Damian J. Ference suggests in an intriguing article on Dappled Things that Pope Benedict’s theology ties in closely with that of novelist Flannery O’Connor. As Ference notes, the tightest connection between the two writers is their ferocious insistence on specific belief. In Ference’s words,
Being an admirer of both writers, it has struck me that there is a deep connection between them, that as Catholic Christians, Flannery O’Connor and Benedict XVI both ground not only their work, but their very lives, in belief in the Incarnation, and that both O’Connor and Benedict are unapologetic in working to bring their readers to a fuller understanding of and appreciation for the specificity of the person of Jesus Christ.
O’Connor and Benedict both insist on what I will call specific belief, which understands Jesus Christ to be the Son of God, the turning point of human history, the Savior of humanity, and the one who reveals the meaning of human existence to the world. And both writers work tirelessly to expose the weaknesses of what I will call vague belief, the position which understands Jesus, not as the Son of God, but simply as one religious figure among many, and that belief in him in is neither a matter of life nor death.
As Ference argues, there is much in modern American culture that militates against specific belief. In a world that places a high moral value on both uncertainty and toleration, any belief system that insists on its own unique truth-claims will be subject to withering attack.
Ference makes the indisputable point that both O’Connor’s and Ratzinger’s theologies are centrally concerned with this tension.
It seems to me, though, that the approach of the two writers is much further apart than Ference suggests. I’m no expert, and I’ll happily welcome corrections, but it seems to me O’Connor’s work recognizes the difficulties of reconciling orthodoxy with modernity. Though O’Connor insists on the need for specific belief, the power and beauty of her work largely results from the agonizing tension she maintains in many of her novels and stories. In O’Connor’s world, in other words, we need specific belief, but we can’t quite be sure we can believe specifically. Those who can and do are often tipped into the world of fanaticism and mute, violent, incomprehending orthodoxy.
Benedict’s orthodoxy wants to be much different. In his writings as Pope and in his earlier “Rottweiler” work, Pope Benedict encourages readers to overcome the tension O’Connor dwells upon. Benedict hopes to assert an articulate, rational, comprehendable orthodoxy. For Benedict, in other words, the violent need not bear it away.
For those of us hoping to understand the world of Fundamentalist America from the outside, Ference’s article raises another vital point. Too many people who don’t understand Fundamentalist America are quick to dismiss fundamentalism as somehow outside of modern intellectual culture. Ference’s article reminds us that a deep theological conservatism lies at the heart of some of the very best modern intellectual culture. Not only the work of Flannery O’Connor, but other writers such as Wendell Berry build themselves around the modern tension between orthodoxy and rootlessness. Beyond simplistic dismissals of orthodox belief as somehow trapped in a fundamentalist past, we need to recognize that fundamentalism is just as awkwardly at home in modern and post-modern American intellectual culture as is secularism or theological liberalism.