Fr. Le Goc versus Dr. Evans-Wentz
By Ephrem Fernando, Colombo

I read with interest the clear and learned essay on Tibet by Tissa Devendra, which appeared in The Sunday Times of May 25, 2008, with its interesting reference to the debates between Fr. Le Goc and Dr. Evans-Wentz.

Dr. Evans had judged God and found Him wanting. He was not just an atheist but a devout one. On the other hand, Fr. Le Goc, a master craftsman in the field of communication, spoke well of God, batting out sparkling bon mots – provoking, challenging, asserting. He was scrupulously honest, fastidious about giving others their due, and once even admitting that the “No-Godism” position in a debate had been better argued.

Fr. Le Goc never inflicted pain. In a controversy of any kind his disciplined intellect preserved him from the blundering discourtesy of better though less educated minds who, like blunt weapons, tear and hack instead of cutting clean, who mistake the point in an argument, waste their strength on trifles, misconceive their adversary and leave the question more involved than they find it.

Mr. Devendra’s essay requires a small correction, one that would evoke a nod from St. Ignatius Loyola, a gentleman with Basque iron in his blood who founded the Clerks Regular of the Society of Jesus at a time when Luther was tearing the papal bull excommunicating him, scolding the Pope for trying to frighten him with a rusty tool. Fr Le Goc was an Oblate, not a Jesuit.

My father travelled daily from Negombo to Colombo in the service of the colonial government and, like numerous others, would trek after work on Saturdays to Bonjean Hall to hear Fr. Le Goc debate with Dr Evans-Wentz, who had requested a direct confrontation, which Fr. Le Goc had turned down, telling Dr. Evan-Wentz to speak from Ananda College and that he would reply from St. Joseph’s College.
One Saturday, we were all perplexed to see hundreds of books stacked on the stage on either side of the lectern. Fr. Le Goc arrived, as usual, amidst thunderous applause.

“Last Saturday,” thundered Fr. Le Goc, “Dr Evan-Wentz claimed he is a Master of Arts. So am I. A Master of Science. So am I. Then he claimed he has a Doctorate in Philosophy. So have I. A Doctorate in Science. So have I.”

The headmaster then paused and, his voice rising to a crescendo, said: “But I am more. I am a Fellow of the Royal Society and a Fellow of the French Academy of Sciences.” That threw the crowd into a frenzy. They almost brought the rafters down with their thunderous applause. The following Saturday, expecting more drama, the converted gathered in numbers but were disappointed when Fr. Le Goc announced that Dr. Evans-Wentz had suddenly left the island, thereby bringing the debates to a close.

In his spare time Fr Le Goc translated manuscripts, deciphered temple inscriptions, wrote grammars on botany, tended a small vineyard planted with Burgundy vines, and built the chapel. More cathedral than chapel, with the light streaming through stained glass panels and the fluted ribs of the roof appearing to reach heavenwards, flaring out from the concave vault of the dome. (Rumour had it that only Fr Le Goc knew where to stand to deliver sermons without being disturbed by echoes.)

Before joining the colonial service, my father taught English and History, and he acquired a local reputation as a cricket coach. He was aware, like so many other cultured folk, that Fr. Le Goc at the university had been a devotee of Pantheism. He handed over his notes on the debates on his deathbed, saying they might come in useful some day. The notes end with my father scribbling the following satirical lines by Andrew Lang on Pantheism.

I am the batsman and the bat
I am the bowler and the ball,
The umpire, the pavilion cat,
The roller, pitch and stumps and all.

According to my father’s notes, the thrusts and counter-thrusts had gone on for several weekends. Here, in brief, are notes from two debates:

In one, Dr. Evans-Wentz had challenged the divinity of Christ and contrasted Christ with Socrates. Fr. Le Goc, in his reply, pointed out that that view was first put forward from the pulpit of Westminster Abbey in the 15th century and later advanced by Rationalists, such as Lecky, and that Socrates could not be compared with Christ, since the companions of Socrates were men of the first rank in philosophy, history and art, like Thucydides and Euripides, whereas Christ, from a human standpoint, enjoyed no such advantage, and spent his youth and manhood among peasants and artisans of little or no education.

In a different debate, Dr. Evans-Wentz alleged that the Gospels were Christian myths committed to writing about 200 AD.

In his reply, Fr. Le Goc pointed out that the oldest manuscript of Horace dated from the seventh century, of Cicero and Plato from the ninth, of Thucydides from the tenth. Yet no one doubted that these manuscripts, though ever so many centuries later than their authors’ day, are substantially the uncorrupted descendants of the originals.

The integrity of the Gospels is questioned because they contain a divine law of belief and conduct irksome to the irreligious, specifically what is found in John, Chapter VIII, verses 57 and 58. When the Jews told Jesus: “Thou art not yet fifty, how come you say you have seen Abraham”, Jesus said: “Amen, amen, I say to you before Abraham was made I am.”

In writing this essay I faced two barriers: a challenging discipline and a sense of history. As I am not an expert in these, I owe a debt of gratitude to my father, a habitual note-taker, whose notes helped to surmount these barriers. I have tried to form some sort of reasoned estimate of a romantic headmaster: a man whose career seemed full of paradoxes and contradictions, including his macabre death at a junction in Ward Place.

He was a priest who defied almost all the canons by which we are accustomed to judge one another and about whom his students will probably agree in one judgment only: that he was in one sense a great Oblate who rejected religious shamanism, meaning the reconciliation of differing religious tenets which, in the Catholic sense, is the result of a plurality of catechisms where things and ideas that are not the same are taken simply as different ways of looking at the same thing.

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