The retrieval of religious intellectuality: Walker Percy in light of Michael Buckley.
The act of faith consists essentially in knowledge and there we find its formal or specific perfection.
Thomas Aquinas, De Veritate
Faith is not a form of knowledge; for all knowledge is either knowledge of the eternal, excluding the temporal and the historical as indifferent, or it is pure historical knowledge. No knowledge can have for its object the absurdity that the eternal is the historical. Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments"
IN Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, and the Aesthetic of Revelation, John D. Sykes, Jr. writes: "The existentialist, the psychologist, and indeed the Catholic in Percy all directed him toward sustained consideration of the inner workings of the soul, and especially those conditions under which knowledge of God may take hold of us" (118). This essay explores Walker Percy's distinctive contribution to the question of religious knowing in light of the work of the contemporary theologian, Michael Buckley. Buckley's seminal work on the rise of modern atheism and his argument for the retrieval of distinctively religious forms of knowledge constitute a fruitful heuristic through which to read the work of Walker Percy. Buckley's historical illumination of the inadequacy of attempts to scientifically prove God's existence and his argument for a form of religious intellectuality that gives due attention to the human search for meaning and truth, on the one hand, and concrete, historical disclosures of holiness, on the other hand, provide a lens through which to consider Percy's viable contribution to the question of religious intellectuality in the contemporary era.
It must be noted that this essay is envisioned as a small part of a much larger project that explores the work of Percy as a relevant and viable voice in a Catholic engagement with contemporary culture. In doing so, one must engage Kieran Quinlan's highly critical argument that Walker Percy is the "last Catholic novelist" in the sense "that his vision of the world has been profoundly shaped by a particular period in recent Catholic history" and, furthermore, that this vision is "no longer viable" (Quinlan 9). It is not possible in this essay to do justice to Quinlan's multidimensional and carefully argued critique. Nevertheless, the connection argued here between the thought of Percy and Buckley does, indeed, reveal my own conviction that Percy remains a dynamic companion, surely an imperfect one (as we all are), in a Catholic theological engagement with contemporary culture.
In his highly acclaimed At the Origins of Modern Atheism, Michael J. Buckley, S. J., argues, with attention to such thinkers as Lessius, Mersenne, Descartes, Newton, Malebranche, Clark, Diderot, and d'Holbach, that the strategies used by theologians for religious apologetics in early modernity exhibit a bracketing of its specifically religious character and turn instead to the emerging sciences for their foundations. Buckley does not deny a legitimate place to the respective contributions of philosophy, metaphysics, and the sciences to an exploration of the reality of God. These disciplines can, indeed, serve as a secondary confirmation of a professed faith in God, "but they cannot substitute for personal disclosures and their witness" (362). Buckley reinforces and extends this argument in his more recent book, Denying and Disclosing God, the book on which this essay will focus. Attentive to Aquinas, Freud, Feuerbach, John of the Cross, Edith Stein, and Jacques and Rafssa Maritain, among others, Buckley's central argument in Denying and Disclosing God is as follows: "in an effort to justify, found, or confirm assertions of the reality of God," one cannot "bracket or excise religious evidence and religious consciousness and the interpersonal that marks authentic religious life and experience" (xv). "The intellectual credibility of the existence of God," writes Buckley, "had been made to depend fundamentally upon the inference in philosophy or natural philosophy or mechanics--as if nothing more pertinent were available" (36). In contradictory fashion, then, these strategies employ a highly impersonal mode of discourse as the fundamental argument for a personal God. Such a bracketing of the distinctively religious, although not maliciously intended, asserted "implicitly the cognitive emptiness of the very reality one was attempting to support" (37). Another contradiction implicit in this apologetic strategy involved the distinction between "religious inference" and "religious assent." A theology rooted in Universal Mechanics, for example, tends to treat God as a conclusion to evidence; a theology grounded in religious experience or mysticism treats God as presence--as experienced, worshipped, and asserted, to borrow the language of Newman, in a real assent (37). According to Buckley, "One will not long affirm a personal God, who is fundamentally affirmed as a conclusion rather than disclosed as a presence, one with whom there is no intersubjective communication" (xvi). Although he certainly grants that many other factors account for the complex phenomenon of modern atheism--social, philosophical, economic, and political, among others--he argues, in part, that "the denial of God was generated by the very strategies that were constructed to combat it" (38). The most substantial and dynamic "evidence" for a personal God must indeed be personal.
