- How to Awaken the Dead: Michel de Certeau, Henri de Lubac, and the Instabilities between the Past and the Present
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On the first day of January in 1951, as a Jesuit novice, Michel de Certeau wrote a letter to his mentor, the theologian Henri de Lubac, “My reverend Father,” he began, “this year that is beginning makes me, over each day of silence in this novitiate, a little more your son. This certainty is one of the joys in my communion with Jesus.”1 Four years later, de Certeau assured his teacher, “you,” he wrote, “are at the origin of my vocation.”2 Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, de Certeau’s thoughts veered again and again toward de Lubac, writing letters to him expressing his gratitude and debt. In 1960, de Certeau published an article commending de Lubac’s work on medieval exegesis, and two others followed in 1964, an essay on the term “mystique” in de Lubac’s Festschrift and another laudatory article, “Un maître: le père Henri [End Page 172] de Lubac.”3 For a time, the feelings were mutual, and they stayed in close contact after de Certeau completed his studies. In the late 1950s de Lubac even identified in his promising student a possible heir to the ressourcement project. In 1960, de Lubac underwent a dangerous medical procedure, and named de Certeau executor of his will.4 But by the mid-1960s tensions surfaced and by 1971, the relationship strained to the point of rupture.
This paper takes the friendship between these two historians of Christian spirituality—its beginnings, maturation, and eventually, complete dissolution—as a way to illuminate a particular moment of divergence that occurred within the Catholic ressourcement project (we might even call it a “rupture instauratrice” [“the inaugurating rupture”] to use de Certeau’s own language). This also brings to light certain tensions within the broader interest in pre-modern mystical texts that had long energized the French intellectual scene, both theological and secular. To read the split between de Lubac and de Certeau closely also helps us to see why de Certeau, like so many other French thinkers in this context, maps uneasily onto the modern binary, the secular versus the theological. Yet, we cannot get beyond these dichotomous terms in de Certeau’s—or anyone else’s—thought by diminishing the tensions between them. So my goal here is to focus on the strains as closely as I can. De Lubac and de Certeau laid claim to two distinct, irreconcilable models of how the Christian past can be integrated with the present, and their competing understandings of the relationship between the secular and theological underwrote their ideas on how to best read Christian history as scholars.
When Michel de Certeau entered the Society of Jesus in the aftermath of the Second World War, it was no surprise he chose Lyon for his seminary and Henri de Lubac as his teacher. As so many have recalled de Lubac was the “grand lumière,” the “maître incontestable” of the wartime and postwar Catholic intellectual scene.5 By then, de Lubac had become most prominently associated with the “turn to the sources” (ressourcement) project, which laid the foundations for the changes inaugurated at the Second Vatican Council. In 1944, de Lubac described the whole task of theology as the “rediscovering” of Christianity. “But how can one do that,” he asked, “if not by going back to its sources, trying to recapture it in its periods of explosive vitality, trying to touch anew the creative thought that achieved them? How many explorations into distant history such research supposes! How much archeology!”6 For de Lubac the work of “going back to the sources” was twofold: It required painstakingly detailed, retrieval of ancient and medieval primary sources in original languages. The ressourcement could not be “cheap,” and to do it well one needed philological, archeological, historical skills. The context of sources mattered deeply. “Unity between the past and the present too quickly asserted,” de Lubac insisted, “is without any stimulating value.”7 On the other hand...