"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Literature in the News: Flannery O’Connor and the Public Square

I came across this article in First Things on Flannery O’Connor and her relationship with the secular society.  The article starts with the recently commemorative stamp the US Post Office recently put out of O’Connor.  I posted on it a few weeks ago, here.  

The author of the article, Ralph C. Wood, notes there is a fair amount of irony in the stamp because he claims O’Connor refused to “assimilate her fiction to the national consensus” of the “American Project.”  There was a theory in the 1950s which continues to today that religion and the secular polis at large needed to remain separate, though respectful.  Wood claims that O’Connor rejected this theory on the basis it would lead to a society without religion, which would amount to idolatry.  From Wood’s article:

Flannery O’Connor resisted such idolatry. She would not be honored with a commemorative stamp if she had attuned her faith and her fiction to the national consensus. Her achievements would have been significant but not drastically important. Setting her loves in proper order, O’Connor gave her first and final loyalty, not to the United States of America, but to the incarnate and living God, the God under and to whom this nation putatively pledges its allegiance. She became the most important Christian author this nation has yet produced—T. S. Eliot the Christian poet being not an American but a British citizen—by becoming a radically unaccommodating Catholic writer.

For O’Connor, there was something ajar almost from the beginning of the American experiment. She famously complained that, in his 1832 refusal to celebrate communion at First Church Boston, without first removing the bread and wine, Emerson began the vaporization of religion in America. The anti-sacramental becomes the spiritual, the discarnate.

How interesting that this article came out a few weeks before this horrendous Supreme Court decision legalizing same sex marriage for the entire country,  It is without question that the separation of religion from the polis has led to an idolatry of the secular.  But what makes this article particularly interesting is that it explores the rich integration of the sacred with society in O’Connor’s fiction. 

…she sought an alternative to the vaporizing spirituality of her age. She found it chiefly in her own region. She both loved and criticized her native South, praising its transcendent virtues while lamenting its temporal evils. Chief among the Southern virtues that made O’Connor the Roman Catholic thoroughly at home among the folk Christians of the Protestant South was their saturation in Scripture. She shared their conviction that the biblical Story of the world’s creation and salvation is meant to master us rather than for us to master it. We have engaged Scripture aright, O’Connor declared, when, “like Jacob, we are marked.”

O’Connor admired the backwoods believers of the American South because they were thus “mastered,” thus “marked.” She was drawn to their self-blinding street prophets and baptizing river preachers. Despite their awful failings, they spoke the language and declared the message of Scripture. These economically poor and educationally uncouth believers possessed no cultural standing or political power; indeed, polite society had passed them by on the other side. Yet she makes them the focus of her fiction, not in scorn but sympathy. Their fierce and sweated Faith enabled them to feel “the hand of God and its descent,” she confessed. “We have trembled with Abraham as he held the knife over Isaac.”

In O’Connor’s world view Wood finds a Christian response to what will certainly be the coming religious ostracism.

When God dies, as O’Connor learned from Nietzsche, “the last man” arrives. “‘We have invented happiness,’ say the last men, and they blink.” They blink because they no longer question or probe, because they refuse to take courageous risks or venture untrodden paths. The last men are shrunken creatures who make everything small, who live longest because they hop like fleas from one warm host to another, who no longer shoot the arrow of their longing beyond man, who want the same things as everyone else because everyone is the same. Unable even to despise themselves, they blink because they are satisfied with happiness as small-minded as themselves.

Wood sees O’Connor advocating courage, resistance, and fight instead of what some have called the Benedict option, a Christian retreat to a self-regulating society removed from the secular world.  (The Benedict option was first proposed by Rod Dreher in The American Conservative.)  Now to be fair to Mr. Dreher, I don’t think he means that the Benedict Option requires religious to be flee-like, but nonetheless it does suggest a lack of courage to stand for your beliefs.

Finally this is a must read article if you wish to have an insight into O’Connor’s work.  For instance,

O’Connor’s work answers these seemingly legitimate protests. Her characters learn to “see” by discerning the invisible realities that are both the cause and the cure of the world’s misery. They discover that, as O’Connor herself declared, evil is not a problem to be fixed but a mystery to be endured. Our great temptation, in an age of “antireligious religion,” is to believe that, because we can repair much of human pain by human measures, we can also mend the human soul. Thus do we also blink. We benignly yield to feelings that, at whatever cost, must not be “hurt.” We cancel our very humanity in conforming ourselves to a happiness that denies both our moral perversions and bodily limitations.

Flannery O’Connor’s characters do not blink. Like many biblical figures, her central characters are not good country people or just plain folks. They believe and they behave strangely. They often find what they are not looking for. They are put on the path toward something infinitely more important than social acceptance and cultural conformity. They are being burned clean and made whole—not by a soft-centered tenderness but by the purifying fire of divine mercy.

I found Wood’s article to be fascinating and rich on many levels, especially when you consider we are in our annual Fortnight for Freedom prayer.  If you’re interested in O’Connor’s work or just in religious liberty, you should read it.

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