Famous Atheists Who Weren’t Atheists 2: The Christianity of Camus

like atheism

like atheism

Albert Camus was nearly as unfaithful as Jean-Paul Sartre . . . to atheism.

This should not be especially surprising to any semi-conscious reader of his novels.  Despite his good existentialist intentions Camus could never really get beyond good and evil.  Most of his literary works collapse under the weight of trying to cover up their origins in, and direct debts to, classical Christian doctrines, especially Original Sin.

It’s as if he keeps trying to roll a rock to seal off the tomb, only to find it rolled away every darn morning.  Just look at the plots of The Fall, The Plague, and The First Man and tell me God shouldn’t sue for copyright infringement upon the biblical narrative.

The connections go even deeper as a recent memoir reveals.  The book is entitled Albert Camus & the Minister.  It is written by the (Methodist) minister, Howard Mumma.  Mumma hailed from Ohio and met Camus, was actually hounded by him, during a stint as guest minister at the American Church in Paris.

The two talked about Christianity constantly and it got to the point where Camus asked to be re-baptized, only to be turned down. Today’s Methodist ministers are nothing like the hardcore Methodist ministers of yesteryear!

Camus was still actively courting the Christian faith when he was cut down in a car accident.  We don’t know how things would have turned out if Camus had lived, however, as this book recounts, he thought he was heading for a reversion.  Actually, he was already there.

I don't believe in an interventionalist God.

I don’t believe in an interventionalist God (see video below).

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Famous Atheists Who Weren’t Atheists: Sartre’s Crossover

This story will leave you confused.

This story will leave you confused.

Almost everyone will agree that Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) is rightfully recognized as a major figure of 20th century atheism.  Fewer people will agree about his stature as a philosopher.  Even fewer people will testify to the staying power of his novels and plays, although he still inspires some good poetry written against his philosophy.

However, it’s still not general knowledge that Sartre was not only unfaithful to Simone de Beauvoir, but also to atheism.  With the help of his secretary Benny Levy (no not that one) Sartre wandered into Judaism late in life.  And so the late-late Sartre said things like these:

“The Jew lives. He has a destiny. The finality towards which every Jew moves is to reunite humanity . . . It is the end that only the Jewish people [know] . . . It is the beginning of the existence of men for each other.”

Edward Said had an encounter with the Sartre-Levy duo and wasn’t entirely impressed:

“Lévy (then still known as Pierre Victor) seemed to Said to be: ‘a sort of station master, among whose trains was Sartre himself. Aside from their mysterious interactions at the table, he and Victor would occasionally get up; Victor would lead the shuffling old man away, speak rapidly at him, get an intermittent nod or two, then the pair would come back.’ When Sartre made a platitudinous closing statement that failed to mention such burning issues as the Palestinians, disputed territories or Israeli settlements, Said assumed it had been written by ‘the egregious Victor’ himself.”

Read more about Sartre’s Judaism here.

Just to make things even more confusing, carnivaleseque, and Rabelaisian, Sartre wrote a Christmas play, in which he gushed about Jesus, when he was interned in a German POW camp.

 

Sartre walking away from atheism.

Sartre walking away from atheism.

 

  

 

Debunking Science & Religion Myths: The Copernican Revolution Wasn’t a Demotion

Whoa, he's Polish!

Whoa, he’s Polish!

The science and religion debates are chock-full of ideological myths.

Nowadays the scientific side usually has the upper hand in the construction of history.  This position means its stories should arouse healthy suspicion and invite demythologizing.

Everyone has rehearsed all those terribly touching stories, perhaps even with a tear in the eye, about the persecution of the brave scientific martyrs by the ecclesiastical Grand Inquisitor(s).  Let’s ignore the fact the Inquisition had more respect for due process and evidentiary rules than the Bush-Obama White Houses and explore something more moving.

The shifting of the Earth from the center of the universe, coupled with the setting of the planet in motion around the sun, is usually presented as a real cosmic bummer from which we’ll never recover.

John Hedley Brooke, in Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives, says nothing could be further from the truth (if you take 16th century cosmology into consideration),

“Even if men and women were removed from the center of the cosmos, this was not necessarily to diminish their status.  The center of the geocentric cosmos had not been salubrious.  It was the point to which earthly matter fell, the focus of change and impurity, the physical correlate of humanity’s fallen state.  To be placed on a planet was to move upmarket.  It was to be delivered from a dump that was, in reality, diabolocentric.  Galileo was certainly conscious of this, rejoicing that there was an escape from the refuse.  Kepler, too, spoke of an enhanced status for the earth.  At last it enjoyed legal citizenship in the heavens.  Not surprisingly, John Wilkins was to say that a prevalent objection to the Copernican system was not man’s dethronement but an elevation about his true stature.”

