One of the matters I am paying close attention to this semester, as I prepare for a sabbatical semester in the fall and my book project on the teaching life, is the ways in which the texts I am teaching have shaped me as both a college professor and a person. One of the courses I am teaching this semester is the fourth of a four-semester sequence required of all frewhmen and sophomores at my college as the heart of their core curriculu. This course is an interdisciplinary and team-taught exploration of the history, literature, theology, philosophy, and art–the fourth semester explores the twentieth and twenty-first centuries through these interdisciplinary lenses. Our seminar text for Monday’s seminar is Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway–this novel introduces a number of themes that will be central in many of the texts we focus on this semester.
Mrs. Dalloway is a creative and post-modern presentation of just another day in between-the-world-wars London through the eyes, stream of consciousness, and thoughts of Clarissa Dalloway. Clarissa is a fifty-something upper-middle class woman who is throwing a party that evening. . Her daughter’s history tutor observes that Clarissa “came from the most worthless of all classes—the rich, with a smattering of culture.” There’s no particular reason for the party—she just likes planning and hosting parties. Clarissa’s husband Richard and others often ask her why she throws such parties—her reflections on this question raise an issue that was more and more pressing for millions of people post-World War I. As Iris Murdoch phrased it, What can we do now that there is no God? In a world in which it is more and more difficult to believe in a good God, how is one to live?
Clarissa’s short answer to the question about halfway through the novel is that over time she had “evolved this atheist’s religion of doing good for the sake of goodness.” She doesn’t need to believe in God in order to recognize the “exquisite moments” that she unexpectedly encounters daily; such moments are sufficient reason to be generous in seeking to create similar moments for others. Later an old friend. Peter Walsh, is thinking about Clarissa and describes deeper reasons for her commitment to goodness.
Oddly enough, she was one of the most thorough-going skeptics he had ever met . . . As the whole thing is a bad joke, let us, at any rate, do our part . . . decorate the dungeon with flowers and air-cushions; be as decent as we possibly can. Those ruffians, the Gods, shan’t have it all their own way—her notion being that the Gods, who never lost a chance of hurting, thwarting, and spoiling human lives were seriously put out if, all the same, you behaved like a lady.
Close to two decades later, as World War II was raging, Albert Camus developed a similar position in his philosophical essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” (which we will be reading in the same interdisciplinary course later this semester). How is one to imagine moral behavior and inspiration in a world without God?
Camus argues that the motivation for such a life begins with facing things as they are and accepting no excuses or exits of consolation. We live in an absurd world—but that does not eliminate the possibility of moral commitment.
The absurd man thus catches sight of a burning and frigid, transparent and limited universe in which nothing is possible but everything is given, and beyond which all is collapse and nothingness. He can then decide to accept such a universe and draw from it his strength, his refusal to hope, and the unyielding evidence of a life without consolation.
One can choose to live without consoling and comforting stories. Toward the end of his essay, Camus imagines Oedipus, old and blind, ravaged throughout his life by forces beyond his control. Rather than despair, Oedipus choose otherwise.
“I conclude that all is well,” says Oedipus, and that remark is sacred. It echoes in the wild and limited universe of man. It teaches that all is not, has not been, exhausted. It drives out of this world a god who had come into it with dissatisfaction and a preference for futile sufferings. It makes of fate a human matter, which must be settled among men.
A central issue in my ethics courses over the years has always been whether moral behavior is connected in any essential way to belief in something greater than ourselves. Many, perhaps, most, people of faith assume that it is. If one believes, for instance, that human nature is fundamentally flawed (call it “original sin,” if you like), then moral goodness in a human life must be energized with divine assistance. Yet students, many of whom have been taught something like this for their whole lives, know intuitively that “moral atheist” is not an oxymoron. Although moral goodness can be placed within a framework of faith, does it have to be?
A Jewish friend and colleague told me a number of years ago that Judaism is the only monotheistic religion in which one can be both a faithful member and an atheist. It struck me as an obvious overstatement at the time, but over the years I have returned to her observation, because it says something very interesting both about Judaism and faith in general. As I’ve learned more and more about Judaism over the years, my friend’s comment has made more sense. Judaism is an “orthopraxic” faith, one based on right practice rather than on right belief, on which orthodox religions tend to focus. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth who died in 2020, once said in an interview,
[Jews] believe in salvation every day. We believe that salvation comes through good deeds. Not through faith. That’s not to say that God isn’t the fundamental motivation why you do things. But we believe that we have a personal responsibility for our actions and accountability to God . . . Jews believe that God expects you to do good in the world. That you are His partner.
Partnership with God is a significantly different perspective than obedience to the divine. Reflecting on this over time has incrementally changed how I conceive of my Christian faith.
Another twentieth century figure who plays a central role in two of my classes this semester is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazis in 1945 for his role in a failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler. The execution took place less than a month before the end of World War II. Bonhoeffer spent close to two years in prison before his execution; his letters from prison sketch a very different understanding of Christianity than the Protestantism that he was taught and that he preached in his younger years. In a letter to his friend Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer writes
God would have us know that we must live as people who manage our lives without God. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually.
Bonhoeffer also writes that
Our being Christians today will be limited to two things: prayer and action for justice on behalf of people. All Christian thinking, speaking, and organizing must be born anew out of this prayer and action.
It is passages such as these that cause people to say that Bonhoeffer was imagining a “religionless Christianity” as he awaited his death in prison. Sort of like my friend’s “atheistic Judaism”—out of the traditional box, but food for thought.
Moral behavior does not depend on believing in the existence of something greater or beyond what is right in front of us. For those who are persons of faith, Rabbi Sacks reminds us that we are partners with the divine on a daily basis, even if we are thoroughly confused and uncertain about the exact nature of what or whom one is partnering with. Sacks often spoke of “a margin of mystery,” something beyond what our categories can comprehend. It is in that margin where much of faith resides. Among other things, recognizing the margin of mystery opens the door to continual surprise, frequently from sources one does not expect.
One of the ways God surprises us is by letting a Jew or a Christian discover the trace of God’s presence in a Buddhist monk or a Sikh tradition of hospitality or the graciousness of Hindu life. You know, don’t think we can confine God into our categories. God is bigger than religion.