How Flannery O'Connor dealt with the relationship between sin and progressivism

It is quite common to hear the story that the Times London once sent a questionnaire to several famous writers, asking them “what is there? wrong with the world today?”. When GK Chesterton was asked the question, he had an interesting, if somewhat obvious, reaction. He did not blame the world’s problems on any external fact, such as a president, an economic program, or a political party. Furthermore, he did not take the opportunity to air his political and economic views in the pages of the Times. He knew that the world’s problems ran deeper than the political question. Chesterton knew that the problem with the world is sin. So he answered the question in a very simple way: “what is wrong with the world today is me”.

I was recently reminded of Chesterton’s answer when reading certain tales by Flannery O’Connor. Like Chesterton, Flannery O’Connor understood that what is wrong with the world is not our inability to adhere to certain political and economic currents, important as that is. What’s wrong with the world is sin. Therefore, if we are to change society through politics, it is first essential that we bring about change in ourselves. O’Connor expresses this well in the short story “All That Rises Must Converge”. The progressive must understand that he, and no one else, is the only source of evil in a world he cannot control. After realizing this, he must begin his journey of personal change, which must precede transformation in the world around him.

Sin and the Human Heart

A Catholic, Flannery O’Connor did not believe in the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity. But she emphasized the sinful character of human beings through her stories. Man is flawed, O’Connor believed, and capable of great evil. Any serious Christian writer, therefore, must make man’s sinful character the basis of his stories. O’Connor writes:

“The serious writer always begins by using the flaws of human nature, and usually points out flaws in otherwise admirable characters. Dramas are based on original sin, whether the writer thinks in theological terms or not. Any character in a serious novel must also carry the burden of a life with a meaning that goes beyond himself. The novelist does not write about people in a vacuum; he writes about people in a world where something is obviously missing, where there is a mystery in incompleteness and where the specific tragedy of our time must be exposed, and the novel tries to give the reader, in the form of a book, the experience of full human nature. in a given time. So the greatest dramas naturally involve the salvation or loss of the soul. When you don’t believe in the soul, there is no room for drama.”

The fundamental truth about man, especially contemporary man, is his sinful character. This flaw in human nature, for O’Connor, is a theme common to all of his tales. As Jessica Hooten Wilson wrote, O’Connor’s characters confront the flaws of human nature by realizing, however painful, what they lack. And what these characters lack is the wisdom of their own pride and hypocrisy; the awareness that they are sinners. In this regard, “O’Connor expresses something true and eternal in his stories: the fact that we are contaminated by sin and, because of that, we end up facing the knowledge of what we lack.”

According to O’Connor, the Christian novelist understands sin as a reality of human nature. Sin is not a mental illness or a consequence of the environment. Rather, it is a deliberate choice to offend God, a real offense with eternal consequences. As O’Connor herself writes:

“The Christian novelist is different from his pagan colleagues in that he recognizes sin as sin. In keeping with his cultural heritage, he does not see sin as a disease or a result of chance, but as a conscious choice to offend God, which involves an eternal future. Either the writer is serious about Salvation or he is not.”

This recognition of human nature has implications for political reform. What is wrong with the world is not, as many assume today, our inability to be loyal to any political project. Despite the ideologies that have dominated the West since the Enlightenment, it is not true that the world’s problems stem from our ideological infidelity. The utopians of the contemporary world want to change and improve society and human nature, but this is not possible. Politicians can be important, sure, but our problems run much deeper. The world’s problems are not something we can solve overnight, protesting, shouting slogans or passing laws. Contemporary man has rejected God and, in doing so, has rejected the most important truth about himself: about the soul, sin, judgment and redemption.

