Taking Religion Seriously

Editor’s Note: This exchange between French philosophers Pierre Manent and Rémi Brague originally appeared in the January issue of the French journal L’Incorrect as “Rémi Brague & Pierre Manent: Duel de Géants.” L’Incorrect is a new conservative-minded journal of ideas in France that challenges the presuppositions of political correctness. We are grateful to the editors of L’Incorrect for permission to reprint this important discussion and to Daniel J. Mahoney and Paul Seaton for their translation.

Islam and the West

Interviewer: Michel Houellebecq recently said in Der Spiegel that in order to resolve the problem of Islam in France, Catholicism would have to become the state religion. What do you think of that suggestion?

Pierre Manent (PM): The idea seems basically on point to me. Not that Catholicism should be recognized as the religion of the State, no one seriously entertains that, but that the role of the Catholic religion in the history of France, but also in the social life of the country, in the consciousness of the country, should be recognized in public forms. However, during the past thirty years we have agreed to espouse the big lie according to which there is no Muslim problem, in fact there can’t be any problems posed by any religion, because we have found the solution to all problems of this sort: laicité or secularism.

In truth, however, depending upon whether there are hundreds of thousands of Muslims or ten million, whether the Catholic churches are full or empty, society will be radically different, even if the secular regime has not changed. We have made ourselves prisoners of a much too restrictive definition of the French regime, by reducing it to the categories of a rather aggressive secularism. We need to enlarge our understanding of ourselves and, in this enlargement, grant an adequate place to the Catholicism that played such a great role in French history and consciousness.  To be sure, that cannot take on an institutional or constitutional form, and that is where Houellebecq’s proposition goes beyond the limits of a reasonable proposal, as he himself knows very well.

This would be an essential element in giving a definite physiognomy and consistency to the community that receives Muslims. Muslims have a very strong collective awareness of their religion, one which nourishes social affects and extremely significant shared mores. One cannot give them as their only destination a society exclusively defined by individual rights, by the neutrality of the State and other institutions vis-à-vis religion, this is to invite them into an empty space, into a wasteland. Whether the society of individuals repulses or tempts them, or both, it does not bring them any new principle of association, it gives them no reason to go beyond a total and complete identification with Islam, in order to participate in a new form of community, or communion. In order for Muslims to be decently received and live happily in France, it is important that they know that they are not in a Muslim nation, that this nation possesses a Christian mark, that Jews play an eminent role here, and that religion does not give commands to the State and the State does not give commands to religion.

We therefore have a complex operation to conduct, which is to persuade the Muslims that we do want to receive them in reasonable numbers, that they do have their place in society, and that this society as a collectivity, this nation as a human association, is not and does not wish to be a Muslim society, but will remain and wants to remain a nation of a Christian mark, where the Jews play an eminent role, and where both the State and the religion embrace a regime of secularism.

Remi Brague (RB): I have not read this interview with Michel Houellebecq, but it is clear that he overstated his real thought. In speaking of Catholicism as a state religion, I believe that he was thinking, above all, not of the State, but of civil society, and of the way in which the nation ought to understand itself, and did understand itself until a rather recent date. In fact it continues to do so.  As Benedetto Croce put it after the war: “We are not able not to call ourselves Christians.” To be sure, Croce understood this in a certain way. As a good Hegelian, he wanted to say that Christianity had fulfilled itself, that one therefore ought to move on to another stage, but while still retaining a certain fidelity to the heritage. Croce, in other words, was a “faithful atheist” (in Italian a “devout atheist”). This awareness would be the way in which the true color of the painting would emerge from behind the overlays with which one wanted to cover it over, which were more or less artificial and even entirely deceptive.

I too believe that it is necessary that we no longer lie, that we cease acting as if the history of France began ex nihilo on July 14, 1789, that we stop telling these lies. I believe this would be a first step to take, to allow Muslims not to imagine that they enter into a void. Pierre Manent employed the wonderful image of a “wasteland”:  when one is in a wasteland, the best thing to do is to remain in one’s vehicle. In order to get Muslims to get out of their vehicles, one must very cordially explain that they are among human beings, that they will have to respect certain rules, just as when one is invited to take mint tea in Morocco.