In light of this dialectical emergence of atheism, Buckley considers whether Aquinas, in fact, laid the foundation for this inferential approach in the Summa theologiae. After all, Aquinas employed the so-called "proofs" for the existence of God (and grounded them in metaphysical language) prior to his treatment of the Trinity and Christ. Buckley argues, in critical response to Paul Tillich, that Aquinas treats God not primarily as "inference" but as "presence." Attentive to the Summa's exitus/reditus structure, and to its emphasis on the consummate character of Christ, Buckley contends that God, for Aquinas, is "given initially or primordially in his effects, rather than simply inferred from his effects. God is a presence, not simply a conclusion" (68). In the kind of "givenness" or "presencing" of God disclosed to us in our "primordial experience of longing for human happiness," we may come to recognize this yearning "as desire for a comprehensive, personal love, meaning, and communication" (68). Furthermore, "God is given to human beings historically, as part of human history in Jesus of Nazareth--as one learns to read in him the manifestation of the presence of God" (68). This twofold distinction anticipates, as we will discuss below, Buckley's constructive use of "transcendental" and "categorical" disclosures.
Buckley employs the example of the Spanish mystic, John of the Cross, to demonstrate his thesis that, in contrast to a heavily inferential approach, a more adequate negation of atheism includes the restoration of religious experience to its legitimate place as a form of evidence and cognition. John of the Cross serves as a specifically theological response to the respective critiques of Feuerbach and Freud, and their agreement that "what is believed in religion is a projection of the human, that the divine must be 'deconstructed' and disclosed as the human" (108). Buckley's analysis serves as an example of the way a personal, incarnate meaning can bear fruit in a theological setting. As Buckley envisions, the task of theology "should be less to refute Feuerbachian and Freudian analysis than to learn from them what they have to teach about the relentless remolding of the image of God by religious consciousness and to suggest alternative stages to the processes they elaborate of anthropological recognition and reduction" (119). St. John of the Cross's apophatic theology communicates not primarily "conclusions or statements," but "an experiential process and a development of faith that points beyond experience and concepts, a process through negation into the infinite mystery that is God, a reality that beggars language" (110). In sum, Freud, Feuerbach, and John of the Cross agree that "much projection lies at the heart of our relationship with and conceptualization of God" (117). For Freud and Feuerbach, the proper response is to deny the reality of God; for John of the Cross and other mystics of the apophatic tradition, such an affirmation of projection recognizes that "the evolution or personal development of faith must pass through the contradictions that are the desert and the cross" (117). In short, the Spanish mystic embodies Buckley's own idea of what a retrieval of a specifically religious intellectuality might be.
In the wake of his mystical response to prominent atheistic critiques, Buckley offers his own constructive proposal to negate the negation of a specifically religious form of cognition. How is God disclosed to ordinary human beings? How do we arrive at a meaningful and responsible awareness of this divine self-disclosure (xv)? Drawing on the categories of Karl Rahner, chapter five of Denying and Disclosing God explores "both the categorical and transcendental experiences that are classically 'religious'" (xv). By categorical, Buckley means concrete historical events by which one is drawn to the disclosure of holiness--events which create the conditions for assent to the reality of God (129). By transcendental, Buckley means the permanent and comprehensive orientation of the human mind to truth, goodness, beauty, and justice as conditions for the possibility of recognizing the holy as revelatory (135).
In his discussion of the categorical dimension of Christian religious experience, Buckley privileges concrete encounters with models of holiness that create the conditions for assent to the reality of God (129). He offers the respective stories of Edith Stein and Jacques and Raissa Maritain as examples of such categorical religious experiences. The noteworthy connection is that these respective conversions were "socially mediated" and brought to fruition in an intersubjective context. As Buckley recounts, Edith Stein's acceptance of God "emerged from her ability to read personal and intersubjective experience" (129). In the summer of 1921, she by chance picked up the Autobiography of Teresa of Avila. After reading through the night she closed the book and reflected: "This is the truth." Buckley comments, "This is not the chance reading of a pious tale by a religious enthusiast. It is the disclosure of the divine within a very complex human history to one who was able to interpret it as such" (129).
The conversion story of Jacques and Raissa Maritain, as recounted by Buckley, also has a deeply intersubjective quality. Leon Bloy deeply influenced the Maritains. Instead of employing the "apologetic of demonstration," Bloy placed before them "the fact of sanctity. Simply, and because he loved them, because their experience was near his own--so much so that he could not read them without weeping--he brought us to know the saints and the mystics" (129). Buckley comments that Bloy "introduced this young couple not to argument and inference, but to narrative, to the lives and writings, i.e., to the experience and holiness, of the saints" (129).
As constitutive as the categorical disclosures were to Edith Stein and the Maritains, Buckley also identifies a transcendental form of "religious" experience operative: the unrelenting search for and commitment to discovering the truth. Whether in Stein's commitment to phenomenology or the Maritains' continued hope to embrace the fullness of being in the midst of doubt and anguish, both stories reveal how the human search "could become the transcendental condition for the possibility of recognizing the holy as revelatory" (132). The categorical and transcendental dimensions of religious experience constitute, for Buckley, a complex interchange of yearning and disclosure, leading not to a "flight into the irrational or the enthusiastic," but to a "retrieval of a specifically religious intellectuality" (xv).
