The Jesus Dictionary: A Conversation With Father Renaud Silly, OP

It is a great honor to present this conversation with Brother Renaud Silly, OP, historian and theologian, who speaks about the Dictionnaire Jésus (the Jesus Dictionary), the major work recently published by the École Biblique de Jérusalem and Éditions Bouquins. This Dictionary which makes available the current state of knowledge about Jesus, drawing upon all necessary scientific, theological, and philosophical areas of expertise.

The Dictionary is an impressive work (comprising some 1300 pages), but one that is also highly accessible, for it does not neglect the needs of the lay reader who is well rewarded by the depth and erudition. Father Silly oversaw the work, as the director of the entire project, and he speaks with Christophe Geffroy, the publisher of La Nef magazine, through whose courtesy this article is here translated.


Christophe Geffroy (CG): How did the idea of the Jesus Dictionary come about? What was your goal, and what was your working methodology?

Father Renaud Silly (RS): The person who had the idea was the director of Bouquins, Mr. Jean-Luc Barré [the publisher]. We had previously published Bossuet in his collection, and this inspired him to call upon us to produce the Dictionary. He gave us carte blanche, without imposing any particular angle or contributors.

Brother Renaud Silly, OP.

As for the École Biblique, the immense wealth of its recent research was just waiting to be made accessible to the general educated public. In the middle of the last decade, the success of certain books, ill-informed we believe, made us feel the need for a work that spans the entire spectrum—those who have been given the capacity to work directly on the sources (the “scholars”) have a moral duty to guarantee the dissemination of their work to those who do not possess it. Otherwise, we fall into the opposite trap of popularization and autarkic specialization. You likely will recognize in this way of thinking about the relationship to knowledge an echo of the ancient Dominican motto “contemplari et contemplata aliis tradere” (“contemplate and teach others”).

CG: This Dictionary was conceived in “a scientific spirit,” we read on the back cover. What does this mean?

RS: “Scientific” means many things, from the experimental method of the hard sciences to the discussion of all contradictory propositions in the human sciences, already practiced by Saints Thomas Aquinas and Albert the Great. To be readable, the Dictionary could not afford either. On the other hand, it deserves the term in the sense that it is directly linked to a scientific project of the École Biblique de Jérusalem: La Bible en ses Traditions (The Bible in its Traditions), under the direction of Brother Olivier-Thomas Venard, OP.

Sacred Scripture exists in three dimensions: it has a past—the conditions of its composition, a present—the text with all its refinements, and a future—its impact on culture, morality, etc. To understand it, it is therefore necessary to combine knowledge of the environments that produced it, literary methods of analysis, and to be attentive to its reception, in particular that for which it is an authority. The Bible in its Traditions is a method of global understanding of Scripture, without exclusivity or reductionism. It is a way of letting revelation breathe in a space that is appropriate to it. Who can contest the scientific nature of such an approach?

CG: Is it compatible to be in this “scientific spirit” and therefore open to new discoveries and at the same time faithful to the faith and to the teaching of the Church whatever happens? How does the scientist who is also a man of faith react when a discovery seems to go against the teaching of the faith?

RS: In faith, certainty is God who is at once the source, the cause and the object of the knowledge that faith possesses of him. The uncertainty lies in the assent we give to him—in other words, in not wanting to believe in God, even though He is the end of our understanding (cf. Thomas Aquinas, ii-iiae q.2 a.1 resp.). If faith saves, it is because it is a voluntary act. The vices that can thwart the operation of the will are, however, manifold: laziness, negligence, superstition, pride, to name but a few.

In short, sympathy for science, hard work, the breadth of knowledge cannot substitute for the adhesion by which the soul submits to the truth of God who reveals himself freely to it. This is the formal reason for faith as a theological virtue. In short, the scholar, like all other Christians, has no other alternative for remaining on the right path than to cultivate virtue.

But we must hasten to add how liberating the supernatural act of faith is for the scholar, for it relieves him of the need to search by force for a proof of faith that the texts, even and especially the sacred ones, will never offer him. The Lutheran theory of sola scriptura obliges one to solicit the texts, to make them say what they do not say. Since fiction cannot hold for long, sola scriptura has caused dogma to fall one after the other. And in return, it is the Bible itself that has become a source of uncertainty and doubt. As Father Lagrange wrote, “It is from [the Reformation] that the study of the Bible dates, not the study of the Bible, but rather the doubt about the Bible.”

CG: You have not sought to take a new, but a renewed, look at Jesus. What do you mean by this?

RS: In 1980, a tomb on the outskirts of Jerusalem was interpreted as that of Jesus. In 2002, an ossuary was presented as that of James, the “brother of the Lord,” which would have confirmed the authenticity of the 1980 tomb. In 2006, a Gnostic gospel “of Judas” appeared, according to which Jesus himself asked the traitor to hand him over. In 2012, in the Gospel of the Wife of Jesus, the master presents Mary Magdalene as his wife. All of these “discoveries” turned out to be forgeries or misinterpretations of authentic texts. The ephemeral excitement that surrounded these publications shows our imaginary and infantile relationship to reality, which makes us give in to the craving for novelty (cf. 2 Tim 4:3-4).

But there is no scoop to be made about Jesus. In faith we know all we need to know about him. As far as authentic knowledge is concerned, made up of meditation, of going deeper, of the patient dwelling of the truth deposited in us—this on the other hand is always in need of renewal. The Word came to “dwell with his own” (Jn 1:5); He is therefore there, in the midst, but it is we who are absent: “you were within me, but I was outside myself, and it was in this outside that I sought you” (St. Augustine, Confessions, x, xxvii, 38).

There is always a need to renew one’s knowledge in order to free oneself from hasty patterns of thought, from the conviction—certainly false—that one has done all the work of the Gospel and has nothing to expect from it. This must be done in the school of the great texts, but also of the humble reality unearthed by archaeology and the related sciences.

A few years ago, stone jars were discovered at Cana (cf. Jn 2:6)! They are probably not those of the miracle, but it shows that this village was populated by very observant Jews, the very milieu of Jesus. Study is an asceticism, surely the greatest asceticism there is! Has the Latin Church nurtured greater ascetics than St. Jerome or St. Thomas, those hard workers? But for those who devote themselves to this effort, the Word is always new (cf. Rev 21:5).

CG: In making this Dictionary, which points were the most difficult to synthesize? And what are the most difficult topics to resolve from the point of view of faith?

RS: The Resurrection of Jesus, to which we wanted to give a place in proportion to its importance. The very fact of the Resurrection is not recounted anywhere [outside the Gospels]—because there were no outside witnesses; and the evangelists did not embroider wonderful stories when they did not know! So, we have to fall back on credible witnesses of the Risen One, since we did not see him rise. But this only shifts the problem: they are women, whose testimony has little legal value! One recalls the misogyny of a Renan who described the testimony of Mary Magdalene on Easter morning as follows: “Divine power of love! Sacred moments when the passion of a hallucinated woman offered the world a resurrected God!”

Let us add to this that the Resurrection is, by definition, impossible to describe since it tells of the passage (the “passover”) of Jesus to a new Creation which we cannot experience; that the mode of the Resurrection of Jesus does not correspond to that foreseen by the prophets of Israel—teaching rather a general and simultaneous resurrection. Yet the resurrection constitutes the intimate heart of the proclamation of Christian faith and hope (cf. 1 Cor 15:14). It is impossible to ignore it without betraying the Gospel.

We are left amazed by the simplicity of the means with which the sacred authors overcome this immense difficulty. The resurrection narratives are the least retouched of all the Gospels. They are delivered to us almost in their raw state. They ask us to let ourselves be measured by the event and the word that tells it. To accept it is to grow in faith, and thus to rise a little with Christ. The resurrection narratives form the synthesis and the summit of the Gospel’s power of conviction. They invite us to reread all the teachings of Jesus as seeds that make life sprout where there was nothing.

CG: It is common to distinguish between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith. What do you think of this approach? And is faith still credible in the light of current scientific knowledge?

RS: The expression you quote belongs to the genre of “thinking” (sorry to abuse this beautiful word) by slogan. It is based on the conviction that the “faith” accumulated representations of Jesus, which would have satisfied certain requirements of the religious spirit, as the Church grew outside its original environment.

The Jesus of faith therefore becomes the sum of the answers demanded by the new Christians according to their cultural situation. The divinity of Christ would be the most visible of these borrowed identities, developed in contact with Hellenistic populations familiar with divinized heroes. Hence the need to peel away, by means of criticism, the “Jesus of history” from the various accretions that mask him. Alain de Benoist’s book illustrates this method and shows its limit via the absurd. In tearing off the tunic of Nessus which would be the Jesus of faith, one realizes that the layers are so well integrated with the object studied that the object loses its skin, flesh and bones. In the end, there is nothing left. One wonders how this so-called “Jesus of history,” so insignificant, could have left such a trace.

But this distinction is wrong. The Jesus of faith is nothing other than the trace left by the Jesus of history, the sum of his impact, as it were. Jesus initiates recourse to the testimony of the prophets to speak of him (Mk 12:35-37); he sends out on mission (Mk 6:6-13); he takes care to establish an authentic transmission of his words and actions (Mk 8:18-21); he projects his disciples into a time when they will have to keep his memory in order to understand (Jn 13:7); he institutes the signs that will give body and shape to this memory, especially the Eucharist (cf. Lk 22:19). Between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, there is no unbridgeable gap.

CG: The Bible is undoubtedly the most examined work in the world, dissected from every possible angle, especially since the development of the historical-critical methods. Does the Bible emerge strengthened from these examinations and analyses; or, on the contrary, weakened in its credibility?

RS: Science can be a very violent thing. Laboratory experiments, which give rise to many ethical problems, bear witness to this. There is a certain science which, legislating on phenomena, imposes on them extrinsic grids of analysis which destroy them. One thinks of the Duke of Chevreuse inflicting a thousand tortures on dogs or cats to try to prove that their cries were caused by the shaking of small springs, in accordance with the Cartesian theory of animal-machines.

The undivided domination of the hard sciences in the Western noosphere has resulted in the increased use of intrusive criteria on the Bible. Christians who believe in supernatural revelation do not defend it by subjecting it to these same criteria. Biblical fundamentalism, so regularly condemned by the pontiffs, must appear to us for what it is: a complicity with the dissolution of the Bible by historical methods. Moreover, it is futile: by leaving the choice of weapons and terrain to the adversary, we expose ourselves to certain defeat. But to write an ancient history of Israel by following the biblical account is to provoke the derisio infidelium.

The Bible is strengthened if one analyzes it according to its own criteria, those of ancient literary genres; and if one makes the effort to understand its language, which is often disconcerting. It is thus a precious source for the historian. But the Bible is much more than that—a matrix of culture, religion, morality, philosophy and dogma. On this contemplative domain, that of the spirit, aggressive science has little hold.

CG: The literature on the Bible is so vast now that it is impossible for the educated man of today to know it all. How can you find your way around, and how can the researcher, such as you, take into account all that is published seriously on the Bible?

RS: Give preference to authors who do not simply compile the results of others’ research, but have direct access to the sources and are able to discuss them. The others do not know what they are talking about. Exclude anything that practices methodical deconstruction—its conclusions have no solidity; they fluctuate according to fashion.

CG: Many people think that the Bible is nothing but a series of myths far removed from real history and that it often relates stories that they consider far-fetched and impossible—the fall in the Garden of Eden, the flood, or the crossing of the Red Sea, for example. How should the Bible be read? Are there several levels of reading? And how can one distinguish between what belongs to history, to theological teaching or indeed to myth?

RS: Neither the flood, nor the stories of the fall, or the tower of Babel can be proven “scientifically.” Those who claim otherwise are lying or mistaken. Their historicity has nothing to do with the historiographical models claimed by the evangelists, or the deuteronomistic historian (Deuteronomy), or the priestly models (Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah). All of these follow very rigorous paradigms—though different from modern ones. Did the Bible in Gen 1-11 collect myths? If one understands this term as a divine revelation about the origin, inaccessible de jure to human observation, then why not. But this must be seriously corrected—because they are very different from the myths vilified by the philosophers.

CG: Our European countries of ancient Christianity, with rare exceptions, such as Poland, have evacuated the question of God, so that the number of truly convinced Christians has become a tiny minority—our contemporaries are much more ignorant of Jesus than hostile. How can we make them rediscover this Jesus who saved the world?

RS: Like Christ, I don’t believe in strategies, tactics or structures of Christianity. Nor do I believe in sociology to prophesy to us whether Christians will be many or few. All that is thinking according to the world.

But I believe that the power of conviction of the Gospel remains intact, if it is preached for what it is—the teaching of the Master who makes faith germinate in souls eager for truth, who tears his disciples away from a world for which he himself has not prayed (cf. Jn 17:9), to which no promise of eternity is attached (cf. Mk 13:31).

The disciple of Christ is the one who receives in his heart this prayer of Bossuet: “O Jesus, I come to you to make this Passover in your company. I want to pass with you from the world to your Father, whom you wanted to be mine. ‘The world is passing away’ (1 Jn 2:17) says your apostle. ‘The face of this world is passing away’ (1 Cor 7:31). But I do not want to pass with the world, I want to pass to your Father. This is the journey I have to make. I want to make it with you…. O my savior, receive your traveler. I am ready. I do not care about anything. I want to pass with you from this world to your Father” (Meditations on the Gospel, “The Last Supper”, Part I, Day 2).


Featured image: “Salvator Mundi,” by Leonardo da Vinci, painted ca. 1500.

The End Of Christianity: An Interview With Chantal Delsol

Chantal Delsol is a philosopher and writer. A Catholic, conservative-liberal and European federalist, she is one of the most brilliant French intellectuals of our era. A member of the Académie des sciences morales et politiques, she is a professor at the University of Marne-la-Vallée, where she created and directed the Hannah Arendt Institute, specializing in East-West relations. She is the author of some forty works of political philosophy, including Icarus Fallen: The Search for Meaning in an Uncertain World, Le principe de subsidiarité (1993), L’identité de l’Europe (ed., 2010), L’âge du renoncement (2011), Populismes : les demeurés de l’histoire (2015) and Le Crépuscule de l’Universel (2020). We interviewed her, with French historian Arnaud Imatz, on the occasion of the publication of her latest book, La fin de la chrétienté (2021).


Arnaud Imatz (A.I.): The question of the future of Christianity and Judeo-Christian civilization has been haunting people for at least two centuries. Hegel, Nietzsche, Heine, to name but a few, announced the “death of God.” Kant wished for a religion that was only “moral.” The secularist Michelet prophesied the decline of Christianity. Durkheim, Renan and so many others, atheists or agnostics, proclaimed the inevitability of dechristianization. Comte advocated a religious positivism. Marx claimed that religion is the opium of the people. Donoso Cortes or Christopher Dawson professed, on the contrary, that a society that has lost its religion sooner or later loses its culture. Péguy observed that we have passed from the Christian age to the modern age. More recently, the theoretician of the New Right, Alain de Benoist, welcomed the return of paganism; Marcel Gauchet predicted the end of the religious organization of the world and Michel Onfray predicted the end of Judeo-Christian civilization. We cab keep multiplying the examples.

In your case, you have published a work with the evocative and resounding title, La fin de la Chrétienté (The End of Christianity), with the Cerf, an old Parisian publishing house, founded by the Dominicans nearly a century ago. As a Catholic philosopher and liberal-conservative, you have revived and nourished the debate remarkably well. Christianity, you explain, has reached the end of its agony. And you immediately specify that you are referring to Christianity as a civilization and not to Christianity as a religion. Why this pessimistic diagnosis at the beginning of the 21st century?

Chantal Delsol (Ch.D.): First of all, to confirm what you say, yes, it is Christianity as a civilization influenced and governed by the morals and laws of Christianity, and not Christianity as a religion. Christianity is not at all, I believe, fading away or dying, but it is its control of societies, its civilization, that is collapsing. I do not believe my diagnosis is pessimistic. My look is dispassionate. I begin by observing the incredible upheaval of morals. These reveal the beliefs and concretize them. From the moment when it is no longer Christian dogmas that decide on morals (divorce, abortion, etc.); from the moment when it is multicolored ethics committees that decide, Christianity has disappeared.

Chantal Delsol.

A.I.: The Catholic Church continues to question the Christian cultural universe, implicitly showing that it is ashamed of Christianity. The declarations of Pope Francis are unequivocal in this respect. Francis even seems to want to be the representative of a post-Christian humanitarian morality, almost without transcendence, in which the afterlife and eternal salvation come to occupy a residual place. How and why has the Church as an institution, and more generally all Christian thought, renounced Christianity?

Ch.D.: You are really asking two very different questions.

First: Pope Francis—I don’t believe that he has renounced transcendence, but he is influenced by the times, which is not uncommon historically for Jesuits, who are always under the seduction of fashions and atmospheres. In 17th century China, they were the ones who bordered on heterodoxy by osmosis with the Chinese wisdoms. In the middle of the 20th century, they were the ones who “went along with communism” and so on. Francis is fascinated by ecological religion and by post-Christian humanitarianism.

The second question—that the Church as an institution and Christian thought have given up on Christianity because there is no other way; because no Western society accepts to live under the morals and laws of Christianity anymore. In the few countries that remain Christian by name, such as Poland, the Church is so radical and rigid that it is losing its last supporters. I can see it before my very eyes, live.

