Friday, 22 August 2008

Back to Christianism? A note on a Guillebaud

I noticed a lot of posts about religion these last months. Here is my contribution: a short comment of Jean-Claude Guillebaud, Comment je suis redevenu chrétien, Albin Michel, Paris, 2007.

Please accept my apologies for the delay (the translation comes quite late). But I struggle all the day against my computer...

English version of: "Redevenir chrétien?"

(Some...) Philosophy of religion's links:
Ce que Dieu ne peut pas faire, Julien Dutant
L'argument ontologique rend impuissant, Florian Cova
L'argument ontologique ad hominem de Cyrille Michon, Julien Dutant
Dieu lit la presse people, Julien Dutant
Une preuve de la non-existence de Dieu, Julien Dutant
Philosophy of Religion 12, Peter Smith
Religious Experience, Peter Smith
The Trinity, Peter Smith

Short Biography:
Jean-Claude Guillebaud is a writer and a journalist borned in 1944 (Alger). He worked as a journalist in the French newspapers: Sud Ouest, Le Monde, Le Nouvel Observateur. He was rewarded by the Albert Londres prize in 1972 for his work.
He is writing in the media supplement of Le Nouvel Observateur and in the catholic newspaper La Vie.


Guillebaud Thesis:
The openning chapter of the book does not take for granted the characterization (notably made by Left-Wing people) of the believer as an individual locked in his tradition, as the ridiculous survivor an archaic era; and this chapter is an examination of the consequences of this characterization.

Guillebaud's thesis: "I am not very sure of my faith, but I deeply believe that the Gospel message is still a fondamental value for people at this present time ... It is not a vague emotional state, but the conscience of a fundamental relevance that brings me closer to it. " (p. 23). Guillebaud therefore intends to demonstrate that the Christian religion can provide an appropriate response to contemporary problems.

He tries to show that the current tools do not solve these problems in order to strengthen the strategic interest of Christianity: "For all these reasons, I felt quite confusely that we were coming out for good of the Post-war's world that might be called the "first modernity." I was struggling to overcome and even to express this intuition. I felt helpless, without concepts. In a way, I was without theoretical tools . " (p 36).

The contemporary era in question is the world that follows, according to him, the three revolutions: "an economic revolution with globalization, a digital revolution with the advent of cyberspace (the sixth continent), a genetic revolution which changes our relationship to life itself. " (p 38). These three revolutions are the facets of a broader qualitative leap, which has, according to him, an anthropological dimension. And these changes are causing a lot of anxiety.

According to Guillebaud, the Christian religion has the tools to respond, on one hand, to the theoretical problems posed by the qualitative leap, on the other hand, to the anxiety. How? Because it is a solid foundation.

At this stage it is difficult to examine the validity of the Guillebaud's thesis. Because Guillebaud never tell what "religion" means. The only thing we can say is that it is not an equivalent of God, theology or religious experience.

The beginning of the text (the statement of the opposing argument) suggests that religion is a social phenomenon, but when one sees the questions which the Christian religion is supposed to meet and resolve, one is obliged to set aside this interpretation. If it is right to stress that the caricature made by some leftists can not truly assess the power of religion to address contemporary problems, however, one cannot help to be skeptical when he sees the extraordinary power that Guillebaud is giving to religion, without telling how and what exactly is religion.

Leaving aside the question of interpretation, the conception of religion (not God) as a foundation that might help solving both theoretical and psychological problems (collective or individual) leaves the reader rather dubious. Lets imagine that the Christian religion is a foundation. What is based on this? According to Guillebaud, religion is the basis of man's humanity. Can it solve problems and relieve them? It is not clear how a way to justify the man's humanity can escape from its hinges. Guillebaud has perhaps expressed his point of view with many inaccuracies: for him, it is not only a foundation, but its "guiding principle", what is giving its "value" to humanity ...

The book is 1) a presentation the Christian religion as a foundation, 2) a presentation of his personal journey in Christianity. The following chapters show the author's progresses in the discovery of Christianity and the response to the thesis set out in the opening.

2. The first circle: "The sources of modernity"

Guillebaud Thesis:
Some (as in the opening, it is not clear whatever is behind of this "some") believes that the Catholic Church is an authoritarian, repressive, antimodern institution, and that modernity is the result of a fight against Christianism.

Guillebaud thinks, on the contrary, that the modern world would not have occurred without the Christian religion and its institutions. The modern world is the legitimate heir of the Church.

The demonstration of Guillebaud is before everything else historical. He tries to convince us of the relevance of the Christian religion, by emphasizing the role it played in history. This chapter is really weak: besides the lack of precision, the (too) fast associations, this is a clash between antichristian historical clichés and prochristian historical clichés.

