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Spring 2011 · Vol. 40 No. 1 · pp. 51–64 

Faith, Fiction, and Skepticism: Transcendence in Flannery O’Connor, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Albert Camus

Justin Neufeld

In his recent study of Dostoevsky’s fiction, Rowan Williams asserts that the question is not whether God exists but what is the nature of God’s relation with the world. He makes this remark with an eye on the debate over the existence of God that has intensified in recent years, and what he is driving at is the shallowness of much of the writing on this subject. On the one hand, the “new atheists” are generally incapable of seeing that it is a fearful thing to fall out of the hands of the living God. They blithely assume the stability of our moral sense and reserve their serious questioning for the matter of whether the evidence warrants adding one more being—this one a Supreme one—to the cosmos. On the other hand, those who have responded to the “new atheists” have typically adopted these terms of the debate, arguing that there are compelling reasons for belief in God. They thus fail to notice the most compelling reason for unbelief, namely, that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God for he does not claim a corner of the cosmos but every inch. This essay examines three novelists who give serious consideration to what a life of faith and a life of unbelief involve and how the art of fiction writing relates to these two commitments: Flannery O’Connor, Albert Camus, and Fyodor Dostoevsky.

. . . the center of the novel is the drama of the human personality as it encounters the mystery present in every reach of reality, from the world of social convention and manners to the world of nature.


Flannery O’Connor once said of her work as a writer, “. . . the major part of my task is to make everything, even an ultimate concern, as solid, as concrete, as specific as possible. The novelist begins his work where human knowledge begins—with the senses.” 1 She echoes these sentiments when she writes, “The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and the fiction writer begins where human perception begins. He appeals through the senses, and you cannot appeal to the senses with abstractions.” 2

This emphasis on perception and the senses in the art of the novelist recurs throughout O’Connor’s prose writings, and she means something very specific by it. She is not referring to the mind’s collection of facts about the world via the senses. Nor is she making an oblique reference to the place of concepts, pre-judgments, and historical circumstance in shaping vision. Both of these characterizations of knowledge’s beginning radically shorten the depth and reach of the human spirit. For O’Connor, the human is a moral-spiritual being that lives off its sense of being in touch with the divine. Knowledge begins in our awakening to the transcendent dimension of the human personality, and this awakening, O’Connor maintains, happens only through the senses.

This understanding of perception reaches back as far as Plato, who insisted that matter has the capacity to communicate spiritual verities to those willing to see beyond mere appearances. In O’Connor’s judgment, a realistic novel is one that communicates the communicative power of the world we receive through the senses, and this often requires what she calls “a reasonable use of the unreasonable.” For instance, she considers Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, the story of a man who wakes to find that he has turned into a cockroach, a realistic novel. “The fact is that this story describes the dual nature of man in such a realistic fashion that it is almost unbearable. The truth is not distorted here, but rather, a certain distortion is used to get at the truth. If we admit, as we must, that appearance is not the same thing as reality, then we must give the artist the liberty to make certain rearrangements of nature if these will lead to greater depths of vision.” 3

Likewise, readers of O’Connor’s fiction know that they are not receiving a straightforward journalistic or sociological account of religious life in the American south. In the hard-edged, immoderate characters and settings that O’Connor creates, what they are receiving is O’Connor’s attempt to create worlds that help us discern the lines of spiritual motion in our own. In an oft-quoted phrase, O’Connor says that “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” 4 The dumbness she is referring to is the widespread conviction “that the reaches of reality end very close to the surface,” 5 a conviction that burdens the fiction writer with certain responsibilities.

When I write a novel in which the central action is a baptism, I am very well aware that for a majority of my readers, baptism is a meaningless rite, and so in my novel I have to see that this baptism carries enough awe and mystery to jar the reader into some kind of emotional recognition of its significance. To this end I have to bend the whole novel—its language, its structure, its action. I have to make the reader feel, in his bones if nowhere else, that something is going on here that counts. . . . This is not the kind of distortion that destroys; it is the kind that reveals, or should reveal. 6

