By Neil Dhingra
Unsurprisingly, amidst this ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Albert Camus’ The Plague has again become popular. According to the writer Samuel Earle, in Japan more copies sold in March than during the previous 31 years, and in France “it has sometimes seemed as if La Peste itself is a vaccine.” Earle recalls the early critical reception was mixed, as some readers judged Dr. Bernard Rieux’s line, “The only way to fight the plague is with decency,” as overly sentimental, safely apolitical. But that line, with its presently elusive “common decency” opposed to now-familiar panic and tyrannical and incompetent forms of government, as well as the absurdity of disease itself, has shown up again in newspaper and magazine articles.
With few exceptions, religion doesn’t play much of a role in the recent attention given to Camus’ story. Christianity may appear in subtle ways in The Plague — Camus’ biographer, Robert Zaretsky notes that the village doctor in Chambon-sur-Lignon, the village that saved 3,000 Jews under the leadership of its Protestant pastor, was named Rioux — close to the name of Camus’ (unbelieving) protagonist. But its main representative of Christianity is the learned Jesuit, Paneloux, who as the plague spreads throughout Oran, delivers two seemingly different sermons. Perhaps we can learn as much from Paneloux’s bad sermons as we can from Rieux’s “common decency,” namely, about what hope means in our time of deep uncertainty and even pessimism, the result of not only disease but also political failure and systemic racism.
His first and more conventional sermon occurs before a huge, if not particularly devout, congregation — Camus says they attended with the thought, “Anyhow, it can’t do any harm.” Paneloux, the distinguished scholar of Augustine, begins correctly, “This calamity was not willed by God.” But because of the city’s religious indifference, God had visited Oran with plague to get them to return to the faith, as he had once done to Sodom and Gomorrah and — in perhaps a disconcerting tell — Job. While the people shouldn’t seek infection, as had the “Christians of Abyssinia” centuries before in excess zeal, they can still perceive “the will of God in action, unfailingly transforming evil into good” with the microbe.
The sermon does not work. For some, it even confirms that “they had been sentenced, for an unknown crime, to an indeterminate period of punishment,” and leads to panic. For Dr. Rieux, the sermon reflects the Jesuit’s lack of acquaintance with death, a naiveté that lets him pronounce the “excellence” of suffering. Rieux also claims that Paneloux cannot even believe what he says, for otherwise he would dismiss trying to cure the sickness, now revered as providential.
Once Paneloux encounters death in particularly gruesome form, he preaches a second, less conventional sermon. He has told Rieux that he now realizes we must “love what we cannot understand.” Paneloux now speaks of “we” not “you” to his congregation in a “cold silent church.” He can no longer explain suffering to them. But instead he finds himself faced with a choice: to either accept everything or to deny everything. Paneloux describes this choice with paradoxical grandeur: it demands “total self-surrender,” as we “aspire beyond ourselves to that high and fearful vision,” hoping that truth will “flash forth from the dark cloud of seeming injustice.” We are to imagine that children die, but within this horrifying picture, the touch of sublimity: their bodies are buried deep under the ageless churches where priests now speak the Word of God.
In this second sermon, Paneloux says that we must “try to do what good lay in our power,” but the intensity of accepting everything may lead to heretical extremes, as a young deacon realizes: “That it’s illogical for a priest to call in a doctor.” As Paneloux dies, he says that priests “have given their all to God,” and this means that priests “can have no friends.” His is a self-destructive and lonely acceptance. His refusal of medical attention connects his second sermon to his first; Paneloux is still looking, however differently, for the sickness to be providential.
