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

Blessed are the Ordinary

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 (Sermon)

One of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had is being a parent, specifically being a stay-at-home-parent. It’s probably not hard to imagine why I’d say such a thing; either you personally relate to such a statement because of experience or you’ve witnessed the grueling task being performed by another. Being the primary care provider for little and rather irrational human beings demands a certain amount of mental and physical and emotional fortitude; not to mention the exponential increase therein as you have more kids. Maneuvering through (what seems like) the endless minefield of demands and needs and still retaining some sense of self at the end of the day is the feat of feats.

But it wasn’t just the tasks that sent me into my own personal pressure cooker and crucible, but the monotony of the tasks. The day in and day out of doing the exact same thing over and over again often felt soul crushing and dehumanizing. I had gone from a well-decorated seminary student with a bright-star-esque academic future, to rinsing off yet another poopy cloth diaper. The rocking chair and my nursing infant tethered me to the nursery. This. This is my life. Nursing and diaper changes. Peanut butter jelly sandwiches and massive tantrums.

 I watched as my peers reviewed proofs of their books, traveled to exotic locations to proclaim the gospel, start ministries and plant churches while I was stuck changing my shirt for the fourth time that day because of projectile spit-up. My inner monologue featured the twin thoughts: “I’m capable of so much more!” and “Good Lord, I’m a shell of a human being…”

One day, while I was reading one of the volumes of Luther’s Works, I saw my plight clearly defined.

This punishment [in Genesis 3:16], too, springs from original sin; and the woman bears it just as unwillingly as she bears those pains and inconveniences that have been placed upon her flesh. The rule remains with the husband, and the wife is compelled to obey him by God’s command. He rules the home and the state, wages wars, defends his possessions, tills the soil, builds, plants, etc. The woman, on the other hand, is like a nail driven into the wall. She sits at home…so the wife should stay at home and look after the affairs of the household, as one who has been deprived of the ability of administering those affairs that are outside and that concern the state. She does not go beyond her most personal duties.[1]

On that day, as my eyes moved over Luther’s words, I felt the very long tentacles of the curse uttered way back when cinch and tighten around me. I was a nail hammered so deep into a wall that the only hope to recover the nail would be to tear the wall down; the only other recourse would be to just admit the nail was lost forever. I wasn’t special, I wasn’t a bright-shining star; I was just a mom stuck in the monotony and banality of #momlyfe.

And I know I’m not alone, and I know that what I experienced isn’t merely a stay-at-home-parent thing. We all suffer from the monotony and banality of our lives. Very few of us here are as famous and special as we thought we would be when we were kids. And even if we are, monotony and the mundane plague every one’s life. The same people keep sitting in the same chairs at our dinning tables, ranting about the same things. We drive the same route in the same traffic there and back from work. Our lunches are packed with the same foods and in the same manner; the only change being that the store ran a sale on pink lady apples so you didn’t get the Fuji you normally get. Ooooo. Fancy.

While routine can bring comfort, it will also bring disdain; no one likes being in a rut or in the thick of existential crises surrounded by the doldrums. At some point in the last 7 days—more likely than not—you said or thought something to the equivalent of: is this all there is for me? Or you felt stuck, stuck like a nail driven deep into a wall, nothing special.

And then the apostles were called together to Jesus and they reported to him everything that they did and everything they taught. And then [Jesus] said to them, “Come! You yourselves privately to an empty place and rest a little.” For the people—who were the ones coming and the ones going—they were not even having an opportunity to eat. And they (Jesus and the disciples] went away in a fishing boat into an empty place privately. And then they saw them [Jesus and the disciples] going away and many people recognized [them] and then together they ran from all of the towns and they were ahead of them [Jesus and the disciples]. (Mark 6:30-33)

There’s nothing really special about our Gospel passage either. In fact, it’s remarkably dull and mundane. Neither my exegetical work nor any commentary provided me with that: “Oh, wow! That’s really cool!” moment we preachers so desperately desire. The text is as a bland in the original Greek as it is in the English; you’re not missing out on anything.

