Saturday, March 29, 2008

Camus and Christianity

A few years ago, I bought the book Albert Camus and the Minister by Howard Mumma. Camus was an existentialist -- although he didn't like that label -- who was famous for claiming that the primary philosophical issue is suicide: that is, determining whether or not life is worth the trouble of being lived. Some of his most well-known works are The Myth of Sisyphus, The Plague, and The Stranger (the latter book's title is sometimes translated as The Outsider, although my wife insists that it's best translated as The Foreigner). Sisyphus refers to the Greek myth of a man in the underworld condemned to roll a heavy boulder up a steep hill for eternity. As soon as the boulder reaches the top, it rolls back down to the bottom, and Sisyphus has to start all over again, ad infinitum. His punishment was to be forced to perform a meaningless act for eternity. Camus thought this was an excellent metaphor for the human condition. Should we continue engaging in the meaningless activity of rolling the boulder up the hill by going on living? Or should we just give up and commit suicide?

Camus thought Sisyphus should continue rolling the boulder up the hill. Even though he knows it is futile and will end in nothing, he should devote himself to it and invent his own meaning for it. It's kind of like the movie Groundhog Day where Bill Murray was stuck repeating the same day over and over, and nothing he did carried over to the next. He went through several stages: first, he indulged himself (because there were no consequences), then he despaired, then he ended up just doing everything he could to make everyone's day happier. Even though the next morning, everything would be set back to the beginning as if he hadn't done anything, and all the difficulties would have to be dealt with again, he just tried to make everyone as happy as he could.

This is problematic for two reasons, which are also true of existentialism: first, the choice to make other people happy is arbitrary in this scenario. Bill Murray tired of self-indulgence, but he would have tired of helping others as well if doing so didn't have any ultimate meaning. Second, it amounts to the claim that we should pretend that life has meaning even though it really doesn't. So we have to simultaneously believe that the world is both meaningless and meaningful. Maybe "problematic" isn't a strong enough term, but you get the idea. I know a philosopher who became a Christian after reading The Plague.

In the 1950s, Camus met Howard Mumma, an American minister preaching in Paris at the time, and they became friends. Mumma is a journaler and so he kept a detailed journal of the conversations he had with Camus. Albert Camus and the Minister just came out in 2000, because Mumma decided that with Camus 40 years dead (and Mumma himself in his 90s) it was no longer necessary to uphold the confidentiality of their discussions. Actually, only the first half of the book is about Camus. In the second half Mumma discusses other people he encountered that had a strong impact on his life, like Albert Schweitzer. As such, the book amounts to his memoirs.

The conversations between Camus and Mumma centered on Christianity. Camus had heard Mumma preach some sermons, and was very intrigued. Mumma was something of a neo-orthodox theologian, taking many aspects of the Bible metaphorically. At one point, Mumma told him how the fall of Adam and Eve and the subsequent banishment from Paradise refers typologically to our separation from God.

Suddenly, Camus threw up his arms and said, "Howard, do you remember what Augustine said: 'Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in thee.'?" His face lit up dramatically. Camus was excited by my explanation of man's being cast out from the garden -- which related to his own interest in man's estrangement. I said to myself, here is a man who is on the road to becoming a Christian. Here was a key moment, a turning point in this man's life. I could tell by the light in his eyes, the expression on his face, that Camus was experiencing something new in his life.
This seems so odd -- that Camus was seriously considering Christianity -- that I find myself doubting the veracity of Mumma's account. According to the book, their relationship culminated with Camus asking Mumma to baptize him. He wanted to become a Christian and devote his life to God. This would be a bizarre thing to make up, but it's difficult to accept on its face. Some friends of mine who know Camus better than I do have read this book, and are basically split on it: some think it's quite plausible, while others don't.

James Sire, a philosopher, wrote an article about this book for Christianity Today entitled "Camus the Christian?" Sire summarizes the book, and points out that that when Camus published The Fall in 1956, many people thought that he had accepted the existence of God. An excellent essay which comments on Mumma's book is "Taking Doubt Seriously", by historian Preston Jones. If you have the time, I highly recommend reading this article.

Mumma comes from a tradition that doesn't "re-baptize", and since Camus had been baptized as an infant, he declined. He tried to get him to engage with a Christian congregation and be confirmed, but Camus wanted it to be a private affair, "something between me and God". He was a celebrity at the time, so a public confession of faith would have caused an uproar. The following year Camus died in a car accident, and Mumma believes that he committed suicide (although this is incorrect, since Camus was not the driver). Regardless, Mumma believes that he failed him by not baptizing him.

Despite my misgivings, I recommend Albert Camus and the Minister. It's very unusual. In many ways, it shows how close existentialism is to Christianity.

(reposted from OregonLive)


Jonathan Elliot said...

A fascinating story. Thankyou for making me aware of this. Even as a Christian I felt something of an affinity for Camus.


Jonathan from Spritzophrenia

Matko said...

Twenty minutes ago, I finished The Stranger and looked up more information about Camus on the internet. The Myth of Sisyphus was released the year after The Stranger, and were completed in draft together in less than a year. This made me think: Is the novel an exposition of Camus's philosophical ideas from the essay? Mersault's address to the priest at the end of the novel is very similar to what Camus has as the conclusion in The Myth of Sisyphus.