Thursday, March 10, 2016

CAMUS AND EXISTENTIALISM: Its Liberation and its Bondage

What is existentialism? Os Guinness defines it this way:

  • The philosophy that sees no meaning in the universe and therefore puts a premium on human existence, action, and choice as the way to create our own meaning in life. (The Journey, 108. The following quotations come from this book.)
After all, if there is no Creator, and the creation simply came forth from a purposeless universe, then our lives have no purpose apart from the purposes we assign to them.

For many, this is appealing. It means that they are the captain of their own ship, and nobody can tell them how to navigate it. It means that we are free from the oppressive opinions of others and even from our hyperactive conscience. We are therefore free to navigate to the ports of our own choice, and no one can coherently tell us that we are wrong, since there is no objective wrong.

However, what looks like freedom might not be freedom at all. Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus had been the leading exponents of French existentialism. However, this didn’t make them friends. In Camus’ biography, Herbert R. Lottman wrote:

  • Sartre said that Camus needed someone to accuse, and “if it’s not you, it will therefore be the universe.” To which Camus replied that everyone needs to be innocent at any price, even if “one must accuse humankind and the sky.”
Although Camus’ insight into his motives is very refreshing, it also reflects torment and a lack of freedom from his inner drives. It also reflects a bondage, a form of mental imprisonment. In “The Rebel,” Camus wrote:

  • I proclaim that I believe in nothing and that everything is absurd, but I cannot doubt the validity of my own proclamation and I am compelled to believe, at least, in my own protest.
If Camus is “compelled to believe,” he is not free, and the freedom that existentialism had promised is, at best, fleeting. Instead, Camus and many atheists experience inner conflict. They don’t believe in any intrinsic and objective values, and yet they are “compelled to believe.” However, while the great majority of today’s atheists continue to insist that they don’t believe in anything, Camus honestly confessed his conflict, and it was dealing with this conflict that had made him a great writer.

However, being a great and esteemed thinker and writer and finding meaning in life are two different things. The French Minister of Culture, Andre Malraux, also confessed this conflict and absurdity:

  • The greatest mystery is not that we have been flung at random among the profusion of the earth and the galaxy of the stars, but that in this prison we can fashion images of ourselves sufficiently powerful to deny our nothingness. (The Walnut Trees of Attenberg)
Malraux confessed the same conflict as did Camus. Man is imprisoned within a meaningless universe but cannot tolerate the meaningless and is coerced into creating a meaning that they know to be non-existent.

Were Camus and Malraux able to resolve this conflict, their battle against absurdity? I don’t know, but it seems to me that, at the very least, we should seek a solution. If I have a pain that refuses to go away, I seek a cure, perhaps elsewhere, beyond my own limited resources.

This is one of the painful dilemmas that had led me to Christ and out of my rabid Zionism. Evening living in Israel, devoted to the land, history, and my people, failed to give me the meaning I so needed. Now, I delight in the limitations and boundaries set for me by my Redeemer. It’s like playing chess. The rules and limitations are necessary for a fulfilling game.

It is a great privilege to serve my God and to live within the freeing confines of His will. I also relish His words that chasten and correct me. For example, today I was reading:

  • Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (James 3:13-18; ESV)
I cannot explain my joy in receiving His correction. His instruction shows me how unwise I can be and the nature of true wisdom. It reminds me that I must be humble and gentle with others, seeking peace and their welfare, something that I often forget to do.

Yes, it is a joy, even if I cannot explain why. Perhaps it is even another form of bondage. However, if it is, it is the bondage of a fish who knows that he must remain in his element - in the water - for his own good. God is my element.

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