Conversation with Stanislas Breton exhilarates, intoxicates, yet is always tonic, like champagne; his humor pops and sparkles; his sayings magically unshackle stale mental habits; his wit and laughter have a subversive impetus; and the whole is rooted in French soil, in ancient Catholic roots and the irreverence of the Revolution. His voluminous writings cover a vast range of topics, but the unifying center is his personality and the single overriding concern which he enacts in his rugged, quirky and merry style, a concern with the space of freedom, of emptiness, of charity, opened up by the Cross.
The humility, simplicity, and deep humanity of Breton’s personality is reflected in his presentation of Christianity, no longer as an opaque and intimidating Mystery but as a down to earth and practical path of relating to one’s neighbor and to the divine. Like others before him, Breton can be seen as trying to name the essence of Christianity, that is, to differentiate what is truly living from what is dead in Christian tradition. He addresses this topic explicitly in L’avenir du christianisme (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1999), from which all quotes in the present article are taken. This book is a mildly written rumination on various dimensions of the Christian message today, but despite this mildness the judgments it suggests and the spaces it maps go far toward refocusing Christian vision so as to show how it is a fully viable to meet the questions of the present and of the future that is opening up.
Born in 1912, Breton is marked by the agonies of the Modernist crisis which shook the Catholic world from 1902 on. 1902 was the year of Loisy’s L’Évangile et l’Église – ‘Jesus announced the Kingdom, and it was the Church that came’ – a poisonous sentence that inflicted a deep narcissistic wound on Catholicism by demythologizing its story of its origins. Breton’s thought lives in the modern experience of the withdrawal of origins.. While the scientific study of Scripture causes a retreat of Christian origins, no longer as secure, massive, unitary as was thought, the scientific study of the cosmos and of evolution causes the figure of the Creator to withdraw into a discreet distance, to become something like the Neoplatonic One, ungraspable, yet close at hand.
The study of Neoplatonism has helped Breton and others of his generation to avoid a troubled theological scene and to cultivate instead a path of thought that requires one neither to clutch at dogma nor to tilt at it, and that offers no basis for niggling about points of orthodoxy whether in doubt or in defense. This study places him in the company of such scholars as Jean Trouillard and Joseph Combès, whose capacity to make such recondite figures as Proclus and Damascius speak to contemporary minds brought a discreet sense of the transcendent to current French thought, partly explaining the recurrence of negative theology as a topic of debate among phenomenologists and deconstructionists. Breton admires the Neoplatonists for their critical acuity and radical questioning. He is critical of Pseudo-Dionysius, despite Jean-Luc Marion’s imaginative repristination of him, and sees him as a second rate thinker in whom the critical spirit has been replaced by piety. His warmest identification is with Meister Eckhart, in whom the Neoplatonic tradition rejoins Christian incarnationalism with no lack but rather an increase of critical radicality.
In Breton there lives on something of the explosion of freedom in Catholic thinking in the sixties, since covered over by an ideology and discipline of restoration. His friend, the impassioned Jesuit historian and philosopher Michel de Certeau (1925-1981), who like Breton was able to draw subversive modern ideas from classical mystical texts, adopted the ideal of free speech enacted in the events of May 1968: ‘This new right is not a mere addition to an already long list. It is a choice which grounds and anticipates the other choices, like a secret reason that goes behind or orientates all other reasons’ (de Certeau, La prise de parole [Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1994], p. 42). The choice for freedom is the basic principle of Breton’s thought, too, one that cannot be pinned down in terms of any subsidiary principles, whether philosophical or theological. Thus every sentence Breton utters is a fearless act of free speech, a prise de parole. The Jesuit theologian Joseph Moingt, a contemporary of Breton, is another who keeps alive, in more velvet style, the spirit of freedom emblematized by de Certeau. The attitudes of the two men to de Certeau invite comparison with that of the aged Goethe to the meteoric figure of Byron.