I speak of actual Muslims, men and women of flesh and blood, who have with Islam a relationship that is as complex and nuanced as Christians, and those of Christian tradition, have with their own religion. I do not speak of the Islam which is presented as a system of civilization, “keys to everything in hand,” which in principle is capable of determining the right way of conducting oneself in all circumstances, including how to dress, do one’s hair, bathe, and comport oneself in family life.  Here there is a double difficulty, which Pierre Manent addresses in his book. Islam is not another religion that enters into a civilization, but a civilization that enters into another civilization.

Moreover, as I argued in a book that recently appeared, the word “religion” itself is deceptive. We have the habit of conceiving religion on the model of Christianity.  Islam would be a sort of Christianity, with some things added and some things taken away, but whose list is fairly easy to come up with. In fact, however, I believe we distort the phenomenon of Islam, because in a Christian regime we are not at all accustomed to follow rules of conduct that claim to be derived from the religion, and which are other than those of common morality. This is a rather exceptional peculiarity of Christianity, one we have a hard time seeing, because we take it for granted. Christianity does not ask men to do anything other than what the most prosaic morality requires of them. It does not have any rules for clothing, no rules for what to eat.

Contrasting Worldviews

Interviewer: You would say that Christianity is not a religion, or that Islam is a religion, plus something else?

RB: Yes, that is an idea that I allowed myself to express by taking up Hegel’s expression, although in an ironic way, that “Christianity is the absolute religion.”  For Hegel, that statement had a normative meaning. To put it bluntly: Christianity is the true religion. (He didn’t say it as brutally as I just did.) Here, though, I employed the phrase “absolute religion” in its etymological sense, that is, the religion that is ab-solved, that is not bound to anything else, thus the religion that is only a religion, and which leaves the rest of authorities intact. For example, it leaves the way we clothe ourselves to tailors rather than muftis, it leaves the way we eat to nutritionists, in the best case to chefs. It has nothing to say about these matters, because other competent authorities exist.

Islam, in contrast, is a religion and a law. Perhaps it is even primarily a law, in that the acts that we consider to be properly religious (prayer, fasting, pilgrimage) are themselves contained in the law. One prays five times a day because the law requires it, one grows a beard and one trims his moustache because the law requires it, and so on. It’s here that one encounters a misunderstanding. The word “religion” is misleading. It would be better to do without it, but I don’t know any better locution or formulation.

PM: The radical originality of Christianity is due to the fact that the Christian community does not superimpose itself on any preliminary political or social community. The specific feature of the Christian church, in any case, the specific feature of the Catholic church in its complete form and vigor, is that it seeks its members in all the preexisting human communities. Hence its essentially missionary character. In this sense, it is a more purely “religious” religion, the sole “religion,” which develops itself from its own resources instead of being a transformation, an expression, a development or aspect, of a preexisting community, as were the Greek and Roman civic religions, or even the religion of Israel, or yet again the Muslim religion, whose expansion coincides with Arab-Muslim conquest.

This specificity of the Christian church – to be a complete or “perfect” society as Christians long said – has a major consequence, one which is rich with all the ambiguities that we still debate. It is the only religion to unearth this fundamental phenomenon which is conscience, understood as the internal tribunal, a phenomenon that, as strange as this may sound, even Greek philosophy did not elaborate, even if it provided certain elements for its later articulation.

This is a very specific notion, one unique to Christianity, and which is at the heart of the Christian-Western torment. Christians demand of themselves an almost impossible to achieve equilibrium between interiority and exteriority, the subjective and the objective. Where Islam puts the accent on the external, the collective, the objective law, Christianity sought its path in an equal attention to the inner conscience of each person and the collective rule maintained by the institution. As I said, this equilibrium is almost impossible to maintain, since in the periods when the Church is in the fullness of its power, the objective law that it conveys and imposes tends to oppress individual consciences – there is no need to belabor this point; while when individual consciences are granted all their rights, they tend to forget the objectivity of the moral law and the authority of the ecclesiastical institution.  This notion of conscience, without which western life, Europe, and even the Enlightenment are incomprehensible, has not appeared, or has not been sustained, in any other civilization.

Interviewer: Aren’t you therefore asking Muslims to become Christians, like the others?

PM: Of course not. What I ask them, because it would be good for them, for us, and for the community that we perhaps will one day form, is to truly want to be a part of a larger community that is not, and does not want to be, and never will be Muslim.  That, however, has not happened as of yet.

