One of my favorite authors is philosopher Dallas Willard. He once said that, “meaning is one of the greatest needs of human life, one of the deepest hungers, and perhaps in the final analysis, the most basic need in the realm of human experience.”
Human beings are driven by a deep sense of meaning and belonging. The early Greek philosophers taught that all human beings are telic creatures. “Telic” comes from the Greek word “telos” or “telikos,” which means “purpose.” They believed that we are all purpose-driven, meaning-seeking creatures.
In my most recent book, Reflections on the Existence of God, there is a fascinating essay on the life of Albert Camus, one of the most celebrated atheists in the twentieth century. I tell the story of how he changed his mind about atheism. I have had people tell me how shocked they were to learn this. I am sure many of his fans were shocked as well. Camus could not live with his atheistic worldview that believed life is ultimately empty and meaningless.
Below you will find the essay from the book.
I remember in my freshman year in college, back in the 1970s, in an introductory philosophy class, one of the required books to read was Albert Camus’ The Stranger. I recently listened to a sermon by Tim Keller, and he said that when he was a college student in the 1960s, he took a course where Camus’s book The Myth of Sisyphus was required reading. Author and scholar Nancy Pearcey studied in Germany in the 1970s. She said existentialism was wildly popular among university students in Europe. She said all of her classmates were avid readers of Albert Camus. Clearly, he was quite the popular author on college campuses during these turbulent times, and his philosophy filtered down and shaped the lives of many of these young people.
Albert Camus was a French philosopher, author, and journalist. He won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1957, but not for any particular work, because the award is based on the author’s body of work as a whole. He was truly a celebrity figure, with a huge following on college campuses where he would often go and lecture.
Camus is considered by many to be an existential philosopher because most of his philosophy focused on existential questions. His atheistic worldview caused him to explore what he called “the absurdity of life.” He considered life to be absurd because it was void of meaning, and it is void of meaning because there is no God to give it meaning. He also argued that human life is rendered meaningless because of death, which prevents anyone to make sense of their earthly existence.
Camus believed there was no God, no meaning, and therefore we create our own meaning by throwing ourselves into life and challenging the futility of our earthly existence. It seems Camus never could shake the issue of meaning, which he realized was life’s most fundamental issue.
What most people don’t know is that Albert Camus had a change of heart the year before he was killed in a car crash.
Howard Mumma was a Methodist minister in the United States. For several years, he would spend the summer in Paris preaching at an English-speaking church. One Sunday morning, he noticed that the celebrated philosopher Albert Camus was sitting in one of the pews. They met and struck up a friendship. Camus clearly was searching for answers, and he now seemed to realize that meaning and purpose has to be endowed by God.
The conversation below is from Howard Mumma’s book Albert Camus and the Minister. It begins with Mumma speaking to Camus:
MUMMA: You have said to me again and again that you’re dissatisfied with the whole philosophy of existentialism and that you are privately seeking something that you do not have.
CAMUS: Yes, you are exactly right, Howard. The reason I have been coming to church is because I am seeking. I’m almost on a pilgrimage—seeking something to fill the void that I am experiencing—and no one else knows. Certainly, the public and the readers of my novels, while they see that void, are not finding the answers in what they are reading. But deep down, you are right—I am searching for something that the world is not giving me.
MUMMA: Albert, I congratulate you for this. I think that I want to encourage you to keep searching for a meaning and something that will fill the void and transform your life. Then you will arrive in living waters where you will find meaning and purpose.
CAMUS: Well, Howard, you have to agree that in a sense we are all products of a mundane world, a world without spirit. The world in which we live and the lives which we live are decidedly empty.
MUMMA: It does often seem that way, I concede.
CAMUS: Since I have been coming to church, I have been thinking a great deal about the idea of a transcendent, something that is other than this world. It is something that you do not hear much about today, but I am finding it. I am hearing about it here, in Paris, within the walls of the American Church. After all, one of the basic teachings that I learned from Sartre is that man is alone. We are solitary centers of the universe. Perhaps we ourselves are the only ones who have ever asked the great questions of life. Perhaps, since Nazism, we are also the ones who have loved and lost and who are, therefore, fearful of life. That is what led us to existentialism. And since I have been reading the Bible, I sense that there is something—I don’t know if it is personal or if it is a great idea or powerful influence—but there is something that can bring meaning to my life. I certainly don’t have it, but it is there. On Sunday mornings, I hear that the answer is God.
At the very end of the book, Mumma is explaining to Camus God’s forgiveness of sins and the necessity to have your slate washed clean in order to have a relationship with God. Mumma then says:
“I don’t know what the French term would be for a bond or an encumbrance, but the person who accepts forgiveness now believes that there is no mortgage, no encumbrance on you. The slate is clear, your conscience is clear. You are ready to move ahead and commit yourself to a new life, a new spiritual pilgrimage. You are seeking the presence of God Himself.”
I was nervous and intense. Albert looked me squarely in the eye and with tears in his eyes, said,
“Howard, I am ready. I want this. This is what I want to commit my life to.”
This was in the summer of 1959, just before Mumma returned to the States. Camus met the minister at the airport, and as he was about to board the plane they hugged and Camus said to Mumma, “My friend, mon cheri, thank you…I am going to keep striving for the Faith.”
Four months later, on January 4, 1960, Albert Camus died in a car crash. At the time, he was one of the most famous Frenchmen alive. He had a huge following. However, most of them never knew, nor probably would believe, that he turned from the meaninglessness of atheism to a life of purpose that is found in Christ.
Albert Camus reveled early in his life as a famous and celebrated atheistic author and speaker. He had a great following of young people who fully embraced his teaching on “the absurdity of life.” As I read Mumma’s book it struck me that Camus found his atheistic worldview to be unlivable. He could not live with his belief that life is ultimately empty, meaningless, and absurd. He recognized he had this deep thirst for meaning, and had the courage and the humility to be willing to abandon the atheistic philosophy that made him famous and begin a search for the truth. His search led him to God.