeeds in combining a radical contestation of the human difference with a radical contestation of the animal part of our natures. We have only to open the Bible to the book of Genesis to recover a bit of common sense.

Photos: Semaines sociales de France, CC BY-SA 2.0 FR, via Wikimedia Commons (left) / Eric Fougere/Corbis via Getty Images (right)