Theist–Atheist Encounters in Les Misérables, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Plague
2. Naming and Shaming: On Definitions, Identity, and Judgments
3. The Bishop and the Atheist56
In the final analysis, the novel is an extended call to drastic social reform, incorporating memorable passages on the sewers, the housing conditions, the lives of street urchins, the treatment of orphans, the exploitation of the poor by criminals and by the social system. Additionally Hugo sees God as the provident Creator and Sustainer whose will it is that these evils should be cured and whose agent in so doing is the man of prayer and action whose soul has, in the words of the Bishop, been bought back from evil and given to God.58(Gordon is referring, of course, to Jean Valjean)
4. Brothers in Dialogue
To me, Dostoevsky’s Jesus echoes my own Catholic theological vision, rooted in my mature following of liberation theology and in the kind, gentle Jesus taught to me as a child.Seen from Orthodox iconography, the portrait of Jesus that emerges from ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ is unconventional. It is the opposite of Christ Pantocrator or the throned Christ of the Day of Judgement. Instead, we have here a compassionate Jesus among the people and then a submissive, silent prisoner in front of a human judge.95
5. A Doctor and a Priest (and Two Journalists)
While perhaps historically rooted in a choleric epidemic that descended upon Oran after French colonial occupation in 1870, the novel takes place in the 1940s. Both a literal and allegorical reading of the plague is common. Its setting in the 1940s with a Nazi and Communist threat and war resonate. The novel is rooted in a search for meaning and purpose in the context of loss and plague, with the hovering sense that all of life, sooner or later, will succumb to such tragedies. How we respond is of the utmost importance. Both now and then, this eternal question lingers: Is it absurd to care about a human response when there are no gods, no ultimate justice? It is not surprising that Camus’ novel has seen deep rereading in our time of COVID-19.He started gathering material for it in January 1941, when he arrived in Oran, the Algerian coastal city where the story is set. He continued working on the manuscript in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a mountain village in central France where he went to recuperate from one of his periodic bouts of tuberculosis in the summer of 1942. However Camus was soon swept into the Resistance and it was not until the liberation of France that he was able to return his attention to the book.101
It is worth noting that, as Vivienne Blackburn comments, Camus’ desire is “for genuine dialogue” and cooperation with religious believers.103He’s questing and enigmatic, something like Ivan Karamazov, his favorite character in his favorite novel by his favorite author. He’s more indignant over suffering and injustice than hardened in a stance against God. In this, Camus was somewhat in the Samuel Beckett mode: ‘God doesn’t exist, the bastard.’ He still might exist and be a bastard for all he seems to allow.102
6. When Fiction Instructs Life: Lessons for Atheist–Theist Dialogue
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Decline in the Church’s lost power and role in Ireland has been especially evident in the referendums allowing gay marriage (2015) and abortion (2018). While Ireland did see great financial gains in the so-called Celtic Tiger, causes of Church decline have been rooted in Church scandals, from sexual child abuse and cover-up by clergy to the Magdalene Laundries, among other travesties. See, for example, (Ganiel 2016). On religion in Poland since the fall of Communism, see (Ramet and Borowik 2017; Luxmoore 2019).
See, (Whitmarsh 2017, chp. 16).
Name-calling (and much worse) has been far too common among the so-called Abrahamic faiths (for an account challenging the term “Abrahamic”, see (Levenson 2012)). Christians calling Jews “God killers” in the Middle Ages or “vermin” during the Shoah, and slandering Muslims as “heathens”, while Jews and Muslims deemed Christians polytheistic on account of misunderstood Trinitarian belief, was once commonplace. Fortunately, the growth of interreligious dialogue and a deeper understanding of religious pluralism, especially after the 1965 Vatican II document, Nostra Aetate, has been encouraging. See, for example, (Grob and Roth 2012; Berger 2012). On the legacy of Nostra Aetate and interreligious dialogue, see for example, (Cohen et al. 2017).
Intra-Christian violence, a hallmark especially of postreformation Europe, momentarily stalled after the Treaty of Westphalia, then was masked under various national or racist ideologies and imperial aims, not to mention the horrors of WWI and WWII, but has since seen a great decline, even as some lament the stagnant state of ecumenical progress after the great hope of the 1910 World Missionary Conference. For a concise history and proposal for ecumenical growth, see, for example, (Rusch 2019); on the role of women and the ecumenical movement, see (Gnanadason 2020).
See, for example, (Fealy 2017).
