Walker Percy & In-Breakings Of Grace
We are a couple of weeks away from this year’s Walker Percy Weekend — please buy your tickets if you haven’t yet! — and we have a great line-up of speakers and topics. Alas, it is my sad duty to inform you that for the first time in five years, my dear friend Ralph Wood of Baylor won’t be joining us. He couldn’t fit it into his travel schedule. But he will be there in spirit, and in more than spirit: one of his prize students, Jessica Hooten Wilson, will be there to promote her wonderful new book about Percy’s novels, and to teach a class on her favorite Percy novel, The Last Gentleman.
No Ralph Wood in St. Francisville this year, but here’s good news: there’s a Ralph Wood essay about Percy and Love In The Ruins in the new issue of TAC — and it’s available online, right here. Excerpt:
Percy’s philosophically astute psychiatrist identifies this far deeper trouble in a single lapidary claim: “Descartes ripped body loose from mind and turned the very soul into a ghost that haunts its own house.” Dr. More traces our illness to René Descartes, the 17th century French philosopher whose notorious motto was “Cogito, ergo sum: I think, therefore I am.” Descartes’ animating idea marked a fundamental “turn to the subject,” a relocation of ultimate authority in subjective human consciousness rather than any transcendent reality.
It is safe to say that, prior to Descartes, human reason seated itself either in the natural order or else in divine revelation. In the medieval tradition, reason brought these two thought-originating sources into harmony. Thus were mind, soul, and body regarded as having an inseparable relation: they were wondrously intertwined. So also, in this bi-millennial way of construing the world, was the created order seen as having multiple causes—first and final, no less than efficient and material causes. This meant that creation was not a thing that stood over against us, but as the realm in which we participate—living and moving and having our being there, as both ancient Stoics and St. Paul insisted. The physical creation was understood as God’s great book of metaphors and analogies for grasping his will for the world.
After Descartes, by contrast, the sensible realm becomes a purposeless thing, a domain of physical causes awaiting our own mastery and manipulation. Nature no longer encompasses humanity as its crowning participant. The soul drops out altogether and is replaced by disembodied mind. Shorn of its spiritual qualities, the mind becomes a calculating faculty for bare, abstract thinking. To yank the mind free from the body is also to untether it from history, tradition, and locality. After Descartes, the mind allegedly stands outside these given things so as to operate equally well at anytime and anywhere. Insofar as belief in God is kept at all, it is an entailment of the human. Atheism was sure to follow. Marx made truth itself a human production, whether social or economic. Nietzsche went further, insisted that nothing whatever can stand over against the human will to power, not even socially constructed truth. Hence the cry of Zarathustra: “If there were gods, how could I endure not to be a god!”
As Wordsworth said of Milton, so might we plead: “Percy, wert thou living at this hour!” Though it’s 28 years past his death and 47 since publication of Love in the Ruins, he might call Christians to a similar kind of hope. Though he would be witty rather than solemn, I believe he would summon his fellow believers, not to a culture war against the twin evils of the left and the right, but rather to a drastic renewal of our badly fractured churches. Father Rinaldo Smith’s tiny flock might find its successors in small gatherings of Christians from across the denominations in order that the Gospel might survive amidst the Dark Ages that have already begun. Aboard the church’s rickety ark riding out the storm, these remnant Christians would create communities of refuge for those who desire “a better country” (Heb. 11:14) than our bestial and angelic Cities of the Plain.
For nearly a half century, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has been making a similar summons. He has confessed that we Christians are likely to remain a permanent minority from here on in—barring, of course, a miraculous outpouring of the Holy Spirit in a phoenix-like rebirth from our moral and spiritual ashes. We Christians will never be in charge of things again, the future pope acknowledged. We seem to be back where we began—as a minority faith in an overwhelmingly pagan world. Hence these startling words from a 1969 radio address entitled “What Will the Church Be Like in 2000?”:
She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so will she lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, she will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision. As a small society, she will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members…. The Church will be a more spiritual Church, not presuming upon a political mandate, flirting as little with the Left as with the Right. It will be hard going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek…. But when the trial [of] this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church.
Yet it’s not as if two millennia of Christian existence have made no difference. In a 1997 interview with Peter Seewald, a German atheist reporter, Cardinal Ratzinger declared that we have been given two unparalleled gifts wherewith to build such enclaves of radical Christian excellence: (1) the inexhaustible fund of Christian thought and art, and (2) the unsurpassable witness of our saints and martyrs. On a sure prophetic and sacramental foundation, such mustard seed churches will “live in an intensive struggle against evil.” They will seek to keep “what is essential to man from being destroyed.” They will bring “good into the world,” prophesied the future pope, and thus “let God in.”
