Absurdity of Faith

Albert Camus and “The Myth of Sisyphus”

What if there’s no reason or purpose to anything? What if being alive necessitates an awareness that life is rather pointless? What if all there is, all we can actually know is the absurdity of our existence? And, what if that’s okay?

“What, then, is that incalculable feeling that deprives the mind of the sleep necessary to life? A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But , on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divest of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his stetting, is properly the feeling of absurdity. All healthy men having thought of their own suicide, it can be seen, without further explanation, that there is a direct connection between this feeling and the longing for death.”[1]

I have an entirely new respect for the absurd after reading The Myth of Sisyphus, by Albert Camus. In fact, Camus gave me words to identify something what has followed me most of my conscious life: what is the purpose? Not merely: What is my purpose? But: What is the purpose of anything? There are times I contemplate beauty and question its reason for being. Think of the multitude of flowers–the vast variety of not only classification but of variations of color, form, size, and smell within each classification—there’s some absurdity there. I get that there’s something explanatory embedded in the theory of evolution, but at the same time the sheer multiplicity of variation betrays that not even the theory of evolution can address why this rose is this way and that one that way any better than just cuz.

Even all of our best efforts to explain all the nuances of creation (of our and the world’s) through the apologetic of the existence for God have never satiated the question. Every apologetic for God and for our purpose has consistently left me with my question still in tact and on my lips, …but why? The only explanation that has ever made any sense was that none of it makes any sense. Even with the notion that God is love and God loves and thus that love–being dynamic and creative–created this world as an object of God’s love, and all that is in it and of it is representative of that love…the reason for God’s love movement is still baffling and doesn’t make sense. It’s alway and everywhere: just because.

One of my very bright and capable of students made reference in one of his papers to the idea and the certainty of the Christian claim that God is love and loves us specifically: why would an almighty being like God deign to care about puny humans? He’s right; it’s rather absurd to think and to make this claim as true. But maybe the underbelly of God’s activity and presence is less about sense-making, but absurdity. Maybe God is absurd. The gift of God’s grace to people who do not earn it (justification by faith in Christ alone)[2] and the righteousness of God that is righteousness that makes righteous,[3] are absurd. The gospel is offensive because of its absurdity and not because it makes sense.

“Any though that abandons unity glorifies diversity. And diversity is the home of art. The only thought to liberate the mind is that which leaves it alone, certain of its limits and of its impending end. No doctrine tempts it. It awaits the ripening of the work and of life. Detached from it, the work will once more give a barely muffled voice to a soul forever freed from hope. Or it will give voice to nothing if the creator, tired of his activity, intends to turn away. That is equivalent.”[4]

Rather than being the fodder of an existential crisis, absurdity, as Camus presents it, is the stuff of radical living. It’s like being able to give up all of your coveted doctrines that you cling to as reason for believing in whatever God you believe in and just believing in that God. It’s scary as hell, but once embraced the freedom is unparalleled. The dark night of the soul is the wrestling with the pointlessness of life and the nonsense of existence and finding in that moment sense and point: just because. The question shifts from …but why? to …why not? The former slows to numbing slumber upon slumber while the later propels into existence upon existence (in quantity[5]). The way Camus plays his philosophy out, the person who sees and performs the absurd of existence is the one who is liberated and thus the one who is given a present defined through revolt, freedom, and diversity. The mundane and banality of the everyday becomes glorious, because that’s the paradox of the absurd, the paradox of grace.

“All that remains is a fate whole outcome alone is fatal. Outside of that single fatality of death, everything, joy or happiness, is liberty. A world remains of which man is the sole master. What bound him was the illusion of another world. The outcome of his thought, ceasing to be renunciatory, flowers in images. It frolics—in myths, to be sure, but myths with no other depth than that of human suffering and, like it, inexhaustible. Not the divine fable that amuses and blinds, but the territorial face, gesture, and drama in which are summed up a difficult wisdom and an ephemeral passion.”[6]

 

Albert Camus The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays Trans Justin O’Brien. New York, NY: Vintage International, Vintage Books (Random House) 1955. Le Mythe de Sisyphe France: Librairie Gallimard, 1942.

