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Searching for God Knows What

Last night at our young adults group we talked about, among other things, the frequently encountered view that Christianity is a strange relic of the past, that has nothing useful to say to us in the present, no normative force or existential/moral relevance in a world that has “grown up.”  It is a well-rehearsed and often repeated story: once upon a time, primitive people thought there was objective meaning in the cosmos, we now know this to be false, and our only course of action is to salvage what personal meaning we can from the scrap heap of a random and chaotic universe.

Nobody used the word last night, and few people would probably frame the issue in a manner as sophisticated (and bleak!) as he did, but the name Albert Camus gave to our existential predicament was “absurd.”  There is certainly much that rings true about in Camus’ writings about the human condition, but there are problems as well.  The modern narrative of a “grown-up,” post-metaphysical understanding of absurdity is not without its inconsistencies and contradictions, either.

I dug out Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age this morning, and located this passage from his discussion of Albert Camus. I think Taylor highlights an important dimension of the discussion of where/if/how/why there is moral meaning to be found and embraced in our world:

[Camus’] crucial move is to articulate the sense of the human condition, after the end of religious-metaphysical illusions, with the notion of the “absurd”… [T]he absurd is born of this confrontation between the human call and the unreasonable silence of the world…  We feel called to happiness, jouissance.  This is not just a desire, but a sense that this is our normal condition; that this is what we are designed for.  And beyond that, we feel an imperious demand in us to make sense of the world, to find some unified meaning in it.  We have, in other words, an intuition about the meaning of things, written into our inescapable life experience.

But then the claims to fulfillment and meaning are brutally denied by an indifferent universe.  It owes us nothing, and its operations randomly favour and then crush our aspirations.  The nascent sense of meaning meets an enigma which defies an over-all meaning.  The attempts at sense-making are continually and utterly frustrated.  This is the contradiction which Camus names “absurd.”

Of course, there is a seeming contradiction in this claim itself…. If the point is that, contrary to Christianity and a whole host of metaphysical views, the universe is indifferent and void of meaning, it doesn’t make sense to speak of absurdity either.  Absurdity exists where there is reason to expect meaning, and nonsense appears instead.  How can there be an expectation of meaning in a universe which by hypothesis is devoid of it?

In short, why would we search for and be driven by something that is not and has never been available?  It’s not an iron-clad argument for the existence of God, meaning, or anything else, of course, but it is a highly suggestive feature of human life and worth exploring, for apologetic as well as pastoral reasons.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. I often find my self wishing I was born say 2,500 years ago… It sometimes seems to me that we can question “value” because we have the time to. Were not working for our daily bread.

    June 18, 2010
    • Yet so much great philosophical and theological reflection was produced during times when people’s lives were much more hand-to-mouth than ours. I don’t think we have a choice but to ask questions of value. It’s in our DNA.

      June 21, 2010
  2. Your post reminded me of Ecclesiastes 3:11: “He has made everything beautiful in its time; also he has put eternity into man’s mind, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” The pessimism of Camus was anticipated long ago here in the Bible. I think Ecclesiastes speaks powerfully to the contemporary mind. These are not new thoughts.

    June 18, 2010
    • Yes, this is a good reminder. There is nothing new under the sun.

      June 21, 2010
  3. Ken #

    Re: ” it is a highly suggestive feature of human life and worth exploring, for apologetic as well as pastoral reasons”

    I remember noticing that Billy Graham was aware of this suggestive feature and its worth for apologetic and pastoral reasons. He explored it in his preaching.

    June 18, 2010
  4. Ken #

    In the next paragraph, the one after the last one you quoted, Taylor clarifies that Camus is making a different point from the one represented in the critical rhetorical question (that you quoted) that Taylor attributes to some of Camus’ critics. Camus was making a phenomenological point, not a metaphysical point – “the universe as lived is absurd.”

    A Christian response summarized by Taylor has been “to negate absurdity, to affirm cosmic meaning.” I think that is what theodicy attempts to do.

    I think theodicy tends to negate absurdity on a metaphysical level, but not on a phenomenological level. I think theodicy begins with the phenomenological point that Camus makes and then attempts to justify the ways of God by metaphysics. I think the Bible offers a different approach. I think the Bible is centered on the phenomenological point that Camus makes. The Babylonian exile and the cross are affirmations of Camus’ point. The Bible promises relief at the phenomenological level – the new Kingdom, the resurrection. They await us in the future. These eschatological promises have more power to deal with the absurdity than does metaphysics – if we believe them.

    A couple of pages later, Taylor quotes Camus again. “One must … do what Christianity has never done: take care of the damned.” As Taylor summarizes the meaning, Camus is calling for a wider solidarity among people, wider than found in Christianity, wider than found in communism. It is a provocative challenge. I think that liberal Christianity has, in limited instances, attempted to take on that challenge.

    June 19, 2010
    • Very nice summary, Ken. I think I’m inclined to agree with you on the whole phenomenology vs. metaphysics question.

      June 20, 2010
    • Of course, not surprisingly, I think that what we need on the phenomenological level is not entirely unrelated to what is true at the metaphysical one :).

      June 21, 2010
    • James #

      Re: “Camus is calling for a wider solidarity among people, wider than found in Christianity”
      But where does one find a wider basis for solidarity with all humanity than Christianity offers- where every human being is created in the image of God and is of infinite value? That is a substantial basis for the needed solidarity and is contrasted with the ambigous bond of “star dust” that materialists offer. Clearly many who claim to be Christians have not lived by its standard- but that is another question. On the other hand our true heroes have.
      Camus never came up with any basis for his solidarity except a damned soul he borrowed from the ancient Greeks. And by the way Camus’ damned “hero” was not damned by Christianity but rather by Camus’ own metaphysics.

      June 21, 2010
      • Ken #

        Taylor summarizes Camus’ point on page 585. (By damned, Camus only meant people who do not believe in the things Christians believe.)

        I have seen Camus’ challenge to care for the damned accepted in liberal Christianity where it embraced two ideas: universal salvation and the priority of praxis over belief. Taylor described the praxis as “fighting the battles we can fight, for the limited, provisional happiness we can achieve, wherever this is to be found and whoever will be the beneficiaries, without exclusion.”

        Some Christians are materialists, and some materialists are Christians, damned or not.

        June 21, 2010
      • James #

        I’ve read quite a lot of Camus and don’t recall- “By damned, Camus only meant people who do not believe in the things Christians believe.” [Sounds more like Taylor than Camus.] I might have missed/forgotten it because the “damned” nature of Camus’ heroic ideal is quite overwhelming and specific and is in the context of absurd idealism- damned to keep going until death ultimately wins and there is no meaning. It’s why suicide is the optional idealism. Remember the heroic suicide movie and book themes of the late 60s early 70’s- “suicide is painless- it brings on many changes- and I can take and leave it if I please” ?
        Having once embraced nihilism it’s hard for me to just politely dismiss its grim conclusions and move on. A bit of confession there 🙂

        June 21, 2010

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