Ernest Renan was one of the greatest scientists of the nineteenth centuryH a century. He is part of a long line of founders of modern science. But he had big ambitions. He asserted that all knowledge must be submitted to the court of reason guided by the authority of facts. The rest was fiction. Like many scientists of his generation, he also believed that reason could explain everything. He promoted the utopia that science knew no bounds in exploring reality.
To prove his thesis, he had the idea of subjecting the history of Christianity to the view of science, which he presented as the most advanced and influential narrative in human history. He devoted a large part of his life to this huge project. He learned ancient languages, studied them by comparing very ancient manuscripts, and traveled to the East to immerse himself in the places and landscapes, finally publishing eight large volumes that were the subject of numerous condemnations by the Church.
Life of Jesus, published in 1863, is one such work. With nearly 150,000 copies sold in 18 months, about ten editions in the first year and numerous translations, the book shook Christian Europe. Renan, a man of science, sought to identify certain facts in the story of the emergence of Christianity by examining texts and testimonies. The result was a very different picture of Jesus than the church taught.
Renan saw in the Savior an extraordinary man, perhaps the greatest in history. His ideas, truly revolutionary, have had incredible impact, shaking very old belief systems that seemed final. One of Jesus’ particularly innovative and bold ideas was that we must now think beyond regions, races, and kingdoms. The new religion was addressed to all peoples, and the promise of salvation was valid for all people.
The idea that particularly troubled the authorities of her time was that Christianity, founded on faith and the heart, did not need great intellectual constructs to gain credibility and spread; faith would suffice: therefore, not rituals, creeds, catechisms, treatises, and theology. , interpretation. Thus, religion is freed from the absurdity of fatwas, from schools of thought, and from sterile disputes over ideas that cause bitter divisions. It would also dispense with the clergy, hierarchy, and bureaucracy dedicated to controlling consciences. Renan concluded that the modern church had betrayed its great founding intentions.
Jesus innovates again by insisting that the Good News is only for the poor, the desperate, the weak, and the “meek and lowly in heart.” The era of the rich, the powerful, and the arrogant has ended; They will be thrown into hell. All of this comforts the poor, whose company Jesus seeks, but disturbs the powerful, leading to his crucifixion.
The supernatural or the supernatural
Renan never tires of praising the qualities of Jesus. He returns to him again and again: “the astonishing genius,” “the accomplished model,” “the cornerstone of humanity,” the founder of “the true religion,” “the greatest of men,” and so on. He also often claims to be human – as evidence of this, he was afraid of his approaching death, and almost gave up. But make no mistake, these observations were intended to better prove his thesis according to which Jesus was able to accomplish his mission without resorting to the supernatural. He derived his authority from his “infinite charm,” from his “mild and gentle preaching,” and from his powerful examples.
But the researcher faced great difficulties in his approach. Miracles first. At this point, Renan is doing very poorly. He points out the lack of reliable witnesses, many of whom are close disciples. Here they are described as naive, ignorant and biased. He brings up the excessive enthusiasm that drives them to publish inventions. He blames the effects of magic, sorcery and misleading imagination. These arguments can be convincing when you want to “miracle” exorcise demons, calm hysteria, and overcome laziness. But what about more difficult events, such as multiplying loaves or turning water into wine? Renan carefully refrains from commenting on it.
The resurrection gives him more trouble. Here his demonstrations are very weak. At Christ’s death and resurrection, it completely falters and ends up relegating the reader to a later work.
The question of Jesus’ divinity is another nightmare. The man of science becomes very mysterious. On the one hand, in reconstructing Jesus’ death, he surprises and contradicts himself by describing a gradual withdrawal from his physical life and then a slide toward a life of another order, the divine order. But in other paragraphs he corrects himself: he hesitates, procrastinates, ponders. In short, not convincing.
What Renan teaches us
Whether you are a believer or not, you will learn from this teaching a lesson in humility. The assumption that only observable facts are worthy of attention shows its limitations. Renan fails to prove the non-existence of supernatural powers and divinity (on the other hand, it would be a mistake to take this as evidence of their existence). There are questions, areas that simply escape science. It concerns the part of the human being that generates all its complexity and forms the basis of its irreducible specificity. What is problematic for Renan is for others what opens man to the divine and brings him closer to it.