Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

Book Matters

Albert Camus and the Minister

By Howard Mumma

It’s an arresting fact that both Albert Camus (1913-1960) and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) — French existentialists who may have done most to spread the banner news that God is dead — ended by trying to reckon with the possibility of a God in the balance of their own lives. Sartre’s last book was Hope Now.  It was a conversation with his younger associate Benny Levy, and drew attack from Sartre’s entourage as not really his, but rather evidence that — under the influence of the younger man — Sartre was no longer in his right mind. I won’t weigh in on the question of influence, though the book seemed to me reasonably intelligent when I read it.

Camus’ brush with theism has been less noticed, since to my knowledge the first published report of it came in this book by a man who had come to know him while intermittently serving as visiting minister in the American Church in Paris. Out of respect for the philosopher’s privacy, the minister’s recollections were first set down for publication some forty years after Camus had died.

Camus came into the American Church originally to hear a series of public concerts by a well-known organist. But then he returned to hear more of the minister’s sermons. One of the themes that concerned Camus had to do with whether man defines himself and gives purposes to himself in an otherwise meaningless world (as he and Sartre had held) or whether God endows his creation — ourselves as human beings — with the defining traits and life purposes that will be ours.

They had a number of private conversations. Camus asked the minister how he had acquired his faith and was interested to hear, in response, that faith is not just a set of tenets or beliefs but “a measure of our whole being and a process that involves a whole lifetime.”

Camus gave this description of his own dilemma: “We can make sense of our environment through rational application of science and empirical knowledge, but when it comes to man’s most basic questions of meaning and purpose, the universe is silent.”

At one point, Mumma gave him a Bible and, starting with Genesis, Camus read it with deep interest. Among the questions perturbing Camus was how to take the Bible. Is it factual? Some of it seems fantastical. The minister didn’t claim Biblical inerrancy but advised him to look for what is true about it, what it tells us about our lives and what it means to be human.

Camus had been deeply shaken by what he had learned, in the course of World War II and standing at the gates of Auschwitz, about the depths of human evil. Asked to comment, Mumma said that if God is to create us as free beings, with choices that are real and consequential, the Creator had also to give us the freedom to choose wrongly as well as rightly. That kind of leeway belongs to the kinds of creatures we are. This way of seeing it seemed to Camus to make sense.

Never dismissing the seriousness of Camus’ doubts but affirming the sense of hope that Christians entertain, the minister seemed to be opening a window in the psyche of the man who continued to question him.  

Toward the end of their conversations, Camus expressed a wish to be baptized.  For the first time, the minister resisted. Camus had received infant baptism and the minister’s denomination did not require any repetition in adulthood. But if, exceptionally, such a rite was to be performed, the minister required that it take place publicly before the whole congregation. At this Camus balked, quite naturally concerned to shield so personal a decision from the intrusions that had been the price of his fame or notoriety.  

When they parted for the last time (the minister being once again posted to America), their understanding was that more time and perhaps mutual reflection were in order while Camus considered what his next step should be.

But this extraordinary friendship between the American minister and the French author would not get the time to find its own exploratory future. The news came of the death of Camus in a car crash. Was it a suicide? An assassination? An accident? We can never be sure, I suppose. All that we have are his writings and this long-deferred report of his inward longing.

It will have to do. 

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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