King Lear and his fool as Lear shouts in anger at the heavens, raging against the absurdity of his situation.
Recently my plan to read the greatest work of philosophy and literature in the Western canon (the list of works and authors was posted here some time ago) brought me to a slim volume called The Myth of Sisyphus by twentieth-century French absurdist philosopher Albert Camus. The first sentence to the book reads: “There is only one truly philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” By this he simply means that before we speak about anything else (what it means to be good, whether a person is divisible into three parts: mind, body, and soul, etc.) we need to first ask whether life has any meaning which ought to compel us to live, and if not we should admit it and have enough courage to end our lives.
For Camus, life is absurd. He defines absurdity as the difference between our expectation of the world and the way the world and actually turns out to be. Camus sees a fundamental bifurcation between humanity and the world, with the sense of the absurd residing somewhere in the middle. For example, it is most often our expectation (especially in the rational West) that the world obeys some consistent physical laws, but then quantum mechanics comes along and defies the laws of Newtonian physics. We also tend to operate under the assumption of fairness in the world, such that it makes sense when a murder is imprisoned for life, and yet his or her act of murder, perpetrated against an innocent victim, smacks of injustice, and we can do nothing but shake our fist in vain at an impassive heaven.
What we think we know very often turns out to be not true at all. I have heard a number of people in their elder years say that the older they get, the more they realize how little they actually know and how much they can no longer take for granted. The quest of the scientific community for a Grand Unified Theory (GUT) or a Theory of Everything (TOE) seems in this light destined to failure, the only thing more sure being that each of us will come to a place in our lives (and usually on the most plain of all days, in the midst of the same old routine) where suddenly nothing makes sense. Camus himself describes a time when we was simply standing on the street and saw a man inside of a phone booth gesticulating wildly as he held the receiver to his ear. He gazed at the man, labouring to undesrstand his “incomprehensible dumb-show” and marvelling at the sudden and absolute alien-ness of it all, wondering why the man had even been born. I suspect many (if not most, and I include myself here) people in our society experience the alien-ness and incomprehensibleness of the outside world at one point or another, and in varying degrees.
Thus stands Camus’ theory and experience of the absurd, and he has a bone to pick with anyone tries to soften the blow by coming down on one side or the other — either insisting on orderliness and the powers of human rationality to the exclusion and denial of the inexplicable; or insisting on the mystical, subjective, or irrational element of life and the world to the exclusion of the rational faculty in mankind. This is where he objects to religion (in particular Christianity), for he experienced it as being unable to stare the absurd in the face ad therefore always defaulting to one of the two poles — either Kierkegaard and others lost themselves in the irrational nebulosity of the divine, or those heavily influenced by the Enlightenment insisted that God and his world could be reduced to a wholly rational concept. For Camus, neither are acceptable. Anything that is to give meaning must preserve this tension.
In response to Camus, I would have us consider the person of Christ. The reason I think Jesus and orthodox Christian theology may answer Camus’ conundrum of the absurd is because Jesus is both 100% God and 100% human, in the same person but without contradiction. Camus’ absurdism lies in the fact that there is a fundamental disconnect between human experience on one side and the the world or divine creation on the other. The yawning chasm between them grows wider and deeper all the time, it would seem.
But Christ is uniquely able to answer this connundrum because he is both God and humankind at the same time. He sees and experiences this dilemma from both vantage points, and can cross with ease from one side to the other and back over again. Jesus does not emphasize one factor of the absurdist problem to the exclusion of the other, but rather unites both factors perfectly in himself, thus maintaining and actually guarding that tension but then also transcending it to bring meaning.
The wonderful promise of the Bible is that when we put our faith in Christ, we become co-heirs with him, having access to all his riches and power. It would stand to reason, then, that, at least in a limited way on this side of eternity, we can glimpse his reality which transcends both factors of the absurd. We still live with this tension because we still fall on the human side of the equation, but we can, in Christ, glimpse the divine and how to interacts perfectly with humanity. We need not despair, and we need not sense the ache of meaninglessness.