Though Breton is well versed in the materialism and atheism of Spinoza, the Enlightenment philosophes, Marx, Althusser (to whom he was a loyal friend) and Gilles Deleuze, and though he admires the critical force of their doctrines of freedom, enacted in ‘the courage of a risk assumed’ (123), he has found in Neoplatonism a resource for resisting their materialist reductionism and keeping open the horizons of transcendence. This position makes him a marginal figure in postmodern philosophical debate, a voice of hallowed tradition. He does not speak on behalf of an institution, but as an individual believer. The ecclesial community that provides the background whence he speaks is not the massive body that one expects to be represented by Dominican or Jesuit thinkers, but a Church of little communities, without magisterial pretensions. Thus his position in the Church, too, is marginal, but it is a marginality that recalls the Church to its own authentic marginality, the marginality of the early Church toward the Roman Empire relived in the marginality of the contemporary Church as a voice in dialogue with the culture.
From this position of double decenteredness, Breton has stood for the widest freedom of Christian thought. From his rare vantage point he has occasionally issued utterances that rocked the comfortably orthodox, but few could take offense, because the iconoclasm never became a fixed polemical point-scoring but bespoke the freedom of a mind always open to the absolute and conscious of the relativity of all standpoints. A favorite adage of his is that ‘subtraction is more divine than addition.’ His gestures of subtraction pull the mat from under one’s feet, and at the same time push one forward into the open space of freedom where, if anywhere, the divine is to be encountered. Serenity – a virtue learned from Eckhart and Spinoza – or even the ‘holy indifference’ of the Quietists, which caused scandal in its day – is the basic mood of his interventions. All actions and desires are recalled to the space of emptiness which puts them in their modest and relative place: ‘without denying the singularities to which our action is attached, it is well to refer them constantly to that background of indetermination by excess of which they are both the point-promontory and the constant risk of forgetting it’ (103). Secularization, or even the polemic ideology of laicity, serves to school Christians in this detachment, in a suspension or distance which allows us ‘to see things as they are, abstracting from our prejudgments, our precipitation, and our assessments in general, however objective they may appear to be’ (127).
At the point of intersection of critical modernity and contemplative detachment, Breton offers a frank assessment of the past and present of Christianity. He sees clearly the human texture of this history, and has a mischievous eye for its foibles and especially for the absurdity of attempts to restore a vanished past. Here, for instance, is what he says about dogma: ‘The fixation of religious language – for the issue was first, though not only, one of language – could succeed only by compromise and with the help of rather subtle argumentations, of which the militant ardor or one or another group precipitated the conclusion. A reflection that attends to this “history of dogma” threatens to attenuate the trust that the idea of Revelation inspires in the believer’ (135). Breton seeks out the living event of Christianity, which manifests itself independently of the claims made for dogma and for the idea of revelation. This ‘step back’ to ‘the matter itself,’ as Heidegger would put it, is accomplished without any deep investment in historicist hermeneutics. Unlike Heidegger, Breton does not think of Tradition as some awesome force, but simply as the efforts of limited human beings to deal with religious and logical puzzles. The history of philosophy and theology both ancient and modern becomes a human comedy in Breton’s vision, and while he brings to the great figures plenty of enthusiasm and admiration he is immune to the cultic attitude that actually blinds the adoring disciple to the mobility of the adored master’s thinking. Thus Breton has never been caught up in any of the movements or fads, from the Neothomist to the postmodern, that have come and gone in his lifetime.
There is nothing esoteric in the landmarks of Christian identity that Breton identifies and that offer trustworthy orientations in his voyage into ever greater freedom. They lie in plain view in the New Testament: the Beatitudes, Paul’s account of the folly of the Cross in I Corinthians 1, the passage about the self-emptying of Christ in Philippians 2, and the commandment of love. These themes signal the distinctive character of the Christian message as a divine call that cuts across the wisdom of the world in a movement of exodus. For Breton the core of Christianity is not any established dogma but a movement of the spirit, a movement in which God goes out from himself to meet humanity in a new way – as if caught up in ‘an irrestible exodus of compassion’ (18) – and in which humans are summoned in turn to move out in generosity, compassion, and courageous quest for the Kingdom: ‘Do not disobey the imperative of moving on (l’impératif du transit )!’(17).