This, of course, is what The Benedict Option is based on. I’m not going to spoil the rest of the long essay by telling you what Ralph has to say about all this — and what Percy does — but I hope you will check it out.
These passages from Ralph’s essay really hit home with me this week. I am re-writing the proposal for my next book. In fact, just thinking about Ralph, and Walker Percy, prompted me to pour myself a finger or two of this incredible Reservoir bourbon my Virginia friends gave me recently (see photo). It’s the best sipping whiskey I’ve tasted in ages.
I submitted a proposal for the next book, and had it returned by my editor with the comment that it reads, as is, like the takeaway is, “We should all spend more time thinking about Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.” I missed the mark, then. I wouldn’t read a book as dull and worthy-sounding as that one. I’ve got to find the edge.
A friend suggested that I ought to consider the paradox I inhabit: I spend my days howling like Jeremiah on this blog about how the sky is falling, but in person, I am cheerful and amiable. How do I keep up hope despite it all? Part of it is my disposition, I think; nobody who likes to eat and to drink and to tell funny stories as much as I do can ever be permanently gloomy. But there is philosophical and theological seriousness there too. It has to do with the culture of the Christian church, and with the kind of people (at their best) that Christianity produces.
It has something to do as well with the profound sense of meaning, meaning embedded in the material world, that comes from my Christian faith. That is to say, from a sacramental view of life. And it has to do with the fact that like Percy, I’m a natural ironist who is inclined to see the absurdity in life, and to cherish it.
How to talk about this in a way that doesn’t sound insufferably abstract or worthwhile-Canadian-initiative-ish?
And there’s this, which another friend pointed out to me. My wife once said that I’m a “weirdo magnet,” meaning that I have this uncanny ability to draw unusual people and unusual events to me. She’s right about that. I bat far above average in having encounters with the numinous, and with people who also have had them. I think that being open to them certainly helps — that, and the fact that I don’t mind talking about these mysteries openly. You’d be surprised by what people will tell you has happened to them once they know that you won’t automatically call them crazy for saying so. My friend, a solid, Ivy-educated professional who has had run-ins with the numinous himself, says that I should write about people like me: those “who had their faith in secularism destroyed by the collapse of the immanent frame and a kind of supernatural invasion.”
I think he’s onto something there too. But how to tie it all together? How to tie it all together into a book that actual people will read, and argue about?
Maybe I’ll get an idea or two at Walker Percy Weekend. Say, if you’re coming, I hope you’ll show up at the off-the-menu conversation I’ll be hosting on the back porch at the Magnolia Cafe with Fare Forward‘s Charlie Clark, about his essay “The Walker Percy Option.” TAC is sponsoring the event, and will provide frosty longnecks for ticket holders, though you don’t have to be a ticket-holder to come to the talk (only to get free beer). “If the Benedict Option imagines a faithful remnant waiting out the flood, the Walker Percy Option imagines an unfaithful one, nonetheless borne up by grace,” writes Charlie. More:
Like all Christians, Percy believed that man’s immortal soul had been jeopardized by his fall from grace, that his original connection to the divine had been severed by sin. But he saw the problem of modernity through a narrower lens. Influenced by existentialism, he saw that man had fallen not only from grace, but (more recently) from himself as well. Moderns were uncomfortable in their own skin, alienated from their daily lives, restless, angry—and this in spite of unprecedented wealth and leisure. Like the secular existentialists of his age, Percy became convinced that something about modernity hampered human flourishing. It blocked not just the special grace by which the monks attended to the counsels of perfection, it interfered with the common, everyday grace that makes an ordinary life feel worth living.
Percy’s anti-modernism is not reactionary. He does not propose to re-erect a premodern social imaginary “amid the high tide of liquid modernity,” as Dreher says. When his characters imagine a coming calamity that will usher in a new order, it is a sign of madness, not wisdom. Rather, Percy’s vision is forward-looking, synthetic—even syncretistic. It tolerates a high degree of imperfection, the rough edges that are the mark of all real and natural things. He envisioned a new humanism, one that combined an affirmation of animal life with an openness to higher perfections, and which could rescue believer and unbeliever alike from the common disaster of estrangement from their selves. This vision, Percy’s Bad Catholic Existentialism, may not promise eternal salvation, but it does create occasions for further in-breakings of grace. The cure for our modern ills can be found through cathedral doors—and not just behind monastery walls.
Creating occasions for further in-breakings of grace. Hmmm … I like the way this is going.
I hope we see you at the Mag on Friday afternoon, June 1, to talk about all this — and that we see you for the rest of the weekend as well. Again, buy tickets here.