Oh merde!

Oh merde!

Feel free to annoy your starry-eyed science-geek friends with these newly-learned facts.  Why not also pass along the story I published here and the conclusion to the one here while you’re at it?

By the way, the above passage from John Hedley Brooke was cited by Larry Chapp in his groundbreaking tome The God of Covenant and Creation.  You’ll be hearing about it a lot more in the near future.  I’m still reading it (with great enthusiasm).

I could only find an untypically modest-sized picture.

I could only find an untypically modest-sized picture.

Does Anyone Know Where I Can Find This Rilke Poem?

Image

Doesn’t look like a baller.

It’s four in the morning and I still can’t fall asleep.  Looks like my four mile walk in the afternoon powered me up instead of powering me down.  I’ve always wondered where the Rilke’s epigraph for Gadamer’s Truth and Method comes from.  Is there an English-language collection that contains the following poem?:

Catch only what you’ve thrown yourself,
but when you’re suddenly the catcher of a ball
thrown by an eternal partner
with accurate and measured swing
towards you, to your center, in an arch
from the great bridgebuilding of God:
why catching then becomes a power—
not yours, a world’s.

As an added bonus I’m throwing in a poem by Wislawa Szymborska:

“Four in the Morning”

The hour from night to day.
The hour from side to side.
The hour for those past thirty.

The hour swept clean to the crowing of cocks.
The hour when earth betrays us.
The hour when wind blows from extinguished stars.
The hour of and-what-if-nothing-remains-after-us.

The hollow hour.
Blank, empty.
The very pit of all other hours.

No one feels good at four in the morning.
If ants feel good at four in the morning
–three cheers for the ants. And let five o’clock come
if we’re to go on living.

Image

Here’s a picture I took of Szymborska with Zagajewski, Maj, et al from 2008 (I think).

The Blogs of Others: Beauty’s Vengeance

My friend Anders liked these essays so much he now has a tattoo with the title on his arm.  Be careful about what books you give to others.

My friend Anders liked these essays so much he now has a tattoo with the title on his arm. Be careful about what books you give to others.

As Adam Zagajewski advised in a poem I posted here.

. . . Only in the beauty created
by others is there consolation,
in the music of others and in others’ poems.
Only others save us .  .  .

The first bit of savings I would like to pass on comes from Sophie  Lippiatt’s blog “Something for a Rainy Day.”  It’s an entry entitled “Beauty.”  Here’s a sample:

“The instinct to pursue and perceive beauty in ourselves and other people (as well as in the world around us) is as natural, ancient, and positive an instinct as the earth itself. It helps us to empathise and connect with the outside world, and to promote justice and truth in freedom and love. Beauty, when understood in the limited and damaging sense that our culture currently understands it, is a dangerous and terrible thing that traps men and women into cycles of despair, eating disorders, and self abuse. It is a very good and noble thing to reject this and to try to change it, but I, for one, am not willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater in the fight against misconceptions and misrepresentations of beauty in the media by turning against beauty altogether. I believe that beauty is worth the fight. After all, beauty, when understood in its right and fullest sense, just might help to save the world.”

DSCN8986

One of my many pictures of Warsaw brutal.

Sophie’s thoughts about brutalizing architecture earlier in the post really struck a chord with me.  I did not grow up in the beautiful environs of Oxford.  I grew up around the brutalized architecture of postwar Warsaw, which could easily out-brutalize the most brutalized neighborhoods of Manchester.  To me Warsaw is the architectural equivalent of a botched abortion.  I like to think of myself as not-so-secretly Krakovian.

Warsaw after WWII: not much promise for beauty there.

Warsaw after WWII: not much promise there.

On the other hand, Scott Dodge at Καθολικός διάκονος emphasizes the dangerous side of beauty:

“One of the things Pasolini that is palpable in Mama Roma is the desolation that results from the lack of beauty, the deleterious effect it has on us, assaulting our humanity. This brings me back to beauty and our need for it. The late John O’Donohue, in his book, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, observed, ‘We feel most alive in the presence of the Beautiful for it meets the need of our soul.’ He goes on to note that, culturally, we live an age of the ugly. This last observation caused him to turn to Hans Urs Von Balthasar, specifically to Von Balthasar’s theological aesthetic [the following passage is from the first volume of The Glory of the Lord]:

Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man… Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance.”

eckberg dolce

Ekberg in La Dolce Vita is not gratuitous at all if you follow the links.