The first legacy of the modern world from Christianity, is individualism or autonomy. We are supposed to be satisfy with the enthusiasm he felt while reading the essay on individualism by Louis Dumont and The Source of the Self by Charles Taylor. We are supposed to feel the same excitement by the mere mention and we probably are supposed to accept the "real truth" without consideration ...

The second legacy is the aspiration of equality. The example (one of the cliché) used by Guillebaud is the controversy of Valladolid. To demonstrate this, he presupposes that modern culture is formed 1) of Greek heritage, 2) of the jewish legacy, 3) of the Christian heritage. If an entity in the modern world cannot be found in two possibilities, it is necessarily in the third. Therefore, since (!) equality is not in 1 or 2, it must lie 3. We shudder at such a historical reductionism ... Furthermore, it is not clear how a controversy which aim was to decide whether the Indians have a soul has been able to cause the rise of equality of all men in the modern world ...

The third legacy is the notion of progress, inherited from the concept of hope. The reasoning is similar to previous: there is the notion of hope in the past, there is the notion of progress in our time, it is not present in 1 or 2, so it comes from 3 ...

Some comments to finish this chapter:
- This interpretation of modernity, considered as an entity that inherits nothing from Christianity, is found nowhere among contemporary historians, sociologists...

- I have been a little surprised by this chapter because it gave me the impression to read the confidence of a child who realizes that the world is more complex than it looks.

- The author is making a lot of equivalences, too fast to my taste, in the first stage of his life, as in the next. 1) The Church is an authoritarian system that should be break down; 2) the Church has given everything to the modern West. In both cases, the author is making shortcuts that are unfounded.

- One wonders at the statement of Guillebaud: because Christianity has made the most modern values, the author believes that Christianity is able to respond to contemporary problems. But if the result of modern values is problematic and if modern values derived from Christian values, then the Christian values may quite probably lead to similar problematic conclusions.

Indeed, the author has recognized that the modern world owes much to Christianity, but it is not a sufficient reason to become a believer: "But this circle, I am aware, is still very peripheral towards the core of Christianity. It is far from the true faith. Christianity is something else than just a collection of humanist "values". To believe is not simply to accede to a catalogue of normative principles, which would comparable to the program of a political party. " (p 95).

3.The second circle: "evangelical subversion":

Guillebaud's thesis:
The author shows in this second chapter that "Christianity has cut History into two parts" and that the Christian religion is not a religion like any other.

For Guillebaud, Christianity is not a religion that repeats exactly the same structure as others: unlike other religions which, in the structure of sacrifice, take the view of the one doing the sacrifice and affirms the guilt of the victims, Christianity proclaims the innocence of the victim, takes the point of view of the victim and ruins the sacrifice by the resurrection:

"Girard va jusqu'à faire de cet aveuglement une métaphore de celui que nous appelons "Satan" (l'accusateur, selon l'étymologie grecque). Il y a donc cette subversion inimaginable du biblique qui ruine à tout jamais le discours des persécuteurs, celui des "puissances", des "principautés", c'est-à-dire de Satan. La résurrection signifie d'abord cela. Elle est cette extravagante objection qui vient enrayer la mécanique du sacrifice sur laquelle se fondent les cultures humaines. C'est bien pour cela que le consentement est le coeur incandescent de la foi chrétienne.. C'est elle qui confère au message évangélique sa puissance subversive... Quand il nous arrive d'être étonnés, puis scandalisés -à juste titre- par ces lynchages ou ces lapidations médiatiques que j'évoquais plus haut, nous ne cherchons pas à comprendre pourquoi nous réagissons ainsi... Ce dernier vient du fait que les sociétés dans lesquelles nous vivons ont intériorisé depuis longtemps la révélation évangélique, y compris ceux qui croient la combattre. Elles sont toujours capables, certes, de commettre des meurtres collectifs mais l'unanimité qui verrouillerait complètement le dispositif n'est plus possible. Nous sommes dorénavant capables de repérer le mensonge sacrificiel, c'est-à-dire la ruse de la persécution." (pp 108-109).

Guillebaud therefore emphasizes the "Theology of the Cross" instead of the "Theology of Glory ". And, by adopting this principle of subversion, he explains how he became more sensitive to justice issues. Always justifying his journey in life, he explains his commitment to the political left and his interest in social issues by taking seriously the Gospel message.

Why has he come closer to the Church if a political commitment is sufficient to achieve what he believes in? For Guillebaud, the contemporary situation is very similar to the original situation of the Church: the body (the clergy and faithfuls) of the Church is in a minority in relation to the rest of the population (atheists or agnostics), and it has a "subversive" power in this world that values money and success. It is the weakness of the Catholic institution that is the condition of possibility of this situation, according to the author. But the Left is, according to our author, too involved in the interests "of the time" to properly carry out the Gospel message. A return to the Church is needed...