To do justice to this dynamism theologians have toyed with the idea of a divine kenosis or of a God who must have the freedom to choose to suffer. Breton deals with this tradition sympathetically, but queries its legitimacy as a metaphysical construction: ‘One cannot be indifferent to these troubling elucidations which tend to rejoin, in some of their aspects, the folly and weakness of the Cross. As they stand, however, in spite of an evident piety they seem to me too human. The ultimate reality that they celebrate as pure freedom is still conceived too much on the basis of human conduct, albeit the most noble imaginable’ (23). Breton goes on to refer to the great meditation of Plotinus in Enneads VI 8, where having permitted himself the extreme stretch of conceiving God as a perfect freedom that is the cause of itself, the philosopher begs to be pardoned for his boldness and stresses that all he is saying is under the sign of the ‘as if’. Similarly, Christian ideas of kenosis have to be put ‘under erasure’ and not advanced as bold speculative breakthroughs: ‘One could wish for our theologians the same delicacy of thought and the same feelings of remorse. “Forgive us our trespasses”: is this perhaps the theologian’s prayer par excellence, when he speaks of the Absolute in the most exalted language. The rare example of Plotinus is a lesson for us’ (23).
When biblical radicalism combines with the critical sophistication of Neoplatonist approaches to the absolute each lends new force to the other. The result is not a seamless synthesis but a lively movement back and forth between the two paths. The biblical vision of the humility and condescension of God is not allowed to become a bloated speculation on divine kenosis, but is correlated instead with the supreme discretion of Plotinus. God’s ‘withdrawal’ under the signs of folly and weakness in the Cross matches the flight of the absolute from all conceptual determinations. Thus the biblical kerygma is found to contain unsuspected philosophical force while the philosophical path of nescience begins to resonate with it, not in a hasty identification but in a tensely critical response that prevents biblical anthropomorphism from becoming a betrayal of the divine. The interplay of kerygma and philosophical critique anchors us in a practical attitude: ‘to let ourselves be penetrated by that kenosis which, in its refusal of being, makes us in its own “image and likeness” in a certain fashion (24). This is enacted through living the Beatitudes.
A troubling feature of the New Testament is the impression created by such expressions as ‘But I say to you’ (Mt 5:22, 27, 32) that ‘Jesus is affirming an ego that is more and more invasive’ (30). Here we touch on the question of Christ’s primacy and uniqueness as Savior, a question that has plagued interreligious theology and that was the thorniest issue in Breton’s 1981 work, Unicité et monothéisme (Éditions du Cerf). Breton points out, however, that the insistence on ‘I’ refers not to the ego of Jesus but to the irreducible new identity of the message he speaks, an identity that has persisted in Christian tradition through its vicissitudes. Here again dogmatic emphasis is led back to its source in an event, an event which is not some awesome Mystery but something that happens in the open, in the human and historical unfolding of the Christian way of life.
The modesty or realism of this vision is rooted in a keen sense that all philosophies and religious traditions are born and develop in history, and thus cannot be exempt from the weaknesses and limits of human thinking. The ‘essence of Christianity’ cannot be separated out from its ‘tormented becoming’ (9), and nowhere does the tradition close in on the divine origin: ‘That last instance recedes every time one believes it is within grasp, and this indefinite postponement may be considered the most eloquent tribute to the ultimate that draws us on’ (10).
