Losing our way – intellectual cynicism

One of the more insidious aspects of contemporary secularism is intellectual cynicism. In the prologue to his rather extraordinary book ‘The Kingdom’, the French writer Emmanuel Carrère, who sees himself as a post-Christian, describes how when he outlines the idea for his book on the early Christian community as described in Acts of the Apostles, one of the friends listening to him responds in this way:

‘He says it’s strange, when you think about it, that normal intelligent people can believe something as unreasonable as the Christian religion, something exactly like Greek mythology or fairy tales. In ancient times people were gullible, science didn’t exist, but today! … Their pie-in-the-sky ideas coexist alongside perfectly level-headed activities. Presidents pay deferential; visits to their leader. Really, it’s kind of strange, isn’t it?’

In this book, Carrère retells the stories of Paul and Luke. He invents what isn’t already known and includes his own sometimes cynical speculations. Twenty years earlier he was a devout Catholic convert, but now he writes as an agnostic. He maps his personal conversion (and later deconversion) onto the story of Paul and Luke. The struggle to believe is the struggle with intellectual cynicism: “I don’t believe Jesus was resurrected. I don’t believe that a man came back from the dead,” he writes. “But the fact that people do believe it – that I believed it myself – intrigues, fascinates, troubles and moves me.” It is his rationalism, that diminishes his rather over the top piety to a state of disbelief, but there’s a wistfulness in the letting go.

At the end of the book, in the epilogue, Carrère, comments with insight first of all about the Church:

‘Christianity situates its golden age in the past. Like its most violent critics, it thinks that its moment of absolute truth, after which things could only go downhill, resides in the two or three years when Jesus preached in Galilee and died in Jerusalem. And by its own admission the Church is only alive when it approaches that moment.’

And then comments about the book:

‘I’ve done a good job. At the same time, I was nagged by an afterthought that I had missed the point. That with all my erudition, all my thoughtfulness, all my qualms, I was completely off the mark. Of course, the problem when you deal with such questions is that the only way not to be off the mark would be to go over to the side of faith – and that I refused to do, and still do. But who knows?’

Finally Carrère writes about being challenged to go on a retreat at a L’Arche centre with residents, most of whom are physically or mentally challenged, living with those who help them. There is a foot washing ceremony which Carrère finds both beautiful and embarrassing, but is relieved he’s not otherwise affected by it. The retreat ends the next morning with singing a ‘Jesus is my friend’ type hymn:

‘… everyone starts clapping their hands, tapping their feet and wiggling as if they were at a disco. … I can’t sincerely join in on a moment of such intense religious kitsch. I hum vaguely … waiting for it to end. Suddenly Elodie [a young girl with Down’s syndrome] … plants herself in front of me, smiles …encouraging me with her eyes, and there’s such joy in her look, such candid joy, so confident, so unburdened, that I start dancing like the others, singing that Jesus is my friend, and tears come into my eyes as I sing and dance and … I’m forced to admit that that day, for an instant, I got a glimpse of what the kingdom is.’