Did Camus want to be baptized?

Did Camus want to be baptized?

First a discussion of the religious beliefs of Jean-Baptiste Clamence in Albert Camus’ novel, The Fall.  Then a discussion of Camus’ request to be baptized according to Howard Mumma in Albert Camus and the Minister.  There is a connection.  It has to do with faith.

The Fall, Camus’ last novel, is set in Hell.  Well, not exactly.  It’s set in Amsterdam, where the canals are laid out in concentric circles.  That and the foggy atmosphere are both intended to remind us of Dante’s circles of Hell.  Mexico City, a bar in the inner-most circle of hell is where Jean-Baptiste Clamence holds forth.  He is the novel’s only speaking character, and we must not take him literally.  He would have us think he is in a type of Hell, but he may be playing games with the reader, and himself.

I won’t summarize the book.  The only thing you need to know is that Clamence was a wealthy and successful Parisian lawyer and all-around good guy (lawyer and good guy are not automatically antonyms).  After a series of minor mishaps, culminating in the not so minor mishap of ignoring a drowning woman’s cry, he exiles himself to one of the seedier bars in Amsterdam, where he tells his tale to any who will listen.  His goal, it seems, is to justify his drinking and whoring by constantly pointing out how bad he is.  An odd strategy, designed it seems to preempt judgment. 

About Christ’s guilt

Clamence tells us that not only is he guilty, but even Jesus Christ was guilty, merely by being born in a certain time and place.  Consider the massacre of the innocents, in which Herod orders all male children in Bethlehem under two to be killed in order to avoid a prophecy about the “King of the Jews,” who he believed threatened his throne (Matthew 2:16-18).  Wasn’t that the sadness one sometimes sees in Jesus?

The incurable melancholy of a man who heard night after night the voice of Rachel weeping for her children and refusing all comfort? The lamentation would rend the night, Rachel would call her children who had been killed for him, and he was still alive! (pp 112-113)

Clamence’s point is that just by being born into the midst of history everyone is guilty.  In this sense, affluent Westerners are guilty of the starvation of children in Yemen.  Sure, we should each contribute money to relieve the starvation, but the famine’s cause is not lack of food but politics.  How do we live with that when living in this world is all it takes to be guilty.  Or as Tarrou puts it in The Plague, Camus’ previous novel, we are all accidental murderers; the best we can do in life is not to murder others intentionally, or through carelessness.

The last seven words of Christ

Clamence continues, arguing that Christ was more human than we know. 

Yes, it was the third evangelist, I believe, who first suppressed his complaint. “Why hast thou forsaken me?”—it was a seditious cry, wasn’t it?  (p 113)

It was seditious because it showed Christ to be not only fully human (consistent with Christian doctrine), but human too in the sense that he was abandoned by God.

Clamence’s view of Christ is complex.  I can do no better than quote him one final time.

And he was not superhuman, you can take my word for it. He cried aloud his agony and that’s why I love him, my friend who died without knowing. (p 114)

Died without knowing what?  That God would save him?  Or that he wouldn’t, because he was not there?  Camus is unclear.  My belief is that Camus was unclear in his own mind.  Consider Camus’ late request to be baptized.

Camus asks to be baptized

Sometime in his early to mid-forties, just a few years before his death, Camus had a crisis of faith, or perhaps we should call it a crisis of lack of faith.  Perhaps the world was not so meaningless as he had believed, and he wanted to understand what religion really claimed about God.  A Catholic, Camus knew little of his own faith, and was fortunate to find a liberal Protestant minister, Howard Mumma, from Ohio, a guest minister at the American Church in Paris.  Camus began attending the church, ostensibly to hear the widely admired organist, Marcel Dupré. 

Camus approached Mumma, asking for a private conversation.  Mumma agreed, and over a period of a couple of years they talked about God and faith.  Eventually Camus asked to be baptized, but only in private. 

Mumma tells a good story, and I’m inclined to believe him, but there is a problem.  The best way I can explain it is by means of an analogy.  Both Xenophon and Plato wrote down the dialogues of Socrates, as Socrates never wrote a word of his own.  Reading Xenophon, Socrates comes across as an extraordinary man, but not extraordinarily clever or deep.  Reading Plato, Socrates comes across as an intellectual giant, challenging a whole way of thinking and being.  It seems as if who Socrates was depends upon who writes his story.

It’s the same with Mumma.  Camus comes across as a serious searcher, open to new ideas.  But there is nothing extraordinary about his intellect or his understanding.  Occasionally Camus comes across as one of Socrates’ not too bright interlocutors.  Reading Mumma’s Camus and reading Camus himself is like reading about two different men.  As one sees in The Fall, Camus is open to Christian experience.  But there is an ambiguity and subtlety to his position missing in Mumma’s account.  Possibly it’s the difference between Camus the author and Camus the man.