In light of this analysis of Buckley's work, let me summarize three insights that are especially pertinent to our subsequent engagement with Walker Percy. First, Buckley is not arguing for a position on God that is completely divorced from the consideration of the natural sciences; an examination of Buckley's writings refutes this claim. Rather, with a keen eye to the history of modernity in the West, Buckley argues that apologetic strategies rooted in the methods ot the emerging natural sciences ironically generated a denial of what they sought to prove. Second, in an attempt to respond to this strand of atheism, Buckley retrieves, with attention to Aquinas and others, a distinctively religious intellectuality that refused to bracket the interpersonal dimension of authentic religious life and experience. Third, Buckley further differentiates this religious kind of knowledge into two expressions: one that examines the primordial experience of longing for human happiness--that is, the permanent orientation of the human mind to truth, goodness, beauty, and justice; and another that recognizes the concrete historical disclosures of holiness--persons and encounters that create the conditions for assent to the reality of God. My aim in what follows is to read key themes in Walker Percy's writings through the lens of these three emphases.
THE first connection concerns the limits of the scientific method in relation to the human quest for transcendent meaning. Early in his life, Percy had an inclination toward science. As Jay Tolson observes, even in his high school years in Greenville, Mississippi, in the wake of deep tragedy, Percy was "looking for certainties, and though he attended Greenville's Presbyterian church along with his brothers," he found them, not in religion or in his Uncle Will's Stoicism, but "in science--or, more accurately, in that exaggerated faith in science that is called scientism" (96). Attracted by its elegance, beauty, and simplicity, science exhibited for him a "constant movement" in the "direction of ordering the endless variety and the seeming haphazardness of ordinary life by discovering underlying principles" which become formulated more rigorously (Signposts 187). Trained at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons, Percy contracted pulmonary tuberculosis while working as a pathologist at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. As a result of this diagnosis, he was forced to spend a significant amount of time in a sanatorium in the Adirondack Mountains. This forced exile deeply transformed his inner life, and indeed, shaped the intellectual and existential trajectory of the rest of his days.
What were the consequences of this misfortune and interruption? Although Percy never abandoned his allegiance to and a love for the "rigor and discipline of the scientific method," he experienced "a shift of ground, a broadening of perspective, a change of focus" (188). On his sick bed, he began to read Dostoevsky, Camus, Jaspers, Marcel, and Heidegger, among others. Indicative of his expanding horizons, Percy became less interested in the physiological and pathological processes of the human body and more fascinated by questions concerning the nature and destiny of human persons and, more specifically, by the peculiar predicament of human persons "thrown" (to use Heidegger's image) into a modern technological society. Percy writes:
If the first great intellectual discovery of my life was the beauty of the scientific method, surely the second was the discovery of the singular predicament of man in the very world which has been transformed by science. An extraordinary paradox became clear: that the more science progressed, and even as it benefitted man, the less it said about what it was like to be a man living in the world. Every advance in science seemed to take us further from the concrete here-and-now in which we live. (188)
This paradox illuminates what Percy considered a gaping hole in a reductionist scientific view of the world: that however beautiful and legitimate in its own right, it failed to fully account for the very human being doing the science. Percy recounts that after many years of scientific education he "felt somewhat like the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard when he finished reading Hegel. Hegel, said Kierkegaard, explained everything under the sun, except one small detail: what it means to be a man living in the world who must die" (188). In fact, as Percy later observes in Lost in the Cosmos (1983), our advances in "an objective understanding of the Cosmos," in reality, distance the self "from the Cosmos precisely in the degree of the advance--so that in the end the self becomes a space-bound ghost which roams the very Cosmos it understands perfectly" (12-13). After his stay in the sanatorium and in the wake of these shifting horizons, Percy left medical practice and pursued a career as a writer.
THE second connection concerns Buckiey's retrieval of a distinctively religious form of knowledge that refuses to bracket the interpersonal dimension of authentic religious life and experience. In light of his personal discovery of the limits of the scientific method, his consequent interest in the larger human predicament, and his eventual conversion to Catholicism, Percy set out to articulate a kind of knowledge that accounted for this widening of horizons. When asked in an interview about the motive behind his conversion to Catholicism, Percy mentioned, not unlike Edith Stein's experience reading the Autobiography of Teresa of Avila, the importance of reading Kierkegaard's essay, "On the Difference between a Genius and an Apostle":
Like the readings that mean most to you, what it did was to confirm something I suspected but that it took Soren Kierkegaard to put into words: that what the greatest geniuses in science, literature, art, philosophy utter are sentences which convey truths sub specie aeternitatis ... But only the apostle can utter sentences which can be accepted on the authority of the apostle; that is, his credentials, sobriety, trustworthiness as a news bearer. (Signposts 376)
In "The Message in the Bottle," Percy explores at length this distinction between a "piece of knowledge" and a "piece of news." Percy asks the reader to imagine a particular man as a castaway on an island. Having lost his memory in the shipwreck, along with any knowledge of who he is or where he came from, this castaway "makes the best of the situation, gets a job, builds a house, takes a wife, raises a family, goes to night school, and enjoys the local arts of cinema, music, and literature" (119). Although he has made himself a "useful member of the community," the castaway regularly takes early morning walks on the beach, where he encounters tightly-corked bottles washed up on the shore, each containing one single piece of paper. The challenge is how to classify these messages. Again, Percy distinguishes between a "piece of knowledge" and a "piece of news" To the castaway, a "piece of knowledge" means "knowledge sub specie aeternitatis," that is, "knowledge which can be arrived at anywhere by anyone and at any time" (125). Some examples include: "Lead melts at 330 degrees"; "2 + 2 = 4"; and "Men should not kill each other" (126). A "piece of news," on the other hand, refers to a sentence expressing a contingent and nonrecurring event or state of affairs "peculiarly relevant to the concrete predicament of the hearer of the news" (126). The shipwrecked castaway, for example, would most likely experience the statement, "There is fresh water in the next cove" as a piece of news particularly relevant to his predicament.
