Thursday, November 18, 2004

Camus and the Christians

This review of the legacy of Camus coincided with my own return to the late, great philosopher.

I was obsessed with Camus beginning in my late teens. I once told one of my professors, a noted intellectual historian, how much I admired Camus. His response? "You'll get over it." But I haven't. Not really. I stoppped reading him for a while, but I still think his essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus," is one of the most hopeful documents ever written. (Yeah. I know. Puts a whole new spin on hopeful.) But I find myself wishing that Camus was alive today so that he could be yet another voice that calls tyranny tyranny and speaks truth to power.

This speech, given to the Dominican monks at Latour-Maubourg in 1948, has been preserved as an essay entitled "The Unbeliever and Christians," in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death. Here are the last three paragraphs:

"That, I believe, is all I had to say. We are faced with evil. And, as
for me, I feel rather as Augustine did before becoming a Christian when
he said: "I tried to find the source of evil and I got nowhere." But it
is also true that I, and a few others, know what must be done, if not
to reduce evil, at least not to add to it. Perhaps we cannot prevent
this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we
can reduce the number of tortured children. And if you don't help us,
who else in the world can help us do this?

Between the forces of terror and the forces of dialogue, a great
unequal battle has begun. I have nothing but reasonable illusions as to
the outcome of that battle. But I believe it must be fought, and I know
that certain men at least have resolved to do so. I merely fear they
will occasionally feel somewhat alone, that they are in fact alone, and
that after an interval of two thousand years we may see the sacrifice
of Socrates repeated several times. The program for the future is
either a permanent dialogue or the solemn and significant putting to
death of any who have experienced dialogue. After having contributed my
reply, the question that I ask Christians is this: "Will Socrates still
be alone and is there nothing in him and in your doctrine that urges
you to join us?"

It may be, I am well aware, that Christianity will answer negatively.
Oh, not by your mouths, I am convinced. But it may be, and this is even
more probable, that Christianity will insist on maintaining a
compromise or else giving its condemnations the obscure form of the
encyclical. Possibly it will insist on losing once and for all the
virtue of revolt and indignation that belonged to it long ago. In that
case Christians will live and Christianity will die. In that case the
others will in fact pay for the sacrifice. In any case such a future is
not within my province to decide, despite all the hope and anguish it
awakens in me. I can speak only of what I know. And what I know--which
sometimes creates a deep longing in me--is that if Christians made up
their minds to it, millions of voices--millions, I say--throughout the
world would be added to the appeal of a handful of isolated individuals
who, without any sort of affiliation, today intercede almost everywhere
and ceaselessly for children and for men.

I share with Camus his unwillingness to declare a belief in a supreme deity, and yet, I also believe that Manichean Christians aside (and I would put most born-agains, including the Prez, in this category), if Christians would make up their minds to end their contribution to the perpetuation of suffering on this planet, Jesus, what a difference it would make.

This is not to say that I don't believe evil exists. It does. And it is being perpetrated in our name. But I also believe that to declare the other side as evil shuts down the dialogue I so desperately long to have with them. Rantings about them aside, there's still a part of me that wants to talk to them, to convince them to come closer to the fence so we can try to work this out.

I am not a Christian, but I cannot believe that the WWJD crowd really believes that he'd be killing civilians in Fallujah.

The Crusades were a disaster. There is no evidence to suggest that this Crusade is not going to end up the same way.

1 comment:

J.R. Boyd said...

Like most things, when religion suits the needs of power systems, it also tends to administer their violence. And just like anything else, when religion serves the needs of people, it can help them profoundly. The question--just as it was in Jesus' day--is whether we (and I think this is an expression from Camus) throw our lot in with the victims or the executioners of history. Jesus made his choice pretty unambiguous; but that doesn't make the choice any less difficult for his followers, or anybody else.