Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Atheist's Mass

First, I turned in the exam. It was rather difficult, but now there is nothing I can do about it.

Afterwards, I decided to take in a short story by Honore de Balzac. I cheated because I read "The Atheist's Mass" in English (but the English seemed difficult also, who knows when it was translated). The title caught my attention, and when I started I had no idea what I would find. Would this be a sure slam against Christianity (religion) or what? Anyway, I enjoyed the story, but I am not quite sure what the main point was. Maybe you can help me? I always struggle with literature, just ask Lady R (and my mom who has helped me with a couple of my classics in high school).

Here is a somewhat short synopsis of the plot. There is a surgeon Dr. Bianchon who was the assistant to Dr. Desplein. Now, this Dr. Desplein was at one time famous but after his death, his fame faded. Dr. D was a hard core atheist and an excellent surgeon in his day. Dr. B became his assistance and the two men became great friends. One day Dr. Bianchon saw Dr. Desplein enter a church to what seemed to be for mass. This act confused Dr. Bianchon. Why was such an atheistic man going to church? So, the next year he noted also that Dr. Desplein went to mass on the same day. Dr. B went to the church leaders and found that Dr. Desplein had actually paid for this mass and four times a year he went to church when this mass was presented. One day Dr. B asked Dr. Desplein what he thought about the mass in general. Dr. Desplein said:

A farce,” said Desplein, “which has cost Christendom more blood than all Napoleon’s battles and all Broussais’ leeches. The mass is a papal invention, not older than the sixth century, and based on the Hoc est corpus. What floods of blood were shed to establish the Fete-Dieu, the Festival of Corpus Christi—the institution by which Rome established her triumph in the question of the Real Presence, a schism which rent the Church during three centuries! The wars of the Count of Toulouse against the Albigenses were the tail end of that dispute. The Vaudois and the Albigenses refused to recognize this innovation.

So, this response brought about more contradictions. Finally, Dr. B. asked Dr.Desplein about this. Dr. Desplein told a long story about the poverty of his youth. He poured himself into his scientific studies to become a surgeon. One day his neighbor Bourgeat informed him that they both were being evicted from their apartment. Bourgeat offered the use of his cart to move both men. They decided to try and find an appartment together. Even though Bourgeat did not have much money, he believed in what Desplein was doing and saved his money to invest in Desplein's studies. Later, when Desplein becomes a famous surgeon in Paris, Bourgeat fell sick. Bourgeat was a man of faith and asked if Desplein could secure the clergy for his death. Thus, out of respect for Bourgeat,Desplein went to mass four times a year.

The question with what the reader is left is did Desplein believe.

"Will not those who believe like to fancy that the humble Auvergnat came to open the gate of Heaven to his friend"


Kc said...

Honestly it seems to me to be a comfort to those who trust in a works based salvation but are certain they've missed the mark but then I'm pretty shallow.

pecheur said...

Outside the catholique issue of the meaning of the mass, one may find comfort from the story.

But here is an interesting question,"Can the faith of a non believer be transferred to the account of the believer, as was the case here?" Now, I am looking at this from catholic perspective believing that faith is faith.

Did the "believer's faith" transfer to the atheists? Or did the atheist's acts of "faith" transfer to the believer. See Romans 1:17

"For in it is revealed God's righteousness from faith to faith. As it is written, "But the righteous shall live by faith." "

pecheur said...

So, if we were to look at the story as a true faith experience of the doctor, one can see that if the doctor did believe he only believed because of the "actions" of Bourgeat. He came to faith because he saw it in Bourgeat.

Kc said...

Hmmm... I didn't see faith illustrated at all by Desplein which led me to the works based salvation perception. Even without faith he did "good" works because of Bourgeat. I still think I'm too dense grasp the author's intent. ;-)

Anonymous said...

yes, two reports. after the second report,"pecheur" got into so much trouble that he never asked me help anymore.


pecheur said...

Yeah, but it proves my point. I had no idea what was going on, so it was better to have a "different" interpretation than no interpretation at all.

However, if it had not been for you reading the Mayor of Castleburry and Deerslayer, I would have never known what the author was saying. =)

pecheur said...