Mumma quotes Camus as saying

Something is dreadfully wrong.  I am a disillusioned and exhausted man.  I have lost faith, lost hope, ever since the rise of Hitler.  Is it any wonder that at my age I am looking for something to believe in?  To lose one’s life is only a little thing.  But, to lose the meaning of life, to see our reasoning disappear, is unbearable.  It is impossible to live life without meaning. (Mumma, p 14)

To Camus, Mumma presented the story of the Garden of Eden as a fable about men and women trying to put themselves in the place of God.  Humanism can easily slide into the worship of the human (pp. 24-25).  This made sense to Camus.

How could God allow the suffering of innocents, especially children, a key theme of The Plague?  Mumma answers in terms of what is called process theology, though he never uses that term.  We live in a world that is incomplete.  God is still in the process of perfecting it, and that requires our help.  We are the hands and arms of God.  We are co-creators with God (p 76).

God is not omnipotent in the sense that he could create a square circle, or grant humans freedom and eliminate evil at the same time.  (About natural evils, like the plague, Mumma says nothing.) “God cannot create an independent thing and still have complete control over it or limit it.” (p 74)

About all this Camus seems convinced (it took a couple of years), but not in any conventional way.  Camus’ view seems closest to that of his character Dr. Rieux in The Plague, whom he quotes to Mumma. 

Since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence. (Mumma, p 81)

Camus asks, Mumma refuses

Finally, Camus asks to be baptized, and Mumma wisely says no (pp 89-91).  Camus was baptized as an infant, and one baptism is enough.  More than that, Mumma seems wary.  Camus wants the baptism to be private, and refuses to join the church and participate in the rite of confirmation. 

Why?  In Mumma’s version there are two reasons.  First, Camus had a literary reputation to protect.  Second, and more important, he was an independent thinker who could never be an active member of any church.   

Let’s wait, says Mumma to Camus.  Not long after, Camus had his fatal accident.  It is unfortunate that Mumma perpetuates the myth that Camus committed suicide by driving into a tree (p 98).  He didn’t.  Camus’ publisher, Michel Gallimard, was driving a crowded car.  Camus was in the back seat on the passenger’s side, the only one to be killed (Todd, pp 412-413).  I suspect that Mumma valued a good story over getting the facts straight.  How much this influences the rest of his account is hard to say.  More than a little one suspects.

Conclusion

So what is one to conclude about Camus, faith, and God?  No more, certainly, than that Camus struggled with the question of belief in God, whereas the man to whom he was so often linked, Jean-Paul Sartre, never even entertained the possibility.  Camus’ seems the wiser choice.

_______________

* Mumma published his book almost fifty years after his conversations with Camus, when Mumma was 90 years old.  He writes that he took extensive notes after each conversation, but admits that his quotations of Camus are often paraphrases. 

References

Albert Camus, The Fall, translated by Justin O’Brien, Vintage 1991.  [original 1956]

Howard Mumma, Albert Camus and the Minister.  Paraclete Press, 2000.

Oliver Todd, Albert Camus: A Life, translated by Benjamin Ivry.  Carroll and Graf, 1997.

5 thoughts on “Did Camus want to be baptized?”

  1. Since reading The Stranger in high school Camus has never been far from my thoughts. In trying to understand the man from his works I always sensed that his statements/works were a reflection of his doubts. Similar to a believer in God pondering how He always was. I believe that Camus was actually on a journey to finding faith, and if not for his untimely death may have reconciled and expanded on his sense of the absurd. The reason I suspect this and am commenting on this article is because … I recall from reading Camus’ journals that he recorded thoughts that may have indicated this. I am curious, is my memory flawed? It has been 30 years since I read his journals and I no longer have access to them.

  2. Dear Louis, I do think Camus was on a journey. I recall that he wanted to go East, and I think an encounter between Camus and Buddhism would have been fascinating. That’s one intellectual path I can imagine he might have taken. I know this doesn’t really answer your question, but it’s the best I can do right now. Regards, Fred

  3. I read The Plague at night school around 1975. l had not read any books like it and “Socrates, by Plato” before, so it was an eyeopener for me.
    My teacher gave me an A+ for my “La Peste” essay, – “The Plague is essentially an anti-Christian work, for it affirms a religion of human nobility without God”.
    Then in 2011, l moved from Australia to Bali, lndonesia, with my lndonesian wife who is a Seventh day adventist. l was very surprised to see in one of their study booklets that said Albert Camus was going to be Baptised, but had been killed in a car accident.
    How bizzare l thought, to read this in a place where the people hardly ever read books, because they are too expensive, to see this written. – l don’t think that they even have any libraries tbere.
    More interesting when looking up on Camus’ life, l found The Plague was published the yr. l was born, and he is buried in Lourmarin, which has the same lattitude, but South as the French discovered lsland that l live on. – Bruny ls.

    1. First of all, I’m amazed, and appreciate, that my blog (and what I really mean is the internet) reaches all over the world. What an amazing tool.

      I still can’t decide about Camus and religion. He had a religious sensibility, but in the end was a humanist I think. A humanist for good humans. Regards, Fred

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