[1] Camus 6

[2] Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians vol. 26 LW pp. 113-4, “I am saying this in order that we may learn the doctrine of justification with the greatest diligence and distinguish most clearly between the Law and the Gospel. On this issue we must not do anything out of insincerity or yield submission to anyone if we want to keep the truth of the Gospel and the faith sound and inviolate; for, as I have said, these are easily bruised. Here let reason be far away, that enemy of faith, which in the temptations of sin and death, relies not on the righteousness of faith or Christian righteousness, b of which it is completely ignorant, but on its own righteousness or, at most, on the righteousness of the Law. As soon as reason and the Law are joined, faith immediately loses its virginity. For nothing is more hostile to faith than the Law and reason; nor can these two enemies be overcome without great effort and work, and you must overcome them if you are to be saved. Therefore when your conscience is terrified by the Law and is wrestling with the judgment of God, do not consult either reason or the Law, but rely only on grace and the Word of comfort. Here take your stand as though you had never heard of the Law. Ascend into the darkness, where neither the Law nor reason shines, but only the dimness of faith (1 Cor. 13:12), which assures us that we are saved by Christ alone, without any Law. Thus the Gospel leads us above and beyond the light of the Law and reason into the darkness of faith, where the Law and reason have no business. The Law, too, deserves a hearing, but in its proper place and time. When Moses was on the mountain speaking with God face to face, he neither had nor established nor administered the Law. But now that he has come down from the mountain, he is a law giver and rules the people by the law. So the conscience must be free from the Law, but the body must obey the Law”

[3] Eberhard Jüngel, Jüngel, “Living Out of Righteousness: God’s Action—Human Agency.” Theological Essays II. (Ed. J.B. Webster. Trans. Arnold Neufeldt-Fast and J.B. Webster. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995). 243. “What follows will therefore try to explain the extent to which the message of justification brings light and life not only into our hearts and our church but also equally into our world. It is no doubt for this reason that the synod has placed its work under the title: ‘Living out of Righteousness: God’s Action—Human Agency’. Yet already at this point I stop short. The subtitle of this theme can potentially blind us to a decisive point of the message of justification at the outset. For it suggests that human agency directly and exclusively corresponds to divine action. Thus one is given the impression that the relevance of divine action for humanity is ethical and only ethical. But thereby something decisive of what the gospel of justification of sinners has to say is lost. If God’s righteousness brings forth life, new human life, then the question of our being has priority over the question of our agency. And prior to both questions is certainly the question of God himself.

[4] Camus, 116.

[5] Ibid, 72ff. I’d argue that it is both quantity and quality as long as quality doesn’t mean scarcity but substance. I see quality playing out with the reference to Don Juan. And quality is not antinomy to quantity.

[6] Ibid, 117-8

The Truth Makes Free: A Homily on John 8:31-38

Jesus says, according to John, “‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31b-32). And again, a bit later, “‘Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed’” (8:34b-36). According to the words of Christ as recorded here by John, truth and freedom are inextricably linked. In other words, truth and freedom are so connected–one to the other–that no matter how hard and how long you looked you wouldn’t be able to find a point of entry with which to separate and disentangle them. The truth makes free, full stop.

But I want to be clear about something: this “truth” is not merely “honesty is always the best policy.” For such a simplistic correlation would render Christ’s statement trite: “just tell the truth.” But that’s not what Christ is saying here, there’s no “moral of the story” that you walk away with employing as you go about your day. Also, “honesty is always the best policy” places you in the subject position. Rather, you’re the intended recipient of this truth with its resultant freedom. In this situation, you are the hearer and the one being freed, not the speaker and the liberator. Plus, none of us here would ever really employ “honesty is always the best policy” for certainly if we did we’d have few if any friends and no need for SnapChat and its filters.

No, the type of truth that is being referred to here by Christ is the word of truth that exposes. The word of truth exposes us as we are (sinners) and exposes our situation (enslaved). Living under the burden and weight of darkness and lies in the enslavement to sin is exhausting. And by “sin” I don’t mean just the mistakes I make or the lazy and often selfish choices I make. By sin I mean the desperate appeal to myself to fabricate myself. In other words, when I live into the burden of creating and maintaining an image of myself that I present to you for you to see and promote the illusion that I am in control and autonomously so, this is when I am a slave to sin.[1] When I try to define and create myself by myself, I am a slave to sin. When I try to strike out on my own and neglect what God has done for, in Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, I am a slave to sin.[2] And to live as a slave and burdened in such a way causes me to curve in on and become consumed with myself; I become disfigured as my human likeness wanes.

