Christians and “christianists”
The civilization of Christian Europe was built by people whose purpose was not that of constructing a “Christian civilization”. We owe it to people who believed in Christ, not to people who believed in Christianity. Interview with Rémi Brague
by Gianni Valente
The Cathedral of Chartres. On these pages, scenes from the life of Jesus illustrated in the stained glass windows of Chartres Cathedral, France (XII-XIII centuries); below, Jesus and the three favorite apostles
Brague wrote the book Europe. La voie romaine – translated into fifteen languages, and by now almost a classic – in 1992 to document from an original and modern angle the contribution of Rome and “Romanness” to the flowering of European civilization. But in those pages, almost en passant, the professor also introduced the distinction between Christians and “christianists” …
Professor, we’ll start from here. You define Christians as those who believe in Christ. “Christianists”, on the other hand, are those who exalt and defend Christianity, the Christian civilization …
RÉMI BRAGUE: The word “christianist” is not very nice perhaps. But I’m not sorry to have proposed it. First of all because it’s amusing. And then because it pushes people to reflect on what they really want. Those who defend the value of Christianity and its positive role in history I certainly find more likeable than those who deny it. I certainly don’t intend to discourage them. It would even please me if they were more numerous in France. And this is not because they may be “objective allies”. But only because what they say is true. So, thanks to the “christianists” therefore. Only I would like to remind them that Christianity is not interested in itself. It’s interested in Christ. And Christ also is not interested in His own self: He is interested in God, whom He calls in a unique way, «Father». And in man, to whom He proposes a new access to God.
The miracolous catch of fish
BRAGUE: Action francais, after the First World War, may have attracted genuine and intelligent Christians: Bernanos, for example. But the ultimate inspiration of the movement was merely nationalist. France was shaped by the Church. Because of this they called themselves Catholics, because they wanted to be a hundred per cent French. Their principal thinker, Charles Maurras, was a disciple of Auguste Comte; he admired Greek clarity and Roman order. He declared himself an atheist, but Catholic. The Church for him was a guarantee against«the Jewish poison of the Gospel». Basically, it was an idolatry in its worst aspect: to place God at the service of the cult of themselves. Whether you are dealing with the individual or the nation, the substance does not change. And something live must always be sacrificed to idols, such as European youth, massacred at Verdun and elsewhere.
Some reproach the Church for a weakness in sustaining certain truth contents. What image of the Church do they like?
BRAGUE: For these people, the Church must “defend certain values”, and not compromise on the moral laws. But do they themselves follow them? Not always … They want an organization with a firm line, with a “number one” well established. In the end, I ask myself if they don’t dream of a Church in the mould of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
BRAGUE: Christianity has nothing of the West. It came from the East. Our ancestors became Christians. They adhered to a religion which was foreign to them in the beginning. The roots? What a strange image … Why consider oneself a plant? In French slang, “to plant oneself ” means to get things wrong, to make an error … If they want roots at any cost, then let’s say it with Plato: we are trees planted the other way around, our roots are not on earth, but in the sky. We are rooted in what, like the sky, can’t be grasped, it escapes all possession. You can’t plant flags on a cloud. And we are also mobile animals. Christianity is not reserved to Europeans. It’s missionary. It believes that everyone has the right of knowing the Christian message, that everyone deserves to become Christian.
In your research and books you have described the undeniable relation between Christianity and European civilization. How did it really go?
BRAGUE: The civilization of Christian Europe was constructed by people whose purpose was not that of constructing a “Christian civilazation”. We owe it to people who believed in Christ, not to people who believed in Christianity. Think of Pope Gregory the Great. What he created – Gregorian chant for example – has defied the centuries. Now, he imagined that the end of the world was imminent. And therefore, there wouldn’t be any “Christian civilization”, because of lack of time. He only wanted to put a bit of order into the world before leaving it. As one tidies the house before leaving for the holidays. Christ did not come to construct a civilization, but to save the men of all civilizations. What is called “Christian civilization” is no other than the ensemble of collateral effects which faith in Christ has produced on the civilizations it has encountered along the way. When His resurrection is believed in, and the possibility of the resurrection of every man in Him, everything is seen in a different way, and one acts in consequence of that, in all spheres. But a great deal of time is needed to become aware of this and make it concrete. For that reason we are, perhaps, only at the beginning of Christianity.
