Albert Camus and the Minister
by Howard Mumma
Paraclete, 217 pages, $15.95
When Albert Camus's The Fall was published in 1956, "numerous pious souls" thought the famous atheist, existentialist novelist, and philosopher was nearing conversion—so says French critic Alain Costes. Methodist pastor Howard Mumma was one of those pious souls and for good reason.
Mumma is no wishful thinker, no pious Christian admirer who imagines reasons to list Camus among the saints. Over several summers, as he served as guest minister at the American Church in Paris, Mumma was sought out by Camus. Sworn to secrecy at the time, Mumma now reconstructs the "irregular and occasional" dialogues that took place before Camus's tragic death in a car accident on January 4, 1960. These dialogues climaxed with Camus's request to be baptized privately.
To me and, I imagine, to many not quite so pious readers of Camus, the conversations this book describes come as a stunning revelation—but not one lacking credibility. Still, some readers will surely find this revelation a serious challenge to Camus's intellectual stature and will refuse to believe it.
There is, of course, little way for readers now to verify whether these dialogues took place, or to verify the accuracy of Mumma's memory then or now, 40 years later, when he is in his 90s. Still, the details of the setting for the dialogues and the reconstructed interchanges have the ring of truth.
The problem of pain
Camus had long dealt with religious issues: the meaning of life, the problem of evil, the feelings of guilt, the foundation for morality, the longing for eternal life.
Though, as Camus tells Mumma, "The silence of the universe has led me to conclude that the world is without meaning," he had already confessed in an essay written in 1950 that he had made his whole life an attempt to "transcend nihilism." His three major novels—The Stranger (1942), The Plague (1947), and The Fall (1956)—deal with profound moral and spiritual issues. Still, none of them—nor any of his short stories, dramas or essays—gives any indication that he was seriously considering conversion to Christianity.
Camus rejected both Marxism, his constant enemy, and Christianity, his frequent sparring partner. His main sticking point was the problem of suffering and evil. Camus refused to believe in the existence of a God who is both omnipotent and good. The world taken on its own is meaningless. If there were a God, then there might be a meaning to the world. But the profound suffering of the innocent is universal. God—if there is a God—does nothing to prevent it or alleviate it. Therefore he either does not exist or he is not omnipotent and not worth believing in. Worse, he may be evil himself.
Camus's response to this meaningless world is to rebel, to launch an attack on suffering. In the image of his novel, it is to fight the plague.
What attracts all morally sensitive readers to Camus's philosophy is its honesty, its openness to the reality of suffering, his refusal to accept any cheap answers, but at the same time his passion to act positively, not only to have compassion on the suffering but, as an intellectual with stellar gifts as a writer, to encourage others to do so as well. Without believing in anything "transcendent," he calls us to "transcend" nihilism by our actions, to make meaning where there is no meaning.
What Mumma shows us, however, is a Camus who had doubts about his own solution and premonitions that genuine meaning did in fact exist in God as understood by traditional Christianity. "I am searching for something I do not have, something I'm not sure I can define," he tells Mumma in their first encounter. The world is not rational, it does not fit human needs and desire. "In a word, our very existence is absurd." Suicide seems the only logical response.
Mumma does not hasten to counter Camus's charge; rather, he sympathizes with Camus's frustration and confesses his own inability to make sense of the world. This at first seems like strange behavior for a pastor. In fact, however, it mirrors the behavior of Job's friends—the one thing they got right. They sat with Job for seven days and seven nights without speaking. Camus returns for a second visit and the dialogue resumes.
As the conversations continue, Camus begins to read the Bible, something he confesses not to have done before. In fact he does not even own one; so Mumma gets one for him, and Camus starts with Genesis. This raises the issue of the whether the Bible is to be taken literally, especially the story of Adam and Eve. When Mumma interprets it as a parable of the origin of the conscience, in short, a tale putting the origin of human evil in the attempt of human beings to make themselves gods, Camus finds the story to ring true.
While Mumma's answers are broadly speaking neo-orthodox, not quite those an evangelical would likely give, the theology is traditional at heart, and it is in line with Camus's own understanding of human nature.