And I speak of this not because I’ve spent some time studying theology and concepts surrounding what it means to be a person in light of faith (though I have). But because I know personally how exhausting, and burdensome, and how death dealing it is to live a life that is for all intents and purposes a sham, a life that is a complete and total sham.[3] Living a false and sham life in trying to present to the world a version of me that I deemed was the right version, the acceptable version, the demanded and expected version of me nearly crushed me. I know what it’s like to run the race of self-performance and self-proving, I know the pressure to try to live up to unattainable self-imposed and others-imposed expectations and demands; I know the fear of being exposed a sham; I know the weight of a life that lacks the mark of real life: joy, laughter, and heart felt gratitude. I also know that you know, too.

The good news is that this false and sham life can only persist for so long, enslavement to sin lasts for only a period of time. Jesus say, “‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free…So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed’” (John 8:31b-32, 36). And you have been made free because truth has come and truth cannot be untruthed by our sham existence, by our lies and falsehood no matter how hard we fight against truth in our false and sham existence. The truth is the truth, and according to Jesus, it sets those it encounters free.[4]

The word of truth is the light in the darkness, “Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life’” (John 8:12). The light of truth illuminates the thick darkness and exposes the one darkness has enveloped, pushing darkness back away from the one who is the object of the desire of the light of truth, the one who has long been enslaved by darkness. “‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’” (John 3:16). And all of this is done in love and that is why the truth that exposes brings life and not death, brings absolution and not condemnation: because love loves the unloved into the beloved and the beloved is free, free indeed. “What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:3c-5). Where light is, darkness ceases; where truth is, lies are obliterated; in the activity of love (the harbinger of freedom) the sham life succumbs to true life.

Where there is light and not darkness, where there is truth and not lies, there is freedom. There is freedom in being exposed in love by the light and by the truth that is the word made flesh (John 1:14), the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29), Jesus the Christ, the Son who makes you free (8:36). Where Christ is there is truth and freedom and “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16). And if truth and freedom and grace upon grace, then those exposed and encountered by Christ are made to be the sons and daughters with Christ by faith in Him, by the power of the Holy Spirit. And if sons and daughters then not slaves enslaved to the sin of the false and sham existence but freed sons and daughters unto true life—true, free, and vibrant life; a life marked by joy and laughter and gratitude in all that we undertake; a life bearing the marks of love’s success.[5] A life freed from the domination of proving and fabricating ourselves and freed into authentic human existence working in the world, unleashing the same truth and the same freedom we ourselves have experienced in our service of love.[6]

 

[1] Eberhard Jüngel, 233, “On Becoming Truly Human: The Significance of the Reformation Distinction Between Person and Works for the Self-Understanding of Modern Humanity.” Theological Essays II. Translated by Arnold Neufeldt-Fast and J. B. Webster. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995. “The human drive to possess becomes theologically problematic only when human persons wish to take possession not merely of something—even if it is a great deal—but rather of themselves. And this is precisely what modern human persons want.”

[2] Working backwards from this thought from Karl Barth (CD IV.1.743-4), “If a man believes, this means that he has found in Jesus Christ an object which does not merely concern him and concern him urgently, which does not merely call him to itself and therefore out of himself, which does not merely claim him, but which is the one true object, which concerns him necessarily and not incidentally, centrally and not casually. It means that he has found in Him the true centre of himself which is outside himself. It means that he must now cling to Him and depend on Him, that he finds that he belongs to Him.”

[3] Jüngel “Becoming” 232, “In the end, it is the gospel of the justification of sinners by faith alone without the works of the law which identifies the conviction that humans can constitute themselves through their own acts as persons and, by taking possession of themselves, become free people, as an untruthful existence.”

[4] Karl Barth CD IV.3.1.476, “But as the truth cannot be violated, altered or expelled by the falsehood of [humanity], the reality of the grace God and the man freed by Him and for Him cannot be violated, altered or expelled by the image in which it must represent itself to lying man s the ground of so much pain…As the reconciliation of the world to God, the justification and sanctification of man, is the reality, and indeed the living and present reality in Jesus Christ the true Witness of its truth, a limit is set both to the falsehood of man and also to his decay and destruction, to the disintegration of his existence under the dominion of the pseudo- reality of that image.”