Soft, weak, hard, strong, implicit, and explicit: these adjectives placed before “atheism” can mean different things to different atheists. Sometime “weak” or “soft” implies a lack of corresponding belief or any robust conviction in either the existence or nonexistence of deities. While this latter description would normally point to agnosticism, Shoaib Ahmed Malik contends some contemporary atheists have “conflated” agnosticism with atheism. See (Malik 2018). Consider also the issue of global or local atheisms. See, for example, (Diller 2016).
(Haight 2019, p. 14). Haight writes: “In fact, the physics of Newton and Einstein deals with mass rather than matter.”
For an illuminating account of how science learns from failure (and ongoing testing), see (Firestein 2016).
See, for example, (Stenger 2014).
One place to look are atheist or humanist manifestos in which a call to heal the earth or save the poorest of the poor from economic exploitation and death seem little different from moral imperatives from religious institutions. Steven Pinker, for example, contends that reason and science embodied in humanism, and not religion, are what has most improved the quality of life most profoundly in contemporary times and which should be our focus in the future (Pinker 2018). See also (Roberts and Copson 2020).
See (Stedman 2012).
See, for example, (Lindeman et al. 2020).
(Thatamanil 2020, p 156). Contending that American capitalism is also a “comprehensive qualitative orientation”, Thatamanil contends many Christians who practise capitalism are engaged in multiple religious belonging, especially when such economic practises are supported or allowed to hurt the most vulnerable in society (Thatamanil 2020, pp. 187–90).
See, for example, (Hägglund 2019).
On misotheism, see, (Schweizer 2011).
Stephen Bullivant contends that through their “dreams, visions, and gratuitous actions”, Ivan, like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment or Kirillov in The Possessed, imply “that at a deeper level (that of their inner double) they possess a profound and insuperable faith in Christ.” He thus describes them closer to pseudo-atheists or anonymous Christians. See (Bullivant 2008).
Coined by Thomas Huxley in 1869, such a position of learned, but humble unknowing on whether a Divine Being does or does not exist can be of great appeal, even as the position is chided by some atheists and theists for refraining from taking a clear stance. See, for example, (Le Poidevin 2010). A grade between agnostics and theists are deists who believe the universe was created by God who then “withdrew” from the world and so rules out any divine interventions, prayers, or grace. As Charles Taylor and others have argued, the step towards deism heralded the advance of exclusive humanism (Taylor 2007, p. 318). For a history of atheism and its key figures, see (Watson 2014).
On the pervasive need to belong to groups even if doubting the religious or metaphysical tenets, see (Day 2011).
See (Norenzayan 2013, p. 189).
See, for example, (Kosicki 2016). In China, see the amazing book by atheist dissident Liao Yiwu and his interviews and accounts with many religious people persecuted in Communist China, in (Yiwu 2011); for an account of the growth of religions in China despite sporadic (or increasingly, sustained) persecution, see (Johnson 2017). Writing in 2020, evidence for China’s persecution of the Uyghurs (predominately Muslim) in re-education camps is irrefutable. See, for example, (Roberts 2020).
See, for example, (Smith 2019).
See, for example, (Admirand and Fiala 2019).
See, for example, (Admirand 2020c).
See, for example, (Admirand 2014).
On its cultural impact, see (Bellos 2018).
As will be seen below, calling G—an atheist again raises problems of terminology. Additionally worth noting is the Bishop’s earlier dinner with a senator who spouts an atheistic creed. As Bellos argues, through the Bishop’s witty banter, Hugo “slams the door on the fingers of his unbelieving left-wing friends” (Bellos 2018, p. 96).
(Hugo 2009, p. 1). All subsequent citations from Les Misérables will be in the text.
For a good introduction to the writings of Oscar Romero, see, (Romero 2004). For Ellacuría’s impact on Latin American Liberation Theology, see especially his edited collection (Ellacuría and Sobrino 1993; Drexler-Dreis 2019, pp. 136–43). For an accurate, novelistic account of the murder of Ellacuría, along with five fellow Jesuits, their housekeeper and the housekeeper’s daughter, see (Galán 2020).