But Guillebaud commits the same mistake as in the previous chapter: the sophism of origin (A is the source of B; if B, then A). Explanation. a) Guillebaud says that the message transmitted by the Evangelical Church is the origin of a sense of justice. b) This sense of justice spread almost everywhere. c) Whenever Guillebaud is facing a sense of justice, he thinks that Christianity is present.

The argument of Guillebaud can not be accepted. 1) It is an error of reasoning. Even if the Christian religion is the cause, it is not necessarily the reason for an individual to feel a sense of justice. And even if Christianism is the cause of the emergence of the sense of justice in certain cases, it may not be the cause for all the cases. He fails to take care of these cases. 2) Guillebaud seems incapable of conceiving the institutionalization of a social behaviour that becomes differenciated from its origin.

It is not clear why one should become a Christian, enter the Church, for the simple reason that Christianity may have caused some social behaviour. In addition, while Guillebaud never stop to speak highly of religion and its capacity to respond to contemporary problems, we still do not understand how the cause of a sense of justice may propose appropriated solutions to our world. It is one thing to arouse social commitment among men, and it is quite another to bring about the practical skills needed to solve all the problems involved in the three revolutions mentioned by Guillebaud in the opening chapter. That means that the final chapter is his only chance to convince us.

4. The third circle "faith as a decision":

Guillebaud's Thesis:
Faith is not formed by reason, but by the decision and the will to believe.

He shows in this chapter how he went from an attempt of conversion based on reason to the understanding of faith as a decision and an act of the will. The beginning of the chapter relates the shortcomings and the frustrations he faced with religious phenomena, in his first approach: boredom at Mass, the feeling of incomprehension in reading or recitating the canonical texts (the Creed or the Pater Noster)...

The solution to these shortcomings, is a change: to leave reason and to approach the belief in its voluntary decision-making dimension. "On croit aussi parce qu'on l'a choisi. La foi présuppose une adhésion délibérée, un saut personnel et subjectif qui permet de franchir les abîmes du doute. On se trompe en présentant la foi religieuse ou la croyance philosophique comme une chose donnée de l'extérieur, par l'effet d'une logique sur laquelle le croyant n'aurait aucune prise. Cette vision qui évacue toute idée de choix, d'engagement est trompeuse. En réalité, la croyance -comme la foi- n'est pas déduite mais voulue." (pp 173-174).

Guillebaud takes the path taken by many scholars before him, including the mentionned Pascal and Kierkegaard.

Some comments:
- We do not see the answer to the initial problem, namely the contemporaneity of Christianism.

-He evacuates very cavalierly the discussion of evidence of the existence of God (ontological proofs), which are still hotly very debated today (see the video la preuve ontologique, in French).

-It is in the final chapter that we learn that what we saw earlier had no real importance to religion. The question cannot be avoided: why did he not started with the final chapter where he deals with the core of religion? This chapter, which completely evacuates the reason as a "faculty" and the reasons as objects of argument, let the reader in a quandary. It would have been the perfect place to develop and explain the meaning of formulas such as "We do not" lose "faith as we lose our keys ... This is not faith but the will to believe that is weakening." (p 176) or others equally enigmatic.

-The treatment of the link between reason and belief is quite disturbing for the reader: "Croire, c'est aussi faire confiance, partager une sensibilité particulière. Admiration pour un leader (ou un saint), solidarité de groupe, fidélité à des proches, obéissance à une tradition, esprit d'équipe ou de famille: aucune croyance n'est strictement rationnelle. Lorsqu'on fait sienne une conviction, quand on donne son assentiment ou qu'on décide de s'engager, il entre dans cette décision une part d'émotivité, ou si l'on préfère de sentiment." (pp 177-178).

There is no doubt that there are emotions in faith. 1) But it seems that this is in contradiction with what he said earlier on his attraction vis-à-vis the Christian religion: he said he was not attracted by the emotional aspect of the religion (but is faith religion, according to Guillebaud? Difficult to answer, because he never tells the meaning of the terms he uses). 2) The presence of feeling seems to lead our author, to the withdrawal of reason. But nothing prevents to experience feelings with a rational activity. And most importantly, it is possible to have feeling for certain reasons. 3) The indeterminacy of the subject of the "belief" is quite disturbing: believe in a God or a tyrant are in the same lot.

And precisely the reasons why we should become (again?) a Christian are lacking in this book. Guillebaud gives us no reason to rediscover the Christian faith to meet the problems of this world. And he gives us no reason to find a healing through the Christian faith.


Unfortunately, this book is disappointing because it fails to meet the objectives stated at the openning. It seems that the desire to present its journey in Christianity has caught on the theoretical ambition. The book fails to answer the question "How did I become a Christian?", firstly because the first two chapters focus on why we all are Christians and because the last chapter shows that he cannot make the leap of faith (he shows us how it is that he is not a Christian), and, secondly, because the book raises other questions about the role of Christianity (to which he never gives clear answers).

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