A.I.: In the analysis and description of the evolution of the Church, there are two main currents. For some, since the 14th century or the Revolution of 1789, or even the Syllabus of Pius IX (1864) or Vatican II (1965), the Catholic Church has only adapted; it has tried more or less to act with the times; and this attitude leads it inexorably towards the abyss. For others, on the contrary, the Catholic Church has always fought against modernity; it has been frozen in power with clericalism and has never been resolutely open to the reality of the world. For the latter, the Christian God can be reborn in Europe through individual mysticism, or in a communal form, but only if the Catholic Church accepts to reform itself and to evolve, in particular on sexuality. In your opinion, is the present Church in the process of becoming “unworldly?” Or, under the guise of becoming “unworldly,” is it in the process of becoming more worldly?

Ch.D.: In fact, we observe both these two movements which exist at one and the same time, contradicting each other and giving rise, over the last two centuries, to sometimes severe quarrels between Christians. I believe that there is a real, substantial contradiction between modernity and Catholicism. The latter cannot accept freedom of conscience, nor individualism. It is holistic by its very nature. The latest developments in the pedophilia cases tragically describe the Church’s obligation to obey an age that is repugnant to it: to put the individual before the institution; that is, to become more or less individualistic. Only Protestantism is in tune with modernity. Today the tendencies within the Catholic Church are plural. Some are so worldly that they are Protestant. Others defend the old world to the hilt (I gave a conference the other day with a priest who sees the only solution in a return to the Syllabus). But one thing is certain: most clerics are uneasy, worried, tormented, and have no idea where they are heading.

A.I.: The near-coincidence of the dates of the extinction of the Marxist model and the end of Christianity is striking. Is it only fortuitous or accidental?

Ch.D.: Marxism was a response, in the 19th century, to the collapse of Christianity. It takes a lot of the Christian model and distorts it. It is part of the earthly utopias, present since the French revolution, which replace Salvation by salvation, in immanence and impatience. It did not last, because of its intrinsic madness. When it collapsed in 1989, Christianity simply reached the end of its long process of collapse (two centuries). The two extinctions are not comparable in terms of time and cannot be said to coincide: communism is a regime, Christianity a civilization, which is understood in the very long term.

A.I.: Speaking of the Western churches, my master and friend, the Calvinist historian Pierre Chaunu, drew up, as early as 1975, a damning observation in his book, De l’histoire à la prospective: “The intellectual and spiritual mediocrity of the leaders in place in the Western churches at the beginning of the 1970s is distressing. An important part of the clergy of France constitutes a social, intellectual, moral and spiritual underclass; from the tradition of the Church, this group has often retained only clericalism, intolerance and fanaticism. These men reject a heritage that crushes them because they are intellectually incapable of understanding it and spiritually incapable of living it.” Has the mediocrity of a good part of the clergy and probably even more of the hierarchs of the Church been a major factor in the acceleration of this decay?

Ch.D.: Chaunu is right, here as in many points. It must be very difficult for a Church to give itself a clergy. Today, frequenting many institutions held by the clergy and being active in these institutions, I am struck among our clergy by a kind of immobility and stupor (just as we have seen others), by an incredible authoritarianism, as if they were the only ones who had to rule the land and the sea, and judgmental (governance is everywhere opaque, obscure), and by a sick taste for honors, for positions (I see it directly at the Institute where I have a front row seat [[1] The Institut de France comprises five academies, including the Académie des sciences morales et politiques]). All this is sad.

I believe that it is very difficult to be a cleric today, in the midst of all these contrary winds. As for what is happening in the countries that are still clerical, like Poland where I spend a lot of time, it is frightening: the clerics are from another age, living richly on the goods of the Church, imposing on the faithful moral behaviors that are unimaginable today, brandishing from the top of their authority statements that are closer to witchcraft than to Christianity (“vaccines are made with embryos”). The Church here and elsewhere is in bad health. But was it ever healthy?

A.I.: The crisis of the various Protestant churches seems to be just as dramatic, if not more so, than that of the Catholic Church. Is this proof that the problem goes beyond Catholicism alone and that it is rather a question of the abandonment or collapse [lasting or temporary (?)] of religious belief in the West?

Ch.D.: It depends on which Protestantism you are talking about. Evangelical churches are doing well and spreading all over the world. One has the impression that the religion of our fathers only survives in those branches that have completely adapted to modern times: individualism, retractable personal choice, freedom of movement, adaptability of doctrine to temperaments. Some would say that it is not a religion at all anymore. But that is the way it is. The wind of modernity is stronger than anything else; you adapt to it or you die.

A.I.: If we distinguish between the Church as an institution and the Church as the mystical body of Christ (which presupposes the solidarity or communion of all Christians with the saints), a handful of believers is all that is needed for the Church to survive. But what would the Catholic Church, whose mission of evangelization is its primary duty, be if it closed in on itself?

Ch.D.: Of course, that is the big question! I believe that we are going to go through a very difficult period, a sort of catacomb period. The main thing for us is not to blow out the flame, to keep the pilot light on. But let’s not delude ourselves: it is very difficult to evangelize today, even though none of us want to use force (if we even could). There can be monks of Thibirine! That is evangelization. In the future, there will undoubtedly be better times.

A.I.: You note that the 21st century is religious, but that it is no longer Christian. You add that humanity, being imperfect and mortal, will always give itself religions, wisdoms and morals; that neither civilization nor morality will stop with Christianity. The void left by Christianity will be partly filled by multiple paganisms. But being a pagan also means praying. Because the real ancient pagans prayed, which is not at all the case today. An Italian friend of mine used to say, mocking his compatriots in the 1980s, “First they worshipped the Madonna. Then, when they stopped believing in her, they started worshipping the Duce. And today they worship the bumpers of their cars.” The same people now adore their touch-screen tablets. But of course they don’t pray to their tablets, any more than they pray to Mother Earth or Gaia. Can we really call these postmodern zombies pagans or neo-pagans?

Ch.D.: Yes, I think so. Of course, they are materialists! But at the same time, they reinvest esoteric, pantheistic/ecological beliefs, and all forms of pseudo magic. They are superstitious; they throw themselves on books talking about life after death; they believe in reincarnation. Well, obviously they love their smartphones; but they cling beyond the smartphone to all sorts of crazy credulities. They are humans, you know, despite their materialism! And like all humans, they are aware of evil and death.

A.I.: In La fin de la chrétienté, you do not say anything about the expansion of Islam in Europe and the West. Here again, two points of view clash. On the one hand, there are those who, like the majority of Western journalists, philosophers and politicians, have been repeating ad nauseam for forty years that this is a fantasy, that Islam is plural and diverse, that Western women will not accept to submit to Sharia norms and that human rights are so attractive to Muslims that sooner or later they will adapt. They are betting on a “modernized, reformed, open, contextualized, secularized, democratized Islam,” compatible with the Western model.

But on the other hand, there are those who take Islam seriously, alarmists, essayists and realist historians, who are generally insulted, like Bat Ye’or, Serafin Fanjul, Dario Fernández Morera, Rafael Sánchez Saus, etc., or who are simply ignored, like the Coptic Christian Raymond Ibrahim, author of L’épée et le cimeterre (2021). That they are wrong to point out that there have been “fourteen centuries of war between Islam and the West;” that Islamic teachings are the antithesis of the Western model; that the religious fervor of radical Muslims, today’s Islamists, overlaps exactly with ancestral Islamic dogmas; that Western reactions are age-old self-defense mechanisms; and finally, that current rivalries are a reflection of a very ancient existential struggle. What do you think about this?

Ch.D.: I agree that there is a very old existential struggle, as you say. And in this sense, there will be, for a long time, a will on the part of Islam to annihilate the West; firstly, because the Arab-Muslim countries cannot manage to govern themselves economically or politically (except to be rentiers); and this is humiliating for them; secondly, because the men of this culture are born with an ontological and undeserved superiority, that of being male and of being able to tyrannize women; and this is a power too enviable to be dispensed with so easily. That’s why we’re not done with the attacks and other problems. However, there is indeed a part of Islam that accepts modernity, especially under the leadership of educated women, it must be said (and this is quite understandable). The only question is: in a case of civil war, will moderate Islam join fundamentalist Islam by historical complicity, or will it join the modern West by cultural complicity?

A.I.: The Gospels say: “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21 and Mark 12:17), that religion and politics must not be confused. But in the face of Islamic terrorism, the indirect support it receives from the Islamo-leftists and the new challenges of violence and conflict at the infra-state level, I cannot help but think of the words, more than ever relevant, that your teacher Julien Freund addressed to the socialist-pacifist Jean Hyppolite, during his thesis defense: “Listen, Mr. Hyppolite… you think that you are the one who designates the enemy, like all pacifists. As long as we don’t want enemies, we won’t have any, you reason. But it is the enemy who designates you. And if he wants you to be his enemy, you can make the most beautiful protestations of friendship. As long as he wants you to be his enemy, you are. And he will even prevent you from cultivating your garden.” Can Catholics, whose “belief has become marginal,” do without power and force without condemning themselves and their religion to disappear along with Christianity?

Ch.D.: The Marxists, represented at the time by Jean Hyppolite, have disappeared. But the warnings of Julien Freund are still valid in another context! Yes, fundamentalist Islam represents for us an enemy, since it claims to be our enemy—and that is what counts. We are wrong to virtuously avert our eyes by claiming that since we love everyone, we have no enemy.

A.I.: You write, incidentally, that corporate fascism (what the political scientist Paul Gottfried calls “Catholic fascism” in his Fascism: The Career of a Concept), “was the mad hope of preserving Christianity.” But why take up this polemical concept, which only partially captures the reality of Catholic authoritarian regimes (Austria, Portugal, Spain) in twentieth-century Europe? The real fascism, the Italian one, that of Gentile and Mussolini, was part of the Hegelian tradition and the anti-Catholic one of the Risorgimento.

To take only the example of Spain, the history of the origins and development of the Civil War, and later of Francoism, cannot be limited to a simple “reaction” or desire to preserve Catholic Spain. The great intellectual figures of the 1920s and 1930s, the liberals, the founding fathers of the Spanish Republic, Ortega y Gasset, Marañon Perez de Ayala, and even the heterodox Catholic Unamuno, were all in favor of the military uprising of 1936 (after the failure of the socialist-Marxist uprising of 1934) and rallied to the “national camp”. But all were frankly hostile to fascism, agnostic or moderately Catholic.

In the national camp, only the Carlist (monarchist-traditionalist) movement, which was in a very small minority, wished to restore Spanish Catholicism in its entirety; it was anti-modern and as opposed to fascism as to liberalism. All the other parties, whose militants and sympathizers were in the national camp, monarchist-liberals, democrat-liberals of the Confederation of the Right (CEDA), republican-agrarians, radicals and republicans of the right and center, were nourished by agnostics or moderate Catholics who wanted to adapt tradition to modernity. Even the Falange, a marginal party in 1936, most frequently accused of being fascist, advocated a synthesis of tradition and modernity. The only common denominator of these parties was the opposition to the social-Marxist or anarchist revolution and the defense of national unity. The issue was more that of political and social survival than that of the preservation of Christianity.

The Church, persecuted in the Populist Front camp and restored by Francoism, was above all concerned with its independence, as evidenced by its opposition to Franco from the 1960s onwards. So why use the generic, idle term “fascism,” which we know was inherited from the propaganda of the Comintern, and which now serves only to insult and stigmatize the adversary?

Ch.D.: I don’t think that the term “fascism” is idle or a propaganda term. In my book on the political ideas of the 20th century, I preferred the term “fascism-corporatism;” and I had to change publishers because the first one absolutely wanted to include fascism and Nazism in the same chapter. I know that in fascism-corporatism there were many different currents of thought. Nevertheless, one cannot deny the real importance of a will to re-establish Christianity, this time more firmly and assuredly. This is true in Western Europe, especially for Salazarism and also for Franco. I worked a lot in Central Europe on these regimes and there it was even more obvious.

A.I.: The great majority of Catholics today say that power and conquest disgusts them. You say that only interiority counts, that we must accept to be a meager residual flock, mute witnesses, that we must educate by example, and walk towards the promise of the Gospel. But historically, could Christianity have existed and could Christianity, the “universal religion,” have gone beyond the stage of an obscure sect without the persuasive force of the legions of soldiers of Christ? Doesn’t the decline of the Church and the “Amishization” of Catholics risk condemning them to share the fate of marginal sects without influence on the world? What can the Catholic Church be without Christianity?

Ch.D.: If overcoming the dark sect can only be done by force and conquest, I prefer to remain a dark sect. Being a woman and having raised six children, I know that the greatest forces, those of love, are hidden. If someone wants to try to make me believe that the Church is different, that it needs legions to make Christianity a universal religion, then I will answer that I do not want a universal religion. I only believe in legions of angels.


Featured image: “L’église de la Sorbonne en ruine (Church of the Sorbonne in Ruins),” by Hubert Robert, painted ca. 1800.

Alain de Benoist And Jesus: Manufacturing Misunderstanding

Communism declined and metamorphosed into secularized post-Christianity: “the last Marxist-Leninist will be a Breton rector.” The contamination of the ideas of the Left among its opponents is inversely proportional to the decrease of the social base on which it is based, which their application has the effect of destroying.

After a few decades of preachiness, the Left in France had as its spokesmen the heirs of Albert de Mun and a rallying Catholicism. It is a movement classified, rightly or wrongly, on the right of the parliamentary spectrum that today assumes the thankless task of defending the law of 1905, with shaky and quavering voices that its leaders can hardly get out when they reluctantly mention the Church of Christ.

At a time when the Left is advocating the breakdown of equality through affirmative action, the determination of individuals by race according to the decolonial agenda, and orchestrating the Sovietization of knowledge with the help of a sociology that hunts down elitism under its various disguises, it seems that the old Third Republic rationalism has taken refuge in the work of Mr. Alain de Benoist (hereafter, “A.”), founder of the New Right. His latest volume, L’homme qui n’avait pas de père – le dossier Jésus (The Man Who Had No Father – The Jesus File), delivers a chemically pure synthesis, which seems to have been sublimated in the lonely conservatory where A. has slowly distilled it.

A Problem Of Methodology

It would be dishonest not to take The Jesus File seriously. Certainly, A. cannot himself discuss the ancient sources on Jesus; this is quickly spotted by transliterations of the Greek that are almost always faulty when they contain some pitfall. The book is therefore a huge compilation of secondary literature—nearly 1000 pages. But on this particular point, the breadth of its information is to be commended. The author quotes hundreds of scholars. His bibliography in English, German and French is very up-to-date; he is not simply content with the latest titles, but can trace the genealogy of an exegetical opinion back to its precursors.

Since A. does not have access to the sources, it is the use he makes of secondary literature that poses a problem. Not having proved his scientific authority in the subjects he has dealt with, he solicits that of others in order to produce a synthesis thus endowed with a borrowed credibility. This is the fundamental weakness of the book. The number of proofs provided by A. decreases as he gathers clues in huge bundles, not always consistent. Whenever he needs to come to a conclusion, he is forced to deal with the the problem of authority which is lacking in his varied panoply. Such is the way that the entire book is written.

Some examples among so many. To prove that the virginal conception of Jesus and his divine filiation developed independently in the tradition, A. quotes “Jacques Bernard, former professor at the Catholic Institute of Lille,” or “Joseph Ratzinger, the future pope Benedict XVI” (p. 611). The age of 33 lent to Jesus on the day of his death corresponds to “the perfect age of the hero who disappeared in full maturity; it is the age of Alexander the Great at his death,” and A. quotes “Michel Quesnel, professor at the Catholic Institute of Paris” (p. 503). The existence of Jesus’ uterine brothers is asserted by resorting to “John P. Meier, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and professor of New Testament studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington; François Refoulé, who directed the École Biblique de Jérusalem from 1982 to 1984; Maurice Sachot, a former professor at the Faculty of Catholic Theology;” and thrown in also are Jacques Duquesne and Jean-Claude Barreau (p. 394).

Note: it is only for Catholics that A. sees fit to leave out their university degrees. The precaution seems superfluous for Protestants or agnostics. No doubt the practice of free examination for some, of free thought for others, protects them enough against the ever-recurring suspicion of practicing a confessional or biased exegesis. For Catholics, the only way to portray them is to display their institutional positions. Moreover, when A. quotes Catholic authors without mentioning their academic pedigree, one can expect some very salty bondieuserie, which throws ridicule on the particular author. The great René Laurentin, Father Marie-Joseph Ollivier, this or that Father of the Church, are all at the expense of this rationalist prejudice which discredits a priori their words (cf. p. 353).

An Exemplary Case: Tacitus

This borrowed science, spread out over many pages, is based on a criterion of method which “consists in deconstructing, as any truly scientific investigation does, a false image of its object.” It is this science which is asked to provide facts independent of the subjective prejudice of faith. However, we can illustrate the defective handling of this science in The Jesus File from a case in point: Tacitus’ account of Nero’s persecution.

