A group of us attended the French premiere of the film L’Heuruex Naufrage in Paris on Friday. Held at the ‘Maison des Cultures du Monde’, the evening gathered an eclectic group of believers and non-believers, who seemed in equal measure to be stimulated and frustrated by the film.
‘The Fortunate Shipwreck’ is an extended exploration of the spiritual condition of Quebec. Specifically it considers the vacuum left behind, in terms of spirituality and values, after the ‘gentle revolution’ that saw the power of the Catholic church in the province all but erased. The director, Guillaume Tremblay was present for the showing and the discussion that followed. He describes the film as a very personal journey. The ‘ambient emptiness’ he attributes to a post-Christian culture was simply a reflection of his own struggle. Having been raised in, and subsequently abandoned, an overwhelmingly religious culture, he now finds himself in a place of searching, and wonders if his society hasn’t thrown away the baby with the bathwater. His documentary is largely built on head-shot interviews with leading Francophone academics, for the most part from a generation older than his own. This, he says, is deliberate – an attempt to seek the wisdom of those who have gone before.
One of these is philosopher André Comte Sponville, who was also present to discuss the film. Described by Michel Meyer, director of the International Journal of Philosophy, as one of the greatest French philosophers since Sartre, Comte Sponville labels himself a ‘faithful atheist’. By this he means that while he has abandoned belief in God, he has not abandoned his respect for the history and values of the Christian religion. This emerges as a strong thread in the film with writers, singers and philosophers uniting to say that though they are glad to have left the church behind, their affection / nostalgia / hunger for the teachings of Jesus remains. This thirst for reality is portrayed in the film through a series of very moving animations exploring the director’s own search – and ending with the frustrated seeker finding his way into a derelict church, where at last he rediscovers peace.
I came away from the film, and the discussion of it, with two overwhelming impressions.
The first is that there is a dialogue to be had between believers and nonbelievers, if only the competing certainties of fundamentalists on both sides can be calmed. Eric Emmanuel Schmitt, featured in the film, suggests very movingly that ‘faith and non-faith need to meet in respect for the faith and the non-faith of the other’. Surely the church can receive such a request as a declaration of peace? Can we engage in deeper dialogue between Christians and Atheists if we agree that what we’re looking for is love and meaning?
The second impression is that this dialogue will not happen if people on both sides of this divide stick to the strategies they learned in modernity. Throwing bricks of faith to break the windows of rationalism is hardly a strategy for peace, and nor is the reverse. What if this was a conversation, not a competition? The recent work of Francis Spufford, as just one example, shows how much there is to explore in genuine engagement. My own view is that the church has more to gain than to lose from such dialogue.
The terms postmodern and post-Christian both surfaced in the film and the discussion of it, but in effect it is a herald of something else altogether: a discussion-starter for the post-secular age.