Laurence Cossé is a journalist in France and past president of the European Community Commission. Her expertise is primarily in the area of political science. The tantalizing surprise in her novel is that an unknown physics professor has written a six-page proof for the existence of God that is not only unassailably true, but it also demonstrates that "the cruelty of the world and the goodness of God aren't contradictory anymore. Human errors, follies, atrocities, finally make sense."47 As we follow the author into the world of this novel, we are asked to suspend our skepticism, and accept that this proof of God's existence, sovereignty, and goodness are demonstrated beyond any doubt, and obvious upon a single reading of the short document.
One of the first persons to read this proof, other than its author, is Fr Hervé Montgaroult, a Roman Catholic member of the "Casuist Order," and an academic cosmologist by trade whose specialty is disproving all proofs of God's existence. In the hours and days after first reading this document, Fr Hervé proceeds to walk through the streets of Paris in an ecstatic frame of mind, absolutely converted by the proof. "The universe, hitherto jumbled like a holographic drawing, now found its depth and meaning."48 As he thought it through, it came to him that this revelation will not end human suffering, but it will give suffering a clear reason, a satisfactory justification. As word gets out, the social impact of the proof, Hervé predicts, will be broadly beneficial. "Neighbors who had always eyed one another with suspicion would be talking to each other. Couples ten years separated would phone each other from distant places."49 Work would stop and the effect would be similar to a general strike, but in time, "things would return to order - to what used to seem the disorder of creation and would at last look clear and lovely. Many persons would not change their lives. Many would. Nothing would any longer be the way it had been, but nothing of what is would disappear. Man would know himself to be truly free."50
The following day, the Prime Minister of France, Jean-Charles Petitgrand, is briefed by Fr Le Dangeolet, the Provincial of the Casuists in France, about the nature of the document. Petitgrand never reads the proof, but is transformed just by seeing the envelope in which it rests. After Le Dangeolet leaves his office, Petitgrand seeks out a lowly parish priest to confess to and determines that night to dedicate the remainder of his days to loving his wife and growing his roses. "For the ten or fifteen years he had left to live, he would praise the Eternal One, simply, through love for his roses, for his wife, and for his fellow man."51 He awoke the next morning, told his long neglected wife he was devoting the morning to her, had an hour-long breakfast, went with her to the Museum of French Romanticism - which she had been after him to do for 10 years, and he even indulged her desire to ride there on the bus. A few days later, the Prime Minister resigned his office with the simple press release: there has been "a sudden irruption of meaning into my life."52
Fr Hervé and Prime Minister Petitgrand represent the more cordial reception of this bombshell. Their colleagues were much more agitated. For their part, the cabinet ministers of the French government concluded that disclosure of this document would lead people to spend all of their time attempting to get closer to God, and France would become one huge monastery. Instead of working or aspiring to affluence, instead of "the every-man-for-himself, the activism, the copycat greed, [the trust in] money as guiding light," people would devote themselves to praying and studying Scripture. Consequently, private businesses and public services would soon be in a shambles, and society would be plunged into an economic crisis without precedent.53
Among the hierarchy in the Church, it was anticipated that once word about the proof went public, the first effect would be widespread chaos. As Le Dangeolet briefs his superior within the Casuist Order:
Our complex, fragile economies will be turned upside down. Dazzled by God, men will have no further reason to keep working to make the machine turn the way it used to. The primacy of economic matters will crumble. Ninety percent of human undertakings will look foolish, meaningless, pathetic. The ad man, the beautician, all the merchants of dreams and escape, will close up shop. The arms merchants all the more so. The only tenable behavior will be more or less what contemplatives do: prayer and frugality ...
We've had a hard enough time putting a little order on earth over twenty centuries The order of priorities, the scale of importance, the distinction between essential and incidental... The basic values of the model societies here below will come unbolted: values of work, of enrichment/development, of social organization.54
The second effect, according to Le Dangeolet as he continues in his Grand Inquisitor mode, is that the world will fill with religious zealots, people brimming with goodness and organizing into idealistic communities reminiscent of the old Cathars and Anabaptists. This withdrawal from reality will lead inexorably, he suggests, to a suicidal fanaticism. Doubt about God's existence, he suggests, maintained our mutual respect for one another over the centuries of modernity because it deprived us of absolute certainty regarding our own beliefs. "Look at the Crusaders, the Inquisitors, as well as the atheist revolutionaries: all of them slashed and burned and guillotined, completely confident they were doing the right thing. In the end, doubt is the only counterweight to human madness."55
This point is made even more sharply by Fr Velter, the Archbishop of Paris. From the moment God was a sure thing in human consciousness, man would become terrifyingly free. ... If man had stayed more or less moral right up until the end of this second millennium, there were two reasons for it. Either he didn't believe in God, and felt responsible himself for the world; or else he did believe in God, but without being sure, and therefore did good in order to make God exist, as it were. But once he knew God was a certainty, he would feel no further responsibility for either the salvation of the world or the divine advent.56
The proof of God's existence, it is concluded by both government and church officials, must never be made public because it will do more harm than good. While this comes across, on one hand, as a patronizing decision, it also, on the other hand, is a decision that follows quite insightful reflections on the moral springs that move real human beings. More than Ferrucci and in contrast to Morrow, Cosse shows great sympathy for the Grand Inquisitors in her story.
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