Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Unbeliever

“People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.” -- Albert Camus (Stockholm, 1957) 

Earlier this week, I had the chance to reread 20th-century French novelist and existentialist philosopher Albert Camus' lecture, "The Unbeliever and Christians" (if you click on the link, you can read the lecture). 

In 1948, Camus was invited to speak at the Dominican Monastery of Latour-Maubourg.  While this might not seem all that surprising, given that he was by that time a very famous novelist and philosopher, it is somewhat surprising given the fact that Camus was an outspoken atheist.

In fact, Camus' atheism is the cornerstone of all of his writing and philosophy.

So let's pause a moment and take this in: in 1948, a monastery of priests in (at that time, predominantly and devoutly Catholic) France wanted Camus, an atheist, to come talk to them for a bit.  (In his November 6, 2013 essay, "A Secular Saint," Jason Berry notes the enormous influence that Camus' thought and writing has had on many people of faith, including Sister Helen Prejean.)

Camus' lecture "The Unbeliever and Christians" is one of my favorite, not simply because of its content, but because of the way in which Camus negotiates the terms of his intellectual exchange with the priests who have invited him to lecture:
"Inasmuch as you have been so kind as to invite a man who does not share your convictions to come and answer the very general question that you are raising... I should like first to acknowledge your intellectual generosity by stating a few principles."
Camus thus begins by acknowledging the intellectual kindness and generosity implicit in a willingness to open a dialogue with someone when you know for a fact that s/he does not--and will not--share your beliefs.

This is typical of Camus' approach.  In his conception of debate, profound intellectual disagreement never negates the need for kindness and respect--for the recognition of generosity and the claims of hospitality.

I think we live in a world that all-too-readily glories in the intellectual smackdown, where the ostensible goal is always (or at least often seems to be) to prove another person wrong--to make him or her look or feel "stupid" or "small."  We think that to do so somehow "proves" that we have "won" a moral or intellectual victory over others.

Have we, though?

I often think of Camus when I witness this tendency.  In 1944, Camus publicly disagreed with fellow-novelist François Mauriac.  In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Camus advocated the execution of Nazi collaborators and former members of the Vichy government; Mauriac (a devout Catholic) opposed the imposition of the death penalty and argued in favor of mercy and reconciliation.

In the ensuing months, as the trials unfolded (and degenerated), Camus would publicly state in an editorial: "We now see M. Mauriac was right: we are going to need charity.”

Can you imagine a prominent public figure in the world today having the courage to openly, clearly and publicly state (and about a highly controversial political issue, no less), "He was right, I was wrong"?

I kinda can't.

Several years later, Camus himself was publicly attacked and intellectually ridiculed by his former  friend, philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.  After the publication of The Rebel in 1951, Camus found himself on the receiving end of a very public and very unpleasant intellectual smackdown--it would have a profound effect on his life and his career as a writer.

As the epigraph to this blog post suggests, Camus simply could not endorse a political world-view that ignored its potentially personal, human consequences.

Given a choice between an abstract conception of "justice" and the personal fact of his mother's existence, he would choose his mother.

Although he was ridiculed for openly expressing this opinion, I think Camus had the courage to articulate a feeling that most of us in fact share.  We regularly endorse and believe in abstractions such as "justice," "freedom," "faith" and "hope" (to name only a few), but we often think about them in very depersonalized ways.

If we personalized them, would we see them differently?  Would they seem more or less ethical?  This is the question that Camus constantly probes.

Camus insisted that intellectual ideas and philosophical abstractions must always be personalized, if we truly want to understand their ethical impact and make informed decisions about what to endorse and how to behave.

In short, we need to see the people who will be affected by the implementation of our ideas and political values.  We need to consider the implications that an act of "justice" might have on the life of someone's  (possibly your own) mother.

This highly personal approach resounds throughout Camus' 1948 lecture at the Dominican Monastery in Latour-Maubourg:
"I believe indeed that the Christian has many obligations but that it is not up to the man who rejects them himself to recall their existence to anyone who has already accepted them."
In effect, Camus argues that it is not his place, as an atheist, to "call out" Christians for "not being Christian enough."  (I think the movement known as "New Atheism" could perhaps take a lesson or two from this attitude.)

He refines this point a bit, however.  Camus insists that if he calls out Christians for their ethical behavior-- if he "allow[s] [himself] to demand of [them] certain duties"-- it is because he believes it is "essential" for everyone to practice these duties, whether or not they identify as Christian.

He then offers a somewhat startling premise (startling for an atheist, that is):
"I wish to declare also that, not feeling that I possess any absolute truth or any message, I shall never start from the supposition that Christian truth is illusory, but merely from the fact that I could not accept it."
In effect, Camus is stating: "I'm not saying that you shouldn't believe what you believe, I'm saying that I cannot."

How different would our daily dialogues and debates be if they started with this simple premise? 

This assertion leads to Camus' third and final principle:
"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 minds."
In short, Camus argues, "I'm not here to change you; I'm here to talk to you."

He then proceeds to criticize what he believes is a lack of ethical action on the part of Christians in the wake of various forms of political violence.  As he points out, "Between the forces of terror and the forces of dialogue, a great unequal battle has begun."  Camus chooses to join the forces of dialogue.

As I think about the world we live in today, I find myself feeling--as Camus did--a "deep longing" for the kind of dialogue that operates on a premise of respect, a dialogic framework of the kind articulated by Camus himself.

I think that we underestimate the value of a conversation premised, not on effecting an immediate change in (someone else's) perspective, but on understanding the beliefs and apparent values of our interlocutors.

I think we often seek the "reconciliation that would be agreeable to all" (a noble effort, obviously), but we do so without first hearing--and understanding--who people really are and what is on their minds.  I think this is why our (supposed) reconciliations often fail.  

Don't get me wrong.  There are a lot of things about the world that I would very much like to see changed, and I feel a deep conviction that the changes that I believe in would be good ones.  I'd like to think that they would make the world a better place.

But lately, I try to regularly remind myself that maybe the people I disagree with also think that their ideas would make the world a better place.  This doesn't mean that I agree with them or agree to a world in which their ideas hold sway: I will still continue to think and act and vote in accordance with my own beliefs and principles.

It simply means that, if and when I listen to them, I actively try to refrain from demonizing them as "evil" or "ignorant."  I let them be who they are and speak their minds--and then I object, if I feel I need to object, on the grounds of my own personal experience and understanding.

"The only possible dialogue is the kind between people who remain what they are and speak their minds."  I'm fascinated by this idea; I confess, I don't really know if it's feasible or if it's just too simply, impossibly idealistic.  I suspect that, in many ways, Camus and I are both guilty of profound political naivete.

But I also think that what is being played out (and played up) on social media and in the news media is not genuine dialogue of the kind that Camus envisioned on that day at the Dominican Monastery of Latour-Maubourg.  And that saddens me.

In the end, like Camus, I believe that the goal of dialogue--and of life--should be, "if not to reduce evil, at least not to add to it."

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."