Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Absurd and Christian Theodicy

I have a proud and profound love for absurdism. I first encountered the movement in a general introduction to philosophy. The system was described to me thus: absurdism is the simultaneous belief that God must exist and that the world as we experience it precludes the existence of God. More even than a positive belief, absurdism is the recognition and acceptance of the absurdity of those two conclusions. It lives in and embraces that absurdity. It allows the absurd to color its thoughts and actions. At times, it even seems to revel in it.

Since that brief introduction, I have come to see the limits in the particular definition of absurdism--favoring instead a definition which focuses on both the necessity and impossibility of there being meaning in the world--but that original explanation has stuck with me nonetheless. In the fundamental contradiction of absurdism can be seen powerful links to an appropriate understanding of Christian theodicy. It is deeply existential in character, recognizing both the deep-seated human desire for God and our experience which defies His existence. Both are rooted in the very nature of human existence which both sees meaning (and with it, God) and knows at the same time that all meaning is illusory. We experience both a true sense of inclusion and even power in the world as both its masters and inhabitants, but we are constantly returned to an unshakable sense of alienation from it in our woeful ignorance and microcosmic insignificance, as if God is speaking to us once again from the storm.

Consider Albert Camus, the father of absurdism, on the paradoxical nearness and separation from the world, even ourselves:

A step lower and the strangeness creeps in: perceiving that the world is ‘dense,’ sensing to what degree a stone is foreign and irreducible to us, with what intensity nature or a landscape can negate us. At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman, and these hills, the softness of the sky, the outline of these trees at this very minute lose the illusory meaning which we had clothed them, henceforth more remote than a lost paradise. The primitive hostility of the world rises up to face us across millennia. For a second we cease to understand it because for centuries we have understood in it solely the images and designs that we had attributed to it beforehand because henceforth we lack the power to make use of that artifice. The world evades us because it becomes itself again. That stage scenery masked by habit becomes again what it is. It withdraws at a distance from us. Just as there are days when under the familiar face of a woman, we see as a stranger her we had loved months or years ago, perhaps we shall come even to desire what suddenly leaves us so alone. But the time has not yet come. Just one thing: that denseness and that strangeness of the world is absurd.

Men, too, secrete the inhuman. At certain moments of lucidity, the mechanical aspect of their gestures, their meaningless pantomime makes silly everything that surrounds them. A man is talking on the telephone behind a glass partition; you cannot hear him, but you see his incomprehensible dumb show: you wonder why he is alive. This discomfort in the face of man’s own inhumanity, this incalculable tumble before the image of what we are, this ‘nausea,’ as a writer of today calls it, is also absurd. Likewise the stranger who at certain seconds comes to meet us in a mirror, the familiar and yet alarming brother we encounter in our own photographs is also the absurd.

How can the world appear so empty and foreign in one moment and so profoundly meaningful in another? What if anything can resolve the absurdity we experience in a world which refuses to bend to our ideas of justice, goodness, or even order? What can resolve the absurdity of realizing that the meaning we know exists, we also know that we are creating ex nihilo? These are questions on which God may be brought to bear, not logically but existentially as a force which enters into the human experience and ameliorates our experience of the absurdity even if He declines to resolve it.

Just as they can speak to and give philosohpical vitality to Christian theodicy, Camus and absurdism have other points of contact with Christian thought. An examination of quotes from Camus juxtaposed with both classical and modern Christian thought can demonstrate places where both have a common object of critique and other places where there exists substantive tension between them which must be judged either creative or destructive. The next few entries will attempt to explore these points of contact with varying degrees of depth.

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