For O’Connor, then, the center of the novel is the drama of the human personality as it encounters the mystery present in every reach of reality, from the world of social convention and manners to the world of nature. Not surprisingly, O’Connor repeatedly singles out Manichaean-type habits of thought as the enemy of both this understanding of the beginning of knowledge and of fiction writing. The Manichaeans postulated a cosmic moral-physical dualism wherein the substance of human willing was improved the more it was removed from body. However, this makes fiction hard if not impossible to write, O’Connor contends, because fiction writing is an incarnational art. “The fiction writer has to realize that he can’t create compassion with compassion, or emotion with emotion, or thought with thought. He has to provide all these things with a body; he has to create a world with weight and extension.” 7 Moreover, though the Manichaeans sought to protect and preserve what is noble in humans, their separation of spiritual aspiration from material substance deeply undermined this effort. This is because our spiritual aspirations cannot be sustained when we believe them to be unreciprocated and unsubstantiated by the world we find ourselves in. “When the physical fact is separated from the spiritual reality, the dissolution of belief is eventually inevitable.” 8 Significantly, O’Connor asserts that fiction is the best response to this privatization and domestication of spirit. “Fiction, made according to its own laws, is an antidote for such a tendency, for it renews our knowledge that we live in the mystery from which we draw our abstractions.” 9

Hopefully it is clear that the laws O’Connor is referring to cannot be stated abstractly. She writes that “discussing story-writing in terms of plot, character, and theme is like trying to describe the expression on a face by saying where the eyes, nose, and mouth are.” 10 In place of formulaic understandings such as this, she says that a story “is a way to say something that can’t be said in any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.” 11 The measure of a novel is simply whether it “truthfully portrays the aspect of reality is sets out to portray.” 12 In this task, O’Connor maintains that the Christian is well equipped. This is because Christian dogma guards and respects mystery. Without absolute values, the temptation is to absolutize the relative, which paralyzes observation by shortening its depth and reach. However, “the Catholic fiction writer feels no call to take on the duties of God or to create a new universe. He feels perfectly free to look at the one we already have and to show exactly what he sees. . . . For him, to ‘tidy up reality’ is certainly to succumb to the sin of pride.” 13 The dogmatic anchor here is not only belief in God’s creating and sustaining presence but also belief in his redemptive presence. “The Catholic writer, insofar as he has the mind of the church, will feel life from the standpoint of the central Christian mystery: that it has, for all its horror, been found by God to be worth dying for. But this should enlarge, not narrow, his field of vision.” 14


Albert Camus largely agrees with O’Connor concerning the aims of fiction, but he disagrees on the help Christianity gives to achieving those aims. The writer, he says, is devoted first and foremost to the concrete, but Christian teachings about God’s creating, sustaining, and redeeming purposes are, in the end, an obstacle to this goal. The drama of human freedom is the primary concern of the novelist, but the true breadth and depth of this drama is not seen when Christ is beheld. Before we get to these differences, however, it is important to register the extent of their similarity. Camus is as unfriendly as O’Connor to the modern tendency to domesticate the human spirit and deny it its unique concerns. For Camus, there is an irreducible difference between humans and other creatures, and this difference lies in the character of our consciousness. We raise the question of life’s meaning. This is not an incidental feature of our identity. It is at the root of who we are. Indeed, for Camus as for O’Connor, we misunderstand ourselves unless we understand death as the contradiction of our existence.

A detour helps bring this truth out. The Death of Ivan Ilych is Leo Tolstoy’s account of one man’s struggle to face his own death. The root of the struggle is a contest between two “realisms,” the first of which is presented by Ivan’s colleagues Shvarts and Pyotr Ivanovich. The short story begins at the end. Arriving at Ivan’s home for the funeral, Pyotr Ivanovich is pleased to find Shvarts already there. The reason is that death provokes an uncomfortable introspection in Pyotr, and Shvarts rescues him from this burden by condemning it as proud. Shvarts does not say anything remotely like this directly, but it is communicated in his manner. He spends his time with Pyotr discussing their weekly bridge game scheduled for that evening, and he does not enter the room when the service starts so that he—unlike Pyotr, who does—will not miss it. The message is unspoken, but clear: “Don’t be too taken-in, friend. It happens to us all. No need to be morbid. No need to give in to depressing influences.” For Shvarts, death is not an ordeal that you must prepare for. Such anthropomorphizing and individualizing language is given the lie precisely by death for it is no respecter of persons. It does not come for you—don’t flatter yourself. It just comes, and you just happen to be in the way.