Having quoted the Latin historian (p. 129), A. immediately starts to point out the difficulties Tacitus poses, even before asking himself what Tacitus meant. Thus, he reduces the statement to a set of isolated elements, violently torn from the scriptural body in which they were harmoniously inserted. These scattered, disjointed pieces, this panting flesh to which the statement has been reduced, no longer maintain with their environment the solid and living links that make them resist the arbitrariness of an imputed meaning. The trick is played so that the critic imposes the meaning as he pleases, drawing randomly from epigraphy, ancient sources, and his imagination. Not surprisingly, the statement thus “reconstituted” has become a tissue of contradictions. Let us judge the evidence.

Tacitus defines Christians as taking their name from “Christ who, under the principate of Tiberius, was executed by the procurator Pontius Pilate” [Christus Tibero imperitante per procuratorem Pontium Pilatum supplicio adfectus erat]. The very first remark of A. is to point out that Pilate was not procurator (epitropos), but prefect (eparchos), as appears from a famous contemporary inscription found in Caesarea in Palestine. This anachronism is enough for the author to anticipate the end of his demonstration; namely, that the text “was interpolated in the fifteenth century (sic.), at a time when everyone thought that Pontius Pilate had been procurator” (p. 130).

By the way, it was not until the end of the Middle Ages that everyone popularly attributed to Pilate a title he did not have. Philo of Alexandria, his contemporary, and Flavius Josephus around 75 also give Pilate the title of procurator/epitropos. It is certain that Pilate bore the official title of prefect/eparchos, a magistracy that was mainly military. But it is no less certain that he also exercised a civil administration over the imperial province that Judea had become from the the year 6 AD. The two magistracies being often entrusted to the same persons, the governors of Judea officially took the title of procurators/epitropoi starting in the reign of Claudius, thus after Pilate.

Tacitus certainly presents an anachronistic title, but the explanation by a fifteenth-century interpolator is surely not the first to be considered. Tacitus may have voluntarily adapted the title to the one in use at the time. But it is more likely that he is quoting Christian documents. The fact is not implausible, contrary to what A. asserts (p. 132), since Tacitus was among the Quindecemviri sacris faciundis (Annals XI, 11), a priestly college responsible for the supervision of foreign cults in Rome. No magistrate of the city was in a better position than he to have access to information about the Christians. He would even have seriously failed in his duty if he had not had reliable and precise information on them. His information corresponded exactly to that which could have motivated their possession by a Roman magistrate: foreign cults were considered not according to the content of their beliefs, but according to the disturbance they could cause to public order.

It is in administrative and police terms that Tacitus depicts Christianity: his allusion to the execution of Christ is juridical, to recall the legal intervention of Pilate, the magistrate in charge of enforcing the pax romana. In Rome, Tacitus attaches such contempt to the name of Christian that it seems to be worth an indictment—“christianos” appellabat; these form a detestable superstitio—that is to say, in official language, a sect covering up for criminal acts. The way in which Tacitus links Christ and the Christians is another characteristic of the non-Christian sources, all of which point to the strong attachment of the disciples to their master.

In short, Tacitus’ text on the persecution of the Christians of Rome under Nero is perfectly coherent, in its outward approach to a phenomenon that he does not understand; or, rather analyzes according to the concerns of a Roman magistrate. This global understanding of Tacitus allows us to grasp why he speaks of the Christians tortured by Nero as an “immense multitude”: he does not proceed to a count, but allows himself a hyperbole that betrays his own fear, that of a wealthy man in front of the threatening and indistinct mass formed by the human mob populating the Suburra or the Velabro, followers of oriental divinities and practicing morals that would be abhorrent to a senator of good birth. But the fractional method of A. forbids him to understand this nuance. For him, “immense multitude” means “a great number of Christians.” Since they did not exist in Rome in 64, A. postulates an interpolation, dating from a time when they did. Believing that he has a solid argument, A. tries to squeeze all the juice of it: if Nero’s persecution had concerned a large number of Christians, one would find traces of that in the satirists, but they do not appear, etc. Always the reduction of the source to a few material elements.

This pointillist method is a forge of misunderstandings. The accumulation of secondary literature does not change anything. He who embraces too much embraces badly. The author triumphantly ends his section on Roman historians, having quoted dozens of modern authors, with a huge error: “the texts of Pliny the Younger, Tacitus and Suetonius that we have at our disposal tell us practically nothing about Jesus” (p. 136). This is not true. The first Latin authors approach Christianity and its founder from the outside, certainly. But they provide valuable information about certain distinctive features of the Church founded by Christ, which must be appreciated by comparing them with the mental revolution wrought by Him. In reality, A’s scientistic prejudice does not seek to understand the Jesus phenomenon, but to satisfy its definition of ideal objectivity through deconstruction.

Alain de Benoist’s Project

Once the object of study has been dissolved into an aggregate of primary elements, one would expect them to be reconstituted in a new form, as with fresh clay. A. however does not risk it. After having conscientiously atomized all the statements of the Gospels that had the misfortune to fall into his hands, he stops in the middle of this valley of dry bones that will not be resurrected. He did not even think it appropriate to write a conclusion. A sentence in the Introduction takes the place of one, in which one thought one could only read a captatio benevolentiæ calling for prudence: “What do we know today that is really certain about Jesus? The answer is simple: very little” (p. 1). The next 1000 pages will add nothing to this. Thousands of opinions and not a single truth.

Does this book, which is entirely based on the deconstruction of its subject, actually have any overall project? It seems to us that it is precisely this emptiness, this nothingness to which the investigation wants to bring the Jesus of history. The proof of this is the title of the book (“The man who had no father”); the final chapter on Jesus (“An illegitimate child” p. 771-862) which is in fact its conclusion. And, finally, the total absence of interest, which is surprising in such a large book, in the almost unique means by which Jesus exerted his impact: his word. A. will claim that his critique strikes down as inauthentic just about every statement attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. Like the notes on Tacitus or Pliny, nothing can be drawn from them.

However, there is only one word of Jesus which A. considers authentic enough to devote an in-depth exegesis to it: the adultery of which the one who repudiated his first wife to marry another is guilty (cf. Mk 10:11-12). True to his method of placing polemical statements in the mouths of foreign authorities, the author quotes an American polygrapher, Donald Harman Akenson: “Jesus’ very strict views on divorce, as reported in the Synoptic Gospels, stand in sharp contrast to his usual teaching and could refer to a personal uneasiness related to his illegitimacy” (p. 474). The curse on pregnant women (Mk 13:14-17) is interpreted as an absolute statement of Jesus, which Mark would have watered down by attributing it only to a particular situation. The preaching of the Gospel would thus float in a “Gnostic” atmosphere (p. 469).

From then on, a certain overall coherence emerges. As an illegitimate child, Jesus would have sublimated his dubious origin by preaching an immaterial, immaculate birth, a celestial paternity and by claiming it first of all for himself. He would have refused the flesh to tear himself away from the congenital malaise in which his bastardy would have locked him. By resentment, he would have instilled in the morals the shame of the flesh and sexual repression. Paul and the Church (cf. p. 476-480) would have extended his teaching by the morbid exaltation of virginity. One understands why A. wants to disjoin the traditions on the messianic and divine filiation of Jesus, and on his virginal conception: He holds them to be so many ways, contradictory according to him, of diverting attention from Jesus’ illegitimacy. The Christian dogma, the sublime composition of the Gospels, the beginning of a tradition, are there to make us forget an inglorious truth.

Christianity is a culturally sublime phenomenon—A. is far from denying it—which eludes the nothingness of its origin in a man who had no father and whose itinerary resembles the reveries of the Foundling. This conclusion is absurd, of course. It takes literally much later Jewish polemics, towards which A.’s credulity belies his hypercriticism for once. It is based on a single misunderstood word of Jesus and on an arbitrary reconstruction of his origin. Finally, it attributes all of Jesus’ effectiveness to a guilt-ridden nihilism that is absolutely belied by the biography of Jesus, who “was never anything but ‘yes’. All the promises of God found their yes in his person” (2 Cor 1:19).

Jesus Is Deprived Of His Words

Jesus autem tacebat” (“Jesus was silent”, Mt 26, 63). The Jesus File: where Jesus observes a stubborn silence. Not a whisper is heard from the one to whom Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed and known that you are the holy one of God” (Jn 6:68), and who declared, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not” (Mk 13:31). Without his words, Jesus is inaudible. In fact, all of Jesus’ effectiveness comes through his words.

The authentic tradition, the dogmas, are nothing other than the efforts made to understand what he had said. Quoting Ps 109/110, he says that the Messiah is Son of David and prior to David (cf. Mk 12:35-37). Much later, the Christology of Chalcedon defining a person in two natures results from the maturation of this statement (and of many others) made one day very consciously by Jesus on the Temple square. His pre-existence is affirmed by himself when he says “I have come to…” (cf. Mt 10:34-35; Lk 12:49; Jn 9:39; Mk 10:45, etc.).

But there is no one deafer than the one who does not want to hear. In The Jesus File, the logos of logic silences the Logos of the Prologue. The madness—in Greek alogia, literally, “absence of the Logos”—is not to have lost one’s reason; it is to have retained only one’s reason. Not a single word of Christ crosses this bleak desert, similar to “the silence of the ether, when the wooded valley silenced its foliage and not a single animal cry was heard” (8). Jesus is gagged like “the voiceless Lamb that is led to the slaughter and did not open its mouth” (Is 53:7). But “the stones will cry out” (Lk 19:40). Beginning with those of the conceptual tomb in which Adam covers his ears so as not to hear God, who says: “Where are you?”


Brother Renaud Silly is a Dominican who recently oversaw and edited Dictionnaire Jésus (the Jesus Dictionary), the major work recently published by the École Biblique de Jérusalem andÉditions Bouquins. This article comes to us through the kind courtesy of La Nef.


Featured image: “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas,” by Matthias Stom, painted ca. 1641-1649.

Which Philosophers Matter? The Case For Leszek Kolakowski

Few contemporary philosophers have works considered important by non-academics. Their intellectual pursuits, important as they are, have little impact outside academia, let alone are they deemed politically dangerous. Leszek Kolakowski is just such a philosopher. In 2003, he was awarded the first Kluge Prize created by the Library of Congress as the American counterpart to the Nobel Prize for lifelong achievements in the human sciences, a distinction that was both timely and well deserved.

Kolakowski is the author of more than thirty books on topics as varied as Marxism, seventeenth-century thought, philosophy of religion, Bergson, and Pascal. He is also the translator of seventeenth-century philosophical writings and author of several collections of essays, the genre of writing for which he received the European Prize for the Essay. Among the most distinguished American awards that form part of Kolakowski’s collection are the Jefferson Award, the MacArthur Prize, and the Kluge Prize. The list of prestigious European awards is no less impressive: the Erasmus Prize, Prix Européen d’Essai, and Die Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels.

Born in 1927 in Radom, Poland, Kolakowski joined the Polish Communist party after World War II. His youthful fascination with Marxism did not, however, last long. Disillusioned with the primitivism of the official state ideology and the practice of real socialism, Kolakowski began drifting away from communism after the 1956 “October thaw.” Many of his writings from 1956 to 1966, including the influential essay “Karl Marx and the Classical Definition of Truth,” drew the attention of the state authorities and led to his expulsion from the editorship of Studia Filozoficzne.

The Revisionist movement in which Kolakowski became the most original voice made Khrushchev, the first secretary of the Soviet Communist party, insist that communist leaders from the “satellite republics” organize an international trial of the “revisionists”—Kolakowski being the main culprit among them. Luckily for the revisionists, Wladyslaw Gomulka, the communist leader of Poland, did not succumb to Khrushchev’s demand. He did, however, join the ranks of Kolakowski’s critics, attacking him publicly as “the main ideologue of the so-called revisionist movement.” In 1968 Kolakowski delivered a famous speech on the state of Polish culture; after this he found himself out of a job, removed from the editorial boards of a number of publishing houses, and stripped of all his scholarly titles “for forming the views of the youth in a position glaringly contrary to the dominant tendency of the country.” His writings were put on the index of forbidden authors, and none of his publications could be cited or even referred to in Poland during the entire pre-Solidarity period (1968-1980).

The Western Left subscribed to Kolakowski’s revisionist ideas, seeing in them the hope for “socialism with a human face,” of which the political practice in the countries of real socialism was believed to be merely a distortion. However, the October thaw did not last long. Ten years later, it became all too obvious to the revisionists that the promises made by the party leaders in 1956 were empty. Young Polish Marxists woke up from their revisionist dream in 1968 jobless. Several of them – Bronislaw Baczko, Zygmunt Bauman, Wlodzimierz Brus — were expelled from their posts and had to seek employment in the West. Kolakowski became probably the best known of them. He was professor of philosophy at McGill, then Berkeley, and eventually found his permanent post at All Souls College, Oxford (1971), and at the University of Chicago (1981), where he taught until his retirement.

Leszek Kolakowski and Zbigniew Janowski, Oxford, 1998.

If, as a revisionist Marxist, Kolakowski was dangerous for the communist authorities, after his arrival in the West in 1968 he became troublesome for his leftist admirers. The German philosopher Jurgen Habermas remarked: “Kolakowski is a catastrophe for the Western European Left.” Having little or no knowledge of his personal peregrinations in 1966 and 1968, they were unaware of Kolakowski’s departure from Marxism. Kolakowski laid out his reasons in his famous work, “My Correct Views on Everything” (1973), a rejoinder to the distinguished English historian E.P. Thompson’s hundred-page “An Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski,” published a year earlier in the Socialist Register.

Far from having politically correct views on everything, an intellectual trait displayed by Thompson in his letter, who still in 1972 believed socialism to be a panacea for the ills of capitalism, Kolakowski explained to Thompson that he no longer cherished any hope for socialism. Stalinism, he argued in “Marxist Roots of Stalinism” is not a distortion of Marx’s thought; it is a legitimate offshoot of it. The socialist idea was dead for Kolakowski, and no “socialism with a human face” could be hoped for. Paraphrasing Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Kolakowski ended his sarcastic rejoinder by saying: “Alas, poor idea. I knew it, Edward. This skull will never smile again.”

If Habermas perceived Kolakowski’s activities of the early 1970s as a reason to see a coming catastrophe, the publication of Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism in 1976 must have presented itself as a vision of Doomsday. Main Currents of Marxism is an intellectual “death certificate” of Marxist thought written thirteen years before the actual burial of communism in 1989. In this elegantly written work, Kolakowski traces the roots of Marxism to the tradition of European dialectics that goes back to Neoplatonism. He describes Marxism as twentieth-century man’s greatest fantasy: it promised utopia, a classless society without greed. What it brought about instead was the most oppressive political system ever known, based on total state ownership of all its citizens.

Despite the Left’s fears that Kolakowski’s anti-communism provided ammunition for the Right, Kolakowski never truly became a conservative. His later attitude is probably best expressed in two articles published in his collection of essays, My Correct Views on Everything. In “What Is Left of Socialism,” Kolakowski defines socialism as a set of slogans that “were supposed to justify and glorify communism and the slavery that inevitably goes with it.” However, insofar as socialism was the utopian expression of solidarity with the “underdogs,” it stood for “social justice.”

The notion of social justice has been criticized by economists, such as F. A. Hayek. Kolakowski does not deny the economic validity of such criticism but rejects Hayek’s conclusion that social justice is a useless notion. In his typically contrarian style, Kolakowski writes: “In its vagueness, social justice resembles the concept of human dignity. It is difficult to define what human dignity is. It is not an organ to be discovered in our body, it is not an empirical notion, but without it we would be unable to answer the simple question: what is wrong with slavery?” In “Where Are Children in Liberal Philosophy?” he argues that the consistent notion of the minimum liberal state is in danger of not being able to sustain the liberal state. Perfect neutrality of the state, which liberal ideology requires, is incapable of generating values that could foster public virtues to sustain the res publica. Those virtues must be inculcated, a position inconsistent with the liberal mindset.

The political turmoil in the 1960s helped Kolakowski’s international reputation, first, as a revisionist Marxist philosopher from behind the Iron Curtain, and later as a leading critic of communism. Yet Kolakowski has never been solely a scholar of Marxism. He launched his academic career with a work on Spinoza, The Individual and Infinity: Freedom and the Antinomies of Freedom in the Philosophy of Spinoza (1958), in which he aimed to extract “humanistic content” from the European religious tradition and see the whole of it, minus the Greeks, as hiding the same message under different religious garments.

The book on Spinoza was followed by the publication of a massive study of non-confessional Christianity in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe, Religious Consciousness and Confessional Link (1962). The book, translated into French under the telling title, Chrétiens sans église (Christians Without a Church), is concerned with the post-Reformation period in European religiosity and philosophy. Despite its length (824 dense pages in French translation) and heavyweight scholarship, the book has become a classic among French, Dutch, and Italian scholars of seventeenth-century thought.

Kolakowski’s critics were often puzzled by his interest in religion, but the book is more than a work in a neglected field of the history of religious ideas (most of the sources Kolakowski analyzes were available only in Dutch and Latin in their original seventeenth-century editions). Christians Without a Church was perceived as a model for revisionist Marxism like non-confessional Christianity. No single party, just like no single Church, could claim to be in possession of the orthodox creed. Accordingly, one could claim to be a Marxist without supporting the communist state, just as one could claim to be a Christian without belonging to the Church. Not without reason was Kolakowski once described as “Ein Christl ohne Kirche, ein Kommunist ohne Partei” (a Christian without a church, a Marxist without a party).