The epigraphs from Kierkegaard and Aquinas printed at the beginning of this essay give us a clue about Percy's interlocutors. For Aquinas, faith involves a kind of knowledge, in which theoretical knowledge and the virtue of faith are integral to the dynamic process of assent. Kierkegaard, on the other hand, sets up an antinomy of faith and reason, maintaining the "Absolute Paradox" that "one's eternal happiness should depend upon a piece of news from across the seas" (145). Even if the positions of Aquinas and Kierkegaard are oversimplified in Message in a Bottle, nevertheless, it is clear that Percy's larger narrative integrates both emphases: Faith is a kind of knowledge, but it is knowledge inextricably intertwined with the concrete particularity of a human being in a predicament--a castaway searching for knowledge of his identity, his origins, and his destiny. John D. Sykes, Jr., notes that with Aquinas, "Percy insists that faith does not require a leap beyond the rational" and yet with Kierkegaard, "he found a convincing phenomenology of faith" attentive to the modern condition--an emphasis which "led directly to distinctive rhetorical strategies" that would "shape Percy's novelistic work" (113).
Our third connection--a connection that will be explored for the remainder of the essay--builds upon Buckley's illumination of both the limits of the scientific method in relationship to the human quest for transcendent meaning and his retrieval of a distinctively religious form of intellectuality. This connection considers Buckley's further differentiation between two distinct, yet interrelated, expressions of religious knowing: one that attends to the mystery of the human person and the primordial experience of longing for meaning and truth; and another that recognizes the concrete historical disclosures of holiness. There are differences, of course, in the respective ways in which Buckley and Percy describe these two expressions of religious knowing. In his treatment of the human search, for example, Percy emphasizes more than Buckley the existential themes of despair, malaise, everdayness, etc. Hence, it is important to clarify that this section of the essay will attend to these two movements in a broadly conceived manner. Furthermore, we will draw selectively from Percy's essays and novels, not in an attempt to trace these themes chronologically and systematically throughout his corpus, but merely to establish enough evidence that these two movements are operative throughout the many dimensions of his work.
In his essay "Why Are You Catholic?" (1990), Percy identifies the mystery of human selfhood as one of the signs available for modern wayfarers open to a search in an age dominated by a theoretical-scientific mentality--a mentality that tends to reduce human knowing to "things and events only insofar as they are exemplars of theory or items for theory and consumption ..." (Signposts 312). Recall Buckley's attention to the mystery of human subjectivity and interiority as the ground on which the human openness to transcendence lay. In his work in semiotic theory, especially in his appropriation of the thought of Charles Sanders Peirce, Percy attempted to overcome a reductionist account of the human person. What he terms, following Peirce, "the triadic nature of human language" revealed for Percy a non-measurable, immaterial dimension to human consciousness--a dimension that made possible the human quest for meaning and which discloses the rich possibilities inherent in our inner- and intersubjective worlds. Percy explores the mystery of human language, subjectivity, and intersubjectivity throughout his writings, but most thoroughly in his collection of essays, The Message in a Bottle. The limitations of this present essay do not permit us to explore this body of literature in a painstaking way; in fact, several have questioned the full adequacy of Percy's approach (Quinlan 147-151). Rather, the aim is to indicate Percy's attempt to name "a different sort of reality" that "lies at the heart of all uniquely human activity--speaking, listening, understanding, thinking, looking at a work of art--namely, Charles Peirce's triadicity" and to show, moreover, the connection he makes to a more explicitly religious account of the human person. Percy supposes that "it may turn out that consciousness itself is not a 'thing,' an entity, but an act, the triadic act by which we recognize reality though its symbolic vehicle" (Signposts 287). Furthermore, Percy speculates that, in contrast to the reductionist anthropology of scientism, the new (specifically human) anthropology that he envisions--rooted in Peirce's triadic creature, Heidegger's fallen Dasein, and Marcel's Homo viator, among others--might create an openness to such "traditional Judeo-Christian notions as man falling prey to the worldliness of the world, and man as a pilgrim seeking his salvation" (290-291). In other words, Percy attempts to ground an anthropology that envisions human beings, not simply as organisms in an environment, nor as theoreticians appropriating universal knowledge, but as castaways in a predicament, shaped by an intersubjective milieu, and open to transcendence.