This is the position Ivan effectively holds, and the suffering of his death lies in the fact that death is so uncooperative with this position. While the physical pain of his sickness is isolating, his existential isolation is even more penetrating for he finds himself alone, facing the question Shvarts condemns: What are my obligations? Ivan is led to ask this question because, as his illness intensifies, he finds that “all that had seemed joys to him . . . now melted away before his eyes and were transformed into something trivial, even disgusting.” 15 This process of finding his former joys to be worthless and uncertain proves to be the most agonizing pain. The essential problem is that if life were truly senseless—if “all realities are carried up and down, just like things fluctuating in the Euripus” 16—our memories would not reproach us. Why, Ivan asks, does life object to itself if it is senseless? “ ‘What for? It cannot be! It cannot be that life has been so senseless, so loathsome? And if it really was so loathsome and senseless, then why die, and die in agony? There’s something wrong.’ ” 17

Over his final days, Ivan has the recurring feeling of being thrust into a black sack by an “unseen resistless force.” He struggles fiercely against this force, yet every moment brings him nearer to what terrifies him. And yet, the pain of the struggle is ambiguous. “He felt that his agony was due both to his being thrust into this black hole and still more to his not being able to get right into it.” The cause of the latter is his settled conscience, his conviction that he has done everything as it should be done. “The justification of his life held him fast and would not let him go forward, and it caused him more agony than all.” 18 In his final hours, the logic of his life becomes transparent to Ivan. Estranged from the eternal and so despairing over himself and earthly things, his relations with others had been superficial—courteous and respectful, bitter and rivalrous, by turns. Deprived of inner substance, he was constantly becoming a “new man” 19 and depriving others of their substance in turn; like Shvarts, he participated in the con of the power-game and condemned as proud any man who thought enough of himself to refuse it. Yet when death arrived, it was he who stamped his feet at the injustice of its interruption. Now, however, at the end, he realizes that he has immodestly, and for his own purposes, presumed death’s meaning. For the most part, death terrorized him during his illness because it both gave the lie to his own power while also confirming his (formerly) self-serving judgment that the power-game is where the truth lies. But now Ivan sees death’s isolation not as the truth about life but as a sign of our estrangement from the eternal and something that must be faced in its power. In his final hours he asks forgiveness of his wife and son and enters fully the black sack.

As noted, there is much that Camus would approve of in Ivan. However, Camus would also find The Death of Ivan Ilych too sanitized. In Camus’ judgment, Ivan cannot find rest in the eternal without comprehending the relationship of the eternal to the entirety of human suffering. The suffering of innocent children, and the stupid, indiscriminate, and gratuitous waste of disease must be confronted if he is to maintain his concern to attend to his own and others moral-spiritual integrity without duplicity or evasion.

Here I am speaking for Camus, but what I am saying is well within the bounds of what we find in The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus’ essay on the confrontation between “the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart” and “the unreasonable silence of the world.” 20 Camus assumes the truth of this antinomy. His concern in The Myth of Sisyphus is for its consequences: “Does [life’s] absurdity require one to escape it through hope or suicide—that is what must be clarified, hunted down, and elucidated while brushing aside all the rest.” 21 His answer is “no” to both. Suicide is an act that contradicts itself. While it is done in the name of revolt against life’s meaninglessness, it is not revolt enough because ultimately it gives in. It lets one pole of the relationship that constitutes the absurd, the unreasonable silence of the world, have the final and decisive say. 22 Hope violates the absurd as well. In making this point, Camus spends much of his time battling Kierkegaard. His complaint is that while Kierkegaard apprehends the conflicted character of life, its tension and pain, he then makes these things the criteria of faith by condemning the demand for clarity as sinful, the working of a proud heart. For Camus, proper humility rejects the sacrifice of the intellect that Kierkegaardian faith demands because the future reconciliation it embraces in hope insults and turns a blind eye to the suffering we see now. The leap of faith is self-serving: together with reason we sacrifice these others for ourselves. 23