The story is as follows: the disciples have returned to Jesus and tell him what they’ve been doing (Mark doesn’t take the time to be specific, it’s merely: they tell Jesus all the things, no one story being significant to tell in detail). Jesus then suggests a retreat, and they all get in a boat to go to a remote place for rest. This attempt is thwarted because: people. Jesus loves the people and teaches them. That’s it. There’s nothing very remarkable here.

The reality that Jesus is popular or that he is very concerned for the physical and mental state of his overworked disciples[2] isn’t new; Mark is consistently pointing out both.[3] Even the destination for the disciple’s retreat is not even worth mentioning in detail: it’s merely a deserted, remote place without a name located somewhere on the northwestern portion of the shore.[4] And, according to the commentary I read for this passage, v. 33 points out that Mark has, “…oversimplified the process by which so large a crowd came to be in the ε῎ρημος τόπος looking for Jesus.”[5] Mark, in his quick and immediate style, merely informs his reader that there were a lot of people, these people recognized them, and they ran to meet Jesus on the other side of the shore. V. 33 has a lot of information collapsed into it; none of it particularly all that fascinating.

To make matters more bland, the main point of the remainder of chapter 6 falls not with this failed attempt at retreat and rest, but on the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus’s walking on the surface of the water.[6] But guess what? We weren’t even offered the good part. According to the Lectionary, we go from v. 34 straight to v.53 and read about another boating endeavor and Jesus healing everyone everywhere. The lectionary intentionally dropped those two big, fat miracles out of the reading. And, just like our boring lives, what we’re left with is a big dose of: meh.

Wedding the lectionary’s scriptural omission to the conception that Mark’s is very concerned with (and has been for a few chapters now) the “Christological question…‘Who is Jesus?’”[7], we find ourselves in a bit of an intellectual conundrum. We’re faced with the question: how does this handful of disconnected verses offer illumination into Jesus? How are we, through the text, brought into an encounter with God? And surely the crisis of the need for food and being encountered by your rabbi walking on water provides a more than adequate means for a textually centered encounter with God. In my very human opinion, the miracles seem to be a seraphic announcement: Jesus is God! But what we have seems more like divine mumbling, huh? what? I didn’t quite catch that.

And then when he [Jesus] got out he saw a large crowd and he felt sympathy upon them, that they were as sheep not having a shepherd, and then he began to teach them many things. (Mark 6:34)

Rather than being overwhelmed by the largeness and the magnificence of the grand miracles of vv. 35-52, where we can point and say: See?! This is God; there is God in Christ! We are left being rather underwhelmed with mundane minutia and commonplace statements about Christ. But maybe that’s the point?

Maybe by not being dropped into midst of the grandness of the big miracles but shoved to the outside margins and fringes, we are being asked to reconsider how we view the ordinary? Being forced to focus on the text surrounding two major miracles and not on the miracles themselves demands that we broaden our typically narrow Christological answer to the question “Who is Jesus?” We are forced to incorporate the small, the mundane, and the banal of life in our answer. Whatever we say of Christ applies even in the monotony of the everyday.

In v. 34, Christ has compassion on the crowd because they are sheep without a shepherd (a clear Old Testament reference).[8] The imagery of the sheep without a shepherd, “…denotes the ‘untended’ state of the ordinary people of Galilee… which arouses Jesus’ compassion and to which he responds as in 4:1-2 by an extended period of teaching.”[9] Jesus has compassion on a group of people, a large group of ordinary people with ordinary lives. Jesus, in the big and in the small, is “‘the one who cares.’”[10] This one who cares is the one who the ordinary people encounter on the shore, and it’s in this encounter where the ordinary is transformed into something extraordinary because the ordinary comes into contact with the extraordinary. And, that’s what the grace of God does and this extraordinary alteration is the essence of the reign of God.[11]

In the economy of the reign of God: what was last is first, what is made low is brought high, what is poor is rich, what is unclean is made clean, what is rejected is accepted, and what is dead is made to be alive. In all of the gospel accounts of Christ, Jesus is recorded as upending the status quo and in doing so he overthrows the controlling myths of the world. When being strong and powerful and rich and satiated was considered to be the manifestation of blessedness, that God had looked upon you and smiled, Jesus said the opposite,

“Looking at his disciples, he said:

‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.’” (Luke 6:20-22).