In addition to both his own biographical quest described above and his attempt to account in semiotic fashion for an anthropology that does justice to the mystery of the human person, Percy explores in novelistic fashion both the human quest for transcendence and the categorical, historical disclosure of holiness. We will limit our exploration in this essay to selected examples from his first novel, The Moviegoer, and his final novel, The Thanatos Syndrome (I shall also assume that readers are familiar with these texts). In his discussion of the similar functions of the novel and the autobiography, Edward J. Dupuy argues that Percy's use of the novel is autobiographical insofar as "he uses it to retrieve or repeat possibilities of the self that the normative cultural understanding (enmeshed as it is in scientism) forecloses" (5).
EARLY in The Moviegoer (1961), Binx Boiling describes how the sudden possibility of a search has interrupted his tranquil existence in Gentilly. The possibility had not occurred to him for many years:
I remember the first time the search occurred to me. I came to myself under a chindolea bush. Everything is upside-down for me as I shall explain later. What are generally considered to be the best times are for me the worst times, and that worst of times was one of the best. My shoulder didn't hurt but it was pressed hard against the ground as if somebody sat on me. Six inches from my nose a dung beetle was scratching around under the leaves. As I watched, there awoke in me an immense curiosity. I was onto something. I vowed if I ever got out of this fix, I would pursue the search. (10-11)
Percy, in the narrative voice of Binx, locates this fundamental human quest in the concrete particularity of the life-world: "under a chindolea bush" in the Orient; shoulder "pressed hard against the ground"; six inches from a dung beetle. Binx, the narrator, communicates this particularity as the possibility of a search continues to arise: "The idea of the search comes to me again as I am on my way to my aunt's house, riding the Gentilly bus down Elysian Fields" (1 I). In fact, in the midst of considering the search, Binx also muses about his dislike of cars, about the possibility of seeing a movie star in the French Quarter, and the lost opportunity of dropping everything to take the beautiful woman across from him on the bus on a trip along the Gulf Coast. Imagining himself as a castaway on a "strange island," Binx returns to the possibility of a search. In fact, the search is "what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life" (13). Binx muses:
What do you seek--God? you ask with a smile. I hesitate to answer, since all other Americans have settled the matter for themselves and to give such an answer would amount to setting myself a goal which everyone else has reached--and therefore raising a question in which no one has the slightest interest. Who wants to be dead last among one hundred and eighty million Americans? For, as everyone knows, the polls report that 98% of Americans believe in God and the remaining 2% are atheists and agnostics--which leaves not a single percentage point for a seeker ... Am I, in my search, a hundred miles ahead of my fellow Americans or a hundred miles behind them? That is to say: Have 98% of Americans already found what I seek or are they so sunk in everydayness that not even the possibility of a search has occurred to them? (13-14)
Binx captures here the inadequacy of speaking about God when such discourse is divorced from the context of human beings who are aware of their concrete predicament as castaways. Can matters of belief and unbelief be captured by the "yes/no" language of answering polls? Such language tends to reduce the mystery of the human quest and the mystery of divine disclosure to propositional language, and moreover, it proposes the question of God as one more object of consumer choice.
Later in the novel, Binx describes his experience of being in the paralyzing grip of everydayness--an existential state of being that thwarts the possibility of a search. Dispirited by his family's failure to understand his search and determined not to be defeated by everdayness, Binx considers his own unbelief: "My unbelief was invincible from the beginning. I could never make head or tail of God. The proofs of God's existence may have been true for all I know, but it didn't make the slightest difference. If God himself had appeared to me, it would have changed nothing. In fact, I have only to hear the word God and a curtain comes down in my head" (145). The theme of the failure of religious language to signify, of course, permeates Percy's writings. In his essay "Why Are You Catholic?", for example, Percy expresses a certain reticence about using religious language. Such reticence has nothing to do with "the truth or falsity of the sentences they form" but with the "exhaustion and decrepitude of words themselves" (306). In a postmodern and post-Christian context, Judeo-Christian language is so "decrepit" and "abused" that "it takes an effort to salvage them, the very words, from the husks and barnacles of meaning which have encrusted them over the centuries" (306). The task of the saint is "to renew language, to sing a new song," while the humbler task of the novelist is "to deliver religion from the merely edifying" (306).