In the penultimate chapter of The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus brings these reflections to bear on the art of the novelist. Of artistic forms, Camus finds the novel the most interesting and important. This is because it can both rise the highest and fall the lowest. Its fall consists in its failure to resist the temptation to explain and to arouse false hope. Its rise consists in its loyalty to the concrete. “The work of art is born of the intelligence’s refusal to reason the concrete. It marks the triumph of the carnal. . . . It will not yield to the temptation of adding to what is described a deeper meaning that it knows to be illegitimate. . . . The absurd work requires an artist conscious of these limitations and an art in which the concrete signifies nothing more than itself.” 24 In Dostoevsky, Camus believes he finds an artist who both fulfills and betrays the artistic task. The fulfillment is found in the atheism of Ivan Karamazov, whose case against God rests on the terrible suffering in the world. Conversing with his brother, the novice monk Alyosha, Ivan presents his record of suffering drawn from the headlines. The examples he gives are terrible—babies torn from their mother’s wombs and thrown in the air to land on bayonets, a child set upon by a general’s wolfhounds for accidentally hurting the paw of one of his dogs. Perhaps the most distressing is the story of a five-year-old girl sent to sleep in a freezing outhouse, with feces spread on her face and stuffed in her mouth, for wetting her bed. According to Ivan, not only is the Edenic gift of free will not worth the sufferings of this child, but nothing in the future can possibly redeem them. No higher harmony is worth her tears, and no amount of torment her tormenters might receive can erase or undo that night. Ivan insists that he wants harmony more than anything, but he sees no way justice can be done to the sufferings of this child if there is. There is no way these parallel lines can acceptably meet. “I don’t want harmony, for love of mankind I don’t want it. . . . And therefore I hasten to return my ticket.” 25

Unfortunately, according to Camus, Dostoevsky betrays the existential integrity of Ivan with the character of Alyosha. At the close of The Brothers Karamazov Alyosha is asked by a group of children, “Karamazov, can it really be true as religion says, that we shall all rise from the dead, and come to life, and see one another again?” Alyosha answers, “Certainly, we shall rise, certainly we shall see and gladly, joyfully tell one another all that has been.” Thus Ivan is defeated, Camus writes. About The Brothers Karamazov, Camus offers this final estimation: “Here is a work which, in a chiaroscuro more gripping than the light of day, permits us to seize man’s struggle against his hopes. Having reached the end, the creator makes his choice against his characters. That contradiction thus allows us to make a distinction. It is not an absurd work that is involved here, but a work that propounds the absurd problem.” 26


Between O’Connor and Camus, then, we have a simple but fundamental confrontation. Both assert that the task of the novelist is to truthfully portray the aspect of reality she sets out to portray, and both assert that this attention and fidelity to the concrete must encompass the mystery of human freedom and the incompleteness of earthly life. Where they part ways concerns the help faith in Christ gives to this task. I want to press this issue further by examining Ivan Karamazov’s prose poem of the Grand Inquisitor, a poem that he shares with Alyosha immediately after presenting his file of human suffering.

Before we get to it, however, we must first observe a glaring difficulty in Camus’ reasoning, namely, his contentment to affirm humanity’s transcendent dimension without investigating its source. As O’Connor notes, spiritual aspirations cannot be maintained in the absence of material support; when the spirit is compartmentalized in this way, it is not long before we are convinced that it is not worth our time. Plato says the same thing. We do not provide any more sense to our lives by narrating our love of goodness and our hatred of death in reductionist, naturalistic terms, and what we lose by doing so is permission to embrace this tension as essential to our humanity. To that end, what Plato wants us to see is that the contingency of a thing is not more fundamental than the character of its contingency. What stands before us are not simply perishable things that, at the most, turn our thoughts to the imperishable. What stands before us are goods, things with the privilege of communicating, in their own particular way, a portion of the goodness of the Good beyond being. In other words, the goodness of things is their “speech,” which points us to a Good—not a bare, pallid, indifferent, inarticulate power—beyond our speaking. Without this Good, and without its real reflection in the matter that surrounds us, our protest against suffering, death, and the subordination of persons to causes is without anchor and root, and thus the tension that Camus wants to maintain is dissolved.

However, while Plato affirms a Good beyond being, we do not find him protesting the sufferings of children and finding in them grounds for rejecting this Good. Amidst the deterioration and decay of matter, which is no respecter of persons, our task is to keep the eye of our soul on the higher things and not forsake the imperishable Good for the sake of goods that are sovereign over neither their coming nor their going. There is no way we might hold the Good in contempt either because of the waste of disease or because of the abuse people have suffered at the hands of those who have forsaken their souls by imagining death to be the greatest of all evils: who are we to bring the Good down to earth by demanding that our transitory bodies not pass away and that we, who are changeable by nature, might be unchangeably good? Plato would find our fascination with denying either God’s goodness or his power on account of the suffering in the world a telling indication of the immaturity of our spirits. Instead of expressing a thirst for the transfiguration of our spirit in the fullness of the divine life, this “dilemma” expresses a thirst to be rid of ourselves as spirit: if only earthly life can be made comfortable, good-natured, and—even better—unending, then we will no longer be burdened with the thought of relating all things to the ground of being.

