I have a friend who is a brilliant travel blogger. I can’t even travel well, let alone blog real good! But sometimes when I am planning to go on a trip some place, I wonder why there isn’t more niche information out there. My best friend is an architect and when he jets off for a weekend break to Porto or Lodz or whatever city is going to be discovered by the style magazines next year, he can fairly easily find the five or ten buildings he simply must see in advance. The same would hold if your passion was food or sport or shoplifting from designer stores. Guidebooks will presumably tell you about the best restaurants and the location of the sports stadiums and the shops with lax security. But when it comes to really obscure, niche, weirdo concerns like, religion, travel literature is surprisingly silent.
(Just as an aside, while I am spouting off about stuff I know nothing about: Why are there no Gaelteacht holiday resorts aimed at families in Ireland? I bet you could make a killing by building a nice little spa resort out in Belmullet and running it like any other resort, except that there are Irish lessons in the morning for the kids and the grown-ups and that everyone agreed to only speak as Gaeilge.)
Staying in Paris over the summer, I searched for a walking tour of its Christian sites of interest but to no avail. Maybe my Google mojo had deserted me and such a thing exists but I wasn’t able to find any guidance for places to visit that weren’t basically architectural tours (the churches are pretty!) in disguise. But I walked all over the city and I stumbled into some interesting and unusual places that would be of interest to Christians (especially theologically-inclined Christians). So here is my Unusual Parisian Pilgrimage.
1. The Sorbonne
Since Paris remained Catholic, France remained Catholic. But there was a time back during the Reformation when the country was aflame with theological dispute and passion. The continued relevance of the minority population of Reformed Christians in France can be testified to by the life and work of the insanely prolific sociologist Jacques Ellul. But the first out-of-the-ordinary place to visit on your little day of pilgrimage in France is the Sorbonne.
Because for a brief period, two of the most significant figures of the Reformation overlapped there in their study, and went on to have a dramatic role in shaping either side of the conversation. John Calvin, the father of Presbyterianism was a student here at the same time as Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. Presbyterianism and the Jesuits provided much of the intellectual muscle of their respective positions and it is fascinating to imagine them sharing small talk over porridge in the morning.
Today, of course, the Sorbonne is the centre-piece of the acclaimed University of Paris and tours can be arranged. They probably won’t focus much on this obscure side-story however…
2. Thomas Aquinas
The most important theologian in the history of the church famously lived in Paris. The Dominican friar, Thomas Aquinas, assimilated Aristotelian philosophy with Christian theology and produced a work that has systemically shaped Christian thought and practice (for good and ill) since then. His thought continues to be studied by philosophers and political scientists, and I imagine that hidden in his extensive writings, everyone could find something that applied to their craft or field or calling. Famously, at the end of his life, he had a vision of some sort that convinced him that all his writing was for nothing. “I can write no more. All that I have written seems like straw.” Theologians since him have chosen not to take his wisdom seriously on that count.
Considering how monumental a figure Thomas is, it is amazing that there is nothing much made of him in Paris. There is a notable painting in a side-chapel in Notre Dame but that is all I could find. Except, of course, for a little parish church in his honour, located on a little square at the end of a lane, also named after him. So if you are that way inclined, you can drop in and say a prayer of thanks for the big Italian brainiac, and ask God to let you know sooner than a year before you die if it turns out everything you’ve spent your life doing is worthless…
3. Hammurabi’s Code
The Hammurabi Code is in the basement in the Louvre. The Louvre is a museum in the middle of Paris. It is 700 metres long and it is a palace and there is a glass pyramid in the middle of it and it is the most famous gallery in the world, so you will probably be visiting there anyway.
But when you visit, as you grow exhausted by the crowds of people taking selfies or even more inexplicably, just taking photos of everything, you can slip downstairs to the much less visited section on Egypt and Babylon. Standing in the middle of one room you will find a breath-taking obelisk of diorite, black as night, with intricate carvings etched into its surface. This is the Code of Hammurabi, a legal monument from the Babylonian empire first cast in stone about 3750 years ago.
No one will bother you as you pay close attention to it because practically everyone in the room is just lost, and looking for a Da Vinci to take a photo of. But if you are fond of reading the Bible, then this exhibit is worth going out of your way to examine. The Law, that Moses gave the Israelites, and that is recorded in the Pentateuch, was most certainly formed with the rulings listed on Hammurabi’s Code in mind. The Law of Israel draws on, remixes, and parodies the law of the Babylonians. This big, beautiful stone testifies to that very real, historical world of military power and kings-glorified-as-gods that we find in the opening pages of the Old Testament. And in that complex way, the Code can inspire devotion very different from the stunning stained glass of Saint Chapelle or vaulted ceilings of Notre Dame.