Finally, a reminder from Adam Zagajewski:

“Moment”

Clear moments are so short.
There is so much more darkness. More
ocean than terra firma. More
shadow than form.

Communio Website Redesign!

interior_columns

communio-logo.jpg

If you don’t know what Communio is then you’ve been living under the wrong theological rock.

They’ve always had a website with lots of great .pdfs from the best theologians around (not all the articles are available online, but quite a few of them are).  Now they have a website with a user-friendly design.

Here’s what they’re all about:

Communio was founded in 1972 by Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, and Joseph Ratzinger. It stands for the renewal of theology in continuity with the living Christian tradition, the continuing dialogue of all believers, past and present, “as if all were simultaneously in the circle.” Now published in collaboration with thirteen other editions in Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East, Communio is truly “catholic” and international in scope. (Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was instrumental in the establishment of the Polish edition.)

The English-language edition of Communio is a quarterly issue that regularly carries articles on philosophy, the arts, and the relationship between Catholicism and American culture. Emphasis is placed on exploring the meaning of John Paul II’s call for a “new evangelization.” Indeed, in every issue of Communio, an effort is made to reestablish the bond between prayer and theological reflection, the loosening of which lies at the heart of so many contemporary problems.

Communio draws upon the best theological writing in thirteen languages, but it is broader than a theological journal; it strives to let the “symphony” of Catholic truth resound in its pages – not only for specialists, but also for any person concerned with uniting faith with culture. Subscribers can participate in the development of the Review by joining or forming Communio Study Circles that gather around the world for fellowship and reflection on articles or themes from the journals. Readers can also look forward to reprints of memorable, often hard to find short pieces by pioneers of the Catholic renewal such as Bernanos, Blondel, Chesterton, Claudel, Dawson, Day, Delbrêl, Gilson, Guardini, Péguy, Pieper, and others.

Enjoy!

You can start with an article from D.C. Schindler on why we need Paul Claudel.  Make sure you click on the .pdf link to get the whole article.

Zbigniew Herbert Tempers the Rational Fury

The groundbreaking anthology that brought Herbert and the rest of modern Polish poetry to the West.

The groundbreaking anthology that brought Herbert and the rest of modern Polish poetry to the West.

Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998) is one of the two greatest Polish poets of the 20th century.  He is part of a poetic duo, or duel, with Czeslaw Milosz.  Milosz was more of a mystic, Herbert a skeptic.  Milosz was almost always critical of Poland, whereas Herbert entrenched himself within the Polish tradition.  I want to avoid the dreaded words “nationalist” or “patriot,” but Hebert was both in the best sense.  It’s possible to be both without undercutting the universal reach of one’s writing.  Michael Hofman, the translator of German literature (oh the irony!), confirms this what he said in Poetry some years back:

“Zbigniew Herbert died in 1998. He was a very great and idiosyncratic poet—something in me wants to say a peerless poet—and, it is reported, a perennial Nobel bridesmaid. It was ironic—and no doubt wounding—that during the period of his expectations, in 1980 and 1996, two other Poles of, as I see it, manifestly lesser gifts and importance, Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska, were chosen by the Academy and decorated by Carl Gustav.”

The rivalry with Milosz resurfaces in those comments.  There’s even a quasi-mythological dinner party quarrel between the two poets documented by Cynthia Haven here in the post on “The Worst Dinner-Party Ever.”  

More biographical and bibliographical information is available here.

Spinoza's home, couldn't find the bed.

Spinoza’s home.

“Mr. Cogito Tells of the Temptation of Spinoza” [Mr. Cogito is a persona Herbert frequently used to disabuse his readers of their Cartesian prejudices.  While reading this poem it’s important to remember how much Spinoza fought the biblical notion of a personal God.  Spinoza’s god was an impersonal force.  Think back to Simone Weil’s comments in yesterday’s post here.]

