He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Monday, May 30, 2016

Albert Camus' Letter to a Christian Europe

Albert Camus, a well-known French atheist philosopher who was also a revolutionist and syndicalist, was invited by the Dominican monks of Latour-Maubourg to write to them on the topic of "What Unbelievers Expect of Christians" in the year 1948.  This may seem strange, but the Dominicans are known for engaging in intellectual dialogue with all sorts of philosophers, and this is very in character for them.

Given my own love of intellectual dialogue, particularly with atheists, I think it's worthwhile to at least understand the point of view presented by Camus in his letter responding to the Dominicans.  Like most good philosophers, Camus begins with the caveats, explaining what he is not trying to accomplish in his writing and also what he is trying to accomplish.

"Inasmuch as you have been so kind to invite a man who does not share your convictions to come and answer the very general question that you are raising in these conversations, before telling you what I think unbelievers expect of Christians, I should like first to acknowledge your intellectual generosity by stating a few principles.
First, there is a lay pharisaism in which I shall strive not to indulge.  To me a lay pharisee is the person who pretends to believe that Christianity is an easy thing and asks of the Christian, on the basis of an external view of Christianity, more than he asks of himself.  I believe indeed that the Christians has many obligations but that it is not up to the man who rejects them himself to recall their existence to anyone who has already accepted them.  If there is anyone who can ask anything of the Christian, it is the Christian himself.  The conclusion is that if I allowed myself at the end of this statement to demand of you  certain duties, these could only be duties that it is essential to ask of any man today, whether he is or is not a Christian."

One of the most rare qualities to be found in philosophers (or anyone else) is a genuine humility about the limits of one's knowledge and a deep appreciation for the difficulties faced by others.  This is precisely the quality Camus exhibits so clearly here.  And he will not try to impose on the Christians a heavier burden than he can bear himself, which I appreciate.

I appreciate it especially because of how I relate to my friends who are atheists.  I do not ask them to be better Christians, setting upon them a standard they do not accept; I do call those who strive for more evidence-based and rational views to meet their own standards, sometimes by correcting them on a matter of fact or an error in reasoning.  And I welcome their corrections when I fail to live up to the standard of Christian charity, just as Camus welcomes reasoned debate.

"Secondly, I wish to also declare that, not feeling that I possess any absolute truth or any message, I shall never start from the supposition that Christian truth is illusory, but merely from the fact that I could not accept it.  As an illustration of this position, I am willing to confess this: Three years ago a controversy made me argue against one among you, and not the least formidable.  The fever of those years, the painful memory of two or three friends assassinated had given me the courage to do so.  Yet I can assure you that, despite some excessive expressions on the part of François Mauriac, I have not ceased meditating on what he said.  At the end of this reflection--and in this way I give you my opinion as to the usefulness of the dialogue between believer and unbeliever--I have come to admit to myself, and now to admit publicly here, that for the fundamentals and on the precise point of our controversy François Mauriac got the better of me."

I admire Camus for his willingness to admit that his opponent had won the argument; I know that's a rare and difficult thing to do.  I have lost many arguments myself, but like Camus I usually didn't realize until much later after giving it a great deal of thought.  There is a great danger is assuming that we have won the argument and going on without a healthy amount of reconsideration; this danger is that we will probably never find out how wrong we were.

"Having said that, it will be easier to state my third and last principle.  It is simple and obvious.  I shall not try to change anything that I think or anything that you think (insofar as I can judge of it) in order to reach a reconciliation that would be agreeable to all.  On the contrary, what I feel like telling you today is that the world needs real dialogue, that falsehood is just as much the opposite of dialogue as is silence, and that the only possible dialogue is the kind between people who remain what they are and speak their minds.  This is tantamount to saying that the world of today needs Christians who remain Christians.  The other day at the Sorbonne, speaking to a Marxist lecturer, a Catholic priest said in public that he was too anticlerical.  Well, I don't like priests who are anticlerical any more than philosophies that are ashamed of themselves.  Hence I shall not, as far as I am concerned, try to pass myself off as a Christian in your presence.  I share with you the same revulsion from evil.  But I do not share your hope, and I continue to struggle against this universe in which children suffer and die."