Jesus risen and Mary Magdalen
BRAGUE: The expression is awkward maybe, but I couldn’t find a better one. In my book Europe. La voie romaine I integrate it with other formulae, such as that of the “culture of insertion” as opposed to the “culture of digestion”. I mean only to say that the New Testament comes after the Old Testament, and the Romans after the Greeks. Not only in relation to time but also in the sense that those who came afterwards perceived their own dependence on what preceded them, and which constituted a model. The Romans did both good and bad, as happened with all civilizations. But we have to give them credit for recognizing that they were culturally inferior to the Greeks, and that they understood that their historical task was also to spread a culture which wasn’t theirs. To be “secondary” means knowing that what is being transmitted does not come from themselves, and that it is possessed only in a fragile and provisional way. This implies among other things that there is nothing definitive about any historical construction. It must always be revised, corrected, reformed.
BRAGUE: It contains some truth. If it were totally false, nobody would take it into consideration. It’s true that we are sick. And the most alarming symptoms can be called “relativism” and “nihilism”which certainly have something good about them: they make intolerance impossible. You can neither die nor kill in the name of something you only believe in relatively, or you don’t believe in at all. The trouble is that nihilism doesn’t let you live either. Rousseau had already seen it clearly: atheism doesn’t kill human beings, but it does prevent them from being born. But there’s no need of Christianity to combat relativism and nihilism. Basically there’s no need to combat them: they cancel themselves out, as a parasitic growth ends by strangling the tree it lives off, following it into death. Is Christianity the antidote to these poisons? I’d have two reservations. One of principle. The other purely pragmatic.
The three Marys at the Sepulcher
BRAGUE: First of all, has one the right to turn faith into an instrument? I also ask myself whether it’s always correct to speak of Christianity. The suffix can be perceived, wrongly, as indicating a theory, on a par with other “isms”, liberalism, Marxism, etcetera. Saint Augustine says somewhere: what there is of Christian among Christians is Christ. To be Christians is to be in contact with a person. Now you can’t turn a person into an instrument.
My second reservation is simple: if it’s permitted to use the faith as an instrument, is it thereby feasible? Does it work like that? I’d say yes. But not like certain American fundamentalists who quantify the positive effects of religion on the productivity of executives! I have already written in my book: faith does not produce effects except where it remains faith, and not calculation.
BRAGUE: In the debate on the alleged Christian roots of Europe, I’d be tempted to say that neither the “christianists” nor their adversaries are right. Let’s begin with their adversaries. I’d say to them: if you want to be historians you need to call things by their proper names, and to say that the two religions that marked Europe are Judaism and Christianity, and no other. Why limit yourself to talking about religious and humanist inheritance? A professor of history wouldn’t be satisfied with such a definition and would write in red, on the margin: «Too vague, be precise!». What annoys me is the state of mind manifested in this, and therefore the typically ideological impulse of denying reality and rewriting the past. And denying reality leads necessarily to destroying it. At the same time, I’d say to the “christianists”: it’s not because the past was what it was that the future must necessarily resemble it. The right question to ask is whether our civilization still has the will to live and act. And whether, instead of hedging it with barriers of all kinds, it wouldn’t be better to give it back the will again. And for that you have to draw on the source of life itself, on Eternal Life.
When Saint Augustine was asked why the risen Christ did not also show Himself to His enemies and so wipe out all doubt about the reality of His resurrection, he replied that for Jesus «it was more important to teach humility to His friends than to challenge His enemies with the truth». What would Augustine say today to those who speak of the Christian witness in terms of challenges?
BRAGUE: Let’s not fool ourselves about what the God of Jesus Christ wants. It is not what we, we want. What he wants is not to crush His enemies. But to free them of what makes them His enemies, that is a false image of Him, that of a tyrant to whom one must submit. He, being free, is only interested in our freedom. He tries to heal it. His problem is to set up a device that allows the wounded freedom of men to be seen as healed, so as to freely choose life over all the temptations to death that are carried within. Theologians call this device the “economy of salvation”. The Covenants, the Church, the sacraments, and so on, form part of it. The role of civilizations is indispensable, but it’s not the same. And their means are also different. They have to exert a certain coercion, physical or social. Whereas faith can only exert an attraction on freedom, because of the majesty of its object. Perhaps there could be a return to what the popes used to say to the Western emperors, about the Gregorian reform, in the 11th century: the salvation of souls is not your business, content yourselves with doing your job as well as possible. Make peace reign.