Baruch Spinoza of Amsterdam
was seized by a desire to reach God

in the attic
cutting lenses
he suddenly pierced a curtain
and stood face to face

he spoke for a long time
(and as he so spoke
his mind enlarged
and his soul)
he posed questions
about the nature of man

–distracted God stroked his beard

he asked about the first cause

–God looked into infinity

he asked about the final cause

—God cracked his knuckles
cleared his throat

when Spinoza became silent
God spake

—you talk nicely Baruch
I like your geometric Latin
and the clear syntax
the symmetry of your arguments

let’s speak however
about Things Truly
Great

—look at your hands
cut and trembling

—you destroy your eyes
in the darkness

—you are badly nourished
you dress shabbily

buy a new house
forgive the Venetian mirrors
that they repeat surfaces

—forgive flowers in the hair
the drunken song

—look after your income
like your colleague Descartes

For Sale: Descartes

For Sale: Descartes

—be cunning
like Erasmus

—dedicate a treatise
to Louis XIV
he won’t read it anyway

—temper the rational fury
thrones will fall because of it
and stars turn black

—think
about the woman
who will give you a child

—you see Baruch
we are speaking about Great Things

—I want to be loved
by the uneducated and the violent
they are the only ones
who really hunger for me

Foolishness to the wise.

Foolishness to the wise.

now the curtain falls
Spinoza remains alone
he does not see the golden cloud
the light on the heights

he sees darkness

he hears the creaking of the stairs
footsteps going down

Oh look, there's my name!  Herbert combines well with Auden.

Oh look, there’s my name! Herbert reads well alongside with Auden.

What follows is a short-short story, a favorite genre of Herbert’s.  You can find some more of them on the Artful Dodge page here.

“Spinoza’s Bed”
by Zbigniew Herbert

IT IS AN amazing thing that our memory best retains images of great philosophers when their lives were coming to an end. Socrates raising the chalice with hemlock to his mouth, Seneca whose veins were opened by a slave (there is a painting of this by Rubens), Descartes roaming cold palace rooms with a foreboding that his role of teacher of the Swedish Queen would be his last, old Kant smelling a grated horseradish before his daily walk (the cane preceding him, sinking deeper and deeper into the sand), Spinoza consumed by tuberculosis and patiently polishing lenses, so weak he is unable to finish his Treatise on the Rainbow. . .A gallery of noble moribunds, pale masks, plaster casts.

In the eyes of his biographers Spinoza was unmistakably an ideal wise man: exclusively concentrated on the precise architecture of his works, perfectly indifferent to material affairs, and liberated from all passions. But an episode in his life is passed over in silence by some biographers, while others consider it only an incomprehensible, youthful whim.

Spinoza’s father died in 1656. In his family Baruch had the reputation of an eccentric young man who had no practical sense and wasted precious time studying incomprehensible books. Due to clever intrigues (his stepsister Rebecca and her husband Casseres played the main role in this) he was deprived of his inheritance. She hoped the absentminded young man would not even notice. But it happened otherwise.

Baruch initiated a lawsuit in court with an energy no one suspected him to have. He hired lawyers, called witnesses, was both matter-of-fact and passionate, extremely well-oriented in the most subtle details of procedure and convincing as a son injured and stripped of his rights.

They settled the division of the estate relatively quickly (clear legal rules existed in this matter). But then a second act of the trial unexpectedly followed, causing a general sense of unpleasantness and embarrassment.

As if the devil of possessiveness had entered him, Baruch began to litigate over almost each object from his father’s house. It started with the bed in which his mother, Deborah, had died (he did not forget about its dark green curtains). Then he requested objects without any value, explaining he had an emotional attachment to them. The judges were monumentally bored, and could not understand where this irresistible desire in the ascetic young man came from. Why did he wish to inherit a poker, a pewter pot with a broken handle, an ordinary kitchen stool, a china figure representing a shepherd without a head, a broken clock which stood in the vestibule and was a home for mice, or a painting that hung over the fireplace and was so completely blackened it looked like a self-portrait of tar?

Baruch won the trial. He could now sit with pride on his pyramid of spoils, casting spiteful glances at those who tried to disinherit him. But he did not do this. He only chose his mother’s bed (with the dark green curtain), giving the rest away to his adversaries defeated at the trial.

No one understood why he acted this way. It seemed an obvious extravagance, but in fact had a deeper meaning. It was as if Baruch wanted to say that virtue is not at all an asylum for the weak. The act of renunciation is an act of courage-it requires the sacrifice of things universally desired (not without regret and hesitation) for matters that are great, and incomprehensible.

Herbert: calming the rational fury.

Herbert: calming the rational fury.

Finally, you might want to read a great article on the continuing influence of Spinoza upon what’s called the “turn to religion” in French philosophy.  It’s by my professor Douglas Collins and has more citations per hour than anything else on the face of the earth.  It’s called “L’Amour intellectuel de Dieu: Lacan’s Spinozism and Religious Revival in Recent French Thought” and I think it’s invaluable.  Doug is also famous for getting some eccentric student reviews–see what I mean here.