A Hideous Truth: Flannery O’Connor on Fascism and Fundamental Belief

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.

Flannery O’Connor in 1955. Image source: The American Reader

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.

Literary Fundamentalism: Specific Belief from Dappled Things

Pope Benedict XVI has made some very fundamentalist statements lately.  He wants a smaller, purer church.  He rebukes dissidents and suggests a “radicalism of obedience.”

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.