Wednesday, 17 August 2022

Flannery O’Connor on Sin and Politics

As both O'Connor and Chesterton understood, the problems with society do not arise from politics or economics, tho' those may exacerbate the problems.  They arise from the sinful nature of fallen man.

From The Imaginative Conservative

By Darrell Falconburg

Introduction

It has been often repeated that The Times of London once sent an inquiry to famous authors, asking them the question, “What is wrong with the world today?” When G.K. Chesterton received this inquiry, he had an interesting yet unsurprising response. He did not blame the world’s dysfunction on some external problem — not on a president, an economic program, a political party, or anything else. And, on top of that, he did not take the opportunity to put his political or economic views into the pages of the Times. He knew that the dysfunction of the world runs far deeper than politics. What is wrong with the world, he knew, is sin. Chesterton therefore responded rather simply: “I am.”[1]

I was recently reminded of Chesterton’s response while reading my way through parts of The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor. Much like Chesterton, Flannery O’Connor understood that what is wrong with the world is not our failure to adhere to a certain political or economic program, as important as these may be. Instead, what is wrong with the world is sin. Therefore, if we are to reform society through politics, it is first essential to reform ourselves. O’Connor conveys this in her short story “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” The reformer must realize that he, not someone else, is the only source of evil in the world that he can control. Then, upon realizing that he is the only source of evil that he can control, the reformer must begin the journey of personal reform that must precede the reform of those around him.

Flannery O’Connor on Sin and the Human Heart

As a Roman Catholic, Flannery O’Connor did not believe in John Calvin’s doctrine of total depravity. She did, however, emphasize man’s sinfulness throughout her stories. Man is fallen, believed O’Connor, and he is capable of great wickedness. Any serious Christian writer must therefore make the reality of man’s sinfulness a bedrock of their story. O’Connor writes:

“The serious writer has always taken the flaw in human nature for his starting point, usually the flaw in an otherwise admirable character. Drama usually bases itself on the bedrock of original sin, whether the writer thinks in theological terms or not. Then, too, any character in a serious novel is supposed to carry a burden of meaning larger than himself. The novelist doesn’t write about people in a vacuum; he writes about people in a world where something is obviously lacking, where there is the general mystery of incompleteness and the particular tragedy of our own times to be demonstrated, and the novelist tries to give you, within the form of the book, the total experience of human nature at any time. For this reason, the greatest dramas naturally involve the salvation or loss of the soul. Where there is no belief in the soul, there is very little drama.”[2]

A fundamental truth about man, especially modern man, is his sinfulness. This flaw in human nature is, for O’Connor, a common theme in all of her stories. As Jessica Hooten Wilson notes, O’Connor’s characters are often confronted with the flaws of their human nature by becoming aware, however painful it might be, of what they lack. And what these characters often lack is the self-knowledge that they are prideful and self-righteous, that they are sinners. In this regard,

O’Connor conveys something true and timeless in her stories: that we humans are contaminated by sin and, as a result, must come to a self-knowledge about what we lack.[3]

According to O’Connor, the Christian novelist understands sin as a reality of human nature. Sin is neither a mental illness nor a consequence of one’s environment. Instead, it is a deliberate choice of offense against God that has real and eternal consequences. As O’Connor puts it:

“The Christian novelist is distinguished from his pagan colleagues by recognizing sin as sin. According to his heritage he sees it not as sickness or an accident of environment, but as a responsible choice of offense against God which involves his eternal future. Either one is serious about salvation or one is not.”[4]

This recognition about human nature has implications for reform in the political arena. What is wrong with the world is not, as many assume today, our failure to adhere to some political program. Despite the assertions of ideologies that have dominated the West since the Enlightenment, it is not true that the problems of the world stem from our failure to adhere to a particular political program. The utopians of the modern world want to change and perfect society and human nature, but this is not possible. Politics may be important, to be sure, but our problem runs much deeper. The problems of the world are not something that we can fix overnight with protesting, sloganeering, or even passing new laws. Instead, the woes of the world have a deeper spiritual aspect. Modern man has rejected God, and in doing so he has rejected the most fundamental truths about himself — about the soul, sin, judgment, and redemption.[5]

Implications for Political Reform

This insight about our sinful human nature and its implications for political reform is conveyed in Flannery O’Connor’s 1965 story “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” In this story, the reader meets Julian, a recent college graduate who wants to be a professional writer. He lives with his unnamed mother, a widow who worked hard to feed, clothe, and put Julian through college. For a variety of reasons, Julian hates his mother. He is selfish, angry, resentful, and prideful. Most of all, he is sickened by the fact that his mother embodies the racism of the South during the pre-civil rights era. Although she is a complicated character, Julian sees nothing good in his mother. He is disgusted by her and wants to “teach her a lesson.”[6]We contemporary readers will agree with Julian that the fight against racism is a praiseworthy and noble pursuit. But it is clear that Julian’s motives are not praiseworthy and noble. He suffers from a deeply entrenched intellectual pride and anger toward his mother, both of which are motives for his anti-racism.

Julian correctly realizes that his mother does not know what she lacks. She is a racist and snobbish woman living in a time of immense cultural change. Grasping onto older notions of southern gentility and social decorum, she does not realize that she holds onto rejected perceptions of society and racial equality. Yet, at the same time, Julian does not realize that he does not know what he lacks either. Instead, Julian views himself as better than those around him, especially his mother. He does not realize that he is like everybody else in his society — imperfect and fallen.

Julian and his mother are on a public bus along with a black woman and her young son. All four characters get off at the same bus stop when Julian’s mother unknowingly makes an offensive gesture. That is, Julian’s mother tries to give the young boy a penny. Offended, the black woman pushes Julian’s mother to the ground. Not realizing that his mother is having a stroke as a result of the attack, he insults his mother and tells her that she deserved what she got.