Intent on pursuing the search in a more deliberate way, Binx finds a notebook and scribbles in the dark:
Starting point for the search: It no longer avails to start with creatures and prove God. Yet it is impossible to rule God out. The only possible starting point: the strange fact of one's own invincible apathy--that if the proofs were proved and God presented himself, nothing would be changed. Here is the strangest fact of all. Abraham saw signs of God and believed. Now the only sign is that all signs in the world make no difference. Is this God's ironic revenge? But I am onto him. (146)
This passage captures a concern reiterated throughout his writings: the inadequacy of speaking about God from the position of a detached scientist or theoretician. One detects a strong reticence, in other words, about turning a piece of news into a piece of knowledge sub specie aeternitatis. Assenting to the propositional statement "God exists" does not change the state of malaise and exile in which we find ourselves. While scientific proofs are often meaningful within a lived horizon of faith (a context which Aquinas presumes), they rarely address the concrete existential yearning of the castaway on a search for a lived connection with God. This is why Bernard Lonergan, for example, argued that the "philosophy of God" ought to be situated within the discipline of systematic theology (Lonergan 208). Systematic theology affirms the relentless, even scientific, quest for understanding, while at the same time presuming the context of faith and the ongoing process of intellectual, moral, and religious conversion. It is "only in the climate of religious experience," Lonergan wrote, "that philosophy of God flourishes" (208).
Identifying a connection between The Moviegoer and mysticism, Terrye Newkirk asks whether Binx is more akin to a secular contemplative--a kind of agnostic open to the possibility of God--or to a religious mystic being offered an apophatic, hidden knowledge of God. Newkirk opts for the latter, arguing that Binx is a "religious contemplative who, for most of the novel, has not found his vocation" (187).
Binx hesitates to say he is searching for God because he has no idea, as yet, of who God is; he can only intuit who God is not. Binx does not take the kataphatic path, the way of proofs and signs, by affirming what he knows of God; he follows instead the apophatic path of negation, the via negativa which leads to God by way of what St. John of the Cross calls the "night of faith" [Ascent 108ff]. Like John, Binx can only assert that God is "not this, nor this, nor this" [Ascent 67]. He is incapable of domesticating mystery, as his mother seems to do [Moviegoer 115-16]. (187)
Newkirk's interpretation opens up fruitful connections to Buckley's emphasis on apophatic mysticism, especially that of John of the Cross, as a specifically religious form of intellectuality. Revealing the pitfalls of arguing for God's existence in a scientifically demonstrable way, Buckley does not so much "refute" Freud or Feuerbach as he does draw upon apophatic mysticism--the "negative way," if you like--as an experiential process that points beyond experience and concepts to the infinite mystery of God. John of the Cross's dark encounter with God prompts us to frame questions about God not as a conclusion to be inferred, but as a presence to be encountered within a concrete intersubjective matrix. In a related manner, Lonergan, in his essay "Time and Meaning," employs the example of John of the Cross to explain his understanding of a specific kind of meaning, which he refers to as "incarnate meaning" (Lonergan 94-121). In his explanation, he distinguishes the respective ways in which mystics and metaphysicians encounter reality. To put it succinctly, whereas metaphysicians think of reality in its totality, mystics more comprehensively and holistically experience this reality. "John of the Cross," writes Lonergan, "is a manifestation, a symbolic manifestation, of that experience of reality in its totality" (102).
PERCY reinforces his skepticism about proving God in a scientific way in his final novel, The Thanatos Syndrome (1987). Whereas his illumination of the inadequacy of a detached, scientific approach to God's existence in the The Moviegoer is cast in the context of everydayness and existential malaise, the polemic in The Thanatos Syndrome takes place in a much more urgent, albeit less artistic, tone. Percy's concern for the destruction of human life--the demonic century of deprivation as he describes it--sets the context. Fr. Rinaldo Smith, a failed, eccentric, alcoholic priest, who resembles the fourth-century ascetic St. Simeon Stylites, declares the following to Tom More (also the protagonist in Love in the Ruins): "It is not a question of belief or unbelief. Even if such things were all proved, if the existence of God, heaven, hell, sin were all proved as certainly as the distance to the sun is proved, it would make no difference at all, would it?" Tom More asks why such proof would not make a difference, and Smith responds, "Because the words no longer signify ... Because the words have been deprived of their meaning" (118). In a further conversation with Tom More toward the end of the novel, Fr. Smith revisits this theme:
Sure, just consider. Even if the truths of religion could be proved to you one, two, three, it wouldn't make much difference, would it? One hundred percent of astronomers have discovered that the universe was created from nothing. The explanation was obvious but it does not avail. Who can handle it? It does not signify. It is boring to think of. Ninety-seven percent of astronomers are still atheists. Do you blame them? They are also boring. The only thing more boring would be if the ninety-seven percent all converted, right? It follows that there must be some other force at work, right? (364)
In light of contemporary explorations of the relationship between "the new cosmology and religion," Kieran Quinlan suggests that Fr. Smith's connection to the atheism of the astronomers may indicate a certain "ignorance of the complexity of the problem" (206). It is not my intention to engage Quinlan in a sustained conversation here; again, his multifaceted and trenchant critique of Percy certainly deserves more than a superficial reference. Nevertheless, however exaggerated Percy's statistics may be, the insights of Michael Buckley validate Percy's larger concern: to highlight the inadequacy of grounding our evidence for God on the foundations of the natural sciences.
