Perhaps the easiest way of making a town’s acquaintance is to ascertain how the people in it work, how they love, and how they die.
That’s how Albert Camus, the French philosopher and author, introduces the port town of Oran early on in his novel The Plague. I found myself reading the novel and discussing it with students this fall at Wheaton College. In fact, it’s the college’s Core Book for the year, which means that the whole campus is reading, reflecting upon, and discussing it as an act of communal learning during this season of Advent and throughout the year.
The novel tells the story of the citizens of Oran and how they respond when their town is overrun by an outbreak of the plague, which Camus, an atheist, based on historical events. One of the characters in the novel, Dr. Bernard Rieux, embodies Camus’s absurdist philosophy, which affirmed that humanity’s only option when confronted by the absence of any inherent meaning in life was simply to recognize the absurdity of our condition and live in the tension.
“Oh, I know it’s an absurd situation,” Dr. Rieux remarks at one point in the story, “but we’re all involved in it, and we’ve got to accept it as it is.” Camus knew that such a view stood at odds with the Christian faith, and he even compared it to other classical heresies. His philosophical shrug of the shoulders—sure, it’s a bizarre and meaningless reality, but what can you do?—was a far cry from the Christian affirmations of God’s good creation, divine providence even in the midst of suffering, and Jesus’ willingness to take on human flesh.
All of which would seem to make The Plague an odd selection for a Christian college to read together. However, as I was reminded this semester, we can find truth in unexpected places. John Calvin, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, certainly believed as much. In his commentary on Titus 1:12, where Paul refers to a Cretan poet, Calvin contends that we should not be afraid to learn from non-Christian authors: “All truth is from God; and consequently, if wicked men have said anything that is true and just, we ought not to reject it; for it has come from God.”
Allow me to suggest two such truths I found in The Plague.
On Not Ignoring Reality
Having faith during a pandemic means not ignoring the reality of our suffering. It can be tempting, when the daily reports of new cases, additional restrictions, and avoidable deaths might seem overwhelming, to just tune it all out. But downplaying or denying the reality of the situation isn’t the answer.
Camus doesn’t do this. Indeed, he knew suffering all too well. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis at a young age, and it remained with him for the rest of his life. In the novel, he identifies the very human fears and anxieties that the plague induces in the townsfolk of Oran. Its appearance is first noticed because of rats dying in the streets, but it quickly transfers to people. Dr. Rieux diagnoses the first case when Monsieur Michel, the concierge, begins to show signs. Michel’s wife asks, “Isn’t there any hope left, Doctor?” Sadly, not for her husband.
As the plague, and the fear that accompanies it, spreads in the town, the citizens discuss things that will sound all too familiar to us, I’m sure: taking preventive measures like wearing masks and keeping distance from each other, the challenges of extended separation, asymptomatic patients, and flattening the curve. Some even believe that the plague will vanish in warmer temperatures. Rieux struggles to convince the authorities about the dangers of the disease, as they don’t want to call it what it is: “It has small importance whether you call it plague or some rare kind of fever. The important thing is to prevent its killing off half the population of this town.” Finally, a quarantine is declared: “The telegram ran: Proclaim a state of plague stop close the town.”
The effects of the plague are more than physical isolation, of course. It has psychological and spiritual effects as well. The separation that the town experiences—between those inside and outside the city as well as among the people within its walls—is distressing. More than that, as the narrator puts it, the plague “had ousted love from all our hearts.”
We all suffer—some of us in small inconveniences, others in unspeakable losses. Yet our communal experience of the COVID-19 pandemic has pulled the curtain back to expose the reality of our suffering that we might otherwise be able to ignore. In this regard, the pandemic’s role is similar to that of war, which C. S. Lewis wrote about in “Learning in War-Time.” In the essay, which was originally a sermon he preached in 1939, Lewis looked back at his experience of World War I: “The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.”
The citizens of Oran are desperate not just to survive the plague but to know that they are not alone, that there is meaning in their lives. They want to know, in short, that there is hope.
On Not Forgetting Our Hope
Having faith during a pandemic means remembering the source of our hope. Madame Michel’s question to Dr. Rieux—“Isn’t there any hope left, Doctor?”—might very well be our own. The fact that my students and I were wearing masks in a classroom with distanced desks or meeting in an online Zoom session while discussing the novel was just one small reminder of our current crisis. Camus’s response to such an existential dilemma was to embrace the meaninglessness of life even if he knew that, like Sisyphus (his “absurd hero” from TheMyth of Sisyphus), he would have to push the proverbial stone up the mountain again and again and again. But for the Christian faith, the truth is both much worse and infinitely better.
It is much worse because we recognize the depth of our need. Camus’s novel offers a glimpse of this in a conversation between Dr. Rieux and Jean Tarrou, who had unfortunately arrived in Oran shortly before the outbreak of the plague. Tarrou’s own ethical standards had led him to organize teams of volunteers to combat the plague rather than force prisoners to do the work.
But he recognizes his own shortcomings: “I had plague already, long before I came to this town and encountered it here.” In words that echo the psalmist’s confession in Psalm 51 or Paul’s words in Romans about our universal sinfulness and our thoroughgoing need for God’s grace, Tarrou acknowledges, “We all have plague. … Each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it.”
At the same time, our perception of reality is infinitely better because it is shaped by our hope in Christ. I have been encouraged by recent news about the development of a COVID-19 vaccine. But even an effective vaccine will not cure all that ails us. The depth of our need requires something much more than a vaccine. What it requires is something that we cannot do.
In that sense, perhaps it could be said that the Christian faith shares something in common with Camus’s philosophy. When confronted by our suffering and the seeming absurdity of life, what can you do? Yes, we can—and we should—love our neighbor by wearing masks and staying six feet apart. But it turns out that we can do nothing to change our larger circumstances. What we need is an intervention.
And here is where we depart from Camus. For if we should remember the reality of our suffering, then we should remember all the more what God has done for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the early stages of the plague, Fr. Paneloux, a priest in Oran, preaches a sermon in which he interprets the outbreak as an expression of God’s punishment for the town’s lax faith: “Calamity has come on you, my brethren, and, my brethren, you deserved it.”
Later, after witnessing the tortured death of a child at the hands of the plague, he preaches another sermon in which he appears chastened, speaking “in a gentler, more thoughtful tone.” Yet even when humbled in this way, Camus writes, he would not forget his faith: “No, he, Father Paneloux, would keep faith with that great symbol of all suffering, the tortured body on the Cross.”
What, then, is our hope during this prolonged period of pandemic?
The season of Advent is one of expectation, preparation, and waiting. In short, it is a season of hope. Of course, it is an understatement to say that the start of this Christian year has been unusual. But the realities of this particular Advent—gathering for online worship in the living room, lighting the homemade wreath, praying again and again and again for those suffering from this plague—only serve to remind me all the more that God did not ignore the reality of the human situation. Our hope, during this season and always, is found in the fact that in Christ, God entered a plague-stricken city: “This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about” (Matt. 1:18).
David McNutt is an associate editor at IVP, associate lecturer of Core Studies at Wheaton College, and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). He is the author of the forthcoming book The Analogy of Creation: Karl Barth, the Arts, and a Theology of Creativity.
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