There is a wonderful realism here about what dialogue is and ought to be.  Inevitably, the chances of changing the mind of one's opponent is almost 0%, but there is worthy honor and integrity in being faithful to one's own principles and commitments.

Camus, like many atheists and many Christians and many people of many beliefs, is wrestling with the Problem of Suffering here, and is is understandable to question whether God could possibly be a loving God while allowing suffering.  This is the profound Problem of Love, and I do not suggest to anyone that it is an easy one to solve.

"And why shouldn't I say here what I have written elsewhere?  For a long time during those frightful years I waited for a great voice to speak up in Rome.  I, an unbeliever?  Precisely.  For I knew that the spirit would be lost if it did not utter a cry of condemnation when faced with force.  It seems that that voice did speak up.    But I assure you that millions of men like me did not hear it and that at that time believers and unbelievers alike shared a solitude that continued to spread as the days went by and the executioners multiplied.  
It has been explained to me since that the condemnation was indeed voiced.  But that it was in the style of the encyclicals, which is not at all clear.  The condemnation was voiced and it was not understood!  Who could fail to feel where the true condemnation lies in this case and to see that this example by itself gives part of the reply, perhaps the whole reply, that you ask of me.  What the world expects of Christians is that Christians should speak out, loud and clear, and that they should voice their condemnation in such a way that never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, could rise in the heart of the simplest man.  That they should get away from abstraction and confront the blood-stained face history has taken on today.  The grouping we need is a grouping of men resolved to speak out clearly and pay up personally.  When a Spanish bishop blesses political executions, he ceases to be a bishop or a Christian or even a man; he is a dog just like the one who, backed by an ideology, orders that execution without doing the dirty work himself.  We are still waiting, and I am waiting, for a grouping of all those who refuse to be dogs and are resolved to pay the price that must be paid so that man can be something more than a dog."

Camus has a valuable point here for Christians generally and Roman Catholics specifically, that while Papal encyclicals may be a very authoritative way of communicating the teachings of the Church, it is not the method that is likely to reach many people.  And what good is it to call the world back to what is true, good, and beautiful if most of the world will not hear the call?

His point that Christians ought to speak out against terrible injustice in unequivocal terms and accept the risk of severe consequences is also well-taken, at least by me and many other Christians.  I'm not so sure that the current generation of unbelievers is very interested in encouraging Christians to speak out, except where those Christians agree with their political programme.  Many of them seem to lack Camus' sense that the beliefs of others who hold them sincerely and with integrity ought to be generally respected rather than denigrated.

"And now, what can Christians do for us?
To begin with, give up the empty quarrels, the first of which is the quarrel about pessimism.  I believe, for instance, that M. Gabriel Marcel would be well advised to leave alone certain forms of thought that fascinate him and lead him astray.  M. Marcel cannot call himself a democrat and at the same time ask for a prohibition of Sartre's play.  This is a position that is tiresome for everyone.  What M. Marcel wants is to defend absolute values, such as modesty and man's divine truth, when the things that should be defended are the few provisional values that will allow M. Marcel to continue fighting someday, and comfortably, for those absolute values...
By what right, moreover, could a Christian or a Marxist accuse me, for example, of pessimism?  I was not the one to invent the misery of the human being or the terrifying formulas of divine malediction.  I was not the one to shout Nemo Bonus or the damnation of the unbaptized children.  I was not the one who said that man was incapable of saving himself by his own means and that in the depths of his degradation his only hope was in the grace of God.  And as for the famous Marxist optimism!  No one has carried distrust of man further, and ultimately the economic fatalities of this universe seem more terrible than divine whims.
Christians and Communists will tell me that their optimism is based on a longer range, that it is superior to all the rest, and that God or history, according to the individual, is the satisfying end-product of their dialectic.  I can indulge in the same reasoning.  If Christianity is pessimistic as to man, it is optimistic as to human destiny.  Well, I can say that, pessimistic as to human destiny, I am optimistic as to man.  And not in the name of humanism that always seemed to me to fall short, but in the name of an ignorance that tries to negate nothing.
This means that the words "pessimism" and "optimism" need to be clearly defined and that, until we can do so, we must pay attention to what unites us rather than to what separates us."