How to accomplish this transformation? Ask them to become Christian? No. But, for example, to expressly accept, without anyone having to conceal the fact, that Muslims can convert to Christianity, to the old religion of the country where they live. Imagine that conversion to Christianity was considered by the Muslim authorities in France as something that, while it certainly does not thrill them, they still recognize as legitimate, even normal. Here we would have a sign of the profound integration of French Muslims in the common life of France. A sign that they accept something that is at the heart of Christianity, conversion, but which cannot be compelled, precisely because it is contrary to the free movement of conscience. I certainly hope that Muslims in the French context will end by accepting this change, serenely if not enthusiastically. We are not yet there, but it would be a fundamentally positive development for the national community in its entirety and for Muslims in particular. It would signify that they truly agree to participate in the life of a European nation.

RB: There is a fundamental asymmetry between two systems, which is due to a fact of a purely chronological nature. Christianity came first and Islam came later. This is what the historians say, but it is not what Muslims say. For them, Islam is the “natural” religion of humanity, hence it is the first, as well as final religion. From the historical point of view, Islam appeared seven centuries after Jesus Christ.  Consequently, Christianity knows, or believes it knows, what paganism is, what Judaism is; but as for Islam, it does not understand these things as they understand themselves. In its case, there is no system of categories in which to place Islam.  Hence, it experiences an ambivalent attitude towards Christianity, even a sort of fear.

On the other hand, this time more positive, there is a certain curiosity on the part of Christians with respect to this new thing which is Islam. This curiosity, this perplexity, can be found in the oldest Christian writings on Islam, for example, those of John Damascene, who affirms that it is the last Christian heresy. Christians have remained in this condition ever since.

As for Islam, things are very different. The Koran explains that the Christians are those who have perverted the last revelation and who remain attached to bizarre, even absurd, doctrines, such as a Trinity composed of God, Jesus, and Mary, as well as a constant habit of associating God with creatures, including monks (they say that Christians take monks for God). Christianity therefore is a religion that they already know and for which they have, not so much hatred, as disdain.

In any case, they do not have any curiosity, or very little about Christianity. This is because the Muslim believes that he already knows Christianity, even better than Christians. Colonel Gaddafi said so in the speech he gave to ambassadors when he was received with great pomp under his tent at the Elysée. “You believe that you are Christians, you believe that you are Jews, but because your sacred writings have been perverted by their transmitters, your Bible is worth nothing; its true content is found entirely in the Koran; hence the true Jews and the true Christians are the Muslims.”

As for conscience, I would like to return to what Pierre Manent said, as he put his finger on something essential: the uniqueness of the Christian understanding. To bolster my argument I will appeal to a Jew, Yeshayahu Leibowitz. He is someone who has a half dozen doctorates in different fields, a polymath, as well as a “hyper-dove” who calls for the immediate withdrawal from all occupied territories, and compares the Israeli occupation to the Nazi occupation of Europe. Now, Yeshayahu Leibowitz explains that the concept of conscience does not exist in Judaism because it has no need of it. It has the Halakha and the rules of life that have been painfully extracted and derived from the Torah, then the Mishna, then the Gemara, etc. In principle, a Jew knows what he must do, so there is no need to consult his conscience.

Thus, the idea according to which God speaks, not by the intermediary of a written law, but by engraving his law in the human conscience, is something that is quite singular to Christianity. The Greek language had a word for conscience, but it had a different meaning; it was psychological consciousness, the awareness of oneself, not at all the voice of God.

We both, therefore, Christians and Muslims, live in theocratic regimes. But the difference is that for the Muslims the authority of God is exercised through a written law, while for Christians, conscience is a divine instinct, an “immortal and celestial voice,” to use Rousseau’s phrase. This is the idea that there is an immediate relation of God to the human person by means of the conscience, which is the final authority, but which must educate and form itself, and which is not simply the caprice of the individual, but speaks within each person.

Can one invite Muslims to discover this? There are some points of contact in Islam, especially when it is said that “what counts in an action is the intention.” But originally, intention (“niyya”) meant the fact of verbally declaring: “If I do that, it is in order to obey the law.” Some have been able to interpret this in an interiorizing manner, and one can encourage them to go further in this direction. But this cannot come to fruition except in the long term. On the other side, one should suggest to Christians to become more conscious of their own identity and not to be ashamed of their religion.