The painful controversies about Christology turn on the identity and status of the person of Christ. Breton points to an underlying radical reality on which these controversies have no grip: the reality of Christ as the one in whom something irreducibly new comes to birth, Christ the event, emerging within Israel and enduring in the Church. This event is the heart of Christianity and it unites those of all shades of Christological belief -- even those who mutually accuse one another of Adoptionism, Arianism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism and other Christological heresies. Breton’s initial characterization of the Christian event and identity, ‘life in Christ’ (38), centers on love of neighbor, in the spirit of the Cross.
The person of the Holy Spirit is similarly recalled to the event that gave rise to the doctrine about it. Breton sketches a brief phenomenology of this pneuma (wind) that is ‘endowed with unconditional freedom’ (38) and brings to the life of charity an elements of inspiration and poetic openness to surprise. He then turns to the personalization of the idea of spirit, notably in the Johannine tradition: ‘It is by the mediation of the gift that the spirit accede to personality. Indeed, it is difficult not to associate giving with a face and a hand. The gift never ceases to evoke the giver. Likewise, the multiple effects ascribed to the Spirit suppose an agent’ (39). But Breton recognizes that a different approach to Spirit, which ‘emphasizes the anonymity of the impersonal’ (40) coexists with the personalizing one, notably in Paul. What is important is that the Beatitudes and the spirit of the Cross find their most joyful expression in the gifts and fruits of the Spirit, centered on serenity (Gelassenheit) born of trust and self-forgetting; three of the fruits listed in Galatians 5:22 open on ‘a humanity so close to each that is it no longer exterior: trust in others, leading to expansive goodness, and completed dynamically in service’ (41). The question of the ontological status of Son and Spirit arises within the total phenomenon of a new way of living, and makes little sense otherwise
This presentation of the Christian life has so far not dealt with the Pauline and Lutheran focus on the forgiveness of sins. Breton now offers a summary of Romans, which continues his recall of doctrine to event. Just as phenomenology seeks to step back to the ‘immediacy of an inaugural given,’ so Paul seeks ‘a radicality envisaged as having preceded the Torah, a pre-legislative or pre-nomic reality, which he calls faith, and of which Abraham rather than Moses is the champion’ (42). .This is the basic lesson which Paul as a Jew learned from the Scriptures. Breton deduces from Rom. 1:19-20 that even pagans can discover this dimension, and he asks whether ‘intelligence would not replace faith’ in their case, or if that is too un-Pauline, whether there is not, at the root of every quest of the ultimate, such as those of Greek or Indian thinkers, ‘a prior moment of faith, an original élan inserted by God himself in every soul’ (44-5). The Christian event is the opening of the age of faith, an age of liberty, in which ‘the law persists in muted form under the flag of the great commandment of love’ (47). It is perhaps significant that this summary makes no mention of the Atonement, the hinge topic of the Epistle, enunciated in Rom. 3:24-5. Breton may feel that these verses (probably transmitted from an earlier source, as the terminology suggests) present the mystery of the Cross in terms that are surpassed and integrated in the (equally Pauline) vision that he has already sketched, of a life of charity in the spirit of the Cross.
Looking back over his sketch of Christian essentials, we find that Breton has identified aspects that would survive such a radical shake-up. Just as the ontological status of the Son and the Spirit are secondary to the events that these figures denote, so the ontological status of God is secondary to living the presence of the divine as grace. Dogmatic claims serve only as a hedge around the authenticity of the event of Christian living. When they become banners of identity the dynamics of aggressive narcissism come into play, as each fights the others in the name of a claim to possess the one true knowledge of the foundations of the universe. The great religions are revolutions of vision, not definitive deliveries of the ultimate nature of being. When lived, the visions grow, meet and correct one another in dialogue. When erected into impregnable identities, the visions wilt, and when they meet it is to murder one another. Such at least seems the lesson to be derived from their histories.
