Thursday, April 18, 2013
The prospect that Albert Camus may have been considering converting to Christianity in the years before his death is something that makes me very uneasy, as an avid admirer (though not necessarily a subscriber) of his philosophy of the absurd. The dubious information comes to us from a memoir written by Howard Mumma, an American minister in the United Church of America, narrating his private conversations with Camus. This has been well reviewed in this article 'The outsider who almost came in' by Greg Clarke, which I would recommend the readers to go through. It is unlikely, to my mind, that Mumma would have made the whole thing up. I am inclined to believe there is some truth to it, but I am sure Mumma has inadvertently projected his own eagerness onto Camus and has reconstructed the conversations significantly. I am also convinced that even if (and that's a big hypothetical) Camus was seriously considering adopting some form of Christianity, the philosophical shape and essence of that would've been very different from the doctrines that Mumma upheld, and Mumma might very well have failed to understand the subtle aspects of Camus's inclinations. Given that this is the only account we have, we may never be certain of the truth.
Some of the thoughts expressed in this blogpost at The Search for Health in Decadence resonate with my own reactions:
'While most of what Mumma says is plausible, I think he greatly misunderstood Camus's "pilgrimage" toward delving into religious studies and extrapolates an "end point" for what Camus was doing that doesn't necessarily follow.
Most people might read the book trying to extrapolate whether or not Camus was well on the path of becoming a good new born Christian. Even if what is said in the book is completely true, I don't believe that Camus would be a "Christian" in the sense that most Christians are.
Camus was suffering greatly at the sense of emptiness that pervades a life built upon absurdity. If we have nothing but the world we make in a world filled with horrible evils of suffering (like the Holocaust), even a life where meaning is built upon revolt can be exhausting. Camus was looking for something more to life, more of a connection. His self-described pilgrimage doesn't strike me as an attempt to escape the wearying emptiness of living in constant awareness of the absurdities of life, but rather as a spiritual journey to connect with the existence he had in a different way.
I noticed several things in the conversations Mumma had with Camus. Camus was most engaged with the mythological aspects of the Bible. He liked the stories. Keeping in mind that Camus did his master's thesis on Greek philosophy, engaging in Christian mythology for Camus is similar to the tasks of engaging Greek mythology and stepping into the myths as he had done with Sisyphus, Prometheus, and others....
Keeping in mind the despair that Camus was suffering through at this time - his personal and professional meltdown after Sartre's attack on The Rebel, his wife's multiple suicide attempts, his recurring crippled bed-laden spells caused from tuberculosis - it is clear that the starkness of life could be reawakened with a new sort of mythological thinking in his life....
Regardless, this book shows that Camus is ever more complicated and multi-faceted than he is often portrayed as, and I can appreciate that about him. The book creates new problems for me to sort through, but I don't think this book in any way diminishes the works that he has done and his unflinching attempts to always live an authentic existence in good faith. Camus's willingness to engage Christianity at that point in his life is a fine testament to his humility, which is one of his greatest attributes.'