Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Absurd and Ignorance

This final exploration of the interaction of absurdism with Christianity proposes to look at a passage of Camus which is both true and antithetical to proper faith. Camus writes:

I want everything to be explained to me or nothing.

It is immediately striking to me how surigically this sentiment cuts to the heart of humanity's relationship with its own incomplete knowledge. We lament our own ignorance but only because we know that we are ignorant. The constant quest for knowledge by humanity is a product of the incompleteness of its understanding. The moment we unify two thoughts in our comprehension, there are four more born that are in total disharmony. The very fact of partial understanding exacerbates our ignorance and torments us. To understand nothing at all, including one's own ignorance, is perhaps the only desirable alternative to comprehensive understanding, at least from an existential standpoint. It is not for nothing that our culture has embraced the proverb, "Ignorance is bliss."

And yet, for Christians, partial knowledge is a necessary part of our faith. We can speak practically of the formal incompleteness of God's revelation as recorded in Scripture (even if we want to doctrinally assert its functional completeness), but there is an even more important gap in our knowledge. We do not yet understand even basic facts which are logically prior to Scripture: what is man, what is his purpose, why is the world so beautiful and terrible? Even as we begin to formulate responses--good, true responses so far as they go--to these questions, our self-perpetuating ignorance proves that the very ability to formulate the questions is itself a kind of curse. Consider, for example, how the problem of evil arises from such questions.

At the same time, we must embrace what partial knowledge we have with all the burdens it includes, because it is in this incomplete knowledge that we have the promise of total knowledge. Consider Paul in 1 Corinthians 13: "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known." It is only in our lamentable state, steeped as we are in the torturous knowledge of our own ignorance, that we become aware of the prospect of full knowledge. The kind of comprehensive knowledge that Camus assumes to be inaccessible and therefore to validate the absurd, we have a secure hope of because we have been allowed to know in part.

In this is the substantial difference between a Christian absurdism and that of Camus. Understood as Camus did, the collision of man and an alien world could result only in futility and despair. Understood in Christ, the collision of man and an alien world gives content to a hope of true unification which includes and exceeds simple comprehensive understanding. Even the recognition of the ultimate futility of human efforts and the despair which inevitably results from that are transfigured in Christ; the very awareness of these weaknesses is a call to the promise of God. I can accept readily most of what Camus has to say as a genuine and unusually brilliant expression of the existential turmoil I see as intrinsic to this world. But as I cry out in his voice, I admit that there is an unknown and perhaps nonexistent interlocutor who calls back not with answers but with an invitation: "Come to me, and I will give you rest."

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