What does it mean to believe in something beyond reason? How can we know the truth if we cannot trust our emotional responses?
A few days back The American Reader posted a remarkable letter from Flannery O’Connor to Betty Hester. It seems the novelist in 1955 began a long correspondence with Hester. Hester, a clerk in an Atlanta office, had written to O’Connor out of the blue.
The letter from September 6, 1955 reveals that Hester was no sycophantic fan. She had apparently accused O’Connor of fascism. As O’Connor defends in her letter,
“A higher paradox confounds emotion as well as reason and there are long periods in the lives of all of us, and of the saints, when the truth as revealed by faith is hideous, emotionally disturbing, downright repulsive. Witness the dark night of the soul in individual saints. Right now the whole world seems to be going through a dark night of the soul.”
For those of us outsiders trying to understand Fundamentalist America, these brief sentences can help. The cultural divide seems deepest when it comes to the origins of truth. For citizens of what we’re calling Fundamentalist America, truth can come from something beyond and above ourselves. As O’Connor explained to Hester, “the thought of everyone lolling about in an emotionally satisfying faith is repugnant to me.” In other words, for many religious conservatives–even those without O’Connor’s gift for expression–truth is not simply a result of our own feelings and cogitations. Truth exists outside of us. Our job is to submit to truth, not merely to quest for our own individual explanations.
This vision of truth sits hard with folks like me. I was always taught to question, to doubt, to inquire skeptically into every notion. Truth, the way I was raised, came from tearing down the accumulations of irrational tradition to get at the core of what is real. You’ll know you’ve found the truth, the nostrum went, when you feel it deep down inside.
O’Connor offers a very different vision. Her prescription for truth and truth-seeking help explain to us outsiders how someone can be intelligent and yet believe in things beyond reason. How, for instance, can someone who knows the scientific evidence for evolution continue to believe in a young-earth creation? For folks like me, such things seem outlandish. And skeptics such as Richard Dawkins can only conclude that creationists must be “ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).”
O’Connor’s letter gives us a different explanation. The truth, for O’Connor, does not derive first from our reason. It does not need to satisfy our feelings or our desires. Rather, the truth might be “hideous,” but truth nonetheless.