Renouncing the Pride of Monotheism
Breton takes up the contrast of ‘faith’ and ‘religion,’ developed by Barth and Bultmann, and also much favored by Moingt, though found of limited use by those engaged in interreligious theology. For Breton, ‘religion’ sets itself up as an authority that ‘takes charge of God or the divine’ (60), while ‘faith’ follows the theologia crucis dear to Luther. Hierarchy, authority, power are the marks of religion; equality, persuasive witness, poverty, those of faith. If the hierarchical relations of authority are discredited, ‘the sacerdotal distinction between clergy and faithful, the distinction between the religious state of perfection and lay existence, and more generally between sacred and profane, are obsolete’ and it is ‘impossible to call them Christian’ any longer (62). Rather than linger over disputed questions of ecclesiastical order, Breton goes back to the Gospel, and to Jesus’s overriding of various ritual taboos in his dialogue with the Samaritan woman: ‘Driven by the Spirit which rests on him and urges him to leave “the realm of likeness,” Jesus hastens to cross the border that separates the land of the elect from the region of the infidel’ (66). The dialogue culminates in John 4:21-4, which puts the Samaritan temple and the Temple of Jerusalem on the same level, ‘stripped of all validity’ (74) in light of the discovery of God as spirit. The same imperative of passing on is faced by Christianity today. ‘Religion in its monotheistic interpretation must itself undergo a mutation… To the regime of religion succeeds the regime of faith’ (76-7). The scene of the ‘last judgment’ in Matthew 25:31-46 is marked by ‘the total absence of religion’ (79), of creed, ritual and prayer.
At this point one might well pause for critical reflection. Traditionally, we think of the New Testament as providing a given, the fact of Christ, which becomes the deposit of faith to be safely handed down by the Church from generation to generation. A purely iconoclastic Christ, who opens a space and sets up a dynamic, enacting what de Certeau call an inaugural rupture (rupture instauratrice), becomes an event that one can link up with only by reenacting it in present praxis. Over against this the claims of tradition and of a theology rooted in critical hermeneutical retrieval of past horizons need to be stressed. ‘That the Church no longer embodies meaning, that Christians are widowed from the ecclesial institution, that is the basic question’ wrote de Certeau (cited, Francois Dosse, Michel de Certeau: Le marcheur blessé [Paris: La découverte, 2002], p. 370). But this is a pathological situation, and theology must work to remedy it, precisely by reconnecting the present with the tradition as critically retrieved. The mainstream of French theology today – represented by Claude Geffré and Louis-Marie Chauvet, in succession to Henri Bouillard, and marked by the philosophies of Heidegger, Gadamer and Ricoeur, as represented in the Institut Catholique by Jean Greisch – is hermeneutical through and through. As theology opens to the other, in vulnerability and a confession of mutual need, it cannot always live ‘on the edge of a cliff’ in de Certeau’s phrase. Oriented to the ultimate, theology must nonetheless come to terms with the complexities of the conventional world and handle creatively the weight of a past which has not conveniently fallen away, and which offers either suffocation or rejuvenation depending on how we handle it.
Faced with the history of the tensions between Christianity and Judaism, Breton detects the emergence of a troubling question addressed to both traditions, a question which ‘challenges the various monotheisms and their claim to unparalleled excellence, and even the very idea of uniqueness.’ Auschwitz must not be forgotten, but neither should it fixate us in the framework of the Jewish-Christian debate. The apparent stability of such constructions as ‘Judaism’ and ‘Christianity’ is increasingly unsettled. ‘The near future promises the opening up of problems we have not suspected until now’ (54), which will challenge the claim of the monotheistic religions to have identified the single origin of all and to enshrine in their own historical origin(s) its purest revelation(s). Like Daniel Sibony, in his probing meditation on Les trois monothéismes (Éditions du Seuil, 1997), Breton notes the violence inherent in these claims, a threatened susceptibility, which lashes out at anyone who queries the purity and uniqueness of the origin (that was Loisy’s crime). The violence and hatred between Jews, Christians and Muslims cannot be papered over in bland talk of fraternity. It testifies to a deep anxiety or lack at the heart of each of the monotheistic visions and can be overcome only when the three religions share their fundamental lack, their manqué-à-être, and wean themselves away from clutching at fixated representation of origins, either transcendent or historical.