Debates on the socio-economic standing of Jesus’ family are ongoing. Luke’s Gospel and the well-known nativity tell of “no room in the inn” can be examined in various ways (for a helpful analysis, see (Bailey 2008)). Confer also that Mary and Joseph offer to pay for the sacrifice of turtledoves at their visit to the Temple (Luke 2:24)—such offerings were usually meant for the poor (Leviticus 12:8). Having to flee to Egypt, according to the Gospel of Matthew, would certainly have negatively impacted their economic situation. On the other hand, some may refer to the gifts of the magi at Jesus’ birth and the tradition of Joseph and Jesus as carpenters (Mark 6:3 and Matt 13:55) to contend the term artisan, not peasant, may be more applicable, though the biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan argues that would still position Jesus below peasant farmers. See (Crossan 2009, pp. 28–29). Recent archaeological findings challenge the image of Jesus as a peasant preaching in a pastoral backwater. Of note is the recent archeological discoveries in Nazareth and Sephorris, a sophisticated urban city, only four miles away from where Jesus grew up (see, for example, (Dark 2020)). In regard to Ignatius, after convalescing at Manressa from his battle wounds and determined to spend the rest of his life for Christ, Ignatius famously tried to give all of his possessions away and even exchanged his sumptuous clothes for a beggar—though the beggar was later arrested on suspicion of stealing and so Ignatius had to announce his good deed to clear the beggar’s name. St Thomas Aquinas, as St Francis of Assisi, also came from wealth and sought to give everything to the poor—both against their family’s wishes.
Meister Eckhart’s theology is richly robed in apophatic statements of God, and a contemplative yearning to become one with God, seemingly dissolving and perfecting our self though becoming divine. He had some of his tenets condemned for heresy in 1329 by Pope John XXII in the bull “In agro dominico”, though recent attempts to rehabilitate him during the Papacy of John Paul II were met with claims that such rehabilitation of his overall stature in the Church was not needed. More recently, he is seen as a bridge to Christian–Buddhist dialogue; for example, with his call for detachment and denial of the self. See (Radler 2006).
(Dostoyevsky 2004). All subsequent citations from The Brothers Karamazov will be in the text.
For an illuminating account of Sonya’s radical hospitality through her reading of the raising of Lazarus to Raskolnikov, see (Izmirlieva 2020).
See (Dwyer 2012). Dwyer examines the multi-ethnic and religious depictions of the characters in the novel, showcasing Dostoevsky’s growing awareness of the diversity of people within the Russian Empire. She also highlights what he came to see as his own new awareness of the narod, the Russian people. Interestingly, Gary Rosenshield, referring to the novel as semi-autobiographical, notes “it contains remarkable descriptions of the religious character, behaviour, and practice of Jews, Christians, and Muslims [and] can be counted as one of the few major works of nineteenth-century fiction that portray the religious practices of all the Abrahamic faiths”. See (Rosenshield 2006, p. 581). He contends its openness to other means of salvation besides the Russian Orthodox Church is rejected by the time Dostoevsky writes The Brothers Karamazov.
(Frank 1966, p. 779). As Frank adds, Dostoevsky, in a beautiful letter in February 1854 to “Natalya Fonvizina, “the cultivated and deeply religious wife of an exiled Decembrist”, acknowledged his deep periods of doubt and unbelief, but having had moments of connection with God, contends that even if shown belief in Christ was a lie, he would still “remain with Christ rather than the truth” (ibid., p. 803). See also (Williams 2009, pp. 14–17).
(Dostoyevsky 1985, p. 340). As Joseph Frank reminds us, though, it was really Dostoevsky’s new insights in how Christianity’s moral grounding and life pervaded the camps and “helped to mitigate some of its inhumanity” that it convinced him Christianity could not be replaced without great harm to Russian society. See (Frank 2010, pp. 211–12).
See, for example, (Frank 2010, pp. 47–49).
For a helpful literary and theological account of Dostoevsky’s writings, see (Williams 2009, p. 28).
See (McCord Adams 1999, p. 165).
See (Gutiérrez 2002).
Surprisingly, Primo Levi wrote he profited little from his reading of Dostoevsky.
See, for example, (Sahni 1986). Sahni writes: “Russia in the war against Turkey in 1877 is seen as a saviour of the Slav people still under the yoke of Turkey. The war assumes the proportions of a crusade. Dostoevsky becomes more and more intolerant of non-Christian peoples and nations. The decision by the Russian Government to forcibly evict the Crimean Tartars is fully approved by the writer, who fears that if the Russians do not move in it will be the Jews”, with Sahni adding that Dostoevsky’s “anti-Semitic leanings are well known” (Sahni 1986, p. 42). Regarding Circassians as victims of genocide committed by the Russians in the 19th century, see (Richmond 2013). Finally, Alexis Heraclides and Ada Dialla highlight crimes committed by “irregular” Bashibazouks (mercenary soldiers of the Ottoman Empire) and Circassians (“refugees from Russia”) sent to Bulgaria to “terrorize the population into submission” on account of a recent uprising in 1876. Estimates of the Bulgarian dead vary widely among the Ottoman and Bulgarian sources, from up to 3000 victims according to the former, and 100,000 by the latter. See (Heraclides and Dialla 2015, pp. 150–51).
