Religion in the time of Plague (or Pandemic)

Some last thoughts on The Plague by Albert Camus. In that novel Camus  challenges the religious approach to suffering. Suffering is of course a fundamental problem for anyone who believes in an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving God. How can there be such a God if there is suffering?

In the novel a Catholic priest Father Paneloux tries to approach the problem. He did that in response to a horrendously painful death of a young child from the plague. He set himself a difficult task. He said that there was a fact that we should under all circumstances take into consideration. We should always bear in mind that “Appearances notwithstanding, all trials, however cruel, worked together for good to the Christian. And, indeed, what a Christian should always seek in his hour of trial was to discern that good, in what it consisted, and how best to turn it to account.” We should not try to explain the plague; we should try to learn what it can teach us.

Paneloux acknowledged that “nothing is more important on earth than a child’s suffering.” He also refused to take ‘the easy way’ out of the dilemma. In his second sermon to the people,

“He, Father Paneloux refused to have recourse to simple devices enabling him to scale that wall. Thus he might easily have assured them that the child’s sufferings would be compensated for by an eternity of bliss awaiting him. But how could he give that assurance when to tell the truth, he knew nothing about it? For who could dare to assert that eternal happiness can compensate for a single moment’s human suffering? He who asserted that, would not be a true Christian, a follower of the Master who knew all the pangs of suffering in his body and his soul. No, he, Father Paneloux would keep faith with that great symbol of all suffering, the tortured body on the Cross: he would stand fast, his back to the wall, and face honestly the terrible problem of a child’s agony. And he would say to those who listened to his words to-day: ‘My brothers, a time of testing has come for us all. We must believe everything or deny everything. And who, I ask amongst you would dare to deny everything?”

The priest considered this “the All or Nothing”, “the greatest of all virtues.” Father Paneloux did not want to dodge the question. He wanted to face it head on. He did not want to sleep-walk through this question. Again a real (though fictional child) in the novel faced that terrible suffering. Could he not do the same?

While on the one hand religious thinkers for millennia have seen suffering as a way towards spiritual enlightenment, others have seen suffering as the greatest spiritual challenge. Perhaps there is no inconsistency there. Perhaps that is the point. Father Paneloux is certainly not trying to get around the problem. He wants to go through it. Paneloux knew, “religion in a time of plague could not be the religion of every day.” Paneloux also concluded, “The suffering of children were our bread of affliction, but without this bread our souls would die of spiritual hunger.”

This meant that Father Paneloux had to have  “a total acceptance” of that child’s suffering. This entailed that “since it was God’s will, we too should will it.” As Collin Wilson in Problematic Rebel said, we have to say yes to it all. So Paneloux says “believe everything so, as not to be forced into denying everything.” What a terrible choice, but he took it. “The Christian should yield himself fully to the divine will, even though it passed his understanding.” Paneloux would not allow a half-measure from the Christian. It was not good enough to say, ‘This I understand but that I cannot accept.” That was just a sorry attempt to weasel out of the piercing dilemma.

Paneloux’s position is certainly a courageous one. He said “we should go forward, groping our way through the darkness, stumbling perhaps at whiles, and try to do what good lay in our power.” Once again like Tarrou and like Camus himself, we must be satisfied with the small good. We need not concern ourselves with the grand design. That is above our pay grade. Do what good we can. That’s all. We need not be or even try to be saints.

Yet this is a very tough position.

“There is no island of escape in time of plague. No, there was no middle course. We could accept the dilemma; and chose either to hate God or to love God. And who would dare to hate Him?…’the love of God is a hard love. It demands total self-surrender, disdain of our human personality. And yet it alone can reconcile us to suffering and the deaths of children, it alone can justify them since we cannot understand them, and we can only make God’s will ours.”

But of course this was not Camus’s position, or at least Rieux, the narrator. Like Dostoevsky in that other classic, Brothers Karamazov, he could not accept a world that required a child to suffer, He was not prepared to “justify” the suffering of a child. He would even dare to hate God if necessary. How bold is that? Who could be that brave?

1 thought on “Religion in the time of Plague (or Pandemic)

  1. existentialism seems like the perfect position for a society that valorizes the individual above all else. just me and my possibly/potentially narcissistic cogitations, affectations, etc.

    it denies the messiness of whatever collectivity one happens to be ensconced in. a collectivity that locates ethical principles, ideologies, and on.
    all this talk of religion, suffering, etc. inevitably involves something more than the individual and her “real” life, her contact with “real” situations.

    where does all this ethical compulsion emanate from? historically from religion, but now that religion is on the rack this is our dilemma, what source outside my ego do i draw on?
    existentialism seems to leave me hanging there.

    and of course the predictable shibboleths about marxists and communists. always those marxists with those grand designs.
    as though religion, google, social media, neo-liberalism, bourgeois democracy, plus plus don’t have any grand designs.

    a bit too neat for me.

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