I thought I would throw out some thoughts about a book I read last week and this morning’s church service. Last week, a good chunk of my bus time was spent reading a book I picked up for a couple of bucks at a used bookstore on Broadway. Albert Camus’ The Outsider was an interesting read, but one that left me feeling a little bewildered, somewhat annoyed, and deeply saddened by the bleak outlook on life it portrays.
The narrator and main character, Meurseault, is an unapologetic individualist. He lives for the moment, scarcely giving a second thought to anything other than whatever immediate gratification he can secure for himself as he more or less aimlessly wanders through his mundane life in a French town near Algiers.
Early in the book, his mother dies at a nursing home, an event which is described by Meurseault as being little more than an inconvenience – something which provokes no emotional response, and represents little more than a series of events to be gotten out of as soon as possible. We then follow Meurseault through a series of ordinary days in his life. Through a combination of bizarre events, he ends up killing an Arab on a beach almost by accident, and the second part of the book is devoted to the trial which will ultimately convict him of a murder for which he demonstrates no remorse. Meurseault is portrayed as lazy, indifferent, careless and committed to little else but sensory pleasure. He seems incapable of understanding his motives or his actions, and can barely muster the effort to care about his own trial. At times he is mildly interested, hot, tired, or just wishing it would all just go away and everyone would “stop talking about him.” The theme of the book is simply the absurdity of life – an idea which Meurseault comes to terms with at the end of the book. His own execution is mere hours away, and a priest comes to attempt to convince him to turn to Christ. Meurseault rejects the priest in anger:
I’d been right, I was still right, I was always right. I’d lived a certain way and I could just as well have lived a different way. I’d done this and I hadn’t done that. I hadn’t done one thing whereas I had done another. So what? It was if I’d been waiting all along for this very moment and for the early dawn when I’d be justified. Nothing, nothing mattered and I knew very well why… From the depths of my future, throughout the whole of this absurd life I’d been leading, I’d felt a vague breath drifting towards me across all the years that were still to come, and on its way this breath had evened out everything that was then being proposed to me in the equally unreal years I was living through. What did other people’s deaths or a mother’s love matter to me, what did this God or the lives people chose or the destinies they selected matter to me, when one and the same destiny was to select me and the thousands of millions of other privileged people who, like him, called themselves my brothers?
For Meurseult, the universe is characterized by nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. A human life can go this way or that but it doesn’t much matter. The same fate awaits all; nobody escapes the absurdity of life.
I couldn’t help but think of Meurseault during church this morning. First, Dave Diewert taught a class on “The Divine Drama of Salvation” showing how Exodus 1 provides a paradigmatic example of God’s desire to liberate the oppressed from bondage. Throughout this passage, policies of death and destruction are resisted as first the Hebrew midwives, and then Moses resist decrees from those in positions of power in their day, choosing life over death and working for liberation from oppression. Then, in the message, pastor Ken Peters asked us to imagine what God’s “preferred future” looks like. Do we, the church, represent the pinnacle of God’s creation intent? Or does God have something bigger and grander in mind? Ken argued that we have too long been content with “pathetic little worldviews that are incapable of comprehending God’s future.” God’s “preferred future” is nothing less than the redemption of the cosmos, the liberation of the created order. The church is not an end in and of itself; it is the means toward a specific goal – the kingdom of God, where his will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
I think that human beings are teleological creatures. We don’t seem to be able to survive without some kind of goal or meaning by which to orient our lives – even if that meaning is found in embracing absurdity and celebrating a life of loosely connected moments characterized by varying degrees of sensual pleasure. I wonder what Meurseault’s “preferred future”‘ would have looked like? Could he have even imagined such a thing? Would his “preferred future” have been characterized by absurdity or harmony? Would he have wished for something else from life? I don’t really know. I’m certainly no expert on Camus, or existential philosophy in general, but it seems to me that without hope, people die, whether that be physically, emotionally, relationally, spiritually… The idea that our lives mean something seems to just be in our DNA.
It was good for me to be reminded of these things, from two wildly different sources. I think it’s important for me to keep this notion of God’s “preferred future” firmly in view, both to motivate action in the present, and to anchor hope for the future. The author of the story in which we find ourselves has not abandoned it, no matter how absurd it may seem at times.