Tea With Voltaire

Had you been privileged to attend one of Voltaire's soirees at Ferney in the 1760's or 1770's, close enough to the Genevan border to cross in the event the French thought police were approaching, you would have heard the Master of the House tell the servants to leave before people started expressing really dangerous ideas, especially atheism.

Voltaire felt that without a belief in an avenging God, the lower classes would slit our throats and steal our money.  Dostoyevsky a century later agreed that without God, any number of awful things should be possible.  Voltaire in his declining years went to Mass regularly and made sure his servants did also, providing the parish with as enlightened a pastor as he could find, someone in the mould of Rousseau's Savoyard Curate, one who taught morality primarily.  In other words Voltaire was a follower before his time of Charles Maurras and his Christianity-less Catholicism. 

Both Voltaire and Rousseau hoped that eventually Catholicism and other religions would no longer be needed but they were in no hurry to try the experiment.  It was safer for the lower orders to believe, so long as the elite was not forced to conform.

As the passions of Bible reading, apocalyptic expectations, and messianic-Zionistic neoconservatism spread in our free Republic, one wonders whether Voltaire, Rousseau, and Dostoyevsky had really gotten it right.  Although European elites had cast off Christianity over the last two hundred years, Americans persist in claiming to believe in apocalyptic struggle.  The most religiously observant among the advanced nations of the world, the United States, persists in thinking like primitive Semites, Africans, and Asians. 

The war in Iraq was opposed by mainline Protestant clerics and by a papal legate.  In the first instance it is clear that mainline Protestants – Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodist, Congregationalists – in large numbers do not really any more believe in Christianity.  But their lip service to the faith conveys a false and possibly dangerous religious mania to the public discussion of important affairs.  Would that they would leave Christianity to the Baptists, Pentecostals, and the rest of the Bible Belt.  The papal legate for his part was only practicing Vatican diplomacy.  Recall that Cardinal Tardini some forty years ago quipped that Vatican diplomacy originated with Simon Peter when he denied Christ three times.

Voltaire could not have known, but perhaps it is faith not disbelief which will incite the lower orders (lower in some sense or other) to slit our throats and steal our money. 

As this season of Passover and Easter passes one stands awed. As the ancients said, those whom the gods would destroy they first make mad.

April 29, 2003