Monday, 15 July 2013

Camus on dialogue, revolt, beauty and love


One of the features of Pope Francis' first encyclical, Lumen Fidei, that stood out for me most is its constant reference to love, regardless of the specific subject of its reflection. This certainly is not surprising in the context of Christian theology - a theology that is all about God, who is Love - but it's all-pervasiveness nonetheless made me think. In particular, it made me think about what someone who is not a Christian, who is an atheist or humanist, would say on the subject.

With these questions in mind, I turned to my “read later” reading list and my eyes landed on a piece by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, where he speaks about how Albert Camus' thought is a confrontation with the same questions that Christianity grapples with. Questions of meaning, purpose, suffering, revolt, hope and love.

Ravasi there starts with quoting from a talk Camus gave to a group of Dominicans in 1948, where he says to his hosts that “the world of today needs Christians who remain Christians” and where he declares:
“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.”
This directness and honesty of Camus has always been very attractive to me, which made me look for the full text of his talk to the Dominicans and I found a fairly extensive set of fragments from it here. What struck me there is how I find myself very much agreeing with him, where what he says is in fact a very powerful examination of conscience for Christianity and also for me personally.

From these fragments it is explicit that the Dominicans invited Camus to talk to them about what “unbelievers expect of Christians,” which makes me very impressed with them too, and for which Camus also acknowledged their “intellectual generosity.” He then proceeds to set out the following principles of dialogue:
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.”

that “I shall never start from the supposition that Christian truth is illusory, but merely from the fact that I could not accept it.”

and that “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 mind.”
These are an excellent set of principles: do to others as you would want them to do to you, the principle of charity and respect for the other being who they are, not setting out to change them. In fact, they seem to me to be very much in sync with what Pope Francis said on the same topic: “Dialogue is born of an attitude of respect towards another person, of a conviction that the other has something good to say; it requires that we make space in our heard their point of view, their opinion and their position.”

With these principles as the basis, Camus proceeds to spelling out his expectations:
“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 to pay up personally. When a Spanish bishop blesses political executions, he ceases to be a bishop or a Christian; 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. […]

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? […]

But it may be […] that Christianity will insist on maintaining a compromise or else on giving its condemnations the obscure 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. [… I]f 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.”
When I read this, it really stopped me in my tracks. This is the kind of dialogue that we, Christians need - someone from the “outside” shaking us, pointing to our errors and doing so not for the sake of some propagandist point-scoring, but out of a genuine concern for our returning to our roots and maintaining our identity. In many ways, what Pope Francis is doing now from the “inside” is similar - the call to poverty, to the “existential peripheries” and to respect for and collaboration with atheists are all examples of it and I am deeply grateful to him and to Camus.

Returning to Ravasi's discourse, he steers it to another very interesting point of common interest to Christianity and Camus, by quoting from “Helen's Exile” and then from “The Rebel”:
“Man cannot do without beauty, and this is what our era pretends to want to disregard. It steels itself to attain the absolute and authority; it wants to transfigure the world before having exhausted it, to set it to rights before having understood it. Whatever it may say, our era is deserting this world.”

“Beauty, no doubt, does not make revolutions. But a day will come when revolutions will have need of beauty.”
Here the connection between beauty and the revolt Camus speaks about to the Dominicans is clear - both are set against an exploitation and ignoring of the world. Revolt is directed against suffering while beauty is aimed at appreciating existence.

Ravasi then makes the, to me at first surprising, summary of the above as being “the way of love.” To get a sense of why he may have interpreted it as such, Camus' own words in “The Rebel” point to the key: “The procedure of beauty, which is to contest reality while endowing it with unity, is also the procedure of rebellion.” Rebellion and beauty bring about unity, which in turn is synonymous with love in Christianity - the Persons of the Trinity being One is their love for each other; Jesus-Love is present among his followers if they are united in his name (cf. Matthew 18:20), etc.

Finally, to underline the importance Camus gives to love, Ravasi quotes the following from his “Notebooks” from 1937:
“If someone told me to write a book on morality, it would have a hundred pages and ninety-nine of them would be blank. On the last page I would write, “I recognize only one duty and that is to love.” And as far as everything else is concerned, I say no.”
St. Augustine would be pleased, as am I :)