Individualism as a Challenge to Understanding

Interviewer: In connection with the last point, are you indicting liberal individualism for having atomized us? Within such an individualistic paradigm, can France really comprehend what Islam is?

RB: I would not dare to speak about individualism in the presence of someone, precisely Pierre Manent, who has written a penetrating book on Tocqueville and thus has provided a conceptual formulation of individualism at a level to which I cannot attain. What I can say is that today it is the idea according to which history begins with us, with us as individuals, with each individual. Then one generalizes this false idea – it is false because the language by which we speak comes from well before us, not to mention our customs and manners – and applies it to the collective, and affirms that history begins today. From this idea comes educational curricula in which one has the impression that history began in May, 1968, and prehistory began with the Great Crash of 1929.

Therefore, it is the awareness of a long duration of time that one must try to restore, as, for that matter, the French historical school is doing and which we would do well to follow. This would entail, for example, that we grasp that the cathedrals are part of France and therefore we must not let them disappear (in the way that David Copperfield made the Eiffel Tower disappear!). However, certain speeches by high-placed officials tend in that direction. It would be good, therefore, to break with this voluntary amnesia concerning our roots.

PM: I would add a factor that seems decisive to me, which is the wide-spread idea that religion can no longer be the object of a collective, or even individual, investigation, that it can no longer be something that we discuss or about which we deliberate. We believe that religion as an “objective object,” if I could put it that way, belongs to the past. For many of our contemporaries, religion is only tolerable as the support or occasion for an individual feeling, but it must never become an “objective object,” especially not a question to which it would be necessary or urgent, judicious and intelligent, to try to answer.

With respect to the Christian religion, there are several categories of negative attitudes directed against it. There are those who are hostile to it in a conscious and deliberate way; then, there are those for whom religion was, perhaps, a grand and beautiful thing, but it has nothing to say to us today. And then there are all those who don’t know what to do with this inopportune guest, who was supposed to be long gone from our tidy homes, but who still comes by periodically to haunt them.  Many of our fellow citizens are irritated by the ongoing presence of a religion in which they can see no significance or meaning, but to which they would not devote even a half hour to try to understand.

The idea of “Christian roots” isn’t very promising in this context, I am afraid to say.  Now, to be sure, it is uttered in order to recall to what extent the history of our nations is bound to Christianity. That, no doubt, is very welcome. But if one wants to pose the matter properly, one would have to recall to our fellow citizens that the question of Christianity is before them. It was a question for Augustine, Montaigne, Corneille, Pascal, Chateaubriand, Tocqueville, Péguy, Gide, Claudel, and it is also a question for each one of us today. It remains before us. A humanity that no longer poses the question of God is a humanity that is terribly mutilated.

What weighs upon us therefore is less individualism than the philosophy of history that asserts that religion belongs to the past, that we have moved on from religion.  Of course, each one in his private self can do with it what he will, but one cannot make it an object of public deliberation and serious questioning! This is the principal obstacle. It is the power of this philosophy of history according to which we do not adequately understand ourselves unless we understand ourselves as having left religion, as having arrived at a “rational” adulthood after a “religious” youth. Marcel Gauchet has provided a powerful development of this idea, but, obviously under cruder forms, it is largely diffused through our collective consciousness. This idea is paralyzing, because it has the effect of excluding religion from public debate. And one does not really participate in a debate when one is relegated wholly to the past. Believers find themselves explaining that they actually do believe, while it is believed that they cannot really believe, because belief belongs to the past. Thus, it is a certain idea of history that is the biggest obstacle for Christians, not only to be understood, but to understand themselves.

Secularism and the Philosophy of History

Interviewer:  In this way, are you indicting French secularism?

PM: No. Here it is a question of a certain representation of history, not of French secularism, a representation of history that was developed during the last two centuries, from Hegel to Gauchet, if you’ll allow me the shorthand. Everything is granted to Christianity in the past, in order to take everything away from it in the present. For example, it is said to be the origin of democracy, or even of modern science. But it is thus deprived of everything in the present and for the future, because once we have liberty, modern science, and individual conscience, we can consign religion to the accessories department, as Sartre put it at the end of Mots (Words). This is the intellectual and spiritual obstacle that gets in the way of a future for belief, and in the first case, creates an obstacle for Christians, who are themselves deeply penetrated with this historical consciousness.

