September 12, 2017

Alain on what has been revealed

Filed under: philosophy — ABRAXAS @ 11:06 am

“The modern error, which occupies something like four thousand volumes, is the attempt to find out if religion actually was revealed, and where and when, and by what evidence we know it. It seems, according to an inverted piety, which is in fact impiety, that the revealed idea will be true only insofar as it can be established that the precise circumstances under which it was revealed were real, and exactly as they have been reported. This proof cannot be produced, because every proof of existence is a proof of experience, and there can be no experience of the past. But there is more to be said. No one asks if the trees really went in search of a king; no one asks if the fox really spoke to the crow. It is a question of a fresh understanding of the idea that lives in the story. If we learn from the story, then it is true in the way that stories can be true. Whether or not I know that Homer existed, it does not alter the beauties of the Iliad, or what knowledge of the gods and of himself a man can draw from the poem. Jesus denounced the pharisee; I recognize myself in that image; I judge myself; this manner of speaking is driven into me, it pierces me like an arrow. I hope to escape by first examining the problem of whether or not Jesus really said that, telling myself that if Jesus never lived, what he said might well be false. This is a delaying tactic. It is a diversion whose purpose may be to make religion inoffensive, I mean for those who practice it. Our beliefs are rarely based on evidence; the mind is simply bemused by this kind of criticism. But the whited spulcher is something real, and so is Pharasaism; what matters is not whether these things are true but hows they are true. And if Jesus taught that one cannot have royal power, through armies and money, and at the same time save one’s soul, what needs to be examined is not whether Jesus said this on such and such a day, but whether what he said is true. It is very true that we must believe, that we must start from belief, and hold to it, and always return to it; it is very true also that we must think about what we believe; that is what thought it. Comte often meditated on a particular sentence from the Imitation: “Intelligence must follow faith, never precede it, and never break with it.” This maxim, which the readers is already prepared to accept, instead of being scared off by it, will become clearer if we examine the well-known parable of the fig tree.

Jesus hungered, and he came upon a fig tree in the way; but there were no figs on it; it was not the season for figs. Thereupon he cursed the tree, and it withered and died. This is unacceptable; and our exegete immediately tries to find out what witless copyist or misinformed letters might be responsible for the remark that it was not the season for figs. But repeated experience has taught me never to change a text before I have tried seriously to understand it. For this difficulty disturbs me, and from what disturbs me I have often drawn great and important ideas, which my slack and abstract thought might otherwise have overlooked. And this, I claim, is a pious attitude, pious in the true sense; not because I promise to accept the absurd, but because I attempt to overcome the appearance of absurdity, which I obviously cannot do if I correct it first. My method proved sound in this case. For I told myself that, if it was not the season of figs, then it is also not a question of the fig tree, but of myself and my human brothers. I immediately started looking for human fig trees, and I did not have to look far. Not long ago a man said, speaking of the war, that that was not the season for figs, that is, for justice and truth, but that the season had now come. And others say, more simply, that the office is closed, that the unfortunate person will have to come back tomorrow; or, better still, that there are no funds available. To all of this there is no reply, for it is external necessity that commands, or, if we look closely, the order of power, the order of Caesar, which always invokes and always will invoke necessity against justice. Not right now, I haven’t got time, circumstances are stronger than you and I. Let us wait for the season of the figs, that is, for sunlight and water. These people excuse themselves as the innocent fig tree might have done. And in a flash the curse comes over me. Is it not always because of circumstances that we put off repaying a debt? And is it by circumstances that the unfortunate Jean Valjean tries to prove to himself that he need not go to Arras to give himself up and save Champmathieu. But, says the Lord, are you fig trees, who receive everything from outside, and produce only under the right conditions? Or are you men, who know yourselves and even will yourselves to be free to distribute the reserves of your being as your own spirit dictates? Who renounces this privilege? Pilate, the great prefect, renounces it; his spirit washes its hands like the fig tree. Would he renounce it absolutely, expressly? I don’t know. But I call him Lord who violently reminds us that the principal crime, perhaps the only crime, is to renounce in oneself the condition of being human. This Lord is demanding; Jean Valjean listens to him, and follows him, without asking if this Lord who is right was born before or after some other man, or if he was born at all. For it is easy to say that we could all live like administrative fig trees, always acting by the calendar and according to the edict of things, or of Caesar, and that this kind of life might even be pleasant, were it not for Jesus. What Jesus has said cannot be taken back; what has once been revealed cannot be withdrawn.”

The Gods
(les dieux)
translated by Richard Pevear
Quartet Encounters

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