See, for example, (Gretton 2019).
The question of the inherent goodness of human nature is a standard belief in Christianity—even if various churches demure on how or to what extent original sin has corrupted human beings. For an atheist’s account of our inherent compassion and solidarity (also echoing here the Dalai Lama), see (Bregman 2020, p. 314).
For an analysis on the question of the unforgivable act in The Brothers Karamazov, see (Murphy 2014, pp. 181–214).
(Lawrence 1955, p. 239). Lawrence notes he initially dismissed The Brothers Karamazov and especially the Grand Inquisitor section as “a piece of showing off”, but had since reread the novel two times, and “each time found it more depressing because, alas, more drearily true to life” (ibid., p. 233).
(Beauchamp 2007, p. 137). The main thrust of the article is to show the parallels of the story with Plato’s Republic, both of which reveal sadistic atrocities abutted by attempts to create utopias.
(van den Bercken 2011, p. 86). Den Bercken also writes: “Although the picture of Jesus, sketched here by Dostoevsky, does not fit into Orthodox iconography, it does fit into nineteenth century representation of Jesus, manifested in popular Catholic and Protestant pictures for religious education and in Russian romantic painting (A. Ivanov, I. Kramskoy)” (ibid., p. 86).
Contrary to the claim that Smerdyakov is a mere tool of Ivan, Vladimir Kantor warns that “If we endorse the point of view on Smerdyakov that he is a passive murderer…in someone else’s hand, a person merely carrying out Ivan’s plan, then we will enter naturally into a contradiction with the poetic and worldview-shaping concepts that govern Dostoevsky’s cosmos, a cosmos resting on the fact that each person bears full responsibility for his or her own acts, regardless of the social level from which he comes and no matter how undeveloped he may be”. See (Kantor 2009, p. 190). For Kantor, Smerdyakov is Ivan’s tempter. As Caryl Emerson pens Smerdyakov is “an active force for evil at work on a delicate, corruptible, still undecided soul”. See (Emerson 2009, p. 223).
Rowan Williams helpfully shows how the Story of the Grand inquisitor is not unresolved but has its themes addressed in the “life and teaching of Zosima” in the sixth book of the novel and “Ivan’s encounter with the Devil in chapter nine of book 11” (Williams 2009, p. 29).
See, for example, (Admirand 2008).
(Camus 1975). All subsequent citations from The Plague will be in the text.
The Jesuits had been suppressed by Pope Clement XIV and then later restored by Pope Pius VII in August of 1814, shortly before the opening of Les Misérables. Jesuits receive a few passing references in the novel.
While I focus below on a scene (the death of a child from the plague) which Gene Fendt calls one “of the classics of the anti-theistic argument from evil”, I acknowledge his sharper retort that only seeing the antitheistic layer “suffers from an incomplete evaluation of Paneloux’s sermons, and is blind to the Augustinian substructure of the novel, which reveals that something more divine is present and active.” See (Fendt 2020, p. 471).
See, for example, the poems of RS Thomas, many of which show the local, country priest having to confront the daily reality of death in his parish.
See (Camus 2005, p. 62).
David Stromberg writes that the “old Jesuit priest Father Paneloux” resembles the sketch of a “young priest who loses his faith”, in Camus’ early notes on the novel. See (Stromberg 2018, p. 58).
See, for example, (Flood 2020).
For the best account of post-Shoah Jewish theology, see (Katz et al. 2007).
(Case and Deaton 2020, p. 176). Case and Deaton note, however, that the lack of a religious community is one factor that the poor whites under their discussion have grown in isolation, and so deaths of despair.
For commentary, see (Vetlovskaya 2011, p. 686).
For a reasoned overview, see (Davies 2011).
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Admirand, P. Theist–Atheist Encounters in Les Misérables, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Plague. Religions 2021, 12, 12. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12010012
Admirand P. Theist–Atheist Encounters in Les Misérables, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Plague. Religions. 2021; 12(1):12. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12010012Chicago/Turabian Style
Admirand, Peter. 2021. "Theist–Atheist Encounters in Les Misérables, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Plague" Religions 12, no. 1: 12. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12010012