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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On two plagues: Bishop N. T. Wright and Albert Camus.
Bishop N. T. Wright has written a challenging book about Covid, titled God and the Pandemic. It’s challenging because it requires us to rethink God. We tend to think of God, if we think of him at all, as all powerful, able to fix Covid in a moment if he wished, as Jesus healed the sick and the lame. So why doesn’t he?
Wright’s answer, though it takes a while to figure it out, is similar to that finally arrived at in several places in the Bible. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). Job comes to a similar conclusion. The best way to understand God in the face of Covid is to accept that we shall never understand.
Wright does not stop here, however. He says that God’s non-answer is really an answer. God is a God of suffering and lamentation. Until we understand that God is not a mighty warrior who exists to vanquish our enemies, we shall be lost. Consider what Jesus first did when he learned of the death of Lazarus. “Jesus wept,” the shortest sentence in the Bible (John 11:35). Consider Jesus hanging on the cross, crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)
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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.
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