Suddenly, however, Julian realizes that something is wrong and that his mother is having a stroke. At this moment Julian shows compassion for his mother for the first time in the story. But at this point, it is too late. Julian’s mother is unable to understand where she is at, and she is on the brink of dying. O’Connor writes:

“‘Mother!’ He cried. ‘Darling, sweetheart, wait!’  Crumpling, she fell to the pavement. He dashed forward and fell at her side, crying, ‘Momma, momma!’ He turned her over. Her face was fiercely distorted. One eye, large and staring, moved slightly to the left as if it had become unmoored. The other remained fixed on him, raked his face again, found nothing and closed.

‘Wait here, wait here!’ he cried and jumped and began to run for help toward a cluster of lights he saw in the distance ahead of him. ‘Help! Help!’ he shouted, but his voice was thin, scarcely a thread of sound. The lights drifted farther away the faster he ran, and his feet moved numbly as if they carried him nowhere. The tide of darkness seemed to sweep him back to her, postponing from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow.”[7]

Julian realizes for the first time what is wrong with the world. The problem with the world, he realizes, is not the politics and prejudices of his mother. To the contrary, the problem is himself and his own sinfulness, and such a problem cannot be easily remedied by politics. In this tragic event, Julian begins a process of personal reform that must precede political activism.

Again, we see the principle that the reformer must realize that it is himself, not someone else, who is the only source of evil in the world that he can control. The reform of oneself must precede any sort of political activism. If the reformer is not first striving after virtue, then he will not be able to have a positive impact on the larger society. This point is made by Henry Edmonson in his collection of essays A Political Companion to Flannery O’Connor. As Edmonson puts it:

“To expect, then, that an individual will improve himself before, or at least as, he attempts to reform those around him, is not just the proper order of things, it is also a safeguard. It introduces a measure of humility and self-doubt in the reformer’s psyche, which cannot help but blunt the dangerously sharp edge of zeal, while hopefully not enervating the reformer’s moral energy.”[8]

As O’Connor once remarked in a book review for Eric Voegelin’s Order and History, Plato is right that the “diseases of the soul are carried over into society.”[9]And as Eric Voegelin himself pointed out, we moderns are fundamentally mistaken in assuming, usually without much thought, that political activism can come before personal reform. The traditional view of the world holds that “society is man written large.” This is the wisdom of thinkers like Aristotle and Plato in the ancient world as well as St. Augustine and St. Thomas in the medieval. It is, indeed, one of the most fundamental insights of the great tradition of Western politics. The modern view, in contrast, mistakenly holds that “man is society written small.”[10]O’Connor wisely held to the traditional view. She understood that without an inner order of the soul there cannot be a well-ordered society, and she conveyed this timeless truth in her story.

Conclusion

Flannery O’Connor has much to tell us about human nature and political reform. Flannery O’Connor calls each of us, before we begin the difficult work of reforming society through politics, to reform ourselves. And so, the task for those of us who want to renew and preserve Western culture is not merely political — it is first moral and spiritual. If we do not reform ourselves, if we do not confront the moral and spiritual dysfunction within us, then we will never be able to “redeem the times.” Like Julian, our intentions will be darkened by pride and self-righteousness. We will risk being no better than the ideologues and radicals who, unwilling to seek order in their own souls, imprudently tear to pieces the delicate fabric of the social order.

This essay was first published here in August 2021.

Notes:

[1]G.K. Chesterton is also the author of the 1910 book What’s Wrong with the World.

[2]Flannery O’Connor, “The Novelist and the Believer,” in Mystery and Manners (1963: Reprinted; New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970), 167.

[3]Jessica Hooten Wilson, “Flannery O’Connor: Truth Shocks the System,” Fixed Point Foundation, April 19, 2018, educational video and interview, 15:45 to 17:20, https://youtu.be/uomKyHRnp0k. Within these pages, Dr. Wilson also has a short essay on this topic. For more, see Jessica Hooten Wilson, “Everything That Rises: How Flannery O’Connor Can Heal Out Fractured Politics,” The Imaginative Conservative (August 25, 2017), online.

[4]Flannery O’Connor, “The Novelist and the Believer,” 167.

[5]Indeed, modern man and even many modern Christians think in a way that is similar to O’Connor’s character Hazel Motes in Wise Blood: “‘Listen, you people, I’m going to take the truth with me wherever I go,’ Hazel called. ‘I’m going to preach it to whoever’ll listen at whatever place. I’m going to preach there was no Fall because there was nothing to fall from and no Redemption because there was no Fall and no Judgment because there wasn’t the first two. Nothing matters but that Jesus was a liar.’” Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood, second edition (1962; reprinted New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux Publishers, 2007), 101.

[6]Flannery O’Connor, “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” in The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971), 414.

[7]Ibid, 420.

[8]Henry Edmonson, “He Thinks He’s Jesus Christ: Flannery O’Connor, Russell Kirk, and the Problem of Misguided Humanitarianism,” in A Political Companion to Flannery O’Connor (Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 2017), 260.

[9]Flannery O’Connor, “A Review of Eric Voegelin’s Order and History, Volume 3, Plato and Aristotle,” in The Bulletin, May 2, 1959.

[10]Of course, this view is not unique to Voegelin, but O’Connor here used Voegelin to make this point. See Eric Voegelin, “On Classical Studies,” found in The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What it Means to Be an Educated Human Being, edited by Richard M. Gamble (ISI Books: Delaware, Washington, 2007), 654.

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