The young Kolakowski might have believed that revisionist Marxism could save the true Marxist message from its distortions at the hands of the official state apparatchiks and, by analogy, that non-confessional Christianity offered a model of an intellectual position one could assume for the communist state. Yet the validity of the parallel between denominational Christianity and Marxism was false and naive: False, because Stalinism, as Kolakowski himself argues in “Marxist Roots of Stalinism,” was not a distortion of Marxism but a legitimate version of it; and naive because “individual revelations,” be they mystical or “revisionist,” prove perilous to earthly organizations. As Kolakowski’s own example shows, his revisionist ideas became corrosive for the states behind the Iron Curtain. Their influence in the countries of the former Soviet empire, where his writings circulated in countless editions in a samizdat form, cannot be overestimated when calculating the loss of faith in Marxism.

Leszek Kolakowski and Zbigniew Janowski, Oxford, 1998.

Although Kolakowski devoted his most scholarly writings to Protestant Christianity, and he himself may forever remain a “Christian without a church,” his cultural background and religious sympathies are Roman Catholic. The subject of his book on Pascal, God Owes Us Nothing (1992), is the theological battle between the Jansenists and the Jesuits in the seventeenth-century Catholic Church. He rejoices in the fact that the semi-Pelagian (Jesuit) form of Christianity won against the rigidity of Jansenist theology, not because the Jansenists were wrong but because only the Jesuits could save the Catholic Church from being reduced, as he claims it would inevitably have happened with the Jansenists, to a small sect.

Kolakowski’s writings on religion are much more personal than the writings of most philosophy professors. For this very reason, however, they are also more exciting to read. In Religion: If There Is No God (1980), he takes his reader on a personal trip through most of the “pro and con” arguments for the existence of God to show that the act of faith is a moral, not a logical, commitment and that therefore there are no compelling logical reasons to abandon belief in God in the face of evil. For Kolakowski, who spent his teenage years in German-occupied Poland and who witnessed the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, the existence of evil was no theoretical construct. In following a French theologian, he says, “I can understand people who do not believe in God, but the fact that there are people who do not believe in the devil is beyond my comprehension.” It should therefore not be surprising to see on the list of Kolakowski’s publications titles, such as The Key to Heaven, Conversations with the Devil, “Can the Devil be Saved?” “The Devil and Politics,” or “A Stenographic Report of the Devil’s Metaphysical Press Conference in Warsaw, on the 20th of December, 1963.”

Kolakowski has often been described as the most perceptive critic of totalitarianism. One needs to note, however, that his criticism goes beyond the anatomy of communist totalitarianism. He has also written on totalitarian Nazism (in “Genocide and Ideology” and in “A Short Comment on Heidegger’s Comment on Nietzsche’s Comment on the Power of Negativity”); and on several occasions he has expressed concerns about the dangers of democratic totalitarianism. The Nazi and Marxist forms of totalitarianism may be gone for good, but its watered-down incarnations, such as political correctness, are very much alive. It would be naive to believe that liberal democracy may not become totalitarian.

In his “Where Are Children in Liberal Philosophy,” Kolakowski is very clear that liberal principles may be turned against themselves. “Liberal states display an obsessive tendency to legislate, in minute detail, about every aspect and variety of human relations…. The more laws and regulations are needed… the more and more repressive” the liberal state becomes. This tendency is the result of the weakening of the common culture and the agreement on what common religious, traditional, and historical values should obtain to regulate human behavior.

No one who has experienced the ideological indoctrination that took place under communism can fail to be horrified at the extent to which life in present-day America (intrusion of the state into the private realm, the use of language, the ideologization of education) is reminiscent of life under communism. However, everyone who experienced it must conclude that intellectual devastation at North American universities has far surpassed what we know from history of education under communism. In most respects, the ideological brainwashing has achieved more than the communists could ever hope for.

As Kolakowski put it, “Should the ‘ideologization’ of universities in that spirit prevail, we might find ourselves longing for the good old days of universities ruled by the obligatory Marxist ideology, with its formal rules of historical correctness and truth.” Yet there does not seem to be any democratic “revisionist” movement under way. I do not mean there are no critics of political correctness; they do exist. But insofar as the criticism of communism by former believers was fundamental in bringing it down, there are no signs of it here. No sound of breast-beating can be heard from the former heralds of political correctness, who, even if they realize the extent of the damage they have done, display no signs of remorse.

On a few occasions, with true humility and frankness, Kolakowski does explain his own past commitments. “My strong impression is that in the early postwar years, committed communists… in Poland were intellectually less corrupt but more cynical than was the case in other countries. By ‘cynical’… [I mean] they knew that what the Party wanted to convey to the ‘masses’ was a pure lie, but they accepted and sanctioned it for the sake of the future blessings of the socialist community.” This is an admirable intellectual and moral trait in someone who gave intellectual support to Marxism as a young man. It appears to me that today’s intellectuals and academics lack not only the moral courage but also the intellectual caliber characteristic of the former Marxists. They lack what Leszek Kolakowski could teach them.


Zbigniew Janowski is the author of Homo Americanus: The Rise of Totalitarian Democracy in America. He is also editor of two volumes of John Stuart Mill’s writings. This article originally appeared in First Things, October 2006. It is reprinted here with small changes. We want to thank the Editors of First Things for permission to republish it with small changes.

The Five “Gods of Noah” In The Qur’an

We often hear about alleged polytheism in Arabia during pre-islamic times, the so-called ǧāhilīya, which was seemingly filled with mušrik practicing various forms of širk in honour of various deities. Naturally, this Arabic root does not refer to a plurality of deities, but rather to “partnering” or associating others with Allah who is unique (tawḥīd)—it is a polemic reference to the Christian notion of the Trinity, in which Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost also participate equally (šarika) in the Godhead.

The question is to what extent polytheism still persisted in the Greco-Roman Middle East of Late Antiquity, which, as was the case with the Roman Empire in general, seems largely to have been permeated by monotheistic traditions before the seventh century. The Qur’an would seem to support this notion—it is (un)surprisingly vague in this regard. In the alleged Satanic Verses (53,19-20), “Have you thought of al-Lāt and al-‹ Uzza and Manāt, the third, the other?” we find a vague reference to three pan-Semitic goddesses, who were venerated by many peoples in many places at many times. The only other concrete reference is 71, 23: “And they say: Forsake not your gods, nor forsake Wadd, nor Suwa’, nor Yaghuth and Ya’uq and Nasr,” the gods of those condemned to perish in the Deluge (cf. Gen 7,24-8,14).

The mention of these five deities of antediluvian times, and allegedly worshipped by Arab tribes until the arrival of Islam, understandably caused some unpleasant difficulties for later Islamic exegetes, not to mention the modern reader—how can the knowledge or the cult of them have survived that global eradication? According to Ibn al-Kalbī’s Book of Idols (Kitāb al-Aṣnām), a compendium of legends and not an historical source, they are said to have washed up on the beach of Jeddah (the nearest port city from Mecca) after the Flood, where they gradually silted up until the fortune teller Amr ibn Luhai was told their location by his demon Abu Ṯumāna.

Be this as it may, we must remember that the Quranic account is based on (see above) the biblical one, which in turn, probably during the Captivity, was derived from Mesopotamian myths (e.g., the Atraḫasis epic, and the reworking of this narrative in the Twelve Tablet version of the Gilgamesh Epic): in the Mesopotamian version, the myth serves to explain why humans die, and does not function, as in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, as a divine punishment for otherwise unspecified sins. In Mesopotamia (lit. “Land between rivers”), inundations were rather commonplace, in contrast to Israel or more to the point, the arid Hijaz (and we note here in passing, that the Greek flood story around Deucalion also has a Semitic background [cf. Lucian, De dea Syria 13], cf. Iapetós of the “Catalogue of Women,” attributed to Hesiod, probably has something to do with the son of Noah, Japheth, Gen 10,2 ).

In any case, these Quranic deities are unknown in Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian literatures. Their mention here remains Delphic, as has been noted in the past, e.g.: “Why Muhammad lists five deities as Noahite in Sur. 71,22ff. cannot be explained” (Fr. Buhl, Das Leben Muhammeds, reprint Hildesheim 1955, 74). “Admittedly, they must have been rather insignificant local deities at that time and in Mecca only known by name, if Muhammed can put them into the pre-Flood times” (J. Wellhausen, Reste arabischen Heidentums, reprint Berlin 1961, 13).

The first god mentioned in this Quranic verse, Wadd, i.e., “beloved” in the non-sexual sense (wdd – therefore probably more of an epithet than a divine given name) is known from numerous inscriptions as the chief god of the Minaeans, a Yemeni kingdom which especially during the last centuries before Christ dominated trade along the incense route, eventually being subjugated by the Sabaeans after the campaign of Aelius Gallus in 25/24 BC. At first sight, we are dealing with an authentic old-Arabian god, which could indeed have been worshipped in the Hijaz. However, epigraphic finds are by no means limited to Ma‛īn, but is, as is to be expected with such a trading empire, spread further beyond the actual homeland. So, for example, a bilingual Greco-Minaean inscription on a marble altar was found on the Greek island of Delos, dated to after 166 BC, which mentions this deity in both languages:

Minaean (RÉS 3570)

1) Ḥnʾ w-Zydʾl ḏy Ḫḏb Ḥnʾ and Zydʾl, the two of the tribe Ḫḏb,
2) nṣb mḏbḥ Wdm w-ʾlʾlt built this altar to the Wdm and the gods
3) Mʿn b-Dlṯ of Maʿīn on Delos.

Greek (ID 2320)

Ὄδδου [Belonging to] Oaddos/Wadd
θεοῦ the god
Μιναίων of the Minaeans
Ὀάδδῳ [Dedicated to} Oaddos/Wadd.

This find alone makes it clear that the cult of this god, or rather this divine epithet, although certainly originating in Yemen (which is not a synonym with Hijaz, but an entirely different culture), had travelled far beyond, accompanying his worshippers on their mercantile journeys. We thus have a deity that on the one hand was not originally at home in the Hijaz, but could have been brought there sometime by Minaean traders; on the other, however, as with the three goddesses mentioned above, he attracted some following in a geographically vast region.

As for the second deity, Suwāʿ our only sources are contradictory reports from later Islamic traditions, some of which mention him, others which do not (e.g. Wāqidī mentions the destruction of his idol in Mecca, but this is not mentioned in the Prophet’s hagiography by Ibn Isḥāq)—”these stories of the destruction of the idols on behalf of Mohammad become more and more complete as the tradition moves further away from its origin, and the narratives are contradictory” (Wellhausen, op. cit. 19). Apart from such historically worthless information and some possible attestations as a theophoric element in early Islamic onomastics, we know literally nothing at all about this god. Did he even exist? I rather have the impression that there is a polemical intention behind this name, cf. Syriac šū/ōʿā (šwʿ >arab. swʿ) “stone, rock,” i.e., “petrified,” in the sense of a stone idol (Arab. waṯan, a loan-word from Sabaean, where the word has the meaning “boundary stone, stele”), which later was misunderstood not as a generic term for an idol, but rather as the name of a specific idol.

As for the third of the three here, Jaġūṯ, we again find colourful discrepant and paradoxical stories in the Islamic tradition. But as Jaġūṯ in Arabic means “he who helps—the helper” (possibly related to Jeush in Gen 36,14), this term is rather an epithet that could be applied to any (benevolent) god. Even if the Islamic tradition(s) actually contain(s) authentic materials here and there, it would be impossible to determine whether one and the same deity was meant in all cases.

The fourth God supposedly revered by Noah’s contemporaries according to the Qur’an, Jaʿūq remains shrouded in even more mystery than his already mentioned partners. There is no independent evidence for this god, and even his name does not seem to be Arabic. Wellhausen, who noted (op. cit. 23) “we are dealing with a South Arabian name,” thought of the closely related Ethiopian verb jǝʿuq (basic meaning “to observe, to be careful, to preserve; to manifest (reveal)”), although this root seems to be not of Semitic but rather of Cushitic origin, i.e., an African loan word in the Ethiosemitic languages.

Our findings up till now are somewhat meagre, even antediluvian with regard to what we actually know. It is thus of some relief that about the fifth god, Nasr, we actually have some data. In modern Arabic this word means “vulture” (perhaps originally denoting a totem animal). In the Talmudic treatise Avoda sara 11b, in a discourse on idolatry, we find the assertion:

אמר רב חנן בר רב חסדא אמר רב ואמרי לה א”ר חנן בר רבא אמר רב חמשה בתי עבודת כוכבים קבועין הן אלו הן בית בל בבבל בית נבו בכורסי תרעתא שבמפג צריפא שבאשקלון נשרא שבערביא

“Rav Ḥanan bar Rav Ḥisda says that Rav says, and some say that it was Rav Ḥanan bar Rava who says that Rav says: There are five established temples of idol worship, and they are: The temple of Bel in Babylonia; the temple of Nebo in the city of Khursei; the temple of Tirata, which is located in the city of Mapag; Tzerifa, which is located in Ashkelon; and Nashra, which is located in Arabia.”

This passage in turn is reminiscent of one found in the famous Doctrina of the Apostle Addai (Phillips edition, p.23f.):

ܿܡܢܘ ܗܢܐ ܢ ܼܒܘ ܦܬܟܪܐ ܥܒܝܕܐ ܕܣܓܕܝܢ ܐܢܬܘܢ ܠܗ܃ ܘܒܝܠ ܕܡܝܩܪܝܢ ܐܢܬܘܢ ܠܗ܂ ܗܐ ܓܝܪ ܐܝܬ ܒܟܘܢ ܕܣܓܕܝܢ ܠܒܪܬ

ܢܝܟܠ ܐܝܟ ܚܪ̈ܢܝܐ ܫ ̈ܒܒܝܟܘܢ܂ ܘܠ ܼܬܪܥܬ ܼܐ ܐܝܟ ܡ ̈ܒܓܝܐ܂ ܘܠܢܫܪܐ ܐܝܟ ܥܪ̈ܒܝܐ܂ ܘܠܫܡܫܐ ܘܠܣܗܪ ܼܐ ܐܝܟ ܫܪܟܐ ܕܚܪ̈ܢܐ ܼ

ܕܐܟܘܬܟܘܢ܂ܠܐܬܫܬܒܘܢܒܙܠܝ̈ܩܐܕܢܗܝܪ̈ܿܐ܂ܘܒܟܘܟܒܬܐܕܨܡܚܐ܂ܠܝܛܗܘܓܝܪܩܕܡܐܠܗܿܐ܂ܟܘܠܿܡܢܕܣܿܓܕ ܼ

ܠܒܪ̈ܝܬܐ܂ ܐܦܢ ܓܝܪ ܐܝܬ ܒܗܝܢ ܒܒܪ̈ܝܬܐ ܕܐܝܟ ܪܘܪ̈ܒܢ ܡܢ ܚܒܪ̈ܬܗܝܢ܂ ܐܠܐ ܟܢ ̈ܘܬܐ ̈ܐܢܝܢ ܕܚܒܪ̈ܬܗܝܢ ܐܝܟ ܕܐ ܿܡܪܬ ܼ

ܠܟܘܢ܂ܟܐܒܐܗܘܓܝܪܡܪܝܪܐܗܢܐܕܠܝܬܠܗܐܣܝܘܬ ܿܐ܂

“Meanwhile, I saw this city teeming with paganism, which is against God. Who is this Nabû, [but] an idol [made by men] whom you worship, and Bêl whom you worship? Behold, there are among you people those who worship Bath Nikkal such as the people of Harran, your neighbours, and Taratha [as venerated by] the people of Mabug, and Nashara by the Arabs, or as are the Sun and the Moon worshipped by the rest of Harran, as you do too. Do not be deceived by rays of light and by the bright star, for all creatures will be cursed by God.”

Nabû was a well-known Mesopotamian god of the first millennium BC (the son and quasi successor of Marduk, whose name means “the announcer, the called one”—cf. Nebuchadnezzar, Nabī “prophet”); Bêl is the Mesopotamian, and later Aramaic realisation of Baal, whose cult was well-known, i.a. at Palmyra; Bath Nikkal (“the daughter of N.”)—Nikkal is a goddess known in the Western Semitic world and among the Hurrians (derived < Sumerian NIN.GAL “great mistress”); the Sun and Moon, resp. Shamash and Sîn were naturally also worshipped in Mesopotamia as deities. Taratha is apparently another designation of the well-known goddess, Atargatis or the Dea Syria, who was worshipped at Ashkelon (cf. Diodorus Siculus, Library, II.iv.2, where, among other things, it is described how and why she took the form of a fish—cf. the fish symbolism in Christianity: ΙΧΘΥΣ). Of particular significance is the fact that Nashara is also regarded here as a god of the Arabs. This god is particularly well known among the Mandaeans in southern Mesopotamia and in Iran (e.g., the Mandaean Great Book of John, §73), and also attested by Jacob of Serug (451-521), who reports that the Persians were tempted by the devil to create an “eagle” (Nashara) as an idol. A similar account can be found in the Armenian History by Movses Khorenatsi (where the gods are called Naboc’us, Belus, Bathnicalus and Tharatha).