RB: Pierre Manent just referred to Hegel. I would like to mention one of his contemporaries, Schleiermacher. With him, one sees at the beginning of the 19th century the birth of religion as a sentiment, as religiosity, in particular in his Discourse on Religion, which he intended to be a work of apologetics. It is unfortunate that we have inherited this view today. In a later work which is little known, Schleiermacher maintains that one can consider religious propositions in three ways: as a description of the psychological state of the subject, as propositions bearing upon the world, and as propositions bearing upon God. But, he adds, the latter two are in truth superfluous.

This is what we must resist. I would have liked for you to have cited the terms “theology” and “dogmas,” which today are devalued. One should follow John Henry Newman on these questions, when he says that religion is dogma. Dogma is objective, and one must recover this perspective on Christianity. One should speak a little less of faith and a little more about dogmas, and above all one must not reduce religion to the religiosity of each person.

Finally, I, too, do not really like the image of Christian roots. I prefer that of “sources,” which implies an effort: one must draw from the source.

From Radical Secularism to What?

Interviewer: In your book, Beyond Radical Secularism, Pierre Manent, you argue for various “reasonable accommodations” with Muslims, but isn’t it the case that Christians have the right to demand political privileges in France?

PM:  I hope that there isn’t one Christian in France who demands political privileges! As a matter of fact, in general my book was criticized for having granted too much of a place to Christians and to the Church in France. What I think — and this gives rise to powerful objections, which I freely acknowledge —, is that the common fate of our country, at once political and spiritual, will depend in the first instance on the efforts of Christians in the spiritual and political order. While no one dreams of demanding privileges, Christians can address certain requests to the institutions of the State: “[D]on’t abuse the argument of secularity in order to justify certain judicial decisions that are not defensible.” And supposing that these decisions flow from a strict application of the law of 1905 [Ed: Which established a strict separation between the state, public life, and religion], they thus prove that this law cannot regulate everything, and that wisdom should sometimes leave it to the side. For example, I suppose that when the Conseil d’Etat [Ed: an arm of the French government, serving as legal advisor to the executive branch as well as a supreme court of administrative justice] decided to require that the cross overhanging the statue of John Paul II be taken down, that the law of 1905 was scrupulously enforced. This application of the 1905 law led to an absurd result.  With the cross taken down, we only have a statue of a Mr. Wojtyla, a man well-known in another country that is a friend of France, but as a result one doesn’t know why the statue is there. The cross is the meaning of the statue.

One therefore needs to retain a sense of measure when it comes to “public signs of religion.” I argued in this book for us to accept with less apprehension and reticence certain public manifestations on the part of Muslims, because they are the natural expressions of their religion. The introduction and presence of Muslim mores and customs in the French public square is massive; their visibility is a massive fact.  Is one going to apply this jurisprudence to them? I don’t insist that it be done. Each one can draw his own conclusions. If I argue that the Muslim visibility be received with less hostility, I believe that it is reasonable for Christians to demand a certain visibility for Christianity. The Conseil d’Etat did not measure how much its demand to take down the cross was an extreme demand, a public denial of the very meaning of the Christian religion, the religion of a great number of the citizens of our country.

RB: Here I would register a defect, the sole that I find in Manent’s book. It concerns the use of the category of “mores/customs” to describe Muslim practices. To be sure, the word “mores” has its titles of nobility, from Aristotle to Montesquieu. But it poorly fits the fact that Muslim practices are dictated by a law. The danger in using it in this case, is that one risks putting in the same basket the Muslim veil and the Scottish kilt or the eating of snails by Bourguignons. In other words, this term doesn’t help us see what I tried to point out at the beginning, that Islam is a civilization and it is not only what we call a religion. It doesn’t limit itself to worship, to piety and, for those who are more gifted, a mysticism, but it is a rule of life, which is deemed to come directly from God.