‘In confiscating the “non-figurable” in the form of the unique, monotheism sinned not only by intolerance and anthropomorphism. The elaboration of monotheism presented in theology, even that of St. Thomas, identified the monotheistic Most High with the fullness of being. Hence, for our critical moderns, the totalitarian specter of an All identified with the Absolute’ (153). A sense of superiority, harboring contempt and violence, may lurk even in tautological expressions, such as ‘Dieu est Dieu, nom de Dieu’ (Maurice Clavel). The principle of identity affirms one’s being, or more dynamically, the effort of a being to persist in its being (Spinoza). But Neoplatonism encourages us to see being as merely ‘a trace of the One’: ‘Negative theology as a phenomenon of language is based on the radicalism of a deconstruction that is in turn inseparable from a mystical élan’ (158). Monotheism, then, is a language that functions as a trace of the ultimate. To recover the freedom of its relationship to the ultimate it needs to undertake a self-critique, in dialogue with the other religious traditions that it formerly spurned.
The space of freedom that Breton seeks to open up has an objective correlative in the interreligious space opening up around Christians today. The retreat of the origin – both in the sense of an easily identifiable divine origin and in the sense of a securely grasped historical foundation of the tradition – takes a new form, as Christianity finds itself drawn into an interreligious space which puts it in question at a depth not found in intra-Christian controversy or even in the challenge of atheism. ‘This ordeal is aggravated by what we must call the struggle for recognition in the present proliferation of religious movements’ (10). Christians discover that their God is but one figure of the origin among a variety of others, and that the historical trajectory of their tradition has to combat with many other trajectories in the history of the religious thought of humanity
If any religion can set itself up as arbiter in the fray, it is Buddhism, the most self-critical of the religions. Buddhism has long seemed to Breton to offer a solution to the headaches of Christian tradition, along lines similar to Neoplatonism, but in a more vital and comprehensive way, given that Buddhism is a living religion. Buddhism begins with the acceptance of lack and the renunciation of substantialist or eternalist delusions. The ailing monotheisms can find here a source of gracious healing and a reminder of what is best in their own traditions, a recall to the humility of their true origins which undercuts the pride embodied in their myths of origin.
The topic of nothingness or emptiness fascinates Breton, who regards Japan as a homeland of his mind and often recalls his encounters with Nishitani Keiji, last great representative of the Kyoto school of philosophers and author of Religion and Nothingness (University of California Press, 1982). The joy of this encounter is mixed with regret at not knowing the languages of the East and never having had the opportunity to acquire a sufficiently intimate knowledge of its religious and philosophical traditions. This yearning for the world of Buddhism, which even now few Western philosophers share, is a sign of the radicality of Breton’s spiritual quest. He recognizes the religious force of Buddhism and Vedanta, which are closely allied, and sees the path of faith today as invited to take its bearings from both. His account of these traditions is a faithful one, though his understanding of ultimate reality in Vedanta is no doubt too inflected by references to the Neoplatonic structure of the One beyond being. The Neoplatonic way of situating nothingness or emptiness is the hinge of Breton’s thought, the plateau whence he surveys East and West, Christianity and secularity, and it is a complex and enigmatic realm of thought in its own right. To measure precisely in what respects it falls short as a path to the understanding of Vedantism and Buddhism is a delicate task.