[5] Helmut Gollwitzer “The Way to Life” Invitation to Joy, “The real meaning of a call to gratitude is ‘You should open your eyes and acknowledge what ahs happened to you in this man’s friendly approach, then you will be grateful and laugh’. It is s call to acknowledgment, so this call ‘Let us give thanks and be joyful!’ is a call to acknowledge the friendly approach which has been made to us, God’s friendly approach to us”

[6] Building from Karl Barth CD I.1.457, “Free as the servants of God…No less plainly the ‘law of liberty’ referred to in Jas. 1:25; 2:12 is the order which is directly contrasted, but positively so, with the law of the Jews, an order under which a man stands who is not just a hearer but also a doer—and in James this means, not a forgetful nor a merely reputed hearer, but a real hearer of the Word of God who is claimed in his life-act, in his existence…His freedom to by Himself, what is at issue here is a man’s freedom for God, for the ‘glorious liberty’ of the children of God (Rom. 8:21), the analgia fidei of the divine freedom which alone really deserves to be called freedom”

The End of Toil; Work Restored

What follows here is a concept/are concepts I’ve been wrestling with and have decided to put down on “paper”. I won’t claim that this post will bring you the standard comfort that I aim to bring in many of my posts; it’s not intended to do or be that word. Rather I’m looking at the concepts of rest and work, toil and work, the believer and work; I’m looking to process those words of rest and work. And, to those who have eyes to see, you may even see a deeper question I’m examining.

“Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground” (Gen 1:26)

“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Gen 2:15)

We were created to work.

I know this statement sounds odd coming from someone who often emphasizes the rest we have in Christ. So, I’ll reassure you upfront: there is no better word to me than the word of comfort that is the word of promise, who is Christ Himself, that grants, nay, creates rest for those who have the ears to hear. We have rest in Christ because by faith in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit we are united to God and in Him is true rest and peace (with God, with others, and with self). We have rest because Jesus’ word never falls to the ground, it never comes back empty. God’s promises are facts because His word creates the very thing it desires: rest for the heavy laden; comfort for those who are burdened by suffering and sorrow; peace for the anxious. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28); because He is rest and He’s called us to Himself we therefore have (actual) rest.

Rest (and peace with it) is a significant word (and theme) not only in the first few chapters of Genesis, but throughout the biblical narrative. It’s notable that according to the Genesis story, humanity was created and ushered into its first day which was God’s day of rest. God worked then rested on the seventh day; we were created on the sixth and rested (on the seventh, our first day).

But rest isn’t the only word; as we contend with the word “rest,” we must also contend with the word “work.”

So, moving on along the story line: we rested and then we worked. Rest came first and work flowed forth from that rest.  The trajectory of the movement of work from rest is important for a few reasons, but for our purposes immediately this one reason will do: the work and dominion-having of our foreparents was built on and not merely towards the day of rest. (They weren’t “working for the weekend,[1] but out of the weekend.) Rest is the foundation of our work.

We weren’t created for rest but into rest; we were created to work.

“But it is appropriate here also to point out that man was created not for leisure but for work, even in the state of innocence” – Martin Luther[2]

The command to have dominion over the earth as uttered in Genesis 1 and again in 2, was not yet an odious word (that sad fact comes in Gen. 3); we were to have dominion over the earth and to work it (joyfully and obediently). Work, for Adam and Eve, was a pleasure, something that brought joy.

“…greater than these was the fact that Adam was fitted for eternal life. He was so created that as long as he lived in this physical life, he would till the ground, not as if he were doing an irksome task and exhausting his body by toil but with supreme pleasure, not as a pastime but in obedience to God and submission to His will” – Luther[3]

Work was to be a blessing, and as far as we know with the little information we have from the story it was. And to have this dominion was a uniquely human attribute for no beast was given or heard and understood the command that was uttered to the Adam and Eve.[4] (To work being an aspect of the imago dei so imprinted on humankind.)

But something happened and the humans together transgressed God’s command not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Thus, curses ensued that plagued humankind.

“‘Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.’” (Gen 3:17c-19)

In one quick word, work—that which was to bring joy and pleasure and to be done willingly and obediently—becomes toil; and in becoming toil, it will be done without joy, lacking pleasure, and it will impose itself as a demand on us which we will fight against. Working the ground will be a pain, a toil. And in this transition of work turning into toil (a pain), there is also a transition from working the ground being a part of the dominion humanity had over the earth to that work, being toil, now having domination over us. It is a labor and a toil to bring forth life and it is a labor and a toil to sustain life from the earth and on the earth. Humanity was cursed and so was our work.

