I had an article published this weekend about the faith of Jean-Paul Sartre — his nominally Catholic upbringing, his atheistic philosophy, and the subtle shifts that took place in his thinking towards the end of his life.I can’t copy it all here, but here are a few lines about his early life:
Sartre was a Catholic. His mother didn’t have a strong faith, but she had him baptised. When his father died – Sartre was only 15 months old – he and his mother went to live with her parents. Sartre’s maternal grandmother was more involved with her faith, so there was some rhythm of church attendance and Mass-going for the young boy. He remembered the feeling that God was watching him all the time, especially when he was naughty; and the pain in his knees when he was forced to kneel in church.
But God gradually drifted out of his consciousness, and religious indifferentism became the background to his growing up. By the time of his famous lecture at the Club Maintenant in 1945 he could say ‘existentialism is nothing else but an attempt to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position’. Much of this was posturing: he softens this statement in the lines that follow. Yet there is no doubt about the powerful and largely negative influence he had on the faith of many young Catholics in this period. I admire much of Sartre’s philosophy, but I am not naïve enough to think that his words or his lifestyle were simply a force for good in post-war European society.
Sartre was a notorious atheist, attacking a particular conception of God. It’s a shame that he didn’t go deeper in his exploration of how God was understood in the tradition of Christian philosophy and theology:
He had plenty of opportunities for discussion over the years. Catholic heavy-weights like Marcel, Maritain and Gilson were in dialogue with existentialism. Stalag XIID, his prisoner of war camp, was full of French priests, some of them serious thinkers. He gravitated to them as fellow intellectuals. They taught him Gregorian chant, and he gave them talks on Heidegger. If only it had been the other way round, and he had had a few existentialist drinking songs up his sleeve, to sing in exchange for some lectures on Aquinas’s understanding of God as Pure Act.
There were nevertheless some shifts that took place later in his life:
There is an urban myth that Sartre had a death-bed conversion, called for the priest, and died in the bosom of the Catholic Church. It’s not true. But it is true that in the last few years of his life he re-evaluated some of his core existentialist convictions, and in particular became more open to the idea of God and the significance of religion. He was undoubtedly influenced – some would say coerced – by Benny Lévy, a young Egyptian Maoist who was rediscovering his own Jewish inheritance at the time he was working as Sartre’s secretary and interlocutor. Their conversations were published just weeks before Sartre’s death.
In these final philosophical reflections Sartre seems to repudiate much of his life’s work and embrace ideas such as the need for an objective morality, the transcendent end of the human person, and a quasi-messianic notion of how society can find perfection. When pressed, he insisted that these conversations did indeed express his opinions, and that they were not foisted upon him by Lévy.
I stayed in Paris for a French course a few years ago and went to visit his grave. He’s buried, now joined by Simone de Beauvoir, in the Montparnasse cemetery. I prayed for them both. I knew the story of a death-bed conversion was just a myth, but I also knew about the intellectual movement that went on in those later years. It gave me enough grounds to hope that he might, just possibly, have been open to the Lord’s mercy at the very end of his life, as he went to meet the One he had denied so many times. [The Tablet, 20 Feb 2010]