We have treated thus far Percy's attention to the mystery of the human person and the kind of religious intellectuality revealed in the castaway's dynamic openness to meaningful and truthful (transcendental) news. We have also noted his consistent polemic against a detached, scientific approach to God's existence. We now turn to the importance of personal, historical (categorical) disclosure in his discourse about religious belief, highlighting several examples, including: Percy's fraternity brother, the Jews, Lonnie of The Moviegoer, and Fr. Smith of The Thanatos Syndrome. Recall that, for Buckley, the categorical and transcendental dimensions of religious experience constitute a complex interchange of yearning and disclosure, and together they shape a specifically religious form of intellectuality.
PERCY often hesitated to explain his conversion to the Catholic Church: "When it comes to grace, I get writer's block" (Signposts 343). In addition to the shift of horizons in the sanatorium described above, Percy recounts what one might judge at first glance to be a rather insignificant fact; namely, the impact made on him by a fraternity brother who went to daily Mass:
When I was in college, I lived in the attic of a fraternity house with four other guys. God, religion, was the furthest thing from our minds and talk--from mine, at least. Except for one of us, a fellow who got up every morning at the crack of dawn and went to Mass. He said nothing about it and seemed otherwise normal. (343)
Yet, he refers to his roommate's "strange behavior" as one of the many memories and insights that, even if it did not "cause" his conversion, at least made room "for this most mysterious turning in one's life" (344). Percy captures here the "categorical" dimension described by Buckley. His fraternity brother's example represents a concrete historical experience by which he was drawn to the disclosure of holiness, an event which created, in part, the conditions for his own mysterious assent to the reality of God.
A more important categorical theme for Percy, in terms of import for his corpus as a whole, is the existence and witness of the Jews. In his essay "Why Are You Catholic?" Percy suggests that the Jews--"their unique history, their suffering and achievements, what they started (both Judaism and Christianity) and their presence in the here and now"--disclose a piece of news to a castaway in a predicament (312). The importance of the Jews for the dynamism of belief and unbelief permeates Percy's novels. In The Moviegoer, for example, Binx as narrator posits, in light of his identification with the exilic character of being Jewish in the modern world, that "when a man awakes to the possibility of a search and when such a man passes a Jew in the street for the first time, he is like Robinson Crusoe seeing the footprint on the beach" (89). John F. Desmond has argued that a specific triadic relationship comprises the core of Binx's search in The Moviegoer. Percy strategically situates his discussion of the Jews, as Desmond has argued, between his reflection on his father's fatal despair and an important conversation with his beloved brother, Lonnie, who represents a central categorical disclosure of holiness in the novel. Judaism and Christianity reveal for Percy God's active presence in history, shown in the covenant with the Hebrews and in the incarnate Word--events that radically redefine the meaning and direction of history (Signposts 312-313; Desmond 53). Percy revisits the role of the Jews in The Thanatos Syndrome and engages a theme we treated above, namely, the contemporary devaluation of religious language. In the midst of a series of word games with Tom More, Fr. Smith says the following about the Jews:
"That's the only sign of God which has not been evacuated by an evacuator," he says moving his shoulders.
"What sign is that?"
"You got it, Doc." (123)
As Percy reinforces in his essay "Why Are You Catholic?": "The Jews are a stumbling block to theory. They cannot be subsumed under any social or political theory ... The Jews are both a sign and a stumbling block" (Signposts 312). In his discourse on the Jews, Fr. Smith adds, "Since the Jews were the original chosen people of God, a tribe of people who are still here, they are a sign of God's presence which cannot be evacuated. Try to find a hole in that proof!" (123). It is not our intention here to evaluate the plausibility of Percy's argument. Rather, the aim is to indicate Percy's emphasis on the historical, categorical manifestation of religious meaning in the form of the Jews.
