Camus and the Great Conundrum

I have no idea what's awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing. 
―Albert Camus, The Plague

Most good words are meaningful, full of meaning—and given my loves, I am always intrigued. Honored on my bookshelf is the Oxford English Dictionary, and one of my most-used websites is the Online Etymological Dictionary; few days pass when I do not look up a word that seems calls forth more understanding. Where did it come from? What are its roots? When was it first used? What does it mean?

For example, the word disease was created to communicate a state of “dis-ease,” its etymological origin from an old word for “ease,” for things being the way they are supposed to be. A life with no trouble, at ease, simply said. When we use the word, we are saying that human life has been disrupted, that we are in disarray, that sometimes something has gone wrong, terribly wrong.

As human beings all over the world have been assaulted by the crisis of the coronavirus disease—COVID-19 is how scientists have classified the epidemic—everyone everywhere is confronted with fears that most of us do not live with very often, if ever. What is it? Can I get it? What happens if I do? What will this mean for my life? My learning? My labor? My loves?

As the number of those affected multiplies by a thousand-fold, as the death toll tragically rises day by day, as countries close, as border crossings become difficult, as cities lock-down, and our places of employment require us to work at-home and online, we all feel in shock, not knowing what the next day will bring. Bewildered and confused, we feel “dis-eased,” thrown off our usual patterns of waking and working, our minds full of questions that we have not asked or been asked.

A month before anyone in the West imagined that COVID-19 was going to be a problem outside of Wuhan, and maybe China, my students read Albert Camus’s The Plague. In a course called “The Gospel and Culture,” we take up ideas and readings that invite us to think more deeply about the perennial challenge of living in the world, and yet not being of the world. Beginning with the political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain, we made our way through questions of identity, learning and life in the information age, the global marketplace, cultural analysis, the arts and entertainment, the dynamic relationship of metanarrative to narrative, the nature of sexuality, the challenge of belief in the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment world, and the meaning of vocation for the common good. From Sherry Turkle to Walker Percy to Lesslie Newbigin to Wendell Berry and more, we read good books which open these questions in ways that matter.

In the week we read Camus I named the class, “The Great Conundrum,” wanting the students to reflect on why the challenge of evil and suffering is so difficult, causing anyone who has lived very long to ask questions for which there are no easy answers. What do we do with a wounded world? What do we do with a world that sometimes wounds us? From the most personal heartaches to the most public horrors, the dilemma of Camus’s story runs through history, and through every heart.

Sometime in my undergraduate years, I first read Camus, realizing that as the pages of The Plague passed I was being drawn into a more serious world, one that I had neither imagined nor wanted. The stakes were being raised on my life, for the rest of my life. Like most adolescents on their way to adulthood, I knew something of what I believed about God and the world, and yet the negotiating years were before me. What would I carry on into my twenties? What would I conclude was no longer me? Push-come-to-shove, who was I, and why was I? A more serious world demanded a more serious me.

The drama of Camus’s story grows out of the bubonic plague coming to an African Mediterranean city in the middle years of the 20th century. A physician and a priest respond very differently to this plague and its meaning. When the rats first come, no one notices, but slowly by slowly people begin to get sick, first afflicting one person, then another, then a neighborhood, and finally the city. “What does this mean?” is the question both the physician and priest wrestle with, choosing different ways to interpret it. Formed by habits of heart deeply written into the vocation of a physician, Dr. Rioux steps into caring for those who are sick, sure that “just doing my job” is the work of his life. The priest, Father Paneloux, burdened by misread doctrines of God and providence, reads the disease as coming from God, and concludes that he cannot fight God, wrestling with his congregation and his city over the deepest, hardest questions, and eventually he falls prey to the plague.

There are paragraphs and pages worthy of our attention, ones that any good reader must ponder. Camus pulls no punches, philosophically or theologically, insisting that we all face “the great conundrum.” The characters are insightfully drawn with complexity and nuance that allows all of us to sympathize, to see ourselves in them and in their responses—perhaps especially in the ways that their responses change over time. The main characters are not caricatures; instead they are given to us with the artful insight of a master storyteller who knows his readers demand the truth of the human condition. In the allusive insight of Michael Polanyi, there is “a responsibility for knowledge” that they bear as their knowledge grows, and it necessarily makes what they see and hear and feel more fully human, even as we see in them the glorious ruins that we all are.

The plague runs its course finally, leaving the dead, and a worn-down people in its wake. But paying attention to the gravity of the terror that has afflicted the city, listening to the anguished and heartfelt conversations that run through the novel, necessarily deepens every one who reads the story carefully. In some sense Camus’s questions become our questions.

Most of us will wonder why Camus wrote the book. Yes, he was a human being entering into the fullness of adulthood, finishing the novel in his early 30’s, taking up the questions of every generation with the intellectual seriousness that marked his life. Yes, he was a philosopher whose questions were written into the questions of his moment, “existential” as they were, born of his longing to make more sense of his existence as a man in the modern world. Yes, and yes, but we might be surprised to find that he wrote his novel in the early 1940’s, living in the French village of Le Chambon, home to shopkeepers and farmers who saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust.