Rieux disagrees with the second sermon as much as the first, for his unceasing efforts against the plague are rooted in “fighting against creation as he found it,” instead of either rationalization or acceptance of the will of a “silent” God who mysteriously presides over a world of death. But the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who felt a closeness with Camus, also insightfully found fault with both sermons. For Merton, Paneloux is an example of constructing security upon power, which then must be justified even if entangled in human suffering. The first sermon is meant “to prove that [Paneloux’s] religious establishment is right.” When this explanation fails, Paneloux’s choice to accept all “masks a hidden will to power under a doctrine of total submission to seemingly arbitrary decrees of God.” Under the guise of humility, he choreographs “an individual drama,” “a bizarre exploit of dying” that he offers to God in a desperate and self-destructive attempt to “impose his own will on God.”
So, we are left at an impasse. We can adopt Rieux’s “common decency,” but with its rejection of the world as creation, that is, as anything beyond sheer absurdity against which we struggle like soldiers fighting “a never-ending defeat.” This is life as revolt. Or we adopt either Paneloux’s theodicy or his voluntarism, shiftily telling ourselves that they are not what the historian Charles Rosenberg, drawing on Camus, sees as part of the dramaturgy of every epidemic: a desire, whether expressed religiously or rationalistically, to gain some “measure of control over an intractable reality.”
But Merton also sees a possibility seemingly invisible to the characters in The Plague. There is grace that leads to action, that escapes the gravity of “social justification, a logic of acceptability, an affirmation of rightness.” As “purely gratuitous,” it’s only justified by its “own intrinsic content of love.” It is the acceptance of an invitation from God that leads to hope, not in an abstraction or establishment that conceals a will to power, but in the fulfillment of God’s promises in a manner unforeseen. As Werner Jeanrond writes, this hope may bring not security but a “feeling of fear and frustration in view of the unpredictability and possible upset and surprises emerging from the evolving relationship with the mysterious and radical otherness of God.” Jeanrond quotes Thomas Merton:
We are not perfectly free until we live in pure hope. For when our hope is pure, it no longer trusts exclusively in human and visible means, nor rests in any visible end. He who hopes in God trusts God, Whom he never sees, to bring him to the possession of things that are beyond imagination.
Merton will even say, “Hope deprives us of everything that is not God,” as hope in an “illusory promise” leads to despair. Jeanrond suggests that hope finds its place in our world subversively —perhaps more in the traumatic sites of damaged war memorials or a new cathedral in Coventry constructed next to its bombed-out predecessor, than in the seemingly solid and permanent monuments to a particular nation state. But Jeanrond nevertheless insists that hope is finally not in revolt or through what Merton calls Paneloux’s “secret spiritual will to power.” Our hope is not for the end of time, space, and language, but for their radical transformation. The new Jerusalem is recognizable as a “holy city” (Rev. 21:2), albeit without death.
Perhaps that theological position is not that far from Camus’ characters, despite their words. After all, Dr. Rieux retains an inexplicable optimism about people. After the first sermon, he says, “Christians sometimes say that sort of thing without really thinking it. They’re better than they seem.” He’s capable of friendship, being “perfectly at one” with another character during a swim, and even with nature itself — “Rieux could feel under his hand the gnarled, weather-worn visage of the rocks, and a strange happiness possessed him” — even if these moments are fleeting and outside the city. As for Paneloux, in the manuscript of the novel, he loses his faith; in the finished novel, he does not. He dies on the Feast of All Saints, holding a crucifix. He also dies after having finally expelled “the clot of matter that was choking him,” and Camus tells us, “it was red,” the color of power in The Plague, where judges play the “game of the red robes.” Paneloux has finally expelled his spiritual will to power. Perhaps both Rieux and Paneloux’s positions are finally unsustainable; we are all better than we seem, at least in the end.
I don’t mean to argue for a complete harmony of positions here. But perhaps it’s good for Christians to read The Plague as more than a reminder of “common decency,” as important as that may be. Camus may challenge us to radical hope, which Jeanrond, here alluding to John of the Cross, says “presupposes the emptying of all claims to possession,” and which may be the only lasting hope for our troubled times.
Neil Dhingra is a doctoral student in education at the University of Maryland.