The debate over pessimism isn't one that has the same seriousness attached to it today that it had at the time.  Nonetheless, Camus makes some good points here, one of which is to give up vacuous arguments and define the terms very precisely so that they might no longer be vacuous.  The other is that in order to be able to defend absolute values, we must have values which are not so absolute to provide the practical political constraints which allow for a space for dialogue in which those values we hold as absolute and transcendent can actually be communicated.

Camus also eloquently makes a comparison to certain arguments made by some communists and some Christians that the end or telos of the suffering we undergo in the process of reaching heaven on earth (in the case of communists) or the new heavens and new earth (in the case of Christianity) justifies the suffering undergone by millions of human beings, as if suffering were a necessary evil.  Personally, I don't think suffering is evil, so this doesn't present a problem for my point of view.  But for those who do think that suffering is evil, it's a point that needs to be taken seriously.

"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 that 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 there is 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 on giving its condemnations the 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."

It is an oft-stated truth that Christianity is revolutionary.  It is a revolt against the oppression of sin, an uprising against the capricious rule of the ego over our lives, a revolution of love which must execute the ego, leaving no room in our lives for the Imperium of transient desires.  This a revolution which Christians should and could participate in with more resolve instead of compromising to maintain the comforts of modern life.

And it is this comfort which often keeps Christians from speaking up about injustice.  There are certainly plenty of examples of Christians doing this, of course.  Dietrich von Hildebrand and Dietrich Bonhoeffer come to mind, and Pope Pius XII as well.  They fought against the Nazis with what weapons they had and saved many lives.  But many Christians in Germany went along with the Nazi pogrom against the Jews because it was easier to blame them for the discomforts caused by economic woes and easier to not speak up.

This is not to say that some didn't want to speak up; I'm sure many did want to speak up, but they had families to protect and homes to maintain when the decisions were being made.  It is not an easy thing to ask a man to risk not only his own life, but the lives of his entire family, in the interest of speaking out against injustice.  Fear has always been a great obstacle for the Christian revolt and the political revolt.

Sam Harris has previously pointed out that human beings seem to only have two ways of dealing with conflict: conversation and violence.  I sincerely hope, along with Albert Camus, that we choose conversation over violence and foster the bold dialogue he envisioned for us, a dialogue in which we are very candid with one another and also humble with one another.  I'll happily stand with him against the forces of terror, though that will result in suffering and perhaps even death.

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13462

Note: An image of Albert Camus' gravestone.


  1. I think the problem today is that you have a Pope saying things that are more or less clear, yet because of ignorance or laziness, the media still misinterpret it. It's hard to speak clearly to a public who won't even meet you halfway and try to understand your worldview first.

  2. Well, it's certainly true that media outlets don't bother to really understand the Catholic worldview. Or the Baha'i, Vajrayana Buddhist, and Zoroastrian worldviews, for that matter. They're all about the simplest possible presentation of an issue for time's sake, and that lends itself to wild oversimplification. It's one reason I don't watch cable news or any news on television.

    That said, Pope Francis has a tendency to be theologically unclear because he's just not a specialist in theology or philosophy and doesn't have an interest in becoming one, but he does have an interest in speaking from the heart. The media won't notice this, except for traditional Catholic outlets who are looking for it already. This has the unfortunate effect of making it easy for them to confirm their narrative about him, which is that he's secretly trying to remake the Church in a secular progressive image. I don't think it's true, but the narrative has been doing some damage, and his personality helps perpetuate it.

