Did Albert Camus believe in God?
Of all the existentialists, Camus came closest to believing in God, becoming closer in his later works. Camus would object to two parts of this statement. He objected to being labeled an existentialist, preferring the term absurdist. And he would say he was not close to God. He admired (and once said “loved”) Jesus Christ.*
Since Camus did not believe in an afterlife, what I mean by “close to God” and what most Christians believe is quite different. Yet, even with all these qualifications the statement stands. Certainly, he has been many Christians’ favorite atheist, primarily because he was comfortable with religious language and imagery. For Camus, “it is possible to be Christian and absurd.” (Sisyphus, p 112) All one has to do is disbelieve in an afterlife.
Most Christians, perhaps all, would reject this possibility, but in a time of militant atheism like our own, there is a vast difference between Camus and someone like Richard Dawkins. Camus had sympathy and respect for Christianity, above all for Christ. I think that is the best way of putting it.
Does death make life absurd?
Death makes life absurd. Camus says so, but what he really means is that life makes life absurd because there is no larger meaning to our existence. We want a world that is in some way made with the human being in mind. The human wants the world to respond, and the cosmos is silent. The result is not only absurdity, but a loss of freedom.
“What freedom can exist in the fullest sense without assurance of eternity?” (Sisyphus p 57)
For Camus we are slaves to death. As Ecclesiastes said (c’s 1-2), we are born and cut down after a few short years. “Vanity, vanity all is vanity.” Only this is a bad translation. The Hebrew original is hevel, which literally means fog and lack of clarity. “Absurdity, absurdity all is absurdity” would be a more accurate translation (Strong’s #1892).
But does death make life absurd? Would the only meaningful life be an eternal one, with its implication that I am one with the universe? Or as Camus puts it,
I should be this world to which I am now opposed by my whole consciousness and my whole insistence upon familiarity. (Sisyphus, p 51, his emphasis)
This doesn’t make sense. The meaning of my life doesn’t depend upon being one with the universe. Life is meaningful when I share in values that transcend my life, and act in accord with these values. In this way I participate in a world beyond myself, a world that will be there long after I, my children and grandchildren, are gone. Whether these values are eternal is open to question, for not even the universe is eternal, but perhaps that’s not the point.
It is essential to die unreconciled and not of one’s own free will. (Sisyphus, p 55)
This doesn’t make sense either, unless it is read simply as an argument against suicide; but Camus means more. Life must forever fight death. But think about the difference between a man or woman cut down in his or her prime (as Camus was**), and one who dies after living a long, fruitful life. We are not meant for eternity. On the contrary, it is an enormous privilege, a miracle really, to exist for a nanosecond of eternity. Why is that not enough?
Life against the universe: The Plague
Camus’s view changes between The Stranger (begun before the war) and The Myth of Sisyphus, both published in 1942, and The Plague published five years later. About The Plague, Camus has the protagonist and narrator, Dr. Rieux, say “Rieux believed himself to be on the right road—in fighting against creation as he found it.” (Plague, p 120) This Camus calls revolt, humanizing man and nature (as much as possible, for nature exists in its own right). His biographer, Oliver Todd, quotes Camus as saying that out of a novelist’s characters, one comes closest to representing the author. “Rieux is the one who represents me,” says Camus (Todd, p 230).
Rieux reports that his friend and colleague, Jean Tarrou, said “the good man, the man who hardly infects anyone, is the man with the fewest lapses of attention.” (p 236). Paying attention is helped when we use clear language, and so say clearly what we are doing to whom and why. This is a mundane version of Simone Weil’s concept of attention, discussed in a previous post. It is the most human of all the spiritual things we can do: believe in and experience the reality of others. Camus was a great admirer of Weil, calling her “the only great spirit of our times.”
In addition to paying attention, Rieux says
As every decent person should, he deliberately took the side of the victim and wanted to meet others, his fellow-citizens, on the basis of the only certainties they all have in common, which are love, suffering and exile. Thus, there is not one of the anxieties of his fellows that he did not share and no situation that was not also his own. (pp 280-281)
Of all the existentialists, Camus is also the most humane, understanding that needless suffering is the worst thing.
What if we say we were wrong?
At a meeting of intellectuals at André Malraux’s house in 1946, one that included Jean-Paul Sartre and Arthur Koestler, Camus said what French intellectuals (and intellectuals in general) hardly ever say: we were wrong.
Don’t you believe that we are all responsible for the absence of values . . .? If we publicly say we were wrong and that moral values exist, and henceforth we shall do what we must to establish and illustrate them, don’t you think that would be the start of hope? (Todd, quoting Camus, p 232)
There is something charmingly unphilosophical about Camus, or rather he was more a man than a philosopher. That’s a compliment.
How can a humanist of the absurd have anything to do with Christianity?
Are there degrees of being a Christian? Certainly, there are degrees of living a religious life, but are there degrees of adherence to Christian doctrine, or is it all or nothing? I’m not sure, but I do know that Camus would fail the doctrine test.
Tear out the final page of the Gospel and you have a human religion, a cult of solitude and greatness is offered to us. (Camus, Notebooks, p 206; Onimus, p 49)
By tearing out the last page, Camus means everything up to but not including Christ’s resurrection. For it is at this point that the afterlife begins, not just for Christ, but for the rest of us. Simone Weil held a similar view: the incarnation and the crucifixion are enough.
To stop there is, of course, not to be a Christian, but it is a way of thinking about Christianity that I have found inspirational and challenging. The afterlife is a reward. But one can live a Christian life in this world by caring for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, and by following the example of Christ in so far as humans are able. Why is that not reward enough?
Stay tuned: in my next post, Camus asks to be baptized (really) shortly before his death
* Jean-Baptiste Clamence a character who seems to represent Camus in this respect (he is the novel’s only character), says this in The Fall, p 114.
** Camus died in a car crash at the age of 46. The car was being driven by his publisher.
Albert Camus, The Fall, translated by Justin O’Brien. Vintage Books, 1991.
Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, translated by Justin O’Brien. Vintage Books, 1955.
Albert Camus, Notebooks, vol 1, 1935-1942, translated by Philip Thody. Ivan R. Dee, 2010. [Reprint edition]
Albert Camus, The Plague, translated by Stuart Gilbert. Vintage Books, 1972.
Jean Onimus, Albert Camus and Christianity, translated by Emmett Parker. University of Alabama Press, 1970.
Olivier Todd, Albert Camus: A Life. Carroll and Graff, 1997.