While I have searched to know more, what is clear is that Camus found his way here, looking for respite because of his own struggle with tuberculosis, and wrote his story of “the plague,” seeing the Gestapo settled in its cafes and on its streets as if that could be normal, watching the absurdity of a continent gone mad, with systemic murder at its heart. We have no journals, and no interviews, and so we do not know more. What we do know is that he took up what is perhaps the great unanswered question of the 20th century, “Why this holocaust, why this plague?” choosing to do so with a story set in a city on the Mediterranean Sea, plagued as its was by an evil that had no good answer.

Doing our best to honor Camus, we are agnostic about all the reasons behind his novel, but what we know is that he saw the intriguing response of the Church, a community of faithful Huguenot folk who would do no other than open their basements and barns to those who suffered, because they could do no other. When asked a generation later by a Jewish filmmaker who had been born in Le Chambon during those years, “Why did you care? When most of Europe didn’t care, why did you?” their response was simple and straightforward, “What else could we have done?” They refused to be seen as heroes; rather they saw themselves as neighbors to those who had need, nothing more, nothing less.

Camus’s questions about God and history threaded their way through the rest of his life, eventually brought him to a church in Paris in the 1960’s, wanting to talk with the pastor about life and death, about faith and hope and love in a world that seemed so wrong, so diseased. That is a story that God alone finally knows, as Camus was killed in a car accident before more was known about his conversations. It is not surprising that his lifelong questions were ones that he kept asking, longing for honest answers, knowing that the drama of his dilemma in The Plague required more of him as a human being who cared about who we are, and why we are, and therefore what we do with our lives.

On the last page, Camus writes about “the never ending fight against terror.” He believed that that was human life under the sun. While he felt its weight more than most, tragically it is our history, with some terrors being literal plagues, and some more metaphorical and moral. In reality they become twined together in the end, the very physiological becoming very philosophical. Do we have eyes to see and ears to hear? Can we feel “the weight of knowledge,” as Rowan Williams has described the burden of more knowledge?

In looking back across time, the problem of the great conundrum is perennial, circling its way through the centuries, as every generation faces holocausts which bring their own horror. The Black Death killed untold peoples in the 14th century; our best guesses being that millions upon millions died across Europe and Asia. Two hundred years later, Daniel DeFoe wrote A Journal of the Plague Year, telling the tale of the Great Plague of 1665—and history has debated whether his book should be seen as a novel, like The Tale of Two Cities, or whether it is one man’s account of what he saw, and more the “history” of the bubonic plague which struck the city of London. But there is no debate over its terror.

In the 19th century leprosy plagued the world. Deforming of all who were afflicted, there are two stories of holy heroism that are important for us here, of people who stepped in, differently gifted, but with kindred cares for the suffering they saw—a priest and a physician whose vocations took them into the plagues of their times and places. And yes, remembering them is a grace to us, both in reflecting on the primary characters in Camus’s novel, and in seeing more clearly what human beings can do in the face of crisis whenever and wherever.

In the middle years of the 19th century, Saint Damien of Molokai was called to care for the lepers of Hawaii, living among them for years, saying, “I am one who will be a father to you, and who loves you so much that he does not hesitate to become one of you; to live and die with you”—finally contracting leprosy himself, and dying of the disease. To know what he knew, and choose to respond as he did, is a great gift for all of us, generations later.

In the 20th-century Paul Brand, spent the years of his life among lepers in India, then the United States and throughout the world. With medical and surgical brilliance, he slowly began to understand the epidemiology of the disease, overturning centuries of indifference to and scorn of those who were diseased, writing about what he learned in a fascinating book, The Gift of Pain, in which he asked his readers to think and think again about the meaning of pain— having discovered that lepers did not feel pain. A healer by vocation, Brand gave his life away to those who suffered this scourge, with prayer and hope wanting to understand the disease, and what could be done; and before his work ended, being recognized for his pioneering work with the neediest among us. What does all of this mean for us?

As January becomes February in the year 2020, and March makes its way into spring and beyond, the world is feeling besieged. Not the bubonic plague, nor leprosy; we are calling it coronavirus and COVID-19. Mysterious in its own unique way, overwhelming in its surprising scope, every nation on earth is affected. And at this point, we do not know what its prognosis is. Will it run out by summer? Will it be with us for another year? What will we do? Individuals can self-isolate for a while, but for a long while? Cities can shutdown for a time, but for a long time?

And what is the vocation of the Church in this? What can be learned from the faith of Le Chambon; of the hope of Damian; of the love of Brand? “Vocation” is a good word because it calls us to see and hear and feel what God does, in imitation of Christ taking up the work of God in our time and place. If anything, Le Chambon reminds us that it is first of all ordinary people who are called to this vocation. Not particularly heroic, they saw themselves as simply doing what was theirs to do, offering help to those in need. Damian’s calling took him from Europe into a small valley on the island of Molokai in Hawaii, serving as priest to a people who were dying, offering himself to neighbors in need. And Brand spent years becoming one of the most accomplished surgeons of the world, giving his gifts to those who longed to feel as others felt, offering love to neighbors wherever he found them.

As we live into the reality of our own plague in our time, the questions that shaped the life of Camus become our questions too, feeling their weight as we must. But we can learn from faithful folk, men and women who saw themselves implicated for love’s sake, knowing their vocations made them responsible for the way the world is, and for the way the world could be. That is our reason for being the Church, called to live our lives for the life of the world.

Robert Edwards, Albert Camus in 1957; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD.


Steven Garber

Steven Garber is professor of marketplace theology and leadership at Regent College and the founder of The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation & Culture. He is the author of Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good.

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