Questions of ultimate concern

Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” — John 8:1–11 NRSV

Here in France we have been once again been going around and around la laïcité, with the passage of the “separatism” law. Leaders of the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches have been very critical of the text of the law — even I have written that laïcité is being infringed upon.

The word does not translate. It is not secularism. Laïcité is a concept peculiar to France and her history, in one sense. In another sense it is universal to the human condition. As sometime Bishop in Europe, and a French citizen, I have been doing a lot of thinking about it and religious freedom in general. Three years ago today, Jean-Michel Cadiot, my oldest and best friend and I published a book, calling laïcité the “public expression of religion”. This was provocative, because many atheist intellectuals try to insist that the word means that religion shall be private — except for theirs, of course.

Jean-Michel unexpectedly passed away last June, and I am thinking of writing a sequel in his honor. In the constitution of the First Republic in 1791 (we are in the Fifth now…), the most basic right is le droit de conscience. This meant that every person has the right to believe or not. Laïcité is the duty of the State to protect that right, especially by not interfering in or supporting a particular religion — which includes atheism.

Cornerstone of rights

Why is this a human right? Indeed, we argued that it is the cornerstone of human rights, because every human being has to ask certain basic questions, which are intensely personal. The German-American theologian Paul Tillich, who isn’t quoted much anymore, called these “questions of ultimate concern.” Who am I — why me? Why am I here? What is the meaning of me? How did I get here and where must I go? These arise from time to time because each of us intimately comes to know we are from dust, and to dust we shall surely return.

The answers to these questions are as unique as you and I. We may put them off ’til another day, or else conclude that they are meaningless. In considering rhem we may make significant changes in our selves, our life. Or not. It was the glory of the Republic to require that the state not force us to accept the prevailing religion, as was always the case before, and that its duty is to ensure that that will not happen ever again, so that each will be free to come to grips with being from the dust and going back again.

The word “conscience” here is crucial, and we Christians know it means much more than that which laïcité protects. It is that unpleasant sensation of being caught out in our inadequacy to deal with our dust. The above gospel passage is one of the best known, even if its location changes in different manuscripts. The woman is caught in flagrante delicto. Her case is brought to Jesus, for him to pronounce the sentence of the Law upon her.

Writing in the dust

There is the fascinating detail of him writing in the dust. People have wondered what he wrote ever since. My conjecture — for what it’s worth — is that Jesus wrote out the text of the Law: “both the adulterer and theadulteress shall surely be put to death.” (Lev. 20:10) Then he issued the famous invitation, that the one without sin cast the first stone — not just any sin but this flagrant violation of the Law itself. Finally, he is alone with the unnamed woman, to pronounce his sentence upon her: forgiveness.

I think it is not so hard to put ourselves in her place. She knew she was guilty. So did everyone else. Jesus does not forgive her because of a legal technicality — where’s the guy? — or because she had been punished enough, but because that is why he is.

Asking ourselves tough questions

This day, Ash Wednesday, is set aside for us to focus on our dustiness, on all the myriad ways we too have fallen short. Even if we have not been caught out, we know. To contemplate the ultimate concern of every human — death — is to wonder about who we are and where we are going. But it is not just about death, the privation of life, but what we have actively done and do to live less. In hindsight, sin is always absurd — why did I do that? — but it sure felt good at the time.

This Ash Wednesday and every other day of the week is a good day not only to look at ourselves and our lives — exercising that fundamental human right to decide. But for us who believe, we might try to imagine that we are that woman, whose name is Human, and see Jesus through her eyes. To see in those dark orbits our dusty guilt. But surely there to see more: a glimmer of what can be, what will be in the end. In the gaze of Christ, we can find not only forgiveness but the hope of life renewed. That hope gives us the courage not only to face our deeply personal concerns, but to do even more.

Our hope in Jesus gives us new strength.

The strength, the boldness to sing, “even at the grave, we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!”

Bishop in charge, Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, 2001–2019. French-American. Musician, composer, author, happily married.

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