The suffering of children only becomes a problem with Christianity. To be sure, Plato makes the individual extremely important. Whereas animals participate in the Good in the context of their species—it is in successful reproduction and propagation that the animal finds its interest—with humans it is different. We desire to participate in the Good as individuals; we want, that is, to be immortal and infinite not in and through the species but in ourselves. Yet Christianity goes even further than this. It is one thing to say that we stand before the Good as that part of the cosmos with the privilege of being able to participate consciously in it. It is altogether another thing to say that the Good brings us to stand before it in judgment and forgiveness. But it is exactly this that happens in the Incarnation. Here the Good comes to the individual and individuates him, removing him from definition in terms of the crowd, the species (animal rationale), even the philosophically awakened students of the Academy, by claiming every thought of this individual for himself. It is with the present of this Good, who has come down from heaven, that we are to relate to one another. In other words, Christianity says that after we have transcended familial and national loyalties in the name of the Spirit and the Good, we must make one more move and return to earth and re-embrace one another as children of God, each as dear to God as a child is to its parents.

We can now turn to the Grand Inquisitor. The setting for Ivan’s poem is Christ’s return to earth in sixteenth-century Seville in the midst of the Spanish Inquisition. Soon after his appearance, he is arrested and imprisoned. Held in a dimly lit dungeon, he is interrogated—excoriated—by the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor. The heart of the Inquisitor’s diatribe concerns the relationship of freedom to happiness. He asserts that he has completed Christ’s work of saving humankind by relieving humankind of its burden of freedom. Whereas Christ refused the devil’s temptations because he thirsted for a faith that is free, the Inquisitor has embraced these temptations for the sake of man’s happiness. “We corrected your deed and based it on miracle, mystery, and authority. And mankind rejoiced that they were once more led like sheep, and that at last such a terrible gift, which had brought them so much suffering, had been taken from their hearts.” 27

For our purposes, it is important to notice how much Camus would want to side with Christ against the Inquisitor. In his use of miracle, mystery, and authority, Camus would see the Inquisitor retreating from engagement with concrete life and its fundamental absurdity. He would thus approve of Christ’s refusal of the devil’s pacifying measures, while adding the qualification that belief in immortality and the resurrection of the body belong are among them; after all, one of the Inquisitor’s means of sedating the people is to promise them future happiness for bowing their knee to his authority. Accordingly, the poem testifies both to Ivan’s recognition of the falseness of orthodox Christianity and his unpreparedness to live what he knows.

However, this interpretation is unsupportable for the simple reason that Ivan shows no inclination to side with Christ against the Grand Inquisitor, and the reason for this is not that he lacks the courage of Camus’ absurd man. Rather, the reason is that Ivan cannot pretend that apart from God’s condescension to earth, in the fullness of his power and goodness, persons remain so unique and valuable that the suffering of even one child constitutes an objection to all of life. Hence the form of the poem. In a cell that echoes the darkness and tumult of his own heart, Ivan personally addresses the God that personally addresses him. At one level the Inquisitor speaks as if a trade is being made—he provides safety, happiness, and a meaningful narrative and in return the people hand over their freedom of conscience. At another level, however, he denies that any transaction is occurring. What his subjects give they do not really have; no violence is being done by denying conscience because there is no such thing—certainly not in any important sense. By resisting the devil’s temptations Christ did not act lovingly but “proudly and magnificently.” 28 Only a few human beings can truly embrace freedom of conscience. For the rest, the requirement of love of a free heart only mocks them and adds to their misery. “I left the proud and returned to the humble, for the happiness of the humble,” the Inquisitor gloats. 29 The Inquisitor concludes his diatribe with the declaration that beyond this life there is nothing. The people he governs—“these pitiful creatures”—will find only death beyond the grave. “But we will keep the secret, and for their own happiness we will entice them with a heavenly and eternal reward.” 30

