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This article is taken from PN Review 254, Volume 46 Number 6, July - August 2020.

Exactly Where We Are, Roughly Frederic Raphael
The Pope delivers blessings to an empty St Peter’s square. The Archbishop of York talks with lengthy admiration about a rabbi who said something worth listening to. Churches are closed; clerics offer the pious no priority channel to the strait gate. Reliance on God’s mysterious ways is not prescribed. Before science became the measurer of all things, the plague and/or Black Death could be blamed on the you-know-whos who poisoned the wells etc., thus saving St Augustine’s claim that God favoured Christians. The stiffening of theology, in the Middle Ages, into hierarchical orthodoxy chimed with lethal epidemics. Centralisation of the creed and the Vatican’s treatment of the Albigensians rallied the apprehensive to Mother Church.

Isolation promotes heterodoxy. Sequestered in his Girondin château, Michel de Montaigne, soon an indexed heretic, advanced singular notions of tolerance while the plague decimated late sixteenth-century Bordeaux. Since he had just ceased to be the city’s mayor, it became convenient to accuse him of cowardice, if not devilish complicity, for remaining outside the city walls. Reluctance to endorse the sentence of death by incineration on dissenters was taken as a slur on the Holy Office. A century later, Blaise Pascal recommended betting on Christ while you still had time; he also invented the wristwatch so you could always have it on you. His contemporary René Descartes avoided being stigmatised by an appendix to his cogito which made God the guarantor of appearances, thus proving His existence and averting the Inquisition. Intelligence and accommodation with power have long gone ...

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