Blessed are you who are ordinary for yours is the extraordinary grace of God. Because it’s in the throes of existential crisis of monotony where you realize you are completely incapable in yourself to be anything but ordinary and commonplace, where the lie that you have to be the richest of the rich, or the powerful of the powerful to affect change in this world is exposed. God, in Christ, has looked upon you and has had compassion. And we know that it is the character and quality of God to have compassion because Christ is compassionate here and elsewhere; this is as marvelous and powerful (and maybe more so) as stilling and quieting the wind and waves, as magnificent as walking on water and feeding the 5,000. This is the extraordinary and compassionate God the ordinary people of Galilee encounter on the shore.[12]

In this event-encounter with God everything changes by the paradoxical grace of God. The rejected becomes the beloved, the sick become the well, and the ordinary becomes the extraordinary.

A friend of mine wrote a very excellent book on the life and theology and politics of Helmut Gollwitzer, a theologian of early 20th century Protestant Germany. He writes about Gollwitzer’s death,

“Helmut lived for another seven years and more, until October 17, 1993. He died when he fell down the stairs of his house. This may seem like an odd detail to include here. I must admit that when I first learned how Gollwitzer died, it struck me as an unjustly ignoble death for one who had lived the life and survived the circumstances that he did. From another perspective, however, that Gollwitzer survived what he did only to die in such a mundane way is perhaps the greatest possible testament not only to his strength and character, but also the grace of God that characterized his life—grace upon grace.”[13]

When I first read how Gollwitzer died, it didn’t make sense to me that my friend was seeing it as a great testament to the grace of God. Considering my friend to be one of the better theologians I currently know, I knew there was something I was missing in the connection. What was he seeing that I couldn’t see?

Finally, it dawned on me that I could ask him, especially when he was standing next to me at AAR. When I asked him how Gollwitzer’s death—caused by falling down stairs—was “grace upon grace,” he explained to me that it was the paradox of grace. The grace of God changes the mundane tasks and events of life; it’s in the mundane tasks and events of life where the grace of God is exposed for what it is: truly remarkable. It’s in the non-miraculousness of life where the paradoxical grace of God shines brightly—we expect to see the power and grace of God in a miracle, but not so much in the everyday. It is here in the mundane and monotonous aspects of life where we encounter God and the question, “Who is this?” about Christ is answered with a “I am who I am” (Ex. 3:14). The drab gray background of our common and ordinary lives highlights the bright colors of God’s grace. God is glorified in the ordinary.

Our regular tasks and the things we do day in and day out, the very things we think are hindering the grace of God are the very vehicles for the grace of God, where we encounter God in the event of faith. We don’t have to be monastic monks to experience the grace of God. We can experience God’s grace in the common. Changing diapers is divine, holding an average steady job to provide for your family is divine, putting meals on the table over and over and over again is divine, studying or grading papers is divine, just getting up and being present in your life in whatever capacity you can participate in is divine, even death is divine; in all of these things we are brought into event-encounters with God and with each other. This is surely divine.

In these event-encounters we are brought into life out of death because now everything harbors the beauty of divine possibility for encounter with God with an other. We don’t have to be strong and powerful and rich to be of any good in the world (and often times these things fail and hinder us in this regard). Rather, all we need to be is wonderfully and unremarkably ordinary human beings doing wonderfully ordinary human things with other ordinary human beings. We are the ones who have been the beloved objects of the God who cares and has compassion on us, who will never leave us or forsake us.