Erratically, inconsistently, then, the Grand Inquisitor rejects freedom, conscience, and love, the very things that give Ivan’s rebellion substance. And it must be this way. Believing these things are rooted in Christ, and having removed Christ from his heart, Ivan must be consistent to the end and remove all traces of him from the cosmos. And what of that little girl in the outhouse? How does her suffering stand now? Clearly she is not visible to the Grand Inquisitor. Having saved the child from the violence of her parents by taking the burden of conscience and the love of a free heart from them, Ivan has also greatly abbreviated the depth of this child’s suffering because he has greatly abbreviated the depth of her parents relationship to her. The root of our dismay at the girl’s sufferings in the outhouse is that she has been rejected by those whose indebtedness to her well-being should know no end. Parental love, Christ leads us to understand, is a parable of the love of the Kingdom. Yet, without the heavenly Kingdom to draw this love upwards it is made foolishly alone in a universe of unsupported and undirected flux. Hence, the child’s sufferings are rendered mute in an unhearing cosmos. Thus, by rejecting the paradox that he must cling to Christ if he is to see and share the heartbreaking suffering that tempts him to turn against him, Ivan had entered another, even more terrible paradox: the invisibility of the child is the price of love’s rebellion against God over her suffering.

What is going on here? At the very beginning of his conversation with Alyosha, before the poem and before presenting his file of human suffering, Ivan had confessed his love for life. Yet it was a selective love. “Though I do not believe in the order of things, still the sticky little leaves that come out in the spring are dear to me, the blue sky is dear to me, some people are dear to me, whom one loves sometimes, would you believe it, without knowing why.” 31 This confession is followed by Ivan’s admission that it is precisely one’s neighbors that it is impossible to love. “It’s still possible to love one’s neighbour abstractly, and even occasionally from a distance, but hardly ever up close.” Christ’s love for people, he says, is a miracle impossible on earth.

This portion of Ivan and Alyosha’s conversation is critical because it signals that Ivan’s rejection of the suffering of that girl is accompanied by a profound struggle against Christ for bringing all of humanity together in familial bonds that are eternally significant. Thus, Ivan’s vision of that young girl is mixed. On the one hand, his ego bristles at her nearness just as it bristles at everyone’s nearness in Christ. Ivan wants to define himself on his own terms, and he resents that his having a self is determined by whether he fulfills love’s obligation to the neighbor. On the other hand, Ivan’s ego breaks under the weight of this young girl’s suffering and under the weight of the humility that is required of him to stand with her in its midst, for in order to stand with her he must lay down his recrimination, renounce his viewpoint and foolishly embrace, like Job and this child, “inscrutable order, measure beyond measure, terrible beauty.” 32

In the prose poem of the Grand Inquisitor, then, we have Ivan’s egoistic rejection of the humility that is required of him and the ego’s terrible loyalty to its choice above all else. However, readers will also know that this is not all there is to Ivan, and it is the struggle within love that is the context of Ivan’s actions in the rest of the novel. The choice for love is represented by Alyosha who, through profound struggles of his own, chooses resurrection and conscience and faith for all. The choice against love is represented by the devil, with whom Ivan has an (imagined?) conversation towards the end of the novel. Significantly, the devil of Ivan’s conversation is not a bloodthirsty misanthrope, a legalistic bureaucrat, or even a rebellious Grand Inquisitor. He is a snide jester. With awful consistency he has followed the path of rebellion to its logical end, namely, to the point where rebellion and negation must negate themselves lest God be given even this credit. “ ‘I am an x in an indeterminate equation. I am some sort of ghost of life who has lost all ends and beginnings, and I’ve finally forgotten what to call myself,’ ” the devil says to Ivan. 33


Camus agrees with the Christian tradition that man does not live by bread alone. There is a part of us that can never be fed by equitable distribution of goods, by just economic arrangements, or by the institutional enactment of the Golden Rule. These are not insignificant achievements, but their foundation lies above, in the fuller communion they suggest. However, Camus believes that the suffering of innocent children punctures these hopes, and human dignity lies in its capacity to cling tenaciously to justice even as the cosmos does not. There is great nobility in Camus’ position, but also a great blindness to all that it entails. Rowan Williams writes: “If you cannot live with the tension Ivan so unforgettably depicts, the tension around the way suffering both questions what we mean by God and intensifies our sense of a human value that can only be grounded in God, you will have to live with another kind of tension, the recognition that such a ground of values is indispensable for a recognizably human life, yet at the same time an illusion depending on the human will.” 34 O’Connor says something very similar. Camus praises Ivan for remaining loyal to the “royal powers” of his mind and not sacrificing his intellect for the false happiness belonging to the fanciful and indulgent faith of Alyosha. Yet O’Connor claims, like Dostoevsky, that whatever Ivan and Camus gain in intelligence they lose in vision. Namely, they lose the capacity to see that the good is something under construction, and our materials are both positive gifts and “passive diminishments.” Out of this material, we cannot possibly make good the world. But in the Incarnation we are given reason to believe that these imperfect materials are material enough to forge a communion, however beleaguered, worthy of heaven. 35


