The Plague (1947), Albert Camus’ 1947 novel, surged in recent months to the top of fiction best-seller lists. The well-known French atheist author writes of a devastating plague in the French Algerian city of Oran. Beginning with a harrowing description of rats dying across the city, the book chronicles the disease’s gradual spread and the evolving human responses to widespread fear, quarantine, and death. Its relevance to our times is unmistakable.
Given the time and setting of the work, Catholicism is of course a major theme. Yet, Camus challenges his Catholic readers to look squarely at the emptiness that accompanies our most painful losses. Unlike abstract treatments of the problem of evil, Camus directs us to the concrete personal lives that make us feel the pain and loss.
Do such times and experiences show that the world is absurd and that there is no God?
In the book’s second major part, Camus describes the Church’s organized response to the advancing plague: a special week of prayer that would conclude with a sermon by Father Paneloux, a Jesuit priest of some notoriety. A stocky, rosy-cheeked, fiery preacher, Fr. Paneloux’s admonition to the suffering congregation was direct and clear: “Calamity has come on you, my brethren, and…you deserved it.” The horrors of the plague were, like the biblical Exodus, divine judgment. God had “grown weary with waiting” for them to surrender their lives to him.
In the fourth part, Fr. Paneloux is immersed in the lives of people who had contracted the dread disease. A noticeable change happens in him, however, after he witnesses the excruciating and terrifying death of a child. Camus describes a second sermon. Now speaking to a significantly smaller crowd, Paneloux was much gentler and less accusatory. Indeed, he no longer addressed his listeners as “you,” but, “we.”
The priest admits there are some things we simply cannot understand. Why God would allow a child to die such a terrible death cannot be explained, he admits. Our inability to explain such things leaves us with a radical decision: “We must believe everything or deny everything.” One must say Yes or No to the God of Christian faith.
The learned priest and scholar is unable to conceal the internal struggle and changes taking place within him. His confidence and certainty have been tamed. Hearing the cries of a dying child has changed him.
The priest’s emerging humility and even doubt bear striking similarities to C. S. Lewis’ experience. In The Problem of Pain, Lewis provides a compelling analysis of the various forms of human and animal suffering. Later, however, his book, A Grief Observed, chronicles his thoughts following his wife’s death. Lewis’ account of his anguish and spiritual disorientation is palpable. It is enough to bring tears to the reader’s eyes. “Reality, looked at steadily,” he wrote, “is unbearable.”
Elsewhere Camus asserts that philosophy leads to only one truly meaningful question: Why not suicide? Since God does not exist, the atheist holds, we are left to face an absurd world characterized by weariness and anxiety. Through his craftily-sketched character, Camus illustrates the experience of cold, silent, meaninglessness and the crisis of faith that raged under Fr. Paneloux’s tough exterior. As we have seen, C. S. Lewis encountered the same.
Camus’ No to God placed him on a road that could not help but lead to a meaningless abyss. He concluded that self-identity is nothing but a construct and the road we travel goes, in the end, nowhere. With nothing to serve as the supreme ground for his life, Camus wrote of an elusive and empty sense of his own identity: “For if I try to seize this self of which I feel sure. . . it is nothing but water slipping through my fingers.”
What shall we say to this experience of the world’s coldness and the inner experience of meaninglessness that accompanies it? If you have lost a close friend or family member, especially through tragedy, you know something of this experience that Camus sets before us.
Unlike Camus, however, C. S. Lewis describes his experience of God’s reply to his aching questions as a silent but not “uncompassionate gaze.” He hears God’s voice in the silence: “Peace, child; you don’t understand.” Our condition while on this pilgrim journey is, at times, to encounter questions that arise from the concrete loss and emptiness that we inevitably experience. Camus faces such questions without God and finds a painful silence. Lewis faces the same questions and yet knows he is not alone in the silence.
The silence of the world means it has no answer to death and pain. The world’s silent and empty reply to our most profound moments of loss and questioning is understood by the Christian as a silence that points us elsewhere for an answer. The Christian faith is rooted in the deep conviction that God, in Christ, came into this silent world in order to show us that the world on its own is an incomplete story and to show us and make available to us our true destination.
Fr. Paneloux was right to say that there are some questions in history and in each life in response to which our only options are Yes or No. On January 4, 1960, at the age of forty-six, Camus died suddenly in a car accident in France. It would indeed be tragic if he did not find his way to a Yes that understood his emptiness in relationship to a world that is silent so that we may hear God speak.