In his book, there are two points where Pierre Manent says that one must not negotiate: the integral veil and polygamy. These two instances, however, do not have the same status in Islam. The veil is cited in two places in the Koran, but it is not said that it needs to cover the face. It simply says that believing women ought to drape something — a word that is translated by “veil” — on their chest. Polygamy, however, is expressly authorized in the Koran and there is no other possible interpretation. The word “mores,” therefore, is a bit unsuitable here, although I have nothing better to replace it.

PM: I chose the word “mores” precisely because it designates what everyone can observe.  For the members of the society who are outside of Islam, Islam presents itself as an ensemble of visible, and quite distinct, mores. In this way, I believed I could avoid debates that didn’t belong to my subject (or to my competence) concerning “true Islam,” the “monotheisms,” etc. I appreciate the weight of the learned objections that Rémi Brague adduces. On the other hand, for many readers who are less learned, the use of the word “mores” seemed quaint and outdated.  But I haven’t found another.

The Theological-Political Problem in France

Interviewer: In your book, Pierre Manent, you propose a way out of our situation by taking the high road, but you opened your book with Machiavelli and you ended with him as well. Strauss said that there is more in what Machiavelli didn’t say than in what he did say. You propose a rechristianization of France in order to deal with Islam, but this uncertainty remains: if Islam refuses your proposition, won’t this lead to confrontation?

PM: To be sure, I do not know what the Muslims will do, nor do I know what Christians will do. Moreover, both groups are quite diverse.  The future is unclear and open. My book aimed to be a political and social analysis, which proposed a practical solution. I appreciated the difficulty of this path, which was oriented by the idea of the best that we can do in this situation. In other words, I offered a proposal that in my opinion is the opposite of Machiavelli. I did not announce some sort of necessity, I proposed the best to which we could contribute.

If we do not find paths to this best, what will happen? One thing is certain. Our societies will find themselves seriously fragmented. The most important thing for all of us, is to be able to live in a nation that possesses an awareness of its limits and of what constitutes it. If we do not succeed, then we will wander about in a “Euro-Mediterranean” zone where the different communities will not have the possibility of relating reasonably to one another, because they will have been deprived of any substantial framework for common deliberation and of all sentiment of a “political we” that is at least somewhat firm. Under what form will this collection survive? I am not going to engage myself in the apocalyptic anticipations in which some take delight. But there will no longer be a principle of order. And then, all is possible, including the worst.

Interviewer: You have been reproached, Pierre Manent, with having created a breach in our cultural edifice, which will lead to successive demands and thus is a first step towards Muslim civilization in Europe.

PM: What I actually propose, is that we soberly and candidly recognize what we have already done, which is to accept the installation of Muslims in Europe. We shouldn’t act as if we can erase the consequences of a policy that was followed for thirty years by successive governments with our approval, since we constantly reelected them. Let’s not try to bluff our way through this. We cannot undo what has been done. To dream of doing so is to inhibit us from doing what is still possible, to find a place for, and with, Muslims that is both limited and honorable — and honorable because limited — for Islam in France. Numerous French citizens are Muslims. They are French citizens. I want French law to be applied, including where it isn’t firmly applied, on the integral veil and polygamy, as was said earlier.  On the other hand, I ask that petty matters of dispute are not needlessly multiplied, when the stakes are so high. Thus, I propose that one doesn’t bother Muslims in small things, but that we propose to them a grand common vision. And I repeat: all these initiatives ought to say to them, you have the opportunity to live in equality with non-Muslims in a free country, but this country never was, is not, and never will be, a “Muslim country.” However, if you maintain that dream, if you attempt to go in that direction, there will be equal misery for all of us.

RB: As for me, I am perplexed before this “methodical conquest,” to use Paul Valéry’s phrase. I wonder how our initiatives will be interpreted. Earlier, I used the word “dialogue” in quotation marks. In fact, it is not rare that a proposal for dialogue, made with the best intentions in the world, and coming from the Christian side, because it is hardly ever the case with the other side, is interpreted as a sign of weakness. I have many instances which show that what we call dialogue does not very much interest those with whom we wish to dialogue. In any case, this is an extremely delicate game, which must be played with exquisite political dexterity, and I wonder if very many men have the requisite finesse. Does Mr. Chevènement? [Ed: Jean-Pierre Chevènement, a prominent member of the French left.] I wonder.  We find ourselves on a chessboard with many snares and we don’t have a Deep Blue.

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