In all of these cases, including Qur’an 71,23 (supra), we are dealing with a formulaic warning against apostasy, that is to say against a falling away from the true faith in the one true (Jewish, Christian, Mandaean or Islamic understanding of) God. In all cases, his (exclusive) worship is contrasted in a list of five heavenly idols which were seemingly self-explanatory at the time. The Talmudic passage would seem to have used the same, or very close to that of the Doctrina Addai, although somethings seem to have been lost in transmission:

Mapag (מפג) is not a deity but, as in Syriac, the place

Mabug (ܡܒܘܓ “the spring” or Hieropolis, because it was the cult centre of the Dea Syria; today Manbij);

Tirata (תרעתא) as already mentioned is Atargatis resp. the Dea Syria and not a place(-name)—a well-known site (see above) of her cult was Askelon. The gods mentioned here are חמשה בתי עבודת כוכבים בתי עבודת כוכבים “the five temples of star worship.” that is, celestial bodies: Nabû= Mercury, Bêl=Jupiter, Nikkal= a moon goddess, Taratha=Venus, and Nashara is the name of a star (see P. De Lagarde, Geoponicon in sermonem syriacum, 5:17 1860 ,Versorum quae supersunt, Leipzig,  ܥܕܡܐ ܠܕܢܚܗ ܕܢܫܪܐ ܕܐܝܬܘܗܝ ܡܢ ܢܐܘܡܝܢܝܐ ܕܟܢܘܢ ܐܚܪܝ “until the rise of the Naschara, which is the beginning of the month of January;” The seven wandering [planets]…

ܕܐܝܬܝܗܘܢ ܫܡܫܐ ܘܣܗܪܐ ܘܟܐܽܘܢ ܘܒܝܠ ܘܢܪܝܓ ܘܒܠܬܝ ܘܵܢܒܘ

…are Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Moon, Venus and Mercury”—C. Kayser, The Book of Truth, or, The Cause of All Causes, Leipzig, 1889, 55:5).

The mention of Arabia, in connexion with Nashara, cannot be taken as confirmatory evidence in support of the assertion made by Islamic tradition that Nashara had been a deity in and around Mecca. Perhaps this was so—but we simply do not know. The Arabs who venerate “a bird” as god can here only be the Arabs of Mesopotamia—the Talmud as well as the Doctrina Addai do not concern themselves with the Hijaz

This area, roughly identical to the so-called Ǧazīrat al-‛Arab, comprises the lowlands of the Chabur, Euphrates and Tigris in northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey and northwestern Iraq. It was also referred to as “Arabia” in ancient times. Here we find e.g., a Ἀραβάρχης (“Arab-archēs—Arab princes”) in Dura-Europos (cf. C. B. Welles et al., The Excavations at Dura-Europos. Final Report V, Part I [New Haven, 1959], 115 No. 20, 5); in Sumatar Harabesi, present-day Turkey, five inscriptions are documented which were found at the old cemetery and bear the Syrian equivalent of this term:- šulṭānā d-ʿarab “Governor of Arab(ia)” (cf. H. J. W. Drijvers & J. F. Healey, The Old Syriac Inscriptions of Edessa and Osrhoene [Leyden, 1999], p. 104f. et passim); in Hatra, a mlk’ dy ʿrb(y) “King of Arabia” is documented (see B. Aggoula, Inventaire des inscriptions hatréenes [Paris, 1991], 92 No. 193, 2; 135f. See also Pliny’s Natural History, V.xxi.86: “Arabia supra dicta habet oppida Edessam, quæ quondam Antiochia dicebatur, Callirhœm, a fonte nominatam, Carrhas, Crassi clade nobile. Iungitur præfectura Mesopotamiæ, ab Assyriis originem trahens, in qua Anthemusia et Nicephorium oppida. … 87] ita fertur [scil. Euphrates] usque Suram locum, in quo conversus ad orientem relinquit Syriæ Palmyrenas solitudines, quæ usque ad Petram urbem et regionem Arabiæ Felicis appellatæ pertinent. This is also the “Arabia” that Paul must have visited (Gal 1:17). It is noteworthy that Fredegar (Chronicon lxvi) locates the Hagarenes even more to the north: “Agareni, qui et Sarraceni, sicut Orosii [Boh. Eorosii] liber testatur, gens circumcisa a latere montis Caucasi, super mare Caspium, terram….” This location can explain the Mandaean and Iranian evidence (see above) of Nashara.

This area, in the north of Mesopotamia, is where historical-critical research locates the crucible of Islam. It is here that the linguistic (the forerunners of Quranic Arabic as well as the heavy Syro-Aramaic impact on the Quranic theological vocabulary) as well as other theological and cultural threads come together, where the Christians in the Sassanid Empire, after the conquest of Heraclius, were suddenly confronted with Christological formulations (Chalcedon) foreign to them, after over two and a half centuries of separation, since the death of Julian Apostata. Here, the only unambiguously identifiable deity of Sura 71,23, scil. Nasr, seems to be certainly at home. Locating his cult to the South, in Arabia deserta, in the empty Hijaz—whose historical and cultural vacantness would only later become the ideal(ised) theological projection surface—has no historical support—and in addition, one would not only have to invent Christianity in the Hijaz, but also Manichaeism!

Sura 71/Sūrat Nūḥ deals with tergiversation, abandoning God/Allah: Noah has warned his contemporaries at God’s behest—”My Lord, I have called my people by night and day (to faith). But my call only caused them to run away more and more: and whenever I called them that Thou mightest forgive them, they put their fingers in their ears, and wrapped themselves in their garments, and persisted (in their state), and became overly arrogant. Then I called on them in public. Then I preached to them in public, and I spoke to them in secret, and I said: ‘Seek forgiveness from your Lord: for He is Oft-Forgiving: He will send down rain for you in abundance; and He will strengthen you with good things and with children, and He will give you gardens, and He will make rivers flow for you…’” (71,4-12). Furthermore, in verses 14-15 Noah asks, “Have you not seen how Allah created seven heavens stacked one on top of the other and set the moon as a light in them?”—i.e., the sky with all its contents, including the sun and moon, bear witness to the existence of God; they themselves are not gods. But Noah finds no hearing; the people remain on their chosen path and say, “do not leave your gods; do not leave Wadd, nor Suwāʿ, nor Jaġūṯ, Jaʿūq and Nasr.”

Contextually speaking, this interpretation of the latter passage fits in the theme of the Sura as a whole, and is quite similar to the admonition found inter alia in in the Doctrina Addai. Taken in this light, we have here a not unfamiliar pious topos, which here the Koranic authors put in Noah’s mouth because it was apparently felt to be somehow appropriate. The theonyms, however, as is also the case in the Talmudic example, where they were conflated with toponyms, have become garbled, yet a further indication that polytheism had long since ceased being an historical reality.

It is in this understanding, however, that this Quranic verse becomes understandable, seeing that, as was just noted, the creation of the heavens, moon, sun etc.—i.e., they are not to be understood as gods, is mentioned just several verses previously. The inexplicable gods mentioned in verse 23 may be just local epithets of the (divinised) celestial bodies, Nsr, the “eagle,” at the same time an astronym, would seem to favour such a proposal. In a Minaean dedicatory inscription (RÉS 2999 from Barāqish in the southern Jawf), the builders self-identify themselves as ʾdm Wdm S2hrn “servants (cf. Arabic ʾādam) of Wdd, the moon.” In this light, it is clear that Wdd could be understood as a(n epithet of) lunar deity. Perhaps then one might be partial to interpreting Suwāʿ as an Arabic realisation of Aramaic shrʾ “moon?” Jaġūṯ, as already been mentioned, is etymologically transparent, “the helper,” a term that might be appropriate for the moon (as attribute) or possibly the sun god?

Be that as it may, however one may choose to etymologise the five “Gods of Noah” in the Qur’an, they are most certainly designations for the (divinised) Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn. As we have sown in the preceding the Classical planets, designated variously, were a common theme in Jewish and Christian polemics against the true faith in the one God. The Qur’anic renditions, as the Talmudic, have been somewhat garbled by later copyists. It is clear that we are dealing here with a topos known in the Syro-Mesopotamian region of Late Antiquity. This is by no means antediluvian and also has nothing to do with the Hijaz, nor originally even with Islam.


Professor Dr. Robert M. Kerr studied Classics and Semitics largely in Vancouver, Tübingen and Leyden. He is currently director of the Inârah Institute, for research on Early Islamic History and the Qur’an in Saarbrücken (Germany).


Featured image: The Almaqah Panel, which bears a Sabaean inscription, mentioning the god Wadd. Likely Ma’rib, Yemen, ca. 700 BC.

Come, Light

Something extraordinary happened one morning in December 2020.

When he got up the night was still lingering in the sky. London plane trees, so doleful in the rain, were still dripping. The ground below was piled thick with soggy leaves, and a dull foreboding hung in the air.

Shards of streetlights shone on the wet asphalt. It looked as though the rain was about to end.

The day before Christmas in London in the year of the pandemic, Shifa thought to himself. The year of sorrow and dejection. The preceding few days things had gotten even gloomier. Every now and then an ambulance would dart through the deserted streets with sirens wailing. Hospitals were over-stretched, the news said, and the city cemeteries were just about full.

He had been reading Daniel Defoe’s account of the bubonic plague that scourged the city in 1665. About cartloads of dead being dumped into mass graves and about some, still alive, screaming and clawing out of the shallow pits. A brutal record of the fright, the deaths, the stench, the greed, and of the evil lurking in men as the pestilence ravaged the city.

A gnawing awareness of a similar agony—of having seen the horror and of a solemnity of being still alive—rippled through’s Shifa’s mind. The old plague lay mingled with the spectre of the present.

The weather too had been miserable. For weeks torrents of rain whipped up by gusty winds had been blighting the country, causing severe flooding in places. The lockdown had made everyone forget that a year consisted of four seasons. That there were nights and days of varying lengths and temperatures. That the once familiar outdoor still displayed facets of beauty and changing vistas.

Sickness, convalescence, separation across continents. Misery had struck his family too as it had so many others. There would be no Christmas celebration this year.

It was Thursday, the day of luminous mysteries. Shifa took out his rosary and sat down facing the charcoal sky. Slowly his eyelids closed.

By the time he finished the third decade Shifa had sunk into a rhythm of repetition. Praying the rosary for him sometimes turned into an unconscious and vague ritual. This morning, however, he was curiously alert as he came to the fourth decade. The mystery of the transfiguration. With blinkered eyes he tried to imagine how the illumined face of the teacher might have looked like to the apostles assembled on the bald mountain that night.

It was then that he was shaken by the irony. To meditate on a body made up of blood, flesh, and bones transforming itself into light—on a day like this? How could one contemplate light when the earth was awash in blinding darkness?

With eyes shut he whispered all this to himself. Drowned earth. Denuded trees, barren gardens, empty streets. Overhead a pouring sky. Wake up. Shed off your stupor.

Fingers still clasping the beads Shifa opened his eyes, and an unearthly beauty greeted him. The sun had pierced through the clouds, and a pale golden hue lay diffuse in the glistening air. Bewitched, he watched a curtain of liquid, diaphanous gold silently settling on grey, red, and beige buildings.

The leafless skeleton of the majestic tree of paradise across the window stood sheathed in a preternatural luster.

This was transfiguration, it occurred to him. Light had entered the darkness, gently spreading its silken luminosity. As it increased in brightness, the glow turned the earth itself into its glory. It appeared as though the world was being consecrated by an act of benediction promising the return of hope to a saddened world.

Ezekiel had once encountered the glory of God. “As the appearance of the rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day,” said the prophet, “so was the appearance of the surrounding radiance.” And he continued, “Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell on my face.” (Ezekiel 1:28).

What a mystery light is!

“It is a universal, firmly-held opinion, the very voice of nature,” wrote Marsilio Ficino in 1493, “that nothing is more beautiful to behold, nothing more lovable, nothing more astonishing than light.”

Scientists say about 80% of our experiences are visual. The eye’s response to light constitutes our external reality and thus determines our interactions with the world. Yet “What is light?” never elicits a simple answer, writes Glenn Stark in the Encyclopedia Britannica, because light is “experienced, explored, and exploited” in so many contexts that its literal meaning is inextricable from the metaphorical.

The English language is especially rich with its nuances. The sun lets us see the world and helps us know it. The mind enlightens us with understanding. Visions and inspiration help us gain insight.

Even a scientist, while observing light’s nature (its impacts and interactions with objects), must walk a tightrope between the opposite properties of light: particles and waves. Others – theologians, poets, philosophers – often imagine light in paradoxes.

In art, two painters rarely approach it from similar angles, even though what they paint mostly is light. Renaissance master Vincenzo Catena (“Saint Jerome in his study”) painted it coming directly from its source, the sun, illuminating the world as it did the saint in his study. For both the saint and the painter, the direct trajectory of light, increasing in brightness until it attained the perfect brilliance and clarity, emanated from God, its true origin. For George Seurat, on the other hand, the interplay of tiny contrasting strokes of colours (or particles) nearly invisible to the naked eye, made up the lustrous domain of light that enwrapped objects and things. The source of light for him was in the environs.

So, what is light?

The illumination we encounter as visible light is the effect on our environment of the sun’s radiation, or electromagnetic spectrum, as science calls it. This spectrum is made up of waves of energy the star dissipates over the universe continuously. On one end of the spectrum pulsate immensely destructive gamma rays with less than an atom of space between waves; on the other undulate radio waves that have thousands of miles of distance between crests.

All this radiation is hostile to life. Yet somewhere near the middle of its length is a tiny portion (less than 1%) of the spectrum that becomes supremely benign.

It is bizarre why this minuscule segment of deadly radiation should soften itself, but it does. As it enters the earth’s atmosphere the electromagnetic spectrum attains the wavelength of the extremely narrow range of 0.3 to 14 microns (a micron is a millionth of a meter). This range, writes author and scientist James Le Fanu in “Here comes the all-powerful sun,” is so narrow within the entire spectrum that, by analogy, it takes up just “a few seconds” in a timespan 100 million times longer than the 4.6 billion years since the Big Bang, or the beginning of our solar system.

As our planet wakes up to greet the sun in the morning, an incredibly small amount of radiation is extracted, as if by some invisible hands, from the massive body of deadly destruction and turned gently into life-generating munificence.

Michelangelo’s “Separation of Light from Darkness” in the Sistine Chapel celebrates this drama as narrated in Genesis 1:2-3. We see a colossal God separating swirling white gases from surrounding darkness with his enormous, sinewy hands, thus initiating creation. It brings to memory Isaiah’s words: it is God who “forms the light and creates darkness” (45:7).

From this moment on, a new story more breathtaking than an Arabian tale begins to take shape.

During those few seconds that it touches the sleepy earth, the radiation turns itself into visible light and its companion heat, setting off the cycle of life. Working in tandem with the earth’s orbit, its daily turning on the axis, and the planet’s tilt towards the sun, light creates a unique orchestra by arranging time’s endless permutations of varying lengths of night and day.

Fecundity follows. Light translates time into seasons of tilling, growing, and harvesting. Into seasons of courtship, nesting, and raising fledglings. Light makes life possible and ensures that the mystery continues. For the sake of the princess Scheherazade and the king inside the palace as well as for the ladybug in the garden.

The farmer casts the seed in the ground, the gospel tells us, but “knows not how the earth bringeth forth fruit of herself; first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear.” (Mark 4:28). It is the benevolent hand of light that waves the magic wand.

The spectacle carries on. The beam that descends on treetops, mountain peaks, oceans and rivers also lights up fireworks in our brains. Electrical nerve impulses generated by the reflected light tell our brains how to detect objects, colours, shapes, dimensions, and textures. We acknowledge, differentiate, classify, and interpret images by comparing them with old images stored in our memories.

As the light creates sparkles and ripples on a stream or paints the wings of a butterfly it is only the human eye that can capture this panorama. Through the lenses of our eyes, only we can witness the rainbow of the seven hues.

There is more.

Light keeps time and measures distance in the universe. Whether fathoming the vastness of space or reading the faces of our digital devices, we return to light to get our bearing. Scientists measure the distance of galaxies, from us and among themselves, by the speed of light. And when an object acquires the speed of light, they say, it becomes infinite.

There is an instructive episode in the Venerable Bede’s history of English kings and churches.

A courtier in the Anglo-Saxon king Edwin’s castle compares the life of a man to the swift flight of a sparrow through the king’s banquet hall on a winter night. The king sits at supper with friends and family while the fire blazes and the storms rage abroad. The sparrow flies in at one door and immediately out at another. While the bird is within the warm hall, he is safe from the wintry tempest, but then he vanishes out of everybody’s sight, passing from winter to winter again.

“Such is the life of man,” says the courtier to the king, “appearing for a little while in the well-lit and warm banquet hall, but what follows or what went before we know nothing at all.”

Like Bede’s sparrow flitting through the warm hall on a wintry night, light, traveling at a speed of 300,000 km a second takes a little over eight minutes to traverse ninety-two million miles before reaching the earth, the banquet hall of life.

Unlike the sparrow, however, this radiant visitor quickens life, clothes nature, replenishes granaries and then leaves everything behind. Back into the vast endlessness. Whence it comes we know but where it goes in the end, we do not.

