Albert Camus, the Plague, and Belief in God

Albert Camus, the Plague, and Belief in God

Life in the midst of Covid seems like a good time to revisit Albert Camus’ The Plague, his fictional account of life in an Algerian city overrun by the bubonic plague in the 1940’s.  Sometimes read as an allegory of the German occupation of France (the German occupiers were called the peste brune, the brown plague), it’s not a very good political metaphor.  But it’s a great account of what it would mean to live a good life without believing in God. 

A common argument in favor of religion is that it gives meaning to life.  Without belief in God, there can be no meaning, and hence no firm basis for morality.  I don’t think it’s true.  God doesn’t give life meaning.  It is we who use the presumption of his existence to give life meaning.  Which at least suggests that creative humans might find other ways to give life meaning.

Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, is his most serious philosophical work about life in the absence of belief.*  But it is The Plague that tells us what that life without religious belief would look like at its best.

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Why did Jesus teach in parables?

What did Jesus use parables?  Parables comprise about 35% of the teachings of Jesus (Tyndale Bible Dictionary).  They are not illustrations of his teachings; they are his teachings.  There are about 33 parables, depending on what counts as a parable.  Experts differ.  I’ve posted twice on parables , but more needs to be said, and I’ve changed my mind about why Jesus says that he speaks in parables so that his followers won’t understand him.  For if they understood him, they would be saved (Mark 4:10-12).  It’s an extraordinary statement:  Jesus doesn’t want his followers to understand and be saved.  What could that mean?

No one has ever taught using parables as extensively as Jesus.  No one even comes close.  Almost all experts believe that parables are as near as we can get to what Jesus actually said.  Nevertheless, it’s worth remembering that we know not a single one of Jesus’ parables.  We know Jesus’ parables as they are recounted by Mark, Matthew, and Luke, writing decades after Jesus’ death.  They recount many of the same parables, but each adds his own twist, sometimes significant, generally not.  There are no (or one) parables in the Gospel of John. 

What’s a parable?

A parable isn’t a correspondence between one thing and another.  It’s not an analogy.  I like Snodgrass’ definition best.

At its simplest the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought. loc 466

There are a few parables in the Hebrew Testament, almost all in the prophetic books.  This turns out to be important, for it helps explain why Jesus said he didn’t want his followers to understand.  More on this later. 

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