Implications for Progressivism

This insight regarding the sinful character of human nature and its implications for progressivism are clear in the short story “Everything that Ascends Must Converge”. In this short story, the reader gets to know Julian, a recent college graduate who wants to be a writer. He lives with his mother, a widow who worked hard to feed, clothe and pay for her son’s education. For various reasons, Julian hates his mother. He is selfish, irascible, spiteful and proud. And he is especially angry that his mother exemplified the racism of the American South in the pre-civil rights period. The mother is a complicated character and Julian doesn’t see any good in her. He is disgusted with his mother and wants to “teach her a lesson”. We contemporary readers consider Julian’s fight against racism something of praise and a worthy cause. He is intellectually vain and hates his mother and these two things are the reasons behind his anti-racism struggle.

Julian realizes that his mother doesn’t realize his mistake. She is a racist and snobbish woman who lives in a time of intense cultural transformation. Clinging to old ideas of social decorum and southern aristocratic behavior, she doesn’t realize she’s clinging to old notions of society and racial equality. At the same time, Julian sees himself as someone better than those around him, especially his mother. He doesn’t realize that he is like everyone else in society – imperfect and fallen.

Julian and his mother are on a bus, along with a black woman and her son. The four characters get off at the same stop, when Julian’s mother, without realizing it, makes an offensive gesture. That is, Julian’s mother gives the black woman’s son a coin. Offended, the woman takes down Julian’s mother. Not realizing that his mother is suffering a stroke because of the violence of the blow, Julian says that the mother deserved it.

Suddenly, however, Julian realizes that something is wrong. and that the mother is having a stroke. At this moment, for the first time in history, Julian shows compassion for his mother. But it’s too late. Julian’s mother cannot understand and is about to die. O’Connor writes:

“’Mother!’ he shouted. ‘Darling, my love, wait!’ Staggering, she fell to the pavement. He ran and crouched down beside her, yelling ‘Mummy, Mummy!’ He turned her onto her back. Her face was all disfigured. One of her eyes stared open to the left as she remained confused. The other one clung to him, analyzing him and, finding nothing, closing himself.

‘Wait, wait a minute! seek help towards some lights on that he saw ahead. ‘Help! Help! ‘, he shouted, but her voice didn’t come out. The lights were fading away and Julian felt his footsteps getting him nowhere. The darkness seemed to call him back to his mother, delaying his entry into the world of guilt and suffering for a while.”

Julian realizes for the first time what is to come. wrong with the world. The world’s problem, he realizes, has nothing to do with politics or his mother’s prejudices. On the contrary, the world’s problem is him and his sins, and such a problem cannot be easily solved by politics. After this tragic event, Julian walks towards the personal redemption that must be achieved before political activism.

Once again, we see the idea that the progressive must perceive in him, and not in the another, the source of evil in the world that he cannot control. The reform of self must happen any form of political activism. If the progressive does not pursue virtue, he will not be able to have a positive impact on society as a whole. This idea is defended by Henry Edmonson in the collection A Political Companion to Flannery O’Connor . Edmonson writes:

“To wait, then, for the individual to improve himself before trying to transform the people around him is the natural order of things and also a guarantee. This adds humility and self-questioning to the progressive’s mindset, which necessarily softens the impact of the pursuit of ideological purity, without harming the progressive’s moral energy.”

As O’ once wrote Connor in a review of “Order and History”, by Eric Voegelin, Plato is right when he says that “the evils of the soul contaminate society”. As Eric Voegelin himself said, we who inhabit the modern world are wrong to assume, sometimes without even thinking straight, that political activism can precede personal transformation. The traditional view holds that “society is an extension of man”. This was the wisdom of thinkers like Plato and Aristotle in antiquity and St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages. This is, in fact, one of the main ideas in the great tradition of Western politics. The progressive view, however, says that “man is a reduced version of society”. Wisely, O’Connor defended the traditional view. She understood that without the intimately ordered soul, there can be no orderly society, and she expresses this eternal truth in her tales.

Darrell Falconburg is a professor of humanities. and PhD candidate at Faulkner University.

©2022 The Imaginative Conservative. Published with permission. Original in English
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