    1. I will agree that Pope Francis is not always as clear as he ought to be, but he's definitely no Pius XII, burying his thoughts in the middle of an encyclical. Yet few make an effort to understand even basic tenets of Catholic doctrine, such as: (drumroll) THE POPE CAN'T CHANGE ESTABLISHED DOGMA. Even an atheist can acknowledge that fact, yet pundits watch the Pope strain out a gnat by maintaining the Church's stance on contraception somehow hope that he'll swallow a camel by accepting homosexual matrimony. Yet homosexual marriage makes no sense within the framework of Catholic sacramentology, given that matrimony is a sacrament that is fundamentally ordered to the procreation of new life. Yet there is very little rational discourse going on in the media (though the Church has, on the whole, maintained a rational, respectful tone in the debate). Rather, any who hold to the traditional position on marriage are lumped into the same category as the bigoted fools I knew in high school who went around calling the homosexual students "greasy f**s".

    2. Sorry for ranting so much on your blog. I do want to thank you for your rational, even-handed analyses. I do have a problem with many Apologists (of both Catholic and Protestant stripes) in that they tend to be heavy-handed in presenting the evidence, greatly overestimating the force of their own arguments and being largely dismissive of even the best arguments of their opponents. But I don't think my "apologetics radar" has gone off even once since I have been conversing with you and reading your blog. By being more than fair to every other worldview, hopefully you will lead some in the world to look at the Christian worldview with that same level of fairness.

    3. Jack, I have really enjoyed reading your thoughtful responses. We could definitely use more people like you who are charitable and thoughtful in approaching other people's perspectives. Hopefully we can both contribute to healthier dialogue in society.

      I think you're right that there's a difference between being a bigot and just disagreeing with others that their choices are good. If I tell someone who really likes pastries that I don't eat them because of the sugar content being harmful and that I hope they stop eating them as well, no one would imagine that is bigotry. It's just a difference of opinion. But now, when the issue is sex rather than pastries, suddenly a difference of opinion about what's healthy or best is seen as bigotry by some folks. It's unfortunate, in particular because it trivializes the very real bigotry that hurts many people.

  3. I'm also not sure I understand Camus' argument that Provisional values must necessarily precede transcendental values. While it is possible that the adoption of the former might precede the latter within any given society, I would argue that a society that holds to the latter to begin with is much more likely to arrive at the former than a society without absolutes. If one believes that we are free agents endowed with an inherent dignity, then it makes much more sense to hold to the necessity of societal rights (such as freedom of speech and movement) than it does if one believes we are only advanced primates in a random, purposeless universe. Not that atheists and humanists don't believe in rights--I'm sure that many, if not most, do. It's just that, in their worldview, rights have a sort of magical existence--they just sort of exist on their own, in the abstract. Or they might acknowledge provisional rights because they serve some utilitarian purpose (preserve basic well-being for the many). Some will break down and admit that morality is illusory. I had one atheist tell me: "If I killed someone, I wouldn't think that I had done something actually wrong. But that wouldn't help me sleep any better at night." This was no sociopath: He was actually a kind, thoughtful young man. But he was willing to take his atheism to its logical conclusion by acknowledging the shaky ontology of morality in the atheistic worldview. Just because evolution has wired in us a sense of right and wrong doesn't mean that this is anything objectively true about that moral sense.

    1. I share your appreciation for taking things to their logical conclusion whether we like those conclusions or not. Related to your question about why we would start with provisional values first, I have a related question. Why would God give the Israelites the Law and the Prophets so long before sending His Son? Wouldn't it be better to start with the Redeemer first and use the Son's entrance into the world to establish the perfect Law?

  4. I see your point--the law is partial revelation, and it paves the way for the Gospel of Christ. From a temporal standpoint, provisional values can precede transcendental ones. I was thinking more along ontological or metaphysical lines, that provisional values are just arbitrary unless they are grounded in transcendental ones.

    1. That's certainly true, Jack. I think the difficulty is that Camus is referring to the temporal order exclusively, because that's all he can really appeal to given his rejection of Christian ontology. So if we're trying to understand his argument, it has to be understood as an argument about the temporal order which is all he believes in.

  5. Extremely intriguing online journal. A lot of web journals I see nowadays don't generally give anything that I'm keen on, however I'm most definitely inspired by this one. Recently felt that I would post and let you know. Christian counselling