Friday, February 23, 2007

Friday Reflection: Camus and the Beauty of Nonbelief

Many of us have seen our lives changed or shaped by a book or other work of art—an encounter that takes you to a place that had never existed for you, or that you had always been told was not accessible to you. For me, Albert Camus' The Plague, which I think I first read at the age of 13, was such an experience. I can remember reading it over the course of a week, finishing that last memorable paragraph, and then turning back to page 1 to start over. The characters of Rieux, Rambert, and Tarrou stayed within me for a long time, and perhaps have never left.

Our banner quote this week is from a small speech that Camus delivered in 1948 for an audience of Dominican monks who had asked him to speak about "what unbelievers expect from Christians." Here is that selection in its larger context:

I shall not try to change anything that I think or anything that you think (insofar as I can judge of it) in order to reach a reconciliation that would be agreeable to all. On the contrary, what I feel like telling you today is that the world needs real dialogue, that falsehood is just as much the opposite of dialogue as is silence, and that the only possible dialogue is the kind between people who remain what they are and speak their minds. This is tantamount to saying that the world of today needs Christians who remain Christians...Hence I shall not, as far as I am concerned, try to pass myself off as a Christian in your presence. I share with you the same revulsion from evil. But I do not share your hope, and I continue to struggle against this universe in which children suffer and die.

Camus was, as far as I can tell from his writing, a fairly gracious fellow. The journalism of today, with its shrill air of self-promotive combativeness, would make him as ill as it does you or me. The enduring beauty of his fiction is its lack of sharp lines and divisive shades of character. Something within us responds as readily and even poignantly to "The Stranger" as it does to the noble Dr. Rieux. In our world of today, where crimes of hatred are gaining the force of global and national movements; when the torture and murder of innocents is lightly and even smilingly debated by TV pundits; and where any form of non-belief in the prevailing and accepted groupthink is tantamount to treason and devilry, a voice like that of Albert Camus takes a deeper resonance for those of us who will pause to listen.

His stories, essays, and lectures arise from the understanding that crime or evil does not form in a vacuum; the criminal is not an isolated freak disconnected from his society, his community, or even his government. Camus refused to accept the malicious projections that were cast upon him, and that have been cast onto any who have turned away from the easy solutions that belief and group affiliation offer. He understood, as others before and after him have understood, that the discarding of belief is perhaps the most courageous and progressive step that the human mind and will can make. He offered this understanding not as a new form of belief, but as a practical inner exploration toward reaching a point of human unity. Here is more of what he had to tell those Dominican monks a few years after the end of World War II:

Christians and Communists will tell me that their optimism is based on a longer range, that it is superior to all the rest, and that God or history, according to the individual, is the satisfying end-product of their dialectic. I can indulge in the same reasoning. If Christianity is pessimistic as to man, it is optimistic as to human destiny. Well, I can say that, pessimistic as to human destiny, I am optimistic as to man. And not in the name of a humanism that always seemed to me to fall short, but in the name of an ignorance that tries to negate nothing.

This means that the words 'pessimism' and 'optimism' need to be clearly defined and that, until we can do so, we must pay attention to what unites us rather than to what separates us.


Albert Camus, from "What Unbelievers Expect From Christians". I found these selections in a 1990 anthology called The World Treasury of Modern Religious Thought, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan.

1 comment:

Olaf said...

Happy belated birthday! I turned 30 this year, so it was a big one.