by David V. Johnson
In “San Manuel Bueno, Martir,” the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno tells the fictional story of a parish priest in Valverde de Lucerna, a small Spanish town, and his successful conversion of a sophisticated favorite son, Lazaro, who had left to seek his fortunes in America and returned an atheist.
“The main thing,” San Manuel says, in summarizing his ministry, “is for the people to be happy, that everyone be happy with their life. The happiness of life is the main thing of all.”
When Lazaro arrives from the New World, he dismisses the town's medieval backwardness and begins confronting villagers about their superstitions. “Leave them alone, as long as it consoles them,” San Manuel tells him. “It is better for them to believe it all, even contradictory things, than not to believe in anything.”
Lazaro confronts San Manuel with a mixture of curiosity and respect, since San Manuel is not only beloved by Lazaro's family for his piety but also because he appears educated. Over time, the two become friends and, eventually, Lazaro rejoins the Church and takes communion, to the tearful delight of all.
The twist: Like Lazaro, San Manuel doesn't believe the articles of faith. (“I believe in one God, the Father and Almighty, Creator of heaven and Earth, of all that is seen and unseen …”) What he believes in, rather, is administering to the needs of the villagers, in putting on such a convincing performance of dedication to Christ that they all believe he is a saint and have their faith in the Church and in life everlasting sustained. Lazaro's “conversion,” then, is one consistent with atheism. He becomes a lay-minister of sorts under San Manuel and eventually dies a Catholic.
I think of this story when I hear the arguments against religion of the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. If Unamuno's story were updated, I could imagine Lazaro coming home to Valverde de Lucerna with a copy of God Is Not Great under his arm, ready to do battle with San Manuel. And if the story makes sense, we can imagine someone who has imbibed the arguments of Hitchens, yet converts to the faith under the saint's arguments.
The question is why.