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

Anonymous 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.

Unknown said...

Howard Mumma's book is without any doubt a big and badly made fraud. I am not exaggerating: it is what it is, a dishonest, naive apologetic attempt, based on what is nothing but a false testimony. The whole book is literally scattered with chronological and biographical mistakes, which maybe an inexpert reader will not notice. A specialist of Camus will firstly laugh at Mumma's stupidity and awkwardness, but then he will tragically realize that all over the world many readers sincerely believe in Mumma's report. Yes, Howard Mumma finally achieved his apologetic goal: to instill the doubt that Camus was secretly a Christian, a believer.

I am going to write a big and detailed review of the book for the Albert Camus Society 2015, which will be published also on my page (see below). Indeed, the mistakes are too many to be all reported here. For the moment, I will just point out that:

1) Camus NEVER met Simone Weil -- Mumma says that they met "every few weeks", "over a period of several years" (pp. 41-47);
2) Camus joined the Communist Party in 1935 and left in 1937 BEFORE the II World War and the concentration camps (p. 12);
3) Camus wrote and published The Stranger BEFORE The Myth of Sisyphus, not after (p. 12-13);
4) Camus university thesis was on "Christian Metaphysics and Neoplatonism" (Métaphysique chrétienne et Néoplatonisme), not on "neo-Platonism with an emphasis on Plotinus" (p. 11);
5) Mumma repeatedly admit in the book (p. 8, 18 and others) that he could not speak French; given that Camus' and Sartre's English was really poor, how the hell did they manage to understand each other?

I have to stop here, leaving aside many other things. For any questions you can contact me trough the page.

Giovanni Gaetani

[at the moment PhD student in Philosophy and young Camus scholar. You can realize who I am and read all my works here:]

Anonymous said...

Thank you Giovanni

You point out many inaccuracies in the book, but I wonder whether this is just evidence that the author wrote it aged 90 about things that happened 40 years ago, rather than evidence that it is an evil conspiracy of lies.

Craig vincent

Unknown said...

Dear Craig,

I spent more than one year on this subject and I can tell you that yes, Mumma's book is totally false or, as you call it, "an evil conspiracy of lies". Because even if we absurdly take for true what he wrote (and it is not), there is no counter proof on Camus' side, not even one single insignificant detail. I spoke with Camus' daughter, I made research in his Notebooks, spoken with all kind of specialists, called Mumma's editor and Mumma's Spanish translator, looked for his name in old libraries, etc. There is no sign of Mumma's name anywhere.

Moreover, do you know what the name of a 1969 book of Howard Mumma? Take it to the People , New Ways in Soul Winning--Unconventional Evangelism:

Now, I am sure that you will keep believing in what you want to believe. Anyway, if you want to find more information, please have a look at this article that I published in French:

Best regards,

Giovanni Gaetani