Monday, March 28, 2016

Rejecting faith as a resource

I am not up to much mental heavy-lifting today, but I can't help but post something as the result of reading an article this morning in the on-line version of the Los Angeles Review of Books (LRB). The article, by Robert Zaretsky, is entitled "The Limits of Absurdity." Zaretsky reminded me that it was 70 years ago this month that my dear Camus made his one and only visit to the United States. While here he delivered an address that served as something of an outline to what I consider his magnum opus, L'Homme révolté, the English title of which is The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt. Reading The Rebel as a twenty-something new convert was transformative for me. The other work of Camus that made a deep impression on me are some fragments of a talk he gave in 1948 to some Dominican friars at the Monastery of Latour-Maubourg. What was written down appears in an English language collection of Camus' essays - Resistance, Rebellion and Death - under the title "The Unbeliever and Christians."

In his New York lecture, "La crise de l’homme" (trans. "The Crisis of Man"), Camus proposed metaphysical, as opposed to political, revolt as the answer to the absurd predicament in which humanity found itself in the wake of the desolation wrought by the modern world (i.e., World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II, especially under the shadow of the mass murder of European Jews). In light of these bloody catastrophes and others, Camus felt everything and virtually everyone was discredited, which is why he insisted that only through such a rebellion could a person gain authenticity by living in solidarity with poor and oppressed of the world.

In his LRB piece, Zaretsky, Camus' biographer, noted:
In a world shorn of sense, [Camus] stated, too many people had concluded that whoever succeeded was right, and whatever was right was measured by success. For those who resisted this conclusion, for those unwilling to live in a world of victims and torturers, neither faith nor philosophy offered a resource. Instead, the only source of justification 'was in the very act of rebellion.' What we fought for, Camus concluded, 'was something common not just to us, but to all human beings. Namely, that man still had meaning'
Admittedly, the Church in 1945 was badly in need of reform. Many of the needed reforms would flow from the Second Vatican Council. Even Pope Pius XII, considered by too many as nothing more than a reactionary arch-conservative, grasped this and did a lot to initiate reforms between the end of the Second World War and his death in 1958.

I think perhaps Camus was too generic about what Zaretsky dismisses as "faith." Properly grasped, faith is not a "resource" upon which one relies, a mere coping mechanism. It especially bears noting on this Easter Monday that faith is faith in a person, Jesus Christ risen from the dead and already reigning at the Father's right hand, transforming the world from within by the power of the Holy Spirit. This transformation is the rebellion and revolution Jesus came to bring. Jesus' revolt is very much in line with what Camus suggests in The Rebel. In his LRB article, Zaretsky provides some evidence for this assertion by pointing out something that happened at the New York lecture:
At the end of his address, Camus invited the audience to join this rising tide of rebellion. “As for the American youths listening to us,” he announced, this generation of European rebels “respect the humanity that animates you and the freedom and happiness reflected in your faces. They expect from you what they expect from all people of good will: a loyal contribution to the dialogue they wish to establish in this world.” No sooner had he finished speaking than a Columbia official revealed that a burglar had broken into the ticket office and stole the evening’s earnings, all of which had been earmarked for orphanages in France. From the audience a voice suggested that everyone pay again on their way out; by the time the last person left the hall, there was more money in the register than the first time around
Camus once told his friend Paul Raffi- "Catholic thought always seems bittersweet to me. It seduces me then offends me. Undoubtedly, I lack what is essential." Perhaps it was because he viewed faith too generically, as a resource that allows a person to avoid the reality of a screwed up, broken down, world. It may well be the case that Camus' grasp of faith can be attributed to the Church's reductive and narrow proclamation of the Gospel at the time. It was right about this same time that this narrow, simplistic, and reductive proclamation was starting to be challenged by theologians like Henri De Lubac, Yves Congar, and Hans Urs Von Balthasar. Von Batthasar once described what is often termed neo-scholasticism as a pastry with a lot of dry crust.

My own experience has taught me that I do not "have" faith to provide me with simplistic answers to life's most vexing questions. I think it's faith that allows me to shout "Why?" in the assurance I'm not shouting the most human of questions into a void. I receive this assurance by seeing that between where I stand and the void stands the Cross of Christ.

Far from negating or obliterating the absurdity of the human condition, Christ's passion and death only serve to highlight our plight without in any way reducing it by making sense of it all. In other words, faith in Christ does not spare the believer from reality. Rather, faith in Christ forces the person possessed of it into a fatal collision with reality. It seems to me that The Rebel and "The Unbeliever and Christians" are necessary reading for anyone who is serious about anything remotely approximating what is termed "New Evangelization," much of which takes the form of religious propaganda. This is why, with Pope Francis, I still believe Bl. Pope Paul VI's Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi still serves as our blueprint for evangelization. Pope Francis' Apostolic Exhortation, which, like Paul VI's, came at the end of an Ordinary Synod of Bishops dedicated to evangelization, Evangelii gaudium, strikes me as a twenty-first century update.

In Evangelii gaudium Pope Francis wrote this about Christ's resurrection:
Christ’s resurrection is not an event of the past; it contains a vital power which has permeated this world. Where all seems to be dead, signs of the resurrection suddenly spring up. It is an irresistible force. Often it seems that God does not exist: all around us we see persistent injustice, evil, indifference and cruelty. But it is also true that in the midst of darkness something new always springs to life and sooner or later produces fruit (par. 276
Conversely, Camus, while being largely pessimistic, was insistent that it's important not to give in to despair. But he was unable to offer hope. As conceived by Camus, metaphysical rebellion did not end in victory, except the victory of living authentically, but was otherwise largely futile. I think he was correct when he asserted in The Myth of Sisyphus that only question that really matters is whether or not life is worth living. Beside this question, he insisted, "Everything else is child’s play; we must first of all answer the question." Indeed, we must.

I don't think the turn to faith can be merely pragmatic because such an approach sets aside the question of truth, which is an evasion of reality, even if "the truth" is always bigger than our ability to grasp it. Granted, in the first instance, turning to Christ might be a pragmatic move borne of desperation, but it must deepen. If it does not deepened, then faith rooted in pragmatism is like the seed in Jesus' parable that falls on rocky ground, where the soil is not deep. The seed that falls on rocky ground withers when the sun of life beats down on; it dies "for lack of roots" (Matt 13:5).

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