4. Passage du Harve
The penultimate stop on our little pilgrimage is to a shopping centre. Paris is riddled with passages couverts, laneways that were roofed and then developed into prototype shopping malls. They are sometimes called arcades. The reason I propose wandering down through one of these unassuming but pretty temples to consumerism is not just that you might want a Starbucks, but because of the way in which these developments can help us understand how confusing is the world in which we live.
Walter Benjamin was one of the great philosophers of the 20th Century. He lived in poverty, made some of the first radio programmes intended for children, spent all the money he had on books, and committed suicide trying to escape the NAZIs. He also, in that great theological tradition that Thomas began (and Karl Barth perfected), left his masterpiece unfinished. As a young man we wanted to write an essay about the joy of learning about a place by walking around and he used the Parisian arcades as the context. But the work swallowed him and the Arcades Project expanded and grew to a scale no one could ever finish. Benjamin had that knack that all Christian ethicists should aspire to replicate, whereby a sign in a shop window is as worthy of deep reflection as an ancient middle-eastern legal code or the achievements of a historic university.
Benjamin’s Marxism never transcended his Judaism. He is invariably despised by the kinds of intellectuals who think that belief in God is a brain disease that afflicts the morally weak. They insist his dense prose hides everything, because behind it lies nothing. But I have never understood that criticism. Maybe trained by the internet browser to appreciate hyperlinked things, Benjamin’s roving mind always provokes me to thought. As I wandered down the Parisian arcades, I thought about how it wasn’t Baron Haussmann’s vision, nor Gustave Eiffel’s ingenuity that made Paris great, but the imagined engines of commerce, that rest collectively inside our heads and make us want a juicer that we can control from our mobile phone. Our consumption consumes the world and I thought then about Benjamin and his Angel of Progress, who is driven forward with his back to the future, facing history:
There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair, to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.
It turned out Benjamin never managed to make sense of the world by walking down arcades. And we cannot make sense of history which drives us irresistibly into the future a-top the rubble-heap of our consuming love of progress, but for an out-of-the-ordinary Christian pilgrimage, I recommend wandering the passages.
5. The Tomb of Oscar Wilde
It should be of comfort, I suppose, that Ireland is better at making missionaries than theologians. I seem to remember Augustine refers to the great heretic Pelagius at one point as a porridge-eating Scotus, which suggests that old fool might have been Irish. We generated John Scotus Eriugena in the 800s but he was suspected of heresy as well and since then, we’ve gone through a bit of a fallow period. When Bono is your most prominent God-talker, and Sinéad O’Connor is in second-place, you know you’re in trouble.
But I have always thought of Oscar Wilde as a theologian. I would maintain that along with The Brothers Karamazov and Gilead and Silence, any introduction to Christian literature has to dwell for a long time with The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Wilde has understandably been adopted as an icon of the LGBT movement. It ought not need to be said but I shall say it anyway: That doesn’t mean he can’t also be a Christian from which we learn.
My suspicion, which I might get to test out properly some time, is that you can read all his work through two dynamics. Firstly: The history of the world will, in the end, turn out to be a comedy. Jesus is the Christ, and therefore, even in the sky-high rubble-heap of history that surrounds us, we can hope and we can laugh. As he writes, “Since Christ the dead world has woke up from sleep. Since him we have lived.”
Secondly, sin is a lethal seduction that traps us. This is the insight that drives The Portrait. It is always under the surface in fairy tales, where the disfigured are very often the ones who communicate grace, while the beautiful are revealed to be ugly below the skin. It is hard (impossible?) to follow this line of thought without confusing it with Wilde’s own life and with the form that the political conversation around LGBT liberation takes in today’s discourse. But Wilde could laugh because he knew there would be good news at the end. And he had to laugh because in the here and now, so little could be trusted.
So if I am right that Wilde is the rarest of things: an Irish theologian worth reading, then surely it is worth walking to his grave and paying your respects? I think the actual monument is hella ugly, made even worse by the protective perspex erected to protect it from graffiti. But the Pére Lachaise cemetery is strikingly beautiful in its gothic splendour. And a graveyard is always a good place to finish a pilgrimage, right?
Your Correspondent, How can someone with glasses that thick be so stupid?