Binx's ailing half-brother, Lonnie, who dies toward the end of The Moviegoer, also serves as a memorable disclosure of the presence of God in the kind of personal and intersubjective matrix emphasized by Buckley. In unsentimental fashion, Lonnie serves revelatory and salvific roles in his relationship with Binx. Binx comments, for example:
He is my favorite, to tell the truth. Like me, he is a moviegoer. He will go see anything. But we are good friends because he knows I do not feel sorry for him. For one thing, he has the gift of believing that he can offer his sufferings in reparation for men's indifference to the pierced heart of Jesus Christ. For another thing, I would not mind so much trading places with him. His life is a serene business. (137)
Unlike so much of the impoverished religious language commented on by Percy throughout his writings, Lonnie's "words are not worn-out" (162). In contrast to conversations "overtaken by death" throughout the novel, Lonnie "gives language new life" (Ciuba 78). Binx reveals the authenticity and signifying effect of his half-brother's religious example:
After I kiss him good-by, Lonnie calls me back. But he doesn't really have anything to say. Wait. What? He searches the swamp, smiling. Do you think that Eucharist-- Yes? He forgot and is obliged to say straight out: "I am still offering my communion for you." (165)
Binx acknowledges in sincerity his awareness of this Eucharistic gift. Prompted by Lonnie's query, their conversation ends with a mutual acknowledgment of love for one another. In Percy's vision, Lonnie mediates the divine to Binx as "a living sign of the Word in the world, linked to the Eucharist, the sacrament of community" (Desmond 54). Lonnie's question about Binx's love reinforces "Percy's belief that language is fundamentally intersubjective" (Ciuba 78). Lonnie's words "make a risky adventure into communion that inspires Binx to answer in kind" (79). Lonnie, in fact, like Dante's Beatrice, "leads Binx to his final love" (79). As Gary Ciuba remarks, "The moviegoer's life of casual seductions provides no remedies for the malaise after the knowing love shared with his half brother. Binx discovers a similar renewal in the midst of doom only with the woman who also lives for the new order brought by catastrophe, Kate Cutrer" (79). A fuller analysis of The Moviegoer in this regard might also consider Binx's marriage to Kate as a categorical disclosure of grace. The aim here was simply to offer the example of Lonnie as a key disclosure of holiness that made possible Binx's coming to faith.
In conclusion, how do we speak about the mysterious relationship between the human quest and divine disclosure in an age transformed by science, technology, and consumerism? Such a question invites us to widen our horizons to a certain kind of religious intellectuality that transcends rationalism, scientism, and fundamentalism. Our examination of Walker Percy in light of Michael Buckley's historical and theological analysis of belief and unbelief has enabled us to explore such an expansion of horizons. Buckley's illumination of the inadequacy of grounding our God-talk in the methods of the natural sciences and his retrieval of a particular kind of religious intellectuality has aided in our re-reading of some key themes in Percy's work. Percy's transition from scientism to a broader concern for the human existential condition, and ultimately his appropriation of a Catholic vision of the universe, enabled him to embrace both the priority of Judeo-Christian revelation and the philosophical search as legitimate moments in the life of faith. Percy communicates a vision of persons as searchers, as castaways, as pilgrims (e.g., the amnesiac castaway, Binx Bolling, and Tom More), but also persons who might be transformed by the kind of knowledge that can only be characterized as news, by a distinctively religious intellectuality mediated concretely through categorical disclosures of holiness (e.g., Lonnie, Ft. Smith, Percy's roommate, the Jews, the Incarnation). In "The Holiness of the Ordinary" (1989), Percy succinctly captures what he believed to be the distinguishing vision of Judeo-Christianity:
... its emphasis on the value of the individual person, its view of man as a creature in trouble, seeking to get out of it, and accordingly on the move. Add to this anthropology the special marks of the Catholic Church: the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, which, whatever else they do, confer the highest significance upon the ordinary things of this world, bread, wine, water, touch, breath, words, talking, listening--and what do you have? You have a man in a predicament and on the move in a real world of real things, a world which is a sacrament and a mystery; a pilgrim whose life is a searching and a finding. (Signposts 369)
Buckley, Michael J. At the Origins of Modern Atheism. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987.
--. Denying and Disclosing God: The Ambiguous Progress of Modern Atheism. New Haven: Yale UP, 2004.
Ciuba, Gary M. Walker Percy: Books of Revelations. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1991.
Desmond, John F. Walker Percy's Search for Community. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2004.
Dupuy, Edward J. Autobiography in Walker Percy: Repetition, Recovery, and Redemption. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1996.
Lonergan, Bernard. Philosophical and Theological Papers 1965-1980. Ed. Robert C. Croken and Robert M. Doran. Vol. 17. Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2004.
Newkirk, Terrye. "Via Negativa and the Little Way: The Hidden God of The Moviegoer." Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature 44.3 (1992): 183-202.
Percy, Walker. Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. New York: The Noonday Press, 1983.
--. Signposts in a Strange Land. Ed. Patrick Samway. New York: The Noonday Press, 1991.
--. "The Message in the Bottle." The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other. New York: The Noonday Press, 1975. 119-149.
--. The Moviegoer. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1961.
--. The Thanatos Syndrome. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1987.
--. "Why Are You Catholic?" Signposts in a Strange Land. Ed. Patrick Samway. New York: The Noonday Press, 1991. 304-315.
Quinlan, Kieran. Walker Percy: The Last Catholic Novelist. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1996.
Sykes, John D., Jr. Flannery 0 'Connor, Walker Percy, and the Aesthetic of Revelation. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2007.
Tolson, Jay. Pilgrim in the Ruins: A Life of Walker Percy. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1992.
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|Author:||Rosenberg, Randall S.|
|Publication:||Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2011|
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