The first act of God narrated in the Bible was the creation of light. “Let there be light’ said God, ‘and there was light” (Genesis 1:3).

This light, created “when the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the Spirit of God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2), became the icon of divinity in human imagination. This surreal picture of the beginning has been the enduring anchor for our physical and moral understanding of the world as well as of our relationships with it.

Following the gospels, apostolic narratives and patristic traditions, Christian theology has from its inception understood the transfiguration of Jesus to be the revelation of the glory of God. The accounts appearing in Matthew, Mark and Luke are remarkable: “There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.” “There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them,” and “As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.” Later, Peter spoke of having been an eyewitness of Christ’s “magnificence” (2 Peter 1: 16-18). In his gospel as well as in the first epistle, John described God as light.

The significance of these accounts lies primarily in the transcendental impact of light. The apostles do not merely refer to their visual susceptibility; they allude to the event’s transformative impact. St Paul articulates this transformation most eloquently in his letter to the Ephesians: “But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light” (5:13).

One of the earliest Church fathers, Saint Irenaeus, also described the transfiguration by establishing a correspondence between the glory of God, the vision of God and the life of man. “[T]he glory of God is a live human being, and a truly human life is the vision of God.”

Light perceived in this way can lead to a sea-change in the heart of a man. It may rekindle a novel awareness of God; it may even lead to an experience comparable to Saul’s on the road to Damascus. After all, he was blinded by intense light.

Life transcendent. Is that not what transfiguration is? What else can turn an inert possibility into a living luminescence, if not light?


Pius Manutius is a husband, father, and traveler.


Featured image , “The Penitent Magdalen,” by Georges de La Tour, painted ca. 1640.

On The Theology Of The Icon

Olivier Clément (1921-2009) was a French Orthodox theologian who actively engaged with modernity. This essay, which reviews a book about icons, was published in the journal Contacts in 1960. Contacts was founded by Clément in 1949. We are pleased to present the first English translation.


The Theology of the Icon (1960), by Leonid Uspensky, is a book that will be a milestone. On a hot topic and essential, because art becomes for many of our contemporaries a quest for the absolute, and because Christian art therefore directly questions our ability to confess and live our faith. Here is one of the first efforts at synthesis that is not primarily aesthetic, or philosophical, but fundamentally theological, in the full sense of the word that implies and requires contemplation. Moreover, it is the work not of a theorist but of one of the best iconographers of our time, who in collaboration with Fr. Gregory Croug, has just painted important frescoes, in the middle of Paris, in the new Cathédrale des Trois-Saints-Docteurs, Paris [5 rue Pétel, Paris (l5th arrondissement). I would simply like to take this work as a starting point to identify some fundamental themes in the theology of the icon.

The author reminds us first of all that the veneration of the holy images, the icons of Christ, the Virgin, the angels and the saints, is a dogma of the Christian faith, a dogma formulated by the 7th Ecumenical Council. The icon is therefore not a decorative element, nor even a simple illustration of Scripture. It is an integral part of the liturgy, it constitutes “a means of knowing God and uniting with him.” We know that the celebration of a feast requires that one exhibit in the middle of the nave the (transportable) icon that reveals, with the immediate evidence of vision, the meaning of the event that is being commemorated.

More widely, the whole church, with its architecture and its frescoes (or mosaics), represents in space what the liturgical unfolding represents in time: the reflection of the divine glory, the anticipation of the Messianic Realm. The liturgical word and the liturgical image form an indissociable whole—this medium of resonance, this “pneumatosphere” one could say, by which the Tradition makes present and alive the Good News. Thus, the icon corresponds to the Scripture not as an illustration, but in the same way that the liturgical texts correspond to it: “these texts do not limit themselves to reproducing the Scripture as such; they are as it were woven from it; by alternating and confronting its parts, they reveal its meaning, they indicate to us the means of living the evangelical preaching. The icon, by representing various moments of sacred history, visibly transmits their meaning and their vital significance. Thus, through the liturgy and through the icon, the Scripture lives in the Church and in each of its members” (pp. l64-l65).

The veneration of icons is thus an essential aspect of the liturgical experience, that is, of the contemplation of the Kingdom through the actions of the King. Although “veiled” and through faith, this contemplation is nevertheless lived by the whole being of man; it has the immediate character of sensation; it is a “sensation of divine things” realized by the total man. The Orthodox conception of the liturgy appears thus inseparable from the great certainties of the oriental asceticism on the transfiguration of the body begun here below, on the perception of the Taboric light by the spiritualized bodily senses; that is to say, not “dematerialized” but penetrated and metamorphosed by the Holy Spirit. The liturgy, in fact, sanctifying all the faculties of man, initiates the transfiguration of his senses, makes them capable of glimpsing the invisible through the visible, the Kingdom through the mystery.

The icon, stresses Leonid Ouspensky, sanctifies sight, and readily transforms it into a sense of vision: for God did not only make himself heard, he made himself seen; the glory of the Trinity was revealed through the flesh of the Son of Man. When we think of the importance of the sense of sight in modern man, how much he is torn apart, possessed, eroticized by the eyes, how much the flow of images of the big city makes him discontinuous, makes him a “man of nothingness,” one understands the importance of the icon, because the icon, systematically freed from any sensuality (unlike so many works, though admirable, of Western religious art), has for its goal to exorcise, to pacify, to illuminate our sight, to make us “fast with the eyes” according to the expression of Saint Dorotheus (quoted p. 2l0).

In our civilization of possession by the image, a Protestant friend wrote to me, the icon has become an emergency of the cure of souls. It was during the iconoclastic crisis, in the 8th and 9th centuries, that the Church had to clarify the meaning of the icon, and Leonid Ouspensky’s book is nourished by the doctrinal and conciliar texts of that time. Μonsieur Ouspensky devotes a brief chapter to iconoclasm, but it has the merit of going straight to what was essential for the antagonists: their religious motivations. Indeed, iconoclasm seems to be explained in depth by a violent surge of Semitic transcendentalism, by Jewish and Muslim influences that increased, in the Orthodox tradition, the sense of divine incognoscibility to the detriment of the sense of “Philanthropy” and of the Incarnation. “The argument of the iconoclasts about the impossibility of representing Christ was a pathetic attachment to the ineffable” (p. 152).

But iconoclasm was also a reaction against a sometimes-idolatrous cult of images, against the contamination of this cult by the magical οr theurgic notion (in the neo-Platonic sense of the word) which wanted the image to be more or less consubstantial with its model. Thus, the icon was confused with the Eucharist, and certain priests mixed with the holy gifts the pieces of particularly venerated icons. Thus were opposed in the Church the two great nοn-Christian conceptions of the divine that only the dogma of Chalcedon could reconcile: on the one hand, the God of a static Old Testament who would not be “evangelical preparation;” a personal God but enclosed in his transcendent Monad, a God whom οne cannot represent because οne cannot participate in His holiness. On the other hand, the divine as sacred nature; or, rather, as the sacredness of nature, the omnipresence of which all forms participate.

Orthodoxy overcame these two οpposed temptations by affirming the Christological foundation of the image and its strictly personal (and nοn-substantial) value.

It showed first of all that the image par excellence is Christ himself. In the Old Testament, God revealed himself through the Word; therefore, no one could have represented him without blasphemy. But the prohibition of Exodus (20:4) and Deuteronomy (5:12-19) constitutes a prefiguration “in depth” of the Incarnation—it sets aside the idol to make room for the face of God made man. For the unrepresentable Word became representable flesh: “when the Invisible One,” writes St. John Damascene, “having clothed himself in flesh, appeared visible, then represents the likeness of Him who showed himself…” (P.G. 94,1239). Christ is not only the Word of God but his Image. The Incarnation founds the icon and the icon proves the Incarnation.

For the Orthodox Church, the first and fundamental icon is therefore the face of Christ. As Leonid Ouspensky suggests, Christ is par excellence the image made by man—this is the deep meaning of the tradition taken up by the liturgy, according to which the Lord printed on a cloth his Holy Face. Ouspensky interprets in a literal way the liturgical texts telling of Christ’s sending to the king of Edessa a letter and the veil (mandilion) on which he imprinted his face. Would it not be better, since the letter to Agbar is obviously a forgery, to identify the symbolic meaning of this episode, as the Church has been able, for example, to authenticate the testimony, but not the historicity, of the Areopagitic writings?

Let us say then that the historical memory of the face of Jesus was preciously kept by the Church, first of all in the Holy Land and in the Semitic countries which surround it. It is a fact that all the icons of Christ give the impression of a fundamental resemblance. Not a photographic resemblance, but the presence of the same person, and of a divine Person who reveals himself to each one in a unique way (some Greek Fathers, starting from the evangelical accounts of the apparitions of the Risen One, have underlined this plurality, in the unity, of the aspects of the glorious Christ). The resemblance here is inseparable from an encounter, from a communion: there is only one Holy Face, whose historical memory the Church has preserved (renewed from generation to generation by the vision of the great spiritualists), and as many Holy Faces as there are iconographers (or even as many moments in the mystical life of an iconographer). The human face of God is inexhaustible, and keeps for us, as Denys underlined, an apophatic character: face of faces and face of the Inaccessible…

Ouspensky emphasizes, with a large number of beautiful reproductions, that the image has existed since the earliest times of Christianity, and that the art of the catacombs, which is an art of the sign, sometimes offers, alongside pure symbols and allegorical representations, an undeniable concern for personal likeness. However, sanctity is then designated by a conventional language rather than symbolized by the artistic expression itself: it was in the third and especially in the fourth century that this incorporation of content into form, characteristic of properly iconographic art, began.

ΙΙ would be fascinating, for a history of meanings, to study to what extent this evolution of Christian art coincided with the transformation of Hellenistic art into the “art of the eternal,” in the sense that Malraux gives to this expression, and to what extent it differed from it; for the “art of the eternal” impersonalizes while the icon personalizes… If therefore the image that belongs to the very nature of Christianity, and if the icon par excellence is that of Christ, Image of the Father, this one, inaccessible abyss, cannot be directly represented: He who has seen me has seen the Father,” said Jesus (John 14.9). The 7th Ecumenical Council and the Great Council of Moscow of 1666-1667 formally forbade the representation of God the Father. As for the Holy Spirit, He showed himself as a dove and tongues of fire; only in this way is He be painted. Couldn’t we also say that the presence of the Holy Spirit is symbolized by the very light of every icon? Let us recall, although Ouspensky does not mention it, probably reserving this theme for the second volume of his work, that the “rhythm” of the Trinity, its diversity as one, is expressed by the Philoxenia (hospitality) of Abraham receiving the three angels, these Three of whom Rublev knew how to paint, with colors that seem like a mother-of-pearl of eternity; the mysterious movement of love that identifies them without confusing them…

If the Old Testament prohibition was lifted by and for Christ, it was also lifted for his Mother, and for his friends, for the members of his Body, for all those who, in the Holy Spirit, participate in his deified flesh.

However, in order to cut-short the accusations and confusions of the iconoclasts, as well as the abuses of certain Orthodox, the Church has vigorously emphasized that the icon is not consubstantial with its prototype: the icon of Christ does not duplicate the Eucharist; it inaugurates the vision face to face. By representing the deified humanity of its prototype (which implies a transfigured but resembling “portrait” element), it is a person, not a substance that the icon brings forth. In an eschatological perspective, it suggests the true face of man; his face of eternity; this secret face that God contemplates in us and that our vocation consists in realizing.

If it is possible for human art to suggest the sanctified flesh of Christ and his people, it is because the very material used by the iconographer has been secretly sanctified by the Incarnation. The art of the icons uses and, in a certain way, manifests this sanctification of the material. “I do not adore matter,” wrote St. John Damascene, “but I adore the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake… and who, through matter, made my salvation” (P.G. 94, 1245).

Obviously, however, the representation of the light that transfigures a face can only be symbolic. But it is the irreducible originality of Christian art that the symbol is placed at the service of the human face and serves to express the fullness of personal existence.

The Hindu or Tibetan mandala, to take a theme made fashionable by depth psychology, is the geometrical symbol of a resorption in the center. What one might call an Orthodox mandala—for example a square nave surmounted by a dome- has for its center the Pantocrator, and unites us to a personal presence…

This is why Ouspensky cannot be praised enough for having highlighted the iconographic decisions of the Quinisext Council (692) which ordered to replace the symbols of the first Christian art—especially the Lamb—by the direct representation of what they prefigured: the human face transfigured by the divine energy, and first of all the face of Christ. The Quinisext Council triumphantly put an end to the prehistory of Christian art, a prehistory that revealed the Christ-like meaning of all the sacred symbols of humanity, “figures and shadows… sketches given in view of the Church.” The true symbolism of Christian art now appears as the way of representing the human person in the perspective of the Kingdom. This is why, as Ouspensky shows, the symbolism of the icon is based on the experience of Orthodox mysticism, as a personal “appropriation” of the glorious Body (appropriation by participated grace, that is to say, by de-appropriation of all egocentrism). The immense eyes, of a softness without brilliance, the reduced ears, as if interiorized, the fine and pure lips, the wisdom of the dilated forehead, everything indicates a being pacified, illuminated by grace. Let us mention in this connection a text by Palamas, recently translated by Jean Meyendorff. Ouspensky does not quote it, but he could without difficulty add it to his file of ascetic quotations: it is necessary, therefore, to offer to God the passionate part of the soul, living and acting, so that it may be a living sacrifice; the Apostle said this even of our bodies: I exhort you, he says in fact, by the mercy of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy, pleasing to God (Rom. 12:Ι). How can our living body be offered as a sacrifice pleasing to God? When our eyes are gentle, as it is written, “He who is gentle will be forgiven” (Prov. 12:13); when they attract and transmit to us mercy from above; when our ears are attentive to the divine teachings, not only to hear them, but, as David says, “to remember the commandments of God in order to fulfill them” (Ps 102 (103), 18); when our tongue, our hands and our feet are at the service of the divine will (Triads Louvain 1959, p. 364). Ιt is a sacrifice of God (p. 364).

It would be particularly important to compare this iconographic expression of the transfiguration of the senses with the lakshanas of Buddhist art, which also designate through a distortion of the sense organs, the state of “deliverance.” An analysis of the similarities and differences would be very significant. Let us confine ourselves to a few suggestions: in the icon, the symbol is at the service of the face. It expresses the accomplishment of the human face through encounter and communion. It suggests an interiority where transcendence is given without ceasing to be inaccessible. In Buddhist art, the face is identified with the symbol; it abolishes itself as a human face by becoming a symbol of an interiority where there is neither self nor the Other but an unspeakable nothing. In both cases, the face is surrounded by a nimbus: but the Christian face is in the light like iron in the fire; the Buddhist face becomes spherical, dilates, identifies itself with the luminous sphere that the nimbus symbolizes. In the icon, the treatment of the senses suggests their transfiguration by grace. The lakshanas, on the other hand, symbolize powers of clairvoyance and clear hearing through the excessive enlargement of the sense organs, the ears for example. Finally, the Christian face looks on and welcomes, while the Buddhist non face, with closed eyes, meditates.

This Christian concern for welcome, for communion, explains why the saints, on the icons, are almost always represented from the front: open to the one who looks at them, they draw him into prayer, because they are themselves praying; and the icon shows this. Light and peace penetrate and order their attitudes, their clothes, the atmosphere that surrounds them. Around them animals, plants, rocks are stylized according to their paradisiacal essence. The architectures become a surrealist game, an evangelical challenge to the heavy seriousness of this world, to the false security of the architectures of the earth…

The word abstraction never emerges from the pen of Ouspensky; but one cannot help but think of it when he speaks of symbolism οr stylization. There is in the icon an abstraction which leads to a higher figuration, an abstraction which is dead to this world and which allows the inter-vision of the world to come. The icon abstracts according to the Logos creator and re-creator of the universe and not according to the individual, fallen, ultimately destructive logos… The abstraction of the icon is the cross of our carnal look. Its realism is Taboric and eschatological: it announces and already manifests the only definitive reality—that of the Kingdom.

The light of the icon symbolizes the divine light, and the theology of the icon appears inseparable from the distinction in God of essence and energies: it is the divine energy, the uncreated light that the icon suggests to us. In an icon, the light does not come from a precise focus, because the celestial Jerusalem, says the Apocalypse, “does not need the sun and the moon, it is the glory of God that illuminates it” (Rev. 21:23). It is everywhere, in everything, without casting a shadow: it shows us that in the Kingdom God himself becomes light for us. In fact, notes Ouspensky, it is the very background of the icon that iconographers call “light.”

The author has remarkable lines on the “reverse” or “inverted” perspective: in most icons, the lines do not converge towards a “vanishing point,” sign of the fallen space that separates and imprisons; they dilate in the light “from glory to glory.” Could we not speak here of iconographic epectasis, epectasis designating precisely, in St. Gregory of Nyssa, this infinite dilation in the light of the Kingdom? Οne understands that the exercise of such art constitutes a charismatic ministry. The Orthodox Church venerates “holy iconographers” whom Ouspensky brings closer to the “apostolic men” of whom Saint Symeon the New Theologian remains the main spokesman. The “apostolic man” is the one who receives the personal graces promised by Christ to the apostles: not only does he heal souls and bodies and discern spirits, but, like St. Paul, he hears ineffable words; like St. John he has the mission to tell what he has seen (Revelation, as we know, means Revelation). In the same way the “holy iconographer” really glimpses the Kingdom and paints what he has glimpsed. Every iconographer who paints “according to tradition” participates in this exceptional contemplation, both through the liturgical experience and through the communion of saints. This is why the icon painter does not paint in a subjective, individual psychological way, but according to tradition and vision. Painting is for him inseparable from faith, from life in the Church, from a personal ascetic effort.