  1. Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969), 155.
  2. Ibid., 67.
  3. Ibid., 97–98. “The fiction writer should be characterized by his kind of vision. His kind of vision is a prophetic vision. . . . The prophet is a realist of distances, and it is this kind of realism that goes into great novels. It is the realism which does not hesitate to distort appearances in order to show a hidden truth” (ibid., 179).
  4. Ibid., 34.
  5. Ibid., 157.
  6. Ibid., 162.
  7. Ibid., 92.
  8. Ibid., 162.
  9. Ibid., 151–52.
  10. Ibid., 89.
  11. Ibid., 96.
  12. Ibid., 174.
  13. Ibid., 178.
  14. Ibid., 146.
  15. Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych, trans. Constance Garnett, in The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories (New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2004), 136.
  16. Plato, Phaedo, 90c.
  17. Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych, 137.
  18. Ibid., 143.
  19. Ibid., 98.
  20. Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, trans. Justin O’Brien (New York: Vintage International, 1983), 21, 28.
  21. Ibid., 8–9.
  22. Ibid., 55: “The absurd man can only drain everything to the bitter end, and deplete himself. The absurd is his extreme tension, which he maintains constantly by solitary effort, for he knows that in that consciousness and day-to-day revolt he gives proof of his only truth, which is defiance.”
  23. Ibid., 49: “In Kierkegaard’s apocalypse [the] desire for clarity must be given up if it wants to be satisfied. Sin is not so much knowing . . . as wanting to know. Indeed, it is the only sin of which the absurd man can feel that it constitutes both his guilt and his innocence. He is offered a solution in which all past contradictions have become merely polemical games. But this is not the way he experienced them. Their truth must be preserved, which consists in not being satisfied. He does not want preaching.”
  24. Ibid., 97. See also p. 102: “In the creation in which the temptation to explain is the strongest, can one overcome that temptation? In the fictional world in which awareness of the real world is keenest, can I remain faithful to the absurd without sacrificing to the desire to judge.”
  25. Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1990), 245. See also 235–36.
  26. Camus, 112.
  27. Dostoevsky, 257.
  28. Ibid., 255.
  29. Ibid., 260.
  30. Ibid., 259.
  31. Ibid., 230.
  32. Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), 321.
  33. A few lines later, Ivan and the devil have this exchange:

    ‘So you don’t believe in God, then?’ Ivan grinned hatefully.

    ‘Well, how shall I put it—that is, if you’re serious . . .’

    ‘Is there a God, or not?’ Ivan cried again with fierce insistence.

    ‘Ah, so you are serious? By God, my dear, I just don’t know—there’s a great answer for you!’

    ‘You don’t know, yet you see God? No, you are not in yourself, you are me, me and nothing else! You are trash, you are my fantasy!’

    ‘Let’s say I’m of one philosophy with you, if you like, that would be correct. Je pense donc je suis, I’m quite sure of that, but all the rest around me, all those worlds, God, even Satan himself—for me all that is unproven, whether it exists in itself, or is only my emanation, a consistent development of my I, which exists pre-temporally and uniquely . . . in short, I hasten to stop, because you look as if you’re about to jump up and start fighting’ (642).

  34. Rowan Williams, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2008), 235.
  35. “One of the tendencies of our age is to use the suffering of children to discredit the goodness of God, and once you have discredited his goodness, you are done with him. . . . Busy cutting down human imperfection, they hare making headway also on the raw material of good. Ivan Karamazov cannot believe, as long as one child is in torment; Camus’ hero cannot accept the divinity of Christ because of the massacre of innocents. In this popular piety, we mark our gain in sensibility and our loss in vision. If other ages felt less, they saw more, even though they saw with the blind, prophetical, unsentimental eye of acceptance, which his to say, of faith. In the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness which, long since cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped up in theory” (Mystery and Manners, 226-27).
Justin Neufeld is a doctoral candidate at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He currently teaches philosophy at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg.

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