A journal of academic theology

From the Editor’s Desk – July 2020

For more than a decade, a required reading for the undergraduate theology course I have most often taught, “Quests for God, Paths of Revelation,” has been Albert Camus’s 1947 novel, The Plague.1 The novel depicts the deadly unfolding of an epidemic of bubonic plague—the medieval Black Death—that strikes the Algerian port city of Oran, cutting the city and its inhabitants off from the rest of the world for many months. Camus’s novel served that course well in two respects. First, in its ironic descriptions of commerce as the overriding dynamic shaping the life of Oran’s citizens, it made palpable the key role that the “business of doing business” plays in secular modernity’s constriction of human selfhood into the confines of self-absorption. The transactional enactments of commerce that pervade the life of homo economicus in Oran issue in the formation of what St. Augustine termed homo incurvatus in se: Persons so self-enclosed that the possibility of being called to a transformative recognition of otherness, whether by the transcendent Otherness of God, let alone by the individual and sacred otherness in which humans stand to one another, seems beyond imagination and belief. Second, Camus’s novel made equally palpable, in its presentation of the words, actions, and thoughts of those drawn together to fight the plague—Dr. Rieux, Tarrou, Fr. Paneloux, Grand, and even the initially reluctant journalist Rambert—that there nonetheless is a fragile yet ultimately prepotent basis for resistance to the corrosive power of “commerce” and its cultural minions. Standing against the self-absorption that, coming in the wake of greed, sets human beings in deadly opposition to one another is a countervailing power Rieux calls “common decency”—the recognition of an encompassing human solidarity that goes “all the way” down. Such recognition of human solidarity empowers, even in a world shot through with the contingency of things gone wrong, a self-effacing, inclusive, and effective compassion for all.

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