Surprise Encounter in Bordeaux, France

Verbatim written the same evening documenting an intriguing dialogue, October 2014

Notre Dame Cathedral, Bordeaux, France, is a noisy, not silent sacred place, since stone masons are reopening the sealed royal portal once reserved for the grand entrance of the king. Now workmen are chipping away centuries old mortar and stone. Soon the great Gothic arch will be fitted with massive doors that will admit commoners where only royalty dared enter.

Leann is watching their work through a protective window, when two English speaking men include her in their viewing and translating of the story posted in French.  She summons me to join the circle and soon a lively conversation about monarchy, hierarchy, Catholic Christendom, Constantine, Jesus and the awful mess of church history ensues.

“I’m an atheist,” announces the more portly man, a retired attorney from San Francisco, now proprietor of a Bordeaux B and B.

“An atheist? Wonderful. I so rarely get to meet an authentic atheist.”

“Why not, there are many of us all around.”

“Not so many, they usually turn out to be agnostics who no longer believe the god of their childhood. I soon discover that the god they no longer believe in is a god I do not believe in either.”

“Well, I gave up on religion after reading the Koran, then starting to read the Bible to compare. I got as far as the story of Aaron going up on the mountain to talk with god for days . . . “

“Perhaps you are referring to Moses and Mount Sinai?”

“Yes, Moses. And while he is up there, the people he is leading make a bull of gold.”

“The golden calf, you must mean?”

“Yes, that’s it, the golden calf, and they worship the thing—they sing and dance, and god gets really mad and decides to kill them all, men, women and children, every living soul,  until Moses gets him to change his mind. A very fickle sort of god, it seems to me, a rather petty god, to be sure. But why am I telling you the story, obviously you know the whole ugly thing. How could anyone believe in a god like that?”

“So you got as far as Exodus. You should have read a couple of books farther and taken a look at Joshua and Judges where the god they believe in commands them to commit genocide on all the offending pagan tribes. Now that’s ugly.”


“The Bible is a collection of books written over a couple thousand years, and different persons in different periods saw god in very different ways.  So, the god you no longer believe in I do not believe in either.”

“How can you say that? That is the god of the Bible, and one important principle of logic I learned in law school is that you can’t pick and choose. Either you buy into the whole kettle of fish, as Richard Dawkins put it, or you throw it out.”

“That may work on legal documents, but it doesn’t work in interpreting art, literature, philosophy, or theological texts. We all pick and choose. It is how humans sort through great heaps of data. The point is by what criteria we pick, by what principles we choose. What is our hermeneutic?”

“So how do you go about it?”

“In reading the Bible, since I am a follower of Jesus, I look at how he read the Hebrew Scriptures. He chose particular persons to quote such as the prophets Isaiah and Micah to tell us what God is like. You, he, and I do not believe in a genocidal war god, even though we are standing in a cathedral built by those who did.”

“Well, they needed an almighty power, and sometimes we may need a vengeful god to pull us together in times of war, to help us take action to set limits in places like Iraq and Iran.”

“Funny you should mention them at this point, could you be picking and choosing from the doctrines of George W Bush?”

“Well he wasn’t all wrong about Saddam Hussein.”

“We were all wrong about Saddam, wrong from the beginning.”

“How were we wrong?”

“The West made him, supported him, financed him, used him, armed him, then scapegoated him for what others did in 9/11. We choose scape goats that no one will defend and he was the best available scape goat to serve our purposes since no one liked him.”

“He may have been a scape goat but he certainly had everything coming to him that he got. We had to protect our interests.”

“Our interests? Can you by any chance be referring to oil?”

“Oil is of primary interest to the whole world.”

“Tell me again who you used to work for . . .That sounded very much like the policies of Halliburton.”

“Halliburton wasn’t all wrong either.”

“I wouldn’t have any idea how to pick and choose from Halliburton policies.  If you can explain how they were right in peace-building and nation building in Iraq, I would be interested in hearing it.”

“Now that you asked, I’m not sure that I can and you may have a point there.

“As I said a moment ago, we all pick and choose. I recall you said a moment ago that you found it helpful to pick and choose from the guidelines of Richard Dawkins, and work in a few bits from Halliburton. Did I hear you rightly? “

“That about sums it up.”

“May I say the obvious? I prefer the Jesus of the gospels.”

“No comment.”

“What a conversation. It is worth going to a cathedral to have an exchange like this.”

“Never happened to me before.”

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