If wisdom is dormant within us, and needs only to be awakened by appropriate methods, then the role of a positive historical revelation seems superfluous or even damaging. Revelation is the personal act of a God who speaks, in particular events, in contrast to the silent, impersonal ‘manifestation’ of truth in Vedantic or Buddhist wisdom. This remains a puzzle for Breton, who is ready to live with the tension it involves. Similarly, in discussing Buddhist non-self, he points out that in the West too, ‘the reduction of the “I” to a series or aggregate or psycho-organic factors’ (188) is a familiar strategy, though one that has had little effect on the prevalent individualist assertion of self. He then jousts critically with the difficulties that the doctrines of non-self and of nirvana suggest, and instead of claiming to resolve them embraces the practical side of Buddhism as expressed in the Eightfold Path: ‘One can only admire the wisdom that dictated its different stages. I think it could be taken as defining what I would like to call the “common sense” of the great religions’ (191).
In the figure of the Chinese sage, Breton finds an Orient more remote from Western philosophical habits of mind than Hinduism or Buddhism. (Breton himself, with his ebullient laugh, twinkling eyes, and youthful old age, recalls a Taoist sage rather than any species of Buddhist.) The detachment and flexibility of the sage who is ‘without ideas,’ without presuppositions that inhibit the free movement of the mind, both attracts and disturbs, as representing an extreme degree of indifference: ‘Free from every precondition, indeterminable in principle, it is then the outside, the world in its innumerable difference, that makes the interior difference of the sage’ (197). Too detached to become a prisoner even of his own choices, the sage ‘would not share our intransigence before the horrible’ (199).
From this supposed extreme, Breton retreats to Nâgârjuna: ‘The one who lives in emptiness has no attitude, positive or negative, in regard to anything’; he is rooted in ultimate reality, emptiness (sûnyatâ), ‘the primary energy underlying the discourse of indifference’ (209). Like the Neoplatonic One beyond being, emptiness for all its radicality serves as a guiding principle. Recalling the title of Breton’s most ambitious work, Du Principe, one divines that such a final instance is a requisite of his thought. Yet in Nâgârjuna emptiness, the absence of inherent existence in dependently co-arisen entities, is a self-undercutting principle, merely a key for unlocking a nirvanic perspective on the samsaric world (see now the valuable translation and commentary by the late Guy Bugault. Nâgâruna: Stances du milieu par excellence [Paris: Gallimard, 2002]). A critique of Neoplatonism from a Madhyamaka perspective would carry Breton’s questions closer to their goal, but the difficulties of such an undertaking remain formidable.
Returning to the question of Christian uniqueness in the interreligious context, Breton upholds neither an exclusivist nor an inclusivist uniqueness nor what he calls a uniqueness of indifference, which neither judges nor integrates but merely ignores the other religions and remains agnostic about them. All he claims for Christianity is the uniqueness of its own specific identity. The other three kinds of uniqueness are positions of superiority and of judgment. ‘Specific uniqueness, for its part, is marked by a perfect neutrality… In contrast to religion, which claims the privileges of uniqueness of excellence, faith in the cross of Christ is content with minimal uniqueness,’ the uniqueness of a singularity not found elsewhere. ‘This minimum suffices to assure the consistency and originality of Christianity’ and is ‘the necessary and sufficient condition for the insertion of Christianity in interreligious space’ (216).
Breton’s thought on the ultimate status and role of Christianity advances modestly, touching on many questions, and rarely giving a definitive answer. It has the lightness and provisionality of a net, cast out into a vast sea. On June 11, 2003, at a ceremony to mark the transference of his library to the Institut Catholique de Paris, where he taught for many years, he spoke of a sense of emptiness now that his room in the Passionist house at Champigny is devoid of the books that accompanied him throughout his life. He concluded with the words of Edith Piaf, ‘Je ne regrette rien. Je repars à zéro’ (the song de Certeau chose for his funeral service). Others march into battle with an army of books, which may become a fortress keeping the other at bay, but Breton, as he heads into his tenth decade, extends his empty hands to the many neighbors Christianity is now discovering for itself in a new religious landscape. Dialogue with those neighbors, he teaches us, is both the most rewarding and the most urgent task of Christian thought today.
Philosophy & Theology 16, 2004