Alain Besançon has had the kindness to send me not only his L'Image interdite: une histoire intellectuelle de l'iconoclasme (Paris: Fayard, 1994), but also his Trois Tentations dans l'Église (Paris: Calmann Lévy, 1996). After reading Anne Ramsey ― whose book is discussed in my review "On 'Nature'" ― on the profound religious beliefs of the Leaguers, it occurred to me that the Trois Tentations might follow interestingly, not because B. is interested in the beliefs of the Leaguers, but because of the general and perennial relations between religious beliefs and collective actions, in institutions or out, fixed on the general idea of temptation.
For B., the first temptation in the R.C.C. is to turn backward and inward — toward a church in which the primary sense of the human is as a being — ontological — in need by nature of a redeeming relation with the divine. This temptation, in the main desirable from B's point of view, has for him little hope of occurring, largely because the various positivisms of the 19th century, now fully articulated in the Church, are too strong.
The French church's dérive, for B., is of importance not only for Christianity and the West in general, but also for the whole intellectual fabric of the world. Nineteenth-century Romanticism, imbued with some 1789 leftover impulses, gave the Church new force, perhaps, but at a high price. It shifted from understanding relations as being between the individual and the Church, to a general social ideal to promote a collective well-being. Not that B. does not recognize the Church's mission to help the needy, etc.: that is not the point. Charity and a social mission sustained by a positivist impulse is quite a different matter. The social idea makes the Church, in effect, just like any other institution and, in a sense, in competition with them all. The results were a loss of the older doctrinal and administrative legal structures grounded solidly on Aristotelian and Thomistic doctrine.
The shift from the ontological to the social entailed a massive ensemble of intellectual adjustments, the most important of which was (is) an emphasis on the New Testament and a distinct de-emphasis of the Old, with all its historicity and legalism. The Romantic and social impulses were very strong in Germany, and one of the consequences was the ethical collapse of the Church before anti-semitism and Nazism. This analysis is supported not only by close readings of papal encyclicals but of suppressed Psalms — a culture of "improvement" displaced one that offered grace and redemption as primary emphases. The Aristotelian foundations of the older Church also enabled it to develop compatibilities with Liberalism (not as defined in France today, but as a political and moral ethic of the 1830s-1860s).
Would the Church have perceived Bolshevism as the emphatic enemy that it did, without the shift toward the social? Here Besançon's thought is like a giant geometric figure; one cannot describe one part without doing injustice to the whole. The 19th century generated a number of competing utopias — all with positivist engines running — and for B. Christianity of the 19th-century social type, and Bolshevism were closer than many would accept — but here a general model of ideological conflict is at work, that is, it usually is the systems sharing similar presuppositions (in this case, social utopias) that account for conflict.
The second temptation in the Church is democratization. Exploring this impulse in the world, and in the Church in particular, is very interesting; but while analytically sound, when Besançon joins democratization with egalitarianism, his perspective (Aristotle again) is too colored by the intensity of the French experience. The old democratic and federal republics — the Swiss, the Dutch and the USA — are moving ever so slowly toward egalitarian societies; yet one cannot deny that they have been democracies for centuries. The United Kingdom, so democratic, is egalitarian in a world of rights, but not socially egalitarian in the way the 19th-century French democratic experiences were. Time for Aristotle, changes in the relations or focus of government, are extremely slow in democratic societies, but perhaps faster than in monarchies.
In a long chapter entitled "Du Sublime Chrétien," an ensemble of issues is explored. I had expected an analysis of the differences between ecstasy and the antique but updated notion of the sublime, as secular ecstasy and resulting enthusiasms; but this is not what B. is after. Within the frames of hierarchy and egalitarianism, there is the issue of how to institutionalize individual faiths; the mystic is usually characterized as someone who fulfills all the "normative" acts of faith within the Church, and thus seeks more complete union with God beyond these. Today, the croyant who finds no need for the Church is the issue, and here B's answer is to re-elevate the emphasis on the being and its need for Redemption.
The third temptation is Islam, and here the focus is very strongly on France, but with resonances for elsewhere. Astonishing as it may seem, the number of French Catholic pratiquants and Muslims is about the same! The ontological grounding in what is, for B, a "natural religion" (he makes a good case), the Islamic faith, makes it a temptation for those who crave God. This deciphering of the relations between the major religious communities is extremely telling and pertinent. For example, the Christian is generally now only mildly discomfited by the atheist; the Muslim remains fearful and full of horror, as some ancient Romans were before Christians. The Muslim only very rarely thinks of converting to Christianity, because historically it would be a step backward — one that is out-of-date as a result of the life and writings of Mohammed.
The deeper issue is, of course, whether a partially institutionalized religion that has a social utopia at its center can survive long-term contact with a religion whose ontological foundations remain so strong. B's writing constitutes a warning for the churchmen who wish to create a perfect community on earth. His understanding of Communism is important here, because it is grounded on a knowledge of human nature: the social utopia cannot sustain institutions for very long periods (the very positivism in the program partly causes their collapse!). An age of sects is upon us in the West. Perhaps B. depicts the Islamic world in terms that are too monolithic; but his thought is nonetheless always deeply focused on essential features in religious communities.
A voice in the wilderness? Besançon's? The humility — religious humility — which the author of this book communicates, leaves this reader shaken. There is no claim to have all the answers; there is no chiliastic tone; there is bearing witness after a quest for understanding.