The Fathers insisted a lot on the pedagogical value of the icon. In fact, as Ouspensky shows all the history of the dogma is registered in the iconography. However, the value of the icon is not only pedagogical, it is mysterious. The divine grace rests in the icon. It is there the essential point, the most mysterious also of its theology: the “resemblance” to the prototype and its “name” make the objective holiness of the image. The icon,” writes St. John Damascene, “is sanctified by the name of God and by the name of the friends of God, that is to say, the saints, and that is why it receives the grace of the divine Spirit” (P.G. 94,1300). Ouspensky limits himself to posing this essential affirmation; he does not seek—at least not yet—the foundations of it. Ιt is necessary to recall here, to take up a suggestion of Μonsieur Evdokimov, the whole biblical conception of the Name as a personal presence, a conception which is also implied in the Hesychast invocation of the Name of Jesus (let us think of the power of this Name in the Book of Acts). The icon names by form and by color; it is a represented name: this is why it makes present to us a prototype whose holiness is communion; that is to say, offered presence, interceding… Like the name, the icon is the means of an encounter that makes us participate in the holiness of the One we meet; that is to say, in the end, in the holiness of the “Only Holy One”.

Ouspensky also offers us an important chapter on the “symbolism of the church.” An entire church must be an icon of the Kingdom. According to the ancient Apostolic Institutions, it must be oriented (for the East symbolizes the eternal daybreak and the Christian, says St. Basil, must always, wherever he prays, turn towards the East); it must evoke a ship (for it is, on the waters of death, the ark of the Resurrection); it must have three doors to suggest the Trinity, the principle of all its life. The altar is located in the eastern apse, slightly elevated—symbol of the Holy Mountain, the Upper Room—and called par excellence, the “sanctuary.” The altar represents Christ himself (Dionysius the Areopagite), the “heart” of Christ whose body the church represents (Nicholas Cabasilas). Ιt is perhaps regrettable, in this connection, that Ouspensky did not use, in order to study the symbolism of the sanctuary, Cabasilas’ “Life in Christ,” and the corresponding studies of Madame Lot-Borodin… The altar is the heart of the whole building; it loves it and sanctifies it. The “sanctuary” that surrounds it, reserved for the clergy, is sometimes compared to the “holy of holies” of the Tabernacle and the Temple of the Old Covenant. It is the “heaven of heavens” (Saint Symeon of Thessalonica), “the place where Christ, King of all things, is enthroned with the apostles” (Saint Germain of Constantinople), as is, in his image, the bishop with his “presbyterium.”

An eschatological vessel, the “nave”, often surmounted by a dome, represents the new creation, the universe reunited in Christ with its creator, just as the nave is united to the sanctuary: “The sanctuary,” writes Saint Maximus the Confessor, “illuminates and directs the nave, and the latter thus becomes its visible expression. Such a relationship restores the normal order of the universe, overthrown by the fall of man; it therefore restores what was in Paradise and will be in the Kingdom of God” (P.G. 91-872). Οne might ask if the union of the dome and the square does not repeat, in a vertical mode, this descent of heaven to earth, this theandric mystery of the Church…

Ouspensky does not pose the problem of the iconostasis, no doubt reserving to return to it in the second, as yet unpublished, part of his work. We know that the sanctuary was separated from the nave, until the end of the Middle Ages only by a very low chancel, a kind of balustrade in the middle of which stood, preceding the altar, the triumphal arch, a true door of life before which the faithful receive communion (these are today our “royal doors”). But, from the 15th and 16th centuries, as Orthodoxy, in a secularized world, closed in on its sense of mystery, the chancel was replaced by a high partition covered with icons: the iconostasis. The paintings of the iconostasis represent the total Church, one through time as well as through spiritual spaces. The angels, the apostles, the martyrs, the Fathers and all the saints are arranged on either side of a central composition that surmounts the Royal Doors, the Deesis (intercession) representing the Virgin and the Baptist interceding on either side of Christ in majesty.

Frescoes and mosaics normally cover almost the entire interior of the church. If Ouspensky does not speak of the iconostasis, he lists the main themes of this wall decoration. One is struck by their theological depth which gives an organic character to the overall symbolism of the building. In the apse of the sanctuary, it is the whole mystery of the Eucharist, “sacrament of the sacraments”: below, the communion of the apostles which evokes the memorial; on the vault, the Pentecost, evoking the divine response to the epiclesis; between the two, the Virgin in prayer, figure of the Church (her arms are raised like those of the priest), pointing to Christ, our High Priest, himself a sacrifice and a sacrificer… The decoration of the nave recapitulates the theandric unity of the Church: in the center of the dome, the Pantocrator, source of the heaven of glory that descends to envelop all, bless all and transfigure all. He is surrounded by the prophets and apostles. At the four corners of the square bearing the dome, the four evangelists. On the columns, the column-men: martyrs, holy bishops, “apostolic men.” On the walls, the great moments of the Gospel.

Orthodox iconography has experienced a late but profound decadence, in Russia from the seventeenth century, in Greece in the nineteenth. Ouspensky vituperates, with a purifying violence, the jumble of mediocre images which too often clutter the Orthodox churches and most of which constitute, under the label of icons “of Italian taste,” distressing by-products of what is most questionable in the religious art of the modern West. (About this art, one could notice, not without malice, that Ouspensky has chosen as a counterpart to the icons he reproduces, the blandest productions of Italian and Spanish “mannerism.” It is perhaps a good pedagogy to bring out the specificity of Orthodox sacred art. It is certainly not a valid approach to evaluate from an Orthodox point of view Western art, sacred οr “profaned”—an urgent evaluation which has yet to be done).

The fact remains that it is not a question of taste but of faith. This is why we must thank Leonid Ouspensky for having so vigorously specified the theological and liturgical foundations of the Orthodox icon. This article would like to be nothing else than a testimony of gratitude and above all an invitation to the reader: whoever loves icons not as an aesthete but as a man of prayer, must read this book, which is a great book.


Featured image: “Theotokos Deesis,” Mount Athos, 14th century.

The Beggar Boy At Christ’s Christmas Tree

I am a novelist, and I suppose I have made up this story. I write “I suppose,” though I know for a fact that I have made it up, but yet I keep fancying that it must have happened on Christmas Eve in some great town in a time of terrible frost.

I have a vision of a boy, a little boy, six years old or even younger. This boy woke up that morning in a cold damp cellar. He was dressed in a sort of little dressing-gown and was shivering with cold. There was a cloud of white steam from his breath, and sitting on a box in the corner, he blew the steam out of his mouth and amused himself in his dullness watching it float away. But he was terribly hungry.

Several times that morning he went up to the plank bed where his sick mother was lying on a mattress as thin as a pancake, with some sort of bundle under her head for a pillow. How had she come here? She must have come with her boy from some other town and suddenly fallen ill. The landlady who let the “concerns” had been taken two days before the police station, the lodgers were out and about as the holiday was so near, and the only one left had been lying for the last twenty-four hours dead drunk, not having waited for Christmas.

In another corner of the room a wretched old woman of eighty, who had once been a children’s nurse but was now left to die friendless, was moaning and groaning with rheumatism, scolding and grumbling at the boy so that he was afraid to go near her corner. He had got a drink of water in the outer room, but could not find a crust anywhere, and had been on the point of waking his mother a dozen times. He felt frightened at last in the darkness: it had long been dusk, but no light was kindled. Touching his mother’s face, he was surprised that she did not move at all, and that she was as cold as the wall.

“It is very cold here,” he thought.

He stood a little, unconsciously letting his hands rest on the dead woman’s shoulders, then he breathed on his fingers to warm them, and then quietly fumbling for his cap on the bed, he went out of the cellar. He would have gone earlier, but was afraid of the big dog which had been howling all day at the neighbor’s door at the top of the stairs. But the dog was not there now, and he went out into the street.

Mercy on us, what a town! He had never seen anything like it before. In the town from he had come, it was always such black darkness at night. There was one lamp for the whole street, the little, low-pitched, wooden houses were closed up with shutters, there was no one to be seen in the street after dusk, all the people shut themselves up in their houses, and there was nothing but the howling all night.

But there it was so warm and he was given food, while here—oh, dear, if he only had something to eat! And what a noise and rattle here, what light and what people, horses and carriages, and what a frost! The frozen steam hung in clouds over the horses, over their warmly breathing mouths; their hoofs clanged against the stones through the powdery snow, and everyone pushed so, and—oh, dear, how he longed for some morsel to eat, and how wretched he suddenly felt. A policeman walked by and turned away to avoid seeing the boy.

There was another street—oh, what a wide one, here he would be run over for certain; how everyone was shouting, racing and driving along, and the light, the light! And what was this? A huge glass window, and through the window a tree reaching up to the ceiling; it was a fir tree, and on it were ever so many lights, gold papers and apples and little dolls and horses; and there were children clean and dressed in their best running about the room, laughing and playing and eating and drinking something.

And then a little girl began dancing with one of the boys, what a pretty little girl! And he could hear the music through the window. The boy looked and wondered and laughed, though his toes were aching with the cold and his fingers were red and stiff so that it hurt him to move them.

And all at once the boy remembered how his toes and fingers hurt him, and began crying, and ran on; and again through another window-pane he saw another Christmas tree, and on a table cakes of all sorts—almond cakes, red cakes and yellow cakes, and three grand young ladies were sitting there, and they gave the cakes to any one who went up to them, and the door kept opening, lots of gentlemen and ladies went in from the street.

The boy crept up, suddenly opened the door and went in. oh, how they shouted at him and waved him back! One lady went up to him hurriedly and slipped a kopeck into his hand, and with her own hands opened the door into the street for him!

How frightened he was. And the kopeck rolled away and clinked upon the steps; he could not bend his red fingers to hold it right. the boy ran away and went on, where he did not know. He was ready to cry again but he was afraid, and ran on and on and blew his fingers. And he was miserable because he felt suddenly so lonely and terrified, and all at once, mercy on us! What was this again?

People were standing in a crowd admiring. Behind a glass window there were three little dolls, dressed in red and green dresses, and exactly, exactly as though they were alive. Once was a little old man sitting and playing a big violin, the two others were standing close by and playing little violins, and nodding in time, and looking at one another, and their lips moved, they were speaking, actually speaking, only one couldn’t hear through the glass.

And at first the boy thought they were alive, and when he grasped that they were dolls he laughed. He had never seen such dolls before, and had no idea there were such dolls! All at once he fancied that some one caught at his smock behind: a wicked big boy was standing beside him and suddenly hit him on the head, snatched off his cap and tripped him up. The boy fell down on the ground, at once there was s shout, he was numb with fright, he jumped up and ran away.

He ran, and not knowing where he was going, ran in at the gate of some one’s courtyard, and sat down behind a stack of wood: “They won’t find me here, besides it’s dark!”

He sat huddled up and was breathless from fright, and all at once, quite suddenly, he felt so happy: his hands and feet suddenly left off aching and grew so warm, as warm as though he were on a stove; then he shivered all over, then he gave a start, why, he must have been asleep. How nice to have a sleep here! “I’ll sit here a little and go and look at the dolls again,” said the boy, and smiled thinking of them. “Just as though they were alive! …” and suddenly he heard his mother singing over him. “Mammy, I am asleep; how nice it is to sleep here!”

“Come to my Christmas tree, little one,” a soft voice suddenly whispered over his head.

He thought that this was still his mother, but no, it was not she. Who it was calling him, he could not see, but someone bent over to him, and … and all at once—oh, what a bright light! Oh, what a Christmas tree! And yet it was not a fir tree, he had never seen a tree like that! Where was he now?

Everything was bright and shining, and all around him were dolls; but no, they were not dolls, they were little boys and girls, only so bright and shining. They all came flying round him, they all kissed him, took him and carried him along with them, and he was flying himself, and he saw that his mother was looking at him and laughing joyfully. “Mammy, Mammy; oh, how nice it is here, Mammy!” and again he kissed the children and wanted to tell them at once of those dolls in the shop windows.

“Who are you, boys” who are you, girls?” he asked, laughing and admiring them.

“This is Christ’s Christmas tree,” they answered. “Christ always has a Christmas tree on this day, for the little children who have no tree of their own.…”

And he found out that all these little boys and girls were children just like himself; that some had been frozen in the baskets in which they had as babies been laid on the doorsteps of well-to-do Petersburg people, others had been boarded out with Finnish women by the Foundling and had been suffocated, others had died at their starved mothers’ breasts (in the Samara famine), others had died in the third-class railway carriages from the foul air; and yet they were all here, they were all like angels about Christmas, and He was in the midst of them and held out His hands to them and blessed them and their sinful mothers.… and the mothers of these children stood on one side weeping; each one knew her boy or girl, and the children flew up to them and kissed them and wiped away their tears with their little hands, and begged them not to weep because they were so happy.

And down below in the morning the porter found the little dead body of the frozen child on the woodstack; they sought out his mother too.… she had died before him. They met before the Lord God in heaven.

Why have I made up such a story, so out of keeping with an ordinary diary, and a writer’s above all? And I promised two stories dealing with real events! But that is just it, I keep fancying that all this may have happened really—that is, what took place in the cellar and on the woodstack; but as for Christ’s Christmas tree, I cannot tell you whether that could have happened or not.


The featured image shows, “Petite misère (Mendiant au chapeau), Little Misery (Beggar with a Hat),” by Fernand Pelez; painted ca. 1886.

The Triumph Of Christmas

Today’s skeptics, who seem to reject something traditional just because it’s traditional, cannot sit still during the holy season of Christmas without mocking the notion that Christ would have been born on December 25th. If it were just the unbelievers who engaged in this mockery, it would be expected, since unbelievers, by their very nature, are not expected to believe.

More troubling is the fact that, like evolution and all other modern atheistic fantasies, this one has seeped through the all-too narrow wall separating Catholics from the rest of the world. The anti-Christmas myth, which makes a myth out of Christmas, is being foisted on Catholic children as fact. To benefit these, and any Christian who respects piety, history, Scripture, and Tradition, we present our defense of Christmas.

Since there is no date for the Nativity recorded in Holy Scripture, we rely on the testimony of the Church Fathers and of history to get an answer to the question, “When did Christmas take place?”

First, let us see the essential significance of the Savior’s birth at the time usually attributed to it. The winter solstice, the astronomical event which recurs every year, is traditionally said to be the birthday of the Messias. To elucidate the meaning of this fact, we will turn to Saint Gregory of Nyssa (+ 385 or 386):

“On this day, which the Lord hath made, darkness decreases, light increases, and night is driven back again. No, brethren, it is not by chance, nor by any created will, that this natural change begins on the day when He shows Himself in the brightness of His coming, which is the spiritual Life of the world. It is Nature revealing, under this symbol, a secret to them whose eye is quick enough to see it; to them, I mean, who are able to appreciate this circumstance, of our Savior’s coming. Nature seems to me to say: “Know, oh man! that under the things which I show thee, mysteries lie concealed. Hast thou not seen the night, that had grown so long, suddenly checked? Learn hence, that the black night of Sin, which had reached its height, by the accumulation of every guilty device, is this day, stopped in its course. Yes, from this day forward, its duration shall be shortened until at length there shall be naught but Light. Look, I pray thee, on the Sun; and see how his rays are stronger and his position higher in the heavens: Learn from that how the other Light, the Light of the Gospel, is now shedding itself over the whole earth.” (Homily On the Nativity)

Saint Augustine, a Western Father, concurs with Gregory, the Easterner:

“Let us, my brethren, rejoice, this day is sacred, not because of the visible sun, but because of the Birth of Him Who is the invisible Creator of the sun. He chose this day whereon to be born, as He chose the Mother of whom to be born, and He made both the day and the Mother. The day He chose was that on which the light begins to increase, and it typifies the work of Christ, who renews our interior man day by day. For the eternal Creator, having willed to be born in time, His birthday would necessarily be in harmony with the rest of creation” (On the Nativity of Our Lord, iii).

Similar sentiments are echoed by St. Ambrose, St. Leo, St. Maximus of Turin, and St. Cyprian.

To further the beauty of this mysterious agreement between grace and nature, Catholic commentators have shown this to be a marvellous fulfilment of the utterance of St. John the Baptist, the Voice who heralded the Word: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Literally fulfilled by the ending of the Precursor’s mission and the beginning of the Savior’s, this passage had its spiritual fulfillment in the celebration of John’s feast on the 24th of June, three days after the summer solstice. As St. Augustine put it: “John came into this world at the season of the year when the length of the day decreases; Jesus was born in the season when the length of the day increases.” (In Natali Domini, xi).

