While he was a prisoner of war in 1940, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a nativity play. He is primarily remembered as a philosopher, but he also wrote novels, films, songs, and plays so his wartime playwriting isn’t too surprising in that regard. However, as a famously public atheist, a play about the coming of Jesus seems like a strange topic for Sartre. Why did he write this?
The play is called Bariona, sometimes given the subtitle A Christmas Play for Believers and Non-Believers. Bariona is the main character, a shepherd, who is witnessing the bizarre happenings of Christ’s birth. Sartre wrote this for his fellow prisoners, hoping to foster some unity during the difficult months of isolation. He was there from June 1940 until March 1941. This time of seclusion was particularly fruitful for him. Some of his greatest works were completed during this period, and several others were drafted. He had always been an avid fan of the theater and the movies but it wasn’t until his capture that he set out to finally write his own drama. The first play he completed was Bariona.
If only we were all so motivated by bleak situations! Whatever inspiration he found in being a prisoner was unique. This post is not about encouraging you to use this quarantine as your chance to finally write your masterpiece. (Unless you do find yourself suddenly motivated to write your masterpiece, then go ahead and let this post inspire you.) There are two things I want to think about regarding this Sartre play: (1) why do distressing times lead even the non-religious to religion? and, (2) how is God with us in distressing times?
What is it about fear that draws one to God? I don’t know if Sartre was at all interested in God when he wrote this play. Interviews and his memoirs suggest that God was only ever a political force, never a person with which one could interact. But he nonetheless saw this as an appropriate time to engage with religious material in a way that he never had and never would again. He saw the anxiety on the faces of the other prisoners, and no doubt felt the uncertainty along with them. Would they survive this? What kind of world waited for them on the other side of this conflict? These questions can’t be answered. Of course nothing can be known about the future. The future is not known. That’s it. That’s the definition of future: the stuff that is going to happen but that we don’t know anything about. One of the big philosophical ideas in Sartre’s work, which he derived from a philosopher who ironically became a card-carrying Nazi, is that the only certain fact of the future is our own death. Everything else is unknown.
So imagine a world-shaking event which threatens our food, our jobs, our systems of government, our livelihoods. That’s what World War II was, especially to countries in Europe. I think we can imagine this. Our world is not at war but we are stuck in our homes, uncertain of what the world will be like on the other side.
When I think of facing the future, I picture myself standing on a river. It’s one river behind me and it’s a thousand streams in front of me. Which stream will I follow? It’s not always up to me because sometimes circumstances force me to follow one or another stream. The sheer mystery can become overwhelming. But of course, every second of every day is packed with this mystery. What will happen next? We never know. But we can anticipate. Usually, we can anticipate that we won’t lose access to grocery stores and we can anticipate that we’ll have a chance to go camping this weekend, or that we’ll have eggs and toast for breakfast tomorrow. But in times like this…our vision for seeing what’s likely to happen next is reduced to the next few hours. Projecting into the future much beyond today isn’t really possible.
This is where nostalgia often comes in. Imagine the image of the river and the thousand streams again. Now imagine if there was one branch of the river that circled back, that fed back into the river. A loop. Now that isn’t so scary. If I follow that stream, it just goes back to where it started. I know what’s next: the same thing over and over. Well, that’s nostalgia. It’s comforting. It’s a little time loop that’s familiar and cozy and it gives me affirmation that I know things about my world. I have often heard nostalgia compared to religion, in these ways. Religion, taken in the broadest sense possible, is a way of following the closed loop stream. The future stream that follows the religious path is like nostalgia in that it’s a closed loop. Religion is unlike nostalgia in that its contents are not the things we know. How can that work? How can we follow a path with confidence, which has already been explored but which hasn’t been personally explored by me?
If we believe in God, we can accept that there is a plan. We might not know the details. We may not know any of what’s next. But what we’re given through our faith is a confidence that the future holds more than mystery and death.
That’s not to say that God orchestrated this terrible situation in which we currently find ourselves. That’s not to say that God orchestrates every little action. All that this means is that there is an Intelligence working to affect Its plan. That alone is comforting. It’s not all chaos and mystery and death. As Christians we get to see a little more behind the curtain: it’s not just an intelligence, it’s compassionate and personal and it’s stated a million times that it loves us.
Suddenly the terror I feel when facing the thousand streams of the future seems small. So there’s a thousand possible futures? Well, I know three things about the future now: 1. I will die some time, 2. God is in control, and 3. God loves me.
The kind of uncertainty and fear that I feel in these days is about my future, my physical needs. Will I still have a job? A home? All these big big big concerns have been on my mind and the minds of many other people we know. I don’t know how deeply Sartre’s fear took him into religion. He maintained that he wrote the play strictly to minister to the social needs of the other prisoners. I’m content to allow him that defense. But even in that mission, of strengthening the social unity of the prisoners, he turned to the priests who were locked up with him, and to the Christian mythology, as he put it. He may have rejected the Christian story on a personal level, but he saw the power of it applied to the terror of a group of captured soldiers in a Nazi prisoner camp on Christmas.
This brings us to the second question: How is God with us?
Christmas is the story of God with us. What is fear? Is it physical or intellectual? Well, animals seem to feel fear so we should conclude that fear is a physical thing. But then how do I get scared watching a Stephen King movie or reading the news? Those are intellectual activities. The answer is simply that we are creatures with two realities: a physical and an intellectual. Our human life is in the unity of these two natures. So God answers our deep needs as beings by attending to both our physical and non-physical needs.
God’s approach to addressing our fear then has to be both physical and non-physical. He tells us about Himself (intellectual) and He became human (physical). One of the lines of dialogue from Sartre’s play that has persisted in my theological imagination is a prophecy shared about Mary and the child she will bear: “She will give him her breast and her milk will become the blood of God.”
As Christians we talk an awful lot about the blood of Christ. It saves. It heals. It performs the reality of the Incarnation and the Resurrection. And it is like our blood. As my body is made up of the stuff from my food, my parents, the air I’ve breathed, and all these other physical realities, so was Christ’s blood of His world. Jesus wasn’t just the perfection of God haphazardly plopped into space-time. Jesus was the perfection of God but His matter was the stuff of His world. Now let’s tie this up: Jesus entered time. He stood over the river and saw the future proceed into a thousand streams of possibilities. His experience of the stream is different from mine because the milk he drank became the blood of God. That means that He didn’t have to fear the future, whatever the future may have brought to Him. And now here I stand, over a river with a thousand streams of the future emanating out from this spot. Many of these streams look scary and bleak. But I am covered by something which should give me confidence that none of these scary streams are all that scary. I’m covered by Christ’s blood! God is with me and my future is one that is held by Him; He who is in control and He who loves me.