The Absurdity of Death

A Lenten Reflection on Camus

Zack Verham / 3.10.20

I both love and am unsettled by Lent. This season of the church calendar has always felt especially “real,” or maybe “lived-in” to me. I don’t really know the right language to describe it. But where Christmas and Advent quickly become enmeshed in joyful-but-confusing commercialization, and Easter culturally comes and goes over the course of just one day, there is something about the long, drawn-out experience of Lent in the midst of the bitter cold of late-winter that feels especially grounded to me.

I find that the embodied nature of Lent puts me in a unique headspace which I both want to avoid and desperately need. My thoughts are opened to the pillar of Christianity that I most often ignore or skip over: the death of Jesus, and how his death is braided into my own.

Much has already been said about western society’s attempts to sterilize the experience of death. In an Atlantic interview, professor Keith Eggner once stated that “We send our old people off to homes and hospitals to die; we only go to the cemetery for funerals and then avoid them.”  Similarly, Dr. Lawrence Samuel has written that “The notion of one day disappearing is contrary to many of our defining cultural values, with death and dying viewed as profoundly ‘un-American’ experiences.” There are nearly infinite commentaries on our attempts to avoid the acknowledgment of death, which is the ultimate event horizon for every human who has ever lived (or will live) on planet Earth.

Caught between the cultural norms I’m conditioned by and the ancient Lenten practice of reflecting on the very existential state we’re all trying to avoid, I’ve found a lot of beauty in Albert Camus’ philosophy of the absurd. Camus is fundamentally interested in the existential end of the road represented by death and how it causes life to become absurd nonsense. In The Stranger, he writes, through the voice of his protagonist (who is speaking about a prison cleric), that:

Throughout the whole absurd life I’d lived, a dark wind had been rising toward me from somewhere deep in my future, across years that were still to come, and as it passed, this wind leveled whatever was offered to me at the time, in years no more real than the ones I was living. What did other people’s deaths or a mother’s love matter to me; what did his God or the lives people chose or the fate they think they elect matter to me when we’re all elected by the same fate, me and billions of privileged people like him who also called themselves my brothers?

For Camus, death is the hinge upon which the absurdity of life pivots. The fact that, at some inevitable point in time, we all die and our lives come to an abrupt and insurmountable end makes everything about existence utterly ridiculous. It contextualizes every dimension of human life and is the ultimate response to any monuments we build or any value we try to rationalize out of our time spent on Earth. Death’s universal conditioning makes life unintelligible for Camus. Earlier in the same novel, he writes that:

what would disturb my train of thought was the terrifying leap I would feel my heart take at the idea of having twenty more years of life ahead of me. But I simply had to stifle it by imagining what I’d be thinking in twenty years when it would all come down to the same thing anyway. Since we’re all going to die, it’s obvious that when and how don’t matter.

Camus’ protagonist expresses the same fundamental question that causes us to keep death at arm’s length. It is the same dissonance that causes Eggner to state, “Burial isn’t just about celebrating the dead. It’s about containing the dead — keeping them out of the realm of the living…”

Deep in the roots of our souls, we’re afraid that Camus is right, both at an individual and societal level. We’re terrified that death will rob us of any meaning for both our individual lives and the collective life of humankind. We live every moment fearful that, after all of the ways we perceive existence to be painted with a spectrum of hues and shades of content and significance, the whole painting will be thrown in the trash because death renders the entire process of life to be utter madness. As Macbeth says:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Camus is uninterested in the role that the divine might play in engaging with the senselessness of death. He is only interested in what he can observe, stating in The Myth of Sisyphus: “What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me? I can understand only in human terms. What I touch, what resists me — that is what I understand.”

Because Camus explicitly excludes religion, he dismisses Christianity outright as a tool for thinking about the absurdity of existence. At this point, he encounters a pitfall. He views the Christian message as simply being concerned with death as a gateway to an afterlife which is enveloped in meaning provided by the divine, and he misses the aspects of Christianity which are interested in the absurdity of death as a definitive endpoint in and of itself, especially as it is experienced by God through Jesus’ historical life and death.

In Volume III.2 of his Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth writes: 

To exist as man is to exist in the order, rationality and logicality which consists in the ruling and serving which so mysteriously pervade the whole work of the Creator with His creation. Only death, i.e., only the end of man’s existence, could destroy and dissolve the order.

Christianity has always been concerned with the fundamental absurdity of death, and the way that death breaks down any framework we could construct to try to rationalize our place in the universe and our relationship with God. In fact, one of the supreme paradoxes of the Christian message is that, through the incarnation, God voluntarily experiences and undergoes the temporal paradox of human existence. Jesus’ incarnation is an event which, in Camus’ terminology, can be “touched.” It is a human life grounded in concrete, historical reality. In the same book, Barth later writes:

Like all men, the man Jesus has His lifetime: the time bounded at one end by His birth and at the other by His death; a fixed span with a particular duration within the duration of created time as a whole; the time for his being as the soul of His body.

If we place Jesus’ grounded, historical life within Camus’ philosophy of death, especially now, as we reflect on Good Friday before experiencing the good news of Easter, we see that Jesus himself lived out and experienced the absurdity of death to its full and final conclusion. His short ministry was arbitrarily and senselessly cut short by human depravity, and it concluded with the executed body of a Palestinian being placed in a tomb. The life of Jesus, bound by his birth and crucifixion, was fundamentally as absurd as every other human life. The stone used to close Jesus’ tomb is the same capstone that will be fixed at the end of my time on Earth. Through Jesus’ historical existence, God’s self experiences and exists in solidarity with the existential fear we experience regarding the horizon of death — God has walked that path before us and alongside us.

Of course, the Christian message does not end at Golgotha, and there will be time to peer into the tomb and see it empty when spring rolls around a few weeks from now and the flowers begin to bloom. But during Lent, surrounded by cold dead trees, I see something beautiful in knowing that the existential absurdity of death, and my desire to run away from it, is something that God experiences and comprehends in the short life and senseless death of Jesus Christ, who paradoxically sits in absurdity alongside of us as Camus’ “privileged brother.”

This certainly doesn’t provide the final answer of the resurrection, but as a frantically neurotic person who is always building castles in the sand and wondering if any of it really matters, the fact that God understands the absurdity of life bounded by death comforts me and offers peace. It allows me to stop and take a deep breath, if only for a moment. In this way Jesus’ life and death is fundamentally, and even absurdly, a Lenten message of good news for the whole world.

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3 responses to “The Absurdity of Death”

  1. Ken says:

    To exist as man is to exist in the order, rationality and logicality which consists in the ruling and serving which so mysteriously pervade the whole work of the Creator with His creation.

    I love this.Thanks, Zack.

  2. Amanda McMillen says:

    augh, Zack, this is beautiful!!!

  3. CJ Green says:

    Currently reading The Plague, because, you know. And this quote stands out to me:

    “our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words, they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences. A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away, and the humanists first of all, because they haven’t taken their precautions…they forgot to be modest, that was all, and thought everything was still possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible. They went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views. How should they have given a thought to anything like plague which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views. They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.”

    I think a lot of that applies to your post, Zack. (And for anyone who hasn’t read, Tara Isabella Burton’s piece at RNS: “…the coronavirus may have a 2% fatality rate. But being alive has a fatality rate of 100%.”)

    In light of all this, your post is a major comfort. Thanks.

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