For a long time now I’ve wondered why so many people rise early each Sunday morning to trek to churches where they will be harangued. Of course, Christians know that selfishness, slavery to the flesh, and sin in general need to be identified and repented of; they know that preachers who always pull their punches aren’t real preachers. But there is something excessive about the way some congregations get their brains beat out week after week. Witness more! Pray more! Give more! If you don’t attend evening service, you’re backslid! And thus burnout becomes a spiritual way of life.
Scanning the FM airwaves on a commute between Eagle River and Anchorage, Alaska, such a sermon caught my attention. The topic was hell and the five kinds of men destined for it. One type, said the preacher, is the religious guy who, though intellectually curious about theology, is yet unsaved. Another is the nice churchgoer who mistakenly thinks that his congenital goodness will get him into heaven. A third is the sort who grew up in church and got baptized but never made a personal confession. The fourth type, like the previous three, is a variation on the same theme.
The fifth type of hell-bound person, the preacher said, is the atheist: the stiff-necked man who hates God and shakes his fist at the unresponsive skies; the evolution loving, Christian hating, left-wing democrat who’d rather burn a Bible than look at you. He’s going to hell because he wants to, even though he doesn’t believe in it. The caricature is surely more common than the people it claims to describe.
I know that there are some who consciously rebel against God, choosing to shut him out of their lives. I tried this for a spell during my enlistment in the U.S. Navy though, being more miserable as an aspiring agnostic than I had been as a Christian, I gave it up. The character Julia in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited rebelled for a time, but in the end she too determined that she couldn’t shut herself off from God’s mercy. But while some try to give up faith and fail, others, perhaps being sturdier, succeed. In recent years I’ve met more than a few former evangelicals who now believe, basically, nothing.
Some of these arrived at unbelief almost despite themselves. They grew up believing that God is love but, as the years passed, found it impossible to believe that such a being could preside over so seemingly contingent and indifferent a universe. The pointlessness of much of modern life—two hour commutes; scrambling to the top of corporations that produce useless goods; the cruelty and environmental damage inherent in America’s collective diet—wore them down, and life itself came to seem a rigmarole. Allegations of wrongdoing, historic and contemporary, among the clergy and at the Vatican, combined with the inevitable hypocrisies of Christianity’s human leaders and spokesmen, eroded their sense that anyone could be trusted. Moreover, well-meaning Sunday school teachers had taught them that if Jonah didn’t really spend three days in the belly of a fish and if the world wasn’t really just six thousand years old, then the whole Bible must be a fraud. And so, in time, they came to consider the Bible untrustworthy.
C.S. Lewis said that he was dragged kicking into the kingdom of God, the unhappiest convert in all of England. Christians also know that sometimes it goes the other way. Sometimes a man wants to believe but he finds belief slipping away. Sometimes a man will make an honest inquiry into matters of faith and still end up short of it. Sometimes a woman will seek and not find, and she’ll continue to seek even though she has concluded that, perhaps, there’s nothing out there. And sometimes the light of faith is ignited within a person but its flame is so small as to be indiscernible to human perception. This is the sort of person who appears so often in Flannery O’Connor’s short stories.
It’s a major premise of Jesus’ teaching that there will be some turning heads in the kingdom of heaven. Some will be there who, by all earthly accounts, shouldn’t be, and others widely acknowledged as destined for the pearly gates will not make it. (“Depart from me, I never knew you.”) The Gospel is full of surprises, and more than once Jesus seems to suggest that those who think they have things figured out probably don’t. Anglicans rightly pray for men and women “whose faith is known only to God.”
I have sometimes thought that the French writer, Nobel Prize winner and self-proclaimed atheist Albert Camus may have been such a person. Certainly Camus, who gave secretly to charity, had a life-long interest in Christian faith: his doctoral dissertation had partly to do with Augustine, and he read Pascal later in life; his penultimate novel, La chute (The Fall), accepted the existence of God; he corresponded with clergy and was habitually respectful toward them; when he was criticized in 1956 for the religious tone of a play he directed (Requiem pour une nonne), he responded, somewhat contradictorily, “It’s true that I don’t believe in God, but that doesn’t mean I’m an atheist;” and when he was in Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize, Camus told an audience that he had “Christian concerns” though he was a “pagan by nature.” (Camus’s doctoral dissertation sought to reconcile Greek thought with Christianity.) Some have suspected that he possessed a secret, idiosyncratic faith that he couldn’t ever quite enunciate.
If a recent contribution to the literature on Camus, Howard Mumma’s memoir Albert Camus and the Preacher (2000), can be trusted, there are grounds for believing that Camus was very close to Christian belief in the years before his death in a car accident in 1960. Mumma, who was a preacher over several summers in the 1950s at the American Church in Paris, writes that he and Camus had several long conversations on matters of faith and that Camus eventually asked to be baptized—a request Mumma refused on the grounds that Camus wanted to undergo the rite in private and thus keep it secret. Mumma claims to have regretted his refusal after Camus’s death.
Mumma’s claims shouldn’t be accepted uncritically. Neither of Camus’s major biographers, Herbert Lottman and Olivier Todd, have found in Camus a discernibly heightened interest in matters of faith in his last years. Then there’s the problem that after Camus’s death Mumma claims to have returned to the place where the Frenchman was killed and mourned the writer’s “obvious” suicide. But Camus was one of four people in the car—two of whom were uninjured in the crash—and he wasn’t driving the car. He simply died in an accident. It’s odd that Mumma, who claims to have had deep feelings for Camus, never took the time to learn this basic fact.