But only for a period of time.

The promise of the Seed of the woman crushing the head of the snake hangs in the background (ref. Gen 3:15). And just as we were held under the custodial authority of the Law until faith (until Christ, the Seed) (ref. Gal 3:25-27), so we were held under toil’s domination…until faith, until Christ. And Christ has come because “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim 1:15); to save them from death and unto life, life abundant. And that abundant life that we are given incorporates our person, our being, and our activity. In Christ we are given true life and true existence; in Christ work ceases to be toil and becomes work again.

But for me to now say something like, “now that you have life, go work!” would be coarse at best and futile at worst. I can sit here all day and speak of how work and activity are now not toil but work to be enjoyed and seen as a blessing and a pleasure; but those words will fall on deaf ears if those doing the hearing haven’t first been impacted by the external-to-themselves event that is the hearing of the proclamation of the gospel—the Gospel of the justification of the sinner.

So, for the person to see work as work (dominion-having) and not as toil (work dominating), two things need to happen: I need to be brought to death (by the Law) and be recreated (by the Gospel), and I need work to be transformed from toil. In hearing the word of the Law, I am brought to death because I see that I am toiling trying to justify myself by my works, that I am finding my identity, purpose, and self in my works; from this I need rest and that rest is wrought through the death that comes from the word of the Law. But not only from the word of the law, but also by the second and final word, the word of the Gospel, which brings me (as a new creation) into new and full life in union with Christ by faith in Christ apart from my works. (And this union with Christ is true rest; rest reminiscent of that seventh day of creation into which humanity was created, from which humanity worked.) By hearing the word of the Gospel, I am given a true rest (in Christ) that births a true existence and a true identity that is mine always apart from my works because my identity and purpose is found in the One who died for my sins and was raised for my justification (Rom. 4:25). In being given true rest in Christ by faith in Him in alone, and in having my works separated from me in death and re-creation, I am given my works back. In the event of justification (hearing the word of absolution proclaimed to me) work (toiling) is removed from me and from the seat of judgment over me (domination) and put in its proper place: under my dominion (ref. Eberhard Jüngel);[5] toil becomes work and is a blessing to the creation and my neighbor and to me.

In Christ, we have been given rest (true rest) and out of that rest we work and no longer toil; in Christ, we are re-created to work.

____________

[1] Loverboy, “Working for the Weekend” on the album Get Lucky

[2] Luther’s Works Vol. 1 Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 1-5. Ed. Jaroslav Pelikan. St. Louis: Concordia, 1958. 103. Luther is commenting on Gen 2:15

[3] Ibid, 65. Luther is commenting on Gen 1:26.

[4] Ibid, 66. Luther commenting on Gen 1:26, “Adam and Eve become the rulers of the earth, the sea, and the air. But this dominion is given to them not only by way of advice but also by express command. Here we should first carefully ponder the exclusiveness in this: no beast is told to exercise dominion; but without ceremony all the animals and even the earth, with everything brought forth by the earth, are put under the rule of Adam [and Eve], whom God by an express verbal command placed over the entire animal creation. Adam and Eve heard the words with their ears when God said: ‘Have dominion.’”

[5] This paragraph is a modified version of a paragraph written for a book review submitted to Modern Reformation that will be published in their Nov/Dec issue. Of important note is that in the book review I forgot to mention the influence I’m operating from here in this discussion, specifically these immediate thoughts. When I caught the error, I contacted the journal, but it was too late to add the reference. So, I’ve added the reference here. The omission was by no means intentional; as can happen when one studies a particular theologian for a while their language becomes your language and that’s really what happened here. Anyone who knows me well enough has heard me verbally give credit to Jüngel when I mention this particular transition of domination to dominion; however, when I wrote the book review I wrote it fast and rushed to submit on time and, thus, my editing was paltry. Here is where I believe the reference is coming from: Justification: The Heart of the Christian Faith. Translated by Jeffrey F. Cayzer. London: T&T Clark, 2001 (I’m drawing from memory and my book is out on loan). You can also find aspects of this in a few essays here: Theological Essays. Translated by J.B. Webster. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989; and: Theological Essays II. Translated by Arnold Neufeldt-Fast and J.B. Webster. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995. Please forgive the oversight.