Sartre the blusterer
Mumma then mentions the well-known relationship between Jean-Paul Sartre and Camus. Mumma has already had two significant encounters with Sartre; these become a springboard for further dialogue with Camus. In his conversation with Mumma, Sartre held that there is no god of any kind. Human beings alone have a nonmaterial dimension; from that, they are able to break free of their material constraints and create their own nature, their own character.
When Mumma asks where this nonmaterial nature comes from, Sartre has no explanation. He merely blusters, "I have no answers to this question, but I emphatically deny any natural or biological origin for the spiritual freedom with which man is cursed or blessed. … Let us drop the subject." Still, a bit dejected, he asks Mumma to explain the Christian view of the question. When Mumma replies, Sartre says, "I have not heard this reasoning before and will have to think on it further."
The conversation with Sartre then moves to morality. According to Sartre, free individuals create by their choices both their own character and the moral principles by which they live. They are obligated only to themselves. But if they are obligated to no one else, how can ethics be anything but relative? In short, how can there be a morality—an ought in a world of contrary notions of what is good, none of which has a claim on any other? Mumma has only two encounters with Sartre, neither of which stirs Sartre from his commitment to atheism.
Mumma is no novelist; he does not try to picture the movement of Camus's mind. What he does is to shock us as he himself is shocked by what Camus suddenly asks: "Howard, do you perform baptisms?" What does "You must be born again" mean? After being told that "baptism is a symbolic commitment to God" and being born again means "to enter anew or afresh into the process of spiritual growth … to receive forgiveness because you have asked God to forgive you of all your sins," Camus says, "Howard, I am ready. I want this."
Then came the dilemma for Mumma. Camus had already been baptized in the Roman Catholic Church. According to Methodist belief and that of many other denominations, once is enough. Moreover, baptism is a public affair. It means becoming a part of the visible community of faith. It is the latter that now becomes the sticking point. Camus is a very public figure.
But Mumma would not agree to a private baptism. Instead, he counseled Camus to continue his study of the faith and to postpone baptism till the two of them could reach the same persuasion. Camus accompanied Mumma to the airport as he prepared to return to the States, expecting to see Camus again the next year. "My friend, mon ché;ri, thank you. … I am going to keep striving for the Faith!" Suddenly Mumma has second thoughts. Should he have baptized and confirmed him?
But it is too late. A few months later, Mumma hears of Camus's sudden death. Although he wonders if he had made a mistake, Mumma writes:
I had implied that baptism was an event that usually only happens once, and I certainly wasn't worried for his soul. God had set aside a special place for him, I was sure.
For any Christian interested in apologetics, this book raises a host of questions.
What if Mumma had answered Camus's questions in a more evangelical way, arguing for the historicity of Adam and Eve and a less exclusively theological reading of the Bible? Camus could see the power of the theological understanding of evil, one with which most evangelicals would be in basic agreement. Would he have been so ready to proceed if Mumma insisted that he accept a more literal understanding of the Old Testament?
What if Mumma had directed Camus to the Gospels first? Would that have raised a different set of questions in Camus's mind? Camus has shown some sympathy with Jesus in his writing. Would his fresh and direct encounter with him in the New Testament have given a different focus to his struggle with the problem of evil?
When a seeker asks for baptism, how much must be believed? Given Camus's status as a celebrity, how important is the public aspect of baptism? We know, for example, the strain on public figures who are converted. Already in the limelight, they are prone to overconfidence and too often fade from overexposure. Worse, the Christian community often parades them before the public as arguments for the faith.
This book is an important addition to apologetic literature—not because of the details of the argument, for there is nothing new here—but because of who Sartre and Camus were and continue to be in the intellectual world. If Sartre could only bluster when a key weakness of his philosophy is pointed out by an ordinary pastor, how solid is the intellectual foundation of atheism? If Camus, more honest and open than Sartre to the flaws of his own system, could finally see the truth of Christianity, how optimistic could we be about the conversion of honest atheists?
James W. Sire, author of The Universe Next Door, has recently published Habits of the Mind: Intellectual Life as a Christian Calling (InterVarsity Press).
For hundreds of Camus links, click here.
Read a brief Camus biography.
In October's The New Republic James Wood's " The Sickness Unto Life" examines why Camus, and thinkers who question God most rigorously, often arrive at highly orthodox conclusions.
You can purchase Howard E. Mumma's Albert Camus and the Minister online.
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