Lest anyone find all this Astronomy to reek of paganism, we remind him that in Genesis, it is recorded: “And God said: Let there be lights made in the firmament of heaven, to divide the day and the night, and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years: To shine in the firmament of heaven, and to give light upon the earth. ” Further, the Magi, those holy men from the East, who came to greet the Expectation of the Nations, were led thence by a star.

“But,” you may say, “the winter solstice is on the 21st of December, not the 25th.” Correct. But if, from the time of the Council of Nicea (325) to that of Gregory XIII’s reform of the calendar (1582), there was a 10 day discrepancy between the calendar and the actual astronomical pattern governing it, then it is entirely possible that a four-day discrepancy had occurred between our Lord’s birth and the Council. We illustrate this possibility as follows: The calendar that many of the Greek schismatics still follow (the Julian calendar), is presently fourteen days off from the Gregorian. This additional four day discrepancy from Gregory’s time has happened over about 400 years.

But now for the meat of the issue: when did it happen? According to St. John Chrysostom, the foundation for the Nativity occurring on the 25th of December is a strong one. In a Christmas Sermon, he shows that the Western Chruches had, from the very commencement of Christianity, kept the Feast on that day. This fact bears great weight to the Doctor, who adds that the Romans, having full access to the census taken by Augustus Caesar (Luke 2, 1) — which was in the public archives of the city of Rome — were well versed in their history on this point. A second argument he adduces thusly: The priest Zachary offered incense in the month of Tisri, the seventh of the Hebrew calendar, corresponding with the end of our September or the beginning of our October. (This he most likely knew from details of the temple rites which were transmitted to him by a living tradition, supported by Holy Scripture.) At that same time, St. Luke tells us that Elizabeth conceived John the Baptist. Since, according to the Bible, Our Blessed Lady conceived in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy (the end of March: when we celebrate the Feast of the Incarnation), then she gave birth nine months later: the end of December.

Having no reason to doubt the great Chrysostom, or any of the other Fathers mentioned; in fact, seeing objections issued only by heretics and cynics, we agree with the learned Doctor and conclude that, by God’s Providence, His Church has correctly commemorated the Feast of His Nativity.

Further, as the continuity of the Old Testament with the New Testament was preserved in two of the principal feasts of the New: Easter corresponding to the Pasch and Pentecost to Pentecost (same name in both dispensations), it would have been unlikely for the Birth of the Eternal God into our world not to have had a corresponding feast in the Old Testament.

Until the time of the Machabees, when the temple was re-dedicated after its desecration by the Greek Antiochus IV, Antiochus Epiphanes (see 1 Machabees 4). One hundred and sixty-seven years before Jesus, the commemoration was instituted according to what was written: “And Judas, and his brethren, and all the church of Israel decreed, that the day of the dedication of the altar should be kept in its season from year to year for eight days, from the five and twentieth day of the month of Casleu, with joy and gladness” (I Macc. 4, 59). To this day, Jews celebrate the twenty-fifth of Casleu (or Kislev, as they say) as the first night of Hannukah. This year (5757 in the Jewish calendar), 25 Casleu was on December 12. Even though the two calendars are not in sync, Christmas and Hannukah are always in close vicinity. With the Festival of Lights instituted less than two centuries before Our Lord’s advent, the Old Testament calendar joined nature in welcoming the Light of the world on his birthday.

As for the objection, “Jesus couldn’t have been born in the winter, since the shepherds were watching their flocks, which they couldn’t have done in winter”: This is really no objection. Palestine has a very mild climate, and December 25 is early enough in winter for the flocks and the shepherds to be out. The superior of our monastery, Brother Francis Maluf, grew up 30 miles from Beirut, which has the same climate as Bethlehem, both being near the Mediterranean coast, and he has personally testified to this fact.

****

For almost 2,000 years, the Church has been defending Christmas against a concerted, diabolical attack.

No, it’s not another wacko conspiracy theory; it’s a fact. Since the Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us, the truth that God was born a Baby at Christmas has been assaulted with relentless demonic fury. Saint John, the very Apostle of Love, tells us: “For many seducers are gone out into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh: this is a seducer and an Antichrist” (2 John 1:7).

What the Apostle was condemning in those strong words were the earliest of the gnostic heresies, those strange amalgamations of Christianity and pagan mystery religions. Their sectarians fancied that they were little sparks of divinity trapped in matter, who could only be liberated by the gnosis, the secret knowledge.

There was also an early heresy, called docetism, which said that the Word did not assume real flesh, but took the appearance of a man (dokein in Greek, means “to appear”). Rebuked by St. Ignatius of Antioch and condemned by the Church, docetism would return in more subtle forms, admitting that our Lord was man, but denying that he had a real human soul (Apollinarianism), a true human nature (Monophysitism), or a human will and operation (Monothelitism). The last of these heresies was so repulsive to St. Maximus the Confessor (580-662), that he preferred to have his hand cut off, his tongue sliced out, and to die in exile rather than submit to a corrupt bishop who professed it.

Then there were the denials of our Lord’s divinity in heresies like Arianism, which still persists in sects as divergent as Unitarianism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Finally, there was Nestorianism, the heresy that denied the union of the two natures in the one Person of Christ. The heretical Patriarch Nestorius had it that there were two persons in Christ, the divine Person of the Word and the person of Jesus Christ the man. Consequently, he asserted in a sermon that Mary should not be called the Mother of God; she was only the mother of a human person.

The Fathers of the Church have left us heroic professions of truth against these blasphemies, and all of them impress upon us that the little Inhabitant of the Christmas Crib was Almighty God come in the flesh to save us. St. Athanasius made the point, against Arianism, that since Christ was supposed to divinize us by grace, He could not perform this mission if He were not Himself divine by nature. St. Gregory Nazianzen professed, against the Apollinarians, that “What has not been assumed has not been healed,” i.e., our Lord did not redeem human nature unless he possessed a human nature. Far from being satisfied with artful turns of phrase in their polemics, these Fathers, like St. Maximus the Confessor, suffered for their confession at the hands of the antichrist heretics.

The entire Catholic Faith is summed up in the image of the Madonna and Child: She, the Immaculate Conception, was conceived full of grace to be Mother of God; and He is One of the Holy Trinity come down to take her Flesh as true Man in order to save us. So much do heretics hate this beautiful scene that the Iconoclasts, who inherited many of the earlier eastern heresies, cut off St. John Damascene’s hand for painting it! That hand was miraculously restored it to him by our Lady.

Orthodoxy has always been attacked by antichrists. (Yes, there will be one Antichrist at the end — “the man of sin” of 2 Thess 2:3 — but St. John speaks of many “antichrists” in 1 John 2:18.) Is it any wonder that certain nefarious elements in society “have issues” with Christmas? As the early heretics wished to “dissolve” Jesus by destroying the union of two natures in one divine Person, so too, modern antichrists wish to dissolve the divine Babe from our public square: “And every spirit that dissolveth Jesus, is not of God: and this is Antichrist, of whom you have heard that he cometh, and he is now already in the world” (1 John 4:1).

According to St. Robert Bellarmine, the focus of the devil’s attack in the second millennium has moved away from the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. Instead, the old goat has taken aim primarily at the Church, giving us the Great Eastern Schism and the Protestant Revolt. And he has been refining his approach ever since. In our own day, he has given us the “deadly error” of indifferentism (to quote Pope Gregory XVI), the heresy that says one religion is as good as another. He has caused an even worse pandemonium: an identity crisis within the Church herself. Some of our very own ecclesiastics do not know what the Church is. They have “dissolved Jesus” in His Mystical Body.

But even in the midst of such a crisis, we find consolation: “Behold, I make all things new!” (Apoc. 21:5). All the historical triumphs against error won by the martyrs and confessors will be renewed in grand style. The victories of the devil and his antichrists continue to mount, but the Triumph of the divine Babe will be all the sweeter because of it. It will mark the victory of our Lord, His Church, and His Vicar. What’s more, to the eternal confusion of Antichrist and Satan, Christ’s Triumph will be the Triumph of His Mother, the Woman who will crush the head of the ancient serpent!

And that should give us all a Merry Christmas.


Brother André Marie is Prior of St. Benedict Center, an apostolate of the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Richmond New Hampshire. He does a weekly Internet Radio show, Reconquest, which airs on the Veritas Radio Network’s Crusade Channel.


The featured image shows, “The Nativity,” by Matthias Stomer, painted ca. 1640.

Pope Saint Leo The Great: A Christmas Sermon

This sermon, by Pope Saint Leo the Great, was delivered on Christmas Day, 450 AD. It is here translated by Jane Patricia Freeland, C.S.B.J., and Agnes Josephine Conway, S.S.J. and extracted from Leo The Great: Sermons.


When the faithful meditate about divine things, dearly beloved, the Birth of our Lord and Savior from his Mother comes to mind every day and all the time. For, a mind that is poised to acknowledge its Maker—whether occupied in the sighs of entreaty, or the exultation of praise, or the offering of sacrifice—such a mind touches upon nothing more frequently in its spiritual insights, touches upon nothing more confidently, than the fact that God the Son of God, begotten by his co-eternal Father, was also born through a human birth.

But no day suggests to us more than today that this Nativity should be worshipped in heaven and on earth. With a new light radiating even in the atoms themselves, no day more than today impresses the entire splendor of this amazing mystery upon our senses. We recall not only to mind, but even—in a way—to sight, the conversation of Gabriel with the astonished Mary, the Conception by the Holy Spirit (as marvelous in being promised as it was in being actually granted), the Maker of the world brought forth from a virginal womb, and the one who established all natures made the Son of her whom he had created.

On this day, the Word of God appeared clothed in flesh, and, what could not even have been seen by human eyes before, “could” now “be touched with the hands.” On this day, the shepherds learned from angelic voices that a Savior had been born in the substance of our body and soul. On this day, a new archetype for proclaiming the Gospel was deposited with those who preside over the Lord’s flock, so that we too might say with the celestial host: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good Will.”

That infancy, which the majesty of God’s Son did not scorn, was eventually brought to perfect manhood with the increase of age. When the triumph of his Passion and Resurrection had been brought to completion, all the activities of the lowliness he had undertaken for our sake passed away. Today’s feast, nevertheless, renews for us the sacred beginnings of Jesus’ Birth from the Virgin Mary. As we worship the Birth of our Savior, we find ourselves celebrating our own origin as well. For the Conception of Christ is the origin of the Christian people, and the birthday of the Head is the birthday of the body.

All of the elect have their own special place, and the Church’s children are set off from one another by the passage of time. Yet all of us, the whole sum of believers who have sprung from the baptismal font, just as we have been crucified with Christ in his Passion, been raised with him in his Resurrection, and been set at the right hand of the Father in his Ascension, so too have we been born along with him in his Nativity.

Whenever believers in any part of the world undergo regeneration in Christ, they become transformed into “new human beings,” through a rebirth—once the path of their original “former selves” has been cut off. They are no longer considered to be in the lineage of their carnal father, but are counted among the descendants of their Savior. It was precisely so that we might be able to become children of God that he was made the child of a human being. Had he not come down to us in this humility, none could come to him by any merits of their own.

May earthly wisdom not bring murkiness here into hearts of the elect. May this dust, possessed of earthly thoughts and destined to go back soon into the depths, not raise itself up against the sublimity of God’s grace. Now, “at the end of ages” what had been arranged “before time began” has been accomplished. Now that the symbolism of figures has given way to the actual presence of reality, the law and prophecy have been turned into truth.

Abraham has indeed become “the father of all nations,” and “the promised blessing” has been given to the world “in his seed.” No, it is not only those whom flesh and blood has begotten that are Israelites. Rather, the whole adopted group have entered into that inheritance prepared for the children of faith. Let the deceitful insolence of foolish questions not cause an uproar. Let human reasoning not dilute the effects of God’s work. We “with Abraham put our faith in God, nor do we hesitate in reservation.” “Instead, we know full well that God has the power to bring about what he has promised.”

Our Savior, dearly beloved, was born not from the seed of flesh, but from the Holy Spirit. As a result, the condemnation of that first transgression did not have a hold on him. Hence, the very magnitude of the gift that was bestowed demands of us a reverence worthy of its splendor. As the blessed Apostle teaches, therefore, “we have not received the spirit of this world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we might know what things have been given to us by God.” He cannot be duly worshipped except by offering back to him what he himself has given.

What can we find in the treasure of the Lord’s generosity so appropriate to the honor of this celebration as peace? Peace was the first thing proclaimed by the angelic choir at the Lord’s Nativity. It is peace which gives birth to “children of God.” Peace nurses love, engenders unity, gives repose to the blessed, and provides a home to eternity. It has for its own particular work and special benefit the joining to God of those whom it separates from the world. Wherefore, the Apostle urges us to this good when he says, “Justified then by faith, we are at peace with God.” In this brief sentence is contained the force of almost all the commandments. Where the truth of peace has been, no virtue can be lacking.

Indeed, what is it, dearly beloved, to be at peace with God except to will what he bids and to refuse what he forbids? If like minds and similar wills seek one another out in human friendships. and differences in lifestyle can never attain to a stable concord, how will someone have a share in peace with God if that someone takes pleasure in things that displease God and purposely takes delight in things by which he knows God to be offended?

Children of God do not take that kind of attitude. No, adopted nobility does not admit of such wisdom. Let the “chosen and royal race” respond to the dignity of its regeneration, let it love what its Father loves, and let it not rebel from its Creator in anything—so that the Lord might not say once again: “I have given birth to children and raised them, but they have repudiated me. Oxen recognize their owner, while an ass knows its master’s stall; but Israel does not realize who I am, and my people have not understood me.”

This favor involves a great mystery, dearly beloved, and this gift surpasses all gifts—that God should call a human being his child and that human beings should refer to God as their Father. From these titles, we perceive and we learn who it is that can rise up to so great a height of affection. If, in human offspring and earthly lineage, the vices of an evil life draw a cloud over the children of illustrious parents, if unworthy descendants are put to shame by the very reputation of their ancestors, how badly will they finish up who for love of this world are not afraid to be disowned from the lineage of Christ. But, if it wins praise among men for the honor of fathers to be reflected in their progeny, how much more glorious is it for those born of God to mirror brightly the image of their Creator and to show in themselves the one who created them? As the Lord said, “So must your light shine before human beings, that upon seeing your good works they may extol your Father who is in heaven.”

We know too well that, as the Apostle John says, “the whole world rests under the sway of the evil one.” Laying down traps, the devil and his angels strive through innumerable temptations either to scare off human beings (with obstacles) from their struggle toward the things above or to corrupt them (with success). But “greater is the one with us than the one” against us. No battles can overpower us, no conflicts harm us if “we are at peace with God,” and continually say to the Father with all our heart, “Thy will be done.”

When we accuse ourselves by our own confession and deny a consent of the heart to carnal appetites, we of course rile up against us the enmity of the one who gave rise to sin, but we build up an invincible peace with God. In rendering service to the grace of God, we are not only made subject to our King through obedience, but are even joined to him through the will. If we are of one mind with him (willing what he wills, disapproving of what he disapproves), he himself will bring us victory in all our battles. He who has given the “will” will bestow also the ability. In this way can we “cooperate,” with his works, speaking that prophetic utterance in the exultation of faith: “The Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the defender of my life. Of whom shall I be afraid?”

Let those then “who were born not from blood, nor from the will of flesh, but from God” offer concord to God as peace-loving children. Let all the adopted members join together into that “firstborn” of new “creation” who came “not to do his own will, but that of the one who sent him.” For the Father’s grace has not adopted as heirs those who disagree or differ, but, rather, those who “think the same thing” and love the same thing. Those who have been “re-fashioned” according to one and the same image ought all to have the same kind of heart.

The birthday of the Lord is the birthday of peace, for, as the Apostle says, “He is our peace who made both things one.” Whether Jew or Gentile, “we have access to the Father through him, in a single Spirit.” On the day before his Passion (a day chosen beforehand according to a voluntary arrangement), it was this doctrine especially in which he instructed his disciples, so as to say: “My peace I give you, my peace I leave you.” So that the particular characteristics of his peace would not lie hidden beneath a generic word, he added [the following qualification]: “Not as the world gives do I give to you.” He was saying that the world has its own kinds of friendship, joining many hearts together with a distorted love. There are even some who are like-minded in vices, and the similarity of their desire engenders an equivalence in their affection.

If perhaps some should be found who take no pleasure in perverse and dishonorable things, who exclude unlawful concords from the bond of their mutual affection, they do so—if they be Jews or heretics or infidels—not out of a friendship with God, but from the peace of this world. When it comes to those who belong to the Spirit and who have kept the universal faith, peace comes down from above and leads right back up. It does not wish to mingle in communion with lovers of this world, but, rather, to resist all obstacles and to fly away from destructive pleasures to true joys—as the Lord says, “Where your treasure has been, there also will be your heart,” that is to say, if the things which you have affection for are down below, you will go down to the depths; if the things which you love “are up above,” you will go up to the heights.

May the Spirit of peace guide us and lead us there, with us willing the same thing and “thinking the same thing,” with our hearts joined in faith, hope, and love. For, “whoever are guided by the Spirit of God, they are children of God,” who lives and reigns with the Son and with the Holy Spirit for ever and ever. Amen.


The featured image shows the adoration of the Magi. Panel from a Roman sarcophagus, 4th century AD. From the cemetery of St. Agnes in Rome.