Luther was wrong (and make note: I rarely say it). We are not nails driven so deep in to a wall, rendered stuck in our respective environs and social platforms. We are the very ordinary creatures set loose upon the world to love and act radically as the very ordinary humans we are in Christ. We don’t have to focus on trying to make ourselves special because we already are in Christ. Blessed are those who are ordinary because they are the beloved people of an extraordinary God freed unto and into the world to set the captives loose.

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not be in want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures
and leads me beside still waters.

He revives my soul
and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me;
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.

Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,

and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. (Psalm 23:1-6)

 

[1] Martin Luther Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 1-5. LW. V. 1. St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1958. p. 202-3.

[2] France, p. 263. “υ῾μει῀ς αυ᾽τοι´ is unusually emphatic, and places the focus on the need of the disciples themselves: they have been serving others; now they themselves need to be cared for.”

[3] France, p. 263. “At the same time it reinforces the repeated emphasis of Mark both on the uncomfortable popularity of Jesus…and on his habit of taking his disciples away from the crowd…for periods of relief and of instruction.”

[4] France, p. 264. “Mark does not tell us where this particular ε῎ρημος τόπος was, but Luke locates the incident at Bethsaida (or rather presumably in its neighbourhood, since he, too, calls it an ε῎ρημος τόπος).” However, it is better to not credit Luke with geographical accuracy and “…assume that Mark has in view a place on the northwestern shore (such as the traditional site at Tabgha) not too far from Capernaum and on the same side of the Jordan inflow…”

[5] France, p. . The description in v.33 of the crowd and their goings-on seems to be that “…Mark has oversimplified the process by which so large a crowd came to be in the ε῎ρημος τόπος looking for Jesus.” Specifically as it relates to the coming miracle (that is skipped by the lectionary) in the feeding of the 5k.

[6] RT France The Gospel of Mark NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002). p. 260. “The initial focus of the pericope is on the abortive attempt of Jesus to organize a ‘retreat’ for his disciples on their return from their mission (vv. 31-32), but the whole weight of the story falls on the feeding of the *unwanted_ crowd who frustrated that plan.”

[7] France, p 263. “But the patent symbolism should not lead us to miss what is surely the primary purpose in Mark’s inclusion of this story, the sheer wonder of an ‘impossible’ act, and the testimony which this provides in answer to the growing Christological question of this part of the gospel, ‘Who is Jesus?’ He is not merely the healer of afflicted individuals or the rescuer of endangered disciples; he is one who is not bound by the rules of normal experience of what is possible and impossible. In following him this representative group of Israelites, no less than those who followed Moses in the wilderness, will find all their need supernaturally supplied, for God is again at work among his people.”

[8] France, p. 265. “ω῾ς προ´βατα μη` ε῎χοντα ποιμε´να is an obvious metaphor for lack of care and leadership, and one used in the OT for Israel in the wilderness after Moses (Nu. 27:17, where the problem is solved by the appointment of Joshua), for Ahab’s army after his death in battle (1 Ki. 22:17), for the people of God when their appointed leaders have failed in their trust (Ezk. 34:5-6), and for their helplessness when their (messianic) leader is taken away (Zc. 13:7).”

[9] France, p. 265.

[10] France, p. 265. Reference to the 10th chapter of Best’s “Story”. “The only subject of whom the verb σπλαγχνιζομαι is used in the NT is Jesus (apart from parable characters who represent Jesus or God). It is not a common verb in Mark (especially if we are right in not reading it in 1:41), but it occurs in the accounts of both feeding miracles (8:2); combined with the simile of sheep without a shepherd it presents Jesus above all as ‘the one who cares.’”

[11] h/t David W. Congdon via Twitter

[12] David W. Congdon The God Who Saves: A Dogmatic Sketch. (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2016). p. 27fn11, “Traditional accounts of theology want to make the Christ-event an exception to the way God acts elsewhere in the world. Here I take radically christoscentric approach and argue that God acts elsewhere only in the way God acts in Christ, since the Christ-event is definitive, even constitutive of who God is and how God acts.”

[13] W. Travis McMaken Our God Loves Justice: an introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2017). p. 48