And yet there is much in Mumma’s text that rings true: Camus hated crowds and fawning public attention (thus his purported refusal to be baptized publicly makes sense); Camus was fond of organ music (thus Mumma’s claim that Camus first went to the American Church to hear the organist Marcel Dupre is credible); and Camus never seems to have abandoned hope in the idea that life had inherent meaning. In the end, one puts down Mumma’s memoir with the sense that he had in fact talked with Camus and that he (Camus) was deeply interested in faith in his final years.
As is the case with many unbelievers, or nominal believers, Camus’ unbelief was rooted in an inability to believe that a good God could preside over a world infested with cruelty, vice and pain. So long as one innocent child suffered, Camus wrote, he could not—or would not—believe. For him, the only appropriate response to unwarranted suffering was a commitment to do one’s part to alleviate whatever suffering he could. One finds meaning in life by struggling against life’s absurdity, and one does this by defending the innocent. Evil perpetrated upon the innocent outraged Camus, and no platitudes could console him. If he came to belief, it was in spite of his inability to reconcile the existence of a great and good God with unmerited suffering. If he did not come to faith, it was because the gap between the requirements of Christian belief and the workings of the real world was, to him, too vast.
Standard Christian responses to sentiments like Camus’ are that men, being sinners, are responsible for the bad state of the world; that suffering brings people to God; that without evil people would not recognize God’s grace; and that God loves men enough to grant them sufficient freedom to wreak havoc on the world if they wish to. Christians sometimes respond to evil and unmerited suffering as if the Bible had a lot to say on the matter. But it doesn’t. Paul tells us that God works all things together for good for those who love God and are committed to His way, but Paul doesn’t say that everything that happens will make sense in this life. The only direct biblical response to the problem of unmerited suffering not directly related to religious persecution that I can think of is God’s reply to Job’s inquiry, namely, that Job should shut up and mind his own business.
After the bombing of the federal government building in Oklahoma City, Billy Graham was asked why God allowed such things to happen. The evangelist famous for declaring what “the Bible says” said, in this instance, simply, “I don’t know.” It was one of the wisest theological pronouncements I’ve yet heard.
A reason Graham’s response was wise is that, in my view, there is something vulgar about attempts philosophically to explain wickedness visited upon the innocent. The neo-conservative writer Norman Podhoretz once claimed that God himself could never say anything that could justify the Holocaust. Now advanced in age, perhaps Podhoretz would like to modify that statement. But the sentiment behind it is, I think, quite understandable: infants die of cancer, sex slavery continues to go from strength to strength in the third world, affluent pedophiles go unpunished, and the innocent starve. Podhoretz, like Camus, was right to be outraged, first by the evil done and then by the various efforts to make sense of it. And to the extent that Camus’ moral rage led him to act to make the lives of a few better, his response to evil and suffering strikes me as being more realistic and thus superior to that of the air-conditioned seminary classroom. “Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured,” said Camus to a Christian audience in 1948. “But we can reduce the number of tortured children. And if you [Christians] don’t help us, who else in the world can help us?”
As it happens, I underlined those sentences from Camus’s speech while deployed to the Pacific and Indian oceans in 1988 aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Ranger. On this deployment the ship paid two visits to Subic Bay—also known as “pubic bay”—in the Philippines, third world disaster, mass producer and exporter of teenage sex slaves and impoverished prostitutes. Olongapo, the city outside the bay at Subic, was where sad girls were trapped in the bars, hemmed in like cattle by the local police; where a legless, filthy boy begged for change on the short bridge that linked the base and the city and spanned the aptly named “S*** River;” where children swam in that feces-infested “river” diving for pennies tossed by American sailors; where one was regaled with stories of fathers selling their young daughters to sailors for fifty bucks a week, and of “short time” and “long time” and “three-holing.”
All this was quite a lot for a cynical and sarcastic but patriotic young man who had, not long before, lectured his fellow high school students on the virtues of Reaganism.
I had grown up in a neighborhood where violence was normal, where murder took an acquaintance every few years, and where drug and welfare addiction formed a way of life. But I had never really thought that the suffering people endured there was unmerited. Certainly the innocent didn’t deserve what befell them at the hands of criminals; but, as I saw it, they had gotten trapped there by virtue of their own stupidity. Insofar as the justice of the streets went thugs got what they deserved. Drug dealers got what they deserved. And those of us who were too foolish or too lazy or too obtuse to escape were made to pay as well.
The difference between the old ‘hood and Olongapo was that in the latter place the kids had no choice: serve the sailors or starve. The Navy men said the girls could give up the brothels if they wished, but that was false—and everyone knew it. America’s finest said that, well, if they didn’t buy the girls, then how else would they make their money? The girls (and some boys) were the victims of Christian America’s patriots. The captain and the officers and the chaplains and the Department of Defense stood by, smiled, and handed out condoms. All this in the name of democracy.
I said above that during my time in the Navy I tried not to believe in God. As I wrote that, I recalled a certain day in Olongapo when, hung over, I considered the silent heavens and refused to pray. Then, stopping to buy a cheap snack from a street vendor, I noticed a little boy, typically filthy, nearby. I paid my quarter (or whatever it was) for the snack and walked up to the boy and, probably scowling, said to him, “This is for you.” But in my mind, despite myself, I said, “Dear Jesus, this is for you.”
And I have thought ever since that that was the most significant act of my life.