I’m fascinated by the problems associated with the historical facts of the Bible. You can see that the Bible is a narrative in the making, that it has several layers of text, for example, in Genesis, and that people want to say different things in the text according to the era. I think the Bible is an education not just of people but also of God.
Progressively, it reveals the figure of a god who matches up to God. In the course of the narrative, you see how the idea of God, initially perceived as angry or vindictive, is refined and defined. I actually see the story of Abraham as an education of God and not of the patriarch. When Yarweh asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, Abraham seems to be telling Him, “If you are God, prove that you are equal to God and stop me!”
You say you had a mystical experience in the desert, which you related in La Nuit de feu (Albin Michel, 2015) (Night of Fire). Did that experience turn the atheist that you were into a believer?
These days, I prefer to categorise myself as a Christian. Reading the Bible certainly added something to the faith I received in the desert, which wasn’t linked to any religion. I came from an atheist background but at that moment, I had an experience of the Absolute, of God.
But because I became a believer in that way, virtually out of context – the desert was a pretty basic kind of context –, I found my way into many religions through my reading. All mystics are my brothers and sisters, whether they are Buddhists, Muslims, Jews or Christians: they describe the same chaos and, in fact, they don’t describe it well because no discourse can put words to the ineffable.
All the same, my belief took shape by way of the New Testament, which was defining because it proclaims the supremacy of love. Hegel said love is “unwavering”, that it can’t be the fruit of reason. It’s an affirmation, a kind of madness, an impulse.
To replace suspicion, fear and self-interest with love, the way the Evangelists do, was unheard of. For that reason, I call myself a Christian while at the same time assuming the heritage of Western philosophy, of course.
Are you practising?
I’m very happy to share my belief with other people, but I don’t need to be with other people to experience that belief. So, I’m not someone who attends ceremonies or rites. My belief is nourished by silence, meditation, prayer, an experience of the world and even the internal drive I feel inside me.
Did your examination of the historical truth of the Bible and the other religious traditions in order to write Crossing Time make you question your spiritual convictions?
Writing the book didn’t alter my belief, it contextualised it. I agree that, when you face the archaeology of your own beliefs, you can feel unhinged by the realisation that there are contingent aspects in the Bible, aspects that might have not been. If, in writing the story, I might sometimes have felt my belief faltering, I don’t feel like that now.
Like Bergson, I think that all the religions have the same heart: a heart of fire, a mystical heart. Religion is a way of putting words to the ineffable; religions are ritualisations, ways of behaving, institutions whose aim is to organise words and actions. Eventually, people move so far from the mystical heart that the whole thing ends up being cold, frozen even. In many cases, the important religious person is the one who gets close to the centre, who brings the fire back to the institution.