Ah ha...herein lies the entire arguement. Did Dr. Desplein have faith or not. Of course, he paid for the mass, a good work, but did he do the good work "through faith"?

This could be another post, but what does "faith without works" mean?

Now, no one knows for sure if Desplein exercised faith or not. But if this story were not about a catholic mass, could we ask the same question?

In other words, what if this were about a "protestant" (and I know we could talk about that for days and we might but...)? How would the story be different in order to get across the same message? For example, a protestant may entitle the work (to the degradation of the work itself) "A Saved Atheist," or even an Evangelical may say, "A Born-Again Atheist." But even those terms do not capture the same spirit as an "Atheist's Mass." Mainly, because to a protestant or an evangelical (sometimes one in the same depending on the geographical location of the person) that proposed title assumes the person came to faith. For example, he was once an atheist now he is "saved."

But with the origin title, one never knows whether Desplein had faith. In other words, can you be an atheist and a "Christian" at the same time? Desplein thought the mass was a farce but out of respect paid for the mass and attended it. Why? And for what good?

OK, so since we have changed the title for the protestants, how might the story change in order to get to the same question?

Here is my short proposal (again my apologies to Honore de Balzac). There is a bright surgeon who is the assistant to a famous surgeon in town (we are going to have to change the setting some also). The famous surgeon is an atheist. But one day his underling finds him going to First Baptist Anywhere. He is confused and when he gest a chance, he confronts him about it. The "atheist" doctor tells him how poor he was growing up, but he met a man who fully trusted in the providence of God. He went to church every Sunday morning, night, and Wednesaday night. He was a good man.

Near the last days of this man, the doctor asked him, "If I could do anything for you, what would it be?"

The response from the man, "Secure your own destiny, trust Christ."

So from then on, this man attended church every Christmas and Easter. He walked the aisle, prayed a prayer, and confessed publically that Jesus is Lord, and then got baptised. His co worker saw him going to church on Easter and found this to be a contradiction of his atheistic views. He asked him what he thought about church in general, and the man said that he found the people in the church to be hypocrites and the whole thing was a one man "preacher" show on Sunday mornings. But later on, this co worker followed his boss to church on Christmas, and then asked him to exaplain how he was an atheist but attended church on Christmas and Easter. The man then recounts the events.

Did he have faith?

Kc said...

Again I don't see where faith is illustrated and unless there were any verasity to his confession I would have to say he never had faith but still I think I'm missing the point somehow.

Kc said...

Oh and "Hi mom" (hehe).

pecheur said...


I think there are more questions raised than can be answered.

But that's what makes it fun.

Matt said...

Hi Pech! I haven't read any Balzac, but I did notice something in the story that reminded me of some useless trivia: My Latin professor claims that when magicians began to say "Hocus Pocus," they were mocking the "Hoc est corpus" of the Holy Catholic church. He claims that they were implying that both processes are nothing more than "slight of hand." Who knows?
Anyway, I like to "check up" on you now and then ;-) I hope all is well. We're busy getting ready for my graduation May 6, then a move from Denver to Western Colorado.
God Bless,

pecheur said...


Good to see you around.

I did not know that about Hoc est corpus.

Wishing you well with the move and specially Graduation

pecheur said...

To all,

This has been a very exciting post. We have had many people weighing in on the topic. We have had Catholics and non-Catholics helping me understand the strange world of literature (I would have liked to had some atheists give their two cents. But I guess it is like that time I asked a Jewish man, "So, as a Jew what do you think about Jesus?" His response, "As a Jew, not too much." So, I guess the atheists out there don't think too much about the mass (teehee) ).

Thanks to you and maybe we can discuss literature again sometime.

Theophileous said...

This may not mean anything but I would like to weigh in with my thoughts. I think it is a way to illustrate that works without faith is dead, being alone. This would cause a quandry to most church-goers because they feel the highest aspect of Christian living is attending church, mass if catholic. The author, it appears, is illustrating that one can do so with no faith at all. Typical Christians would probably find this offensive but to those of us who understand grace we find it just as amusing as probably did the author. Quite interesting. I really enjoyed the thought.