On Understanding Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O'Connor

Illustration by Ande Cook

“Sometimes Flannery O ’Connor turns readers away bewildered by her violence and seemingly hostile attitude toward life. Perhaps in her writing she is like the peacock who does not present its glory when the observer wants it, nor, even when it spreads its tail, immediately displays the “best” side. What the viewer has to accept first is the peacock’s rear:

When the peacock has presented his back, the spectator will usually begin to walk around him to get a front view; but the peacock will continue to turn so that no front view is possible. The thing to do then is to stand still and wait until it pleases him to turn. When it suits him, the peacock will face you. Then you will see in a green-bronze arch around him a galaxy of gazing, haloed suns. (Flannery O’Connor: Mystery and Manners (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969), pp. 9-10).

To seek out and demand the beautiful directly (or the happy or the edifying) does not bring results from Flannery O ’Connor either. Like the peacock she continues to present her awkward characters in their funda­mental weakness and need of salvation.” (Entire excerpt is from Flannery O’Connor and the Peacock by David R. Mayer)

Explanatory “footnote” from Manifest Propensity: This post aims to merely present a few hints for understanding Flannery O’Connor, for those interested, through the beautiful artwork of Ande Cook and the excerpt from an essay by David R. Mayer. An understanding of her life and mysterious writings are well worth pursuing and these two sources I’ve shared in this post seem to quite ably set one on the right course for that pursuit.

BMC @ Manifest propensity, 2016.

Questions & comments are always welcomed. Thanks for reading. (Now go read Flannery!)

 

The Paradox of the Cross – Does God Play Dice with the Universe?

220px-Einstein_1921_by_F_Schmutzer_-_restoration

Einstein once said that God “does not play dice with the universe.”

I think what he meant was that the universe is governed by unchanging laws of physics, rather than inherent randomness. Of course Einstein said this while contemplating the inherent randomness of particles evident in Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle.”

Einstein never reconciled the apparent contradiction between “macro” order and “micro” randomness. He recognized mystery in the hidden physics of the universe, but in a sense “trusted” reliable evidence and therefore concluded the “contradiction” must be a paradox, some solution must exist.

But still, many people complain that “God” seems to “play dice” with human beings, by not making everything plain to us. 

Einstein’s belief that “God” does not “play dice” related to the natural universe, but what about the moral universe? Is everything God says or does perfectly intelligible there? And if God allows or even ordains paradox, does that amount to “playing dice” or unnecessary elusiveness?

What if the most important act of God for humanity was veiled in a master paradox, so that our “natural reason” causes us to not recognize it for what it is?

But what if God also plainly tells the meaning of the paradox, and also reveals this master paradox was “crafted”? This paper will explore the “revelation” of the master paradox, but without doubt not all mysteries have been revealed. But following Einstein’s lead I think we can find enough is revealed by God to trust in the face of remaining mystery.

So what is God’s master paradox? It is the contradiction between two understandings of the meaning of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth around 30 AD in the Roman Empire. Paul wrote that,

1:18 “The word of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us who are saved it is the power of God.”

The Apostle Paul had to learn the hard way about God’s use of paradox. In fact his misunderstanding was so complete that Paul persecuted to the death those that believed “the word of the cross.” Nevertheless God chose Paul, and used him to reveal that “the cross of Christ” was God’s most important work for humankind, and also that its meaning is hidden in paradox, and that ultimately God’s love was behind the “corrective” use of paradox.

The paradox then, is that “the word of the cross” is understood either as “foolishness” or “the power of God” and how we perceive the cross of Christ indicates whether we are “perishing” or “saved.”

The paradox occurs because there is the plain appearance of what the crucifixion of Jesus was, and then there is the “explanation” given by God (in the New Testament) of what the crucifixion of Jesus “meant.” And these seem on the face of it, to be mutually exclusive points of view. So is there a solution to this “contradiction” between what Jesus’ death was and what the New Testament says it meant?

First, what would death on a cross mean in the Roman Empire? It would mean nothing more than a cruel means of execution for despised criminals or condemned slaves.

Second, what did the death of Jesus on a cross mean to Paul (and the early Christians)? They believed that Jesus of Nazareth was Israel’s messiah. But even Israel’s ancient scriptures seemed to be against this preposterous idea, for the law declared that any person executed and “hung on a tree” for publicly display meant that that person had been cursed by God. And yet Paul believed that Jesus was the powerful “warrior messiah” of Israel?

So here is the paradox stated more boldly: Jesus who died in utter shame and weakness, cursed by God and forsaken by men – is the messiah, the very “power” and “wisdom” of God on earth. 

Isn’t it obvious that the idea is “foolishness’?

Well, lets give Paul a hearing. After all Paul himself once believed it was foolishness, and then dramatically changed his mind.

So Paul explained that God has chosen to do things that appear to us as foolish, in order to subvert our “wisdom” that in reality is foolishness. Paul says that GOD has said he would do this:

1:19 For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, And the discernment of the discerning will I bring to nought.

We can’t argue against this, for Israel’s scriptures plainly predict that God will do this some time. But would he choose to be “paradoxical” about “messiah?” And if so, why? Has God set us up to fail? Can’t he give us a break?

Paul in effect replies by saying “people… this is the break.” It is the break because we have tried to find God with our wisdom and have failed. And what’s worse, we then boast in that wisdom that has proven futile for knowing God. Paul wrote,

1:20 Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

1:21 For seeing that in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom knew not God, it was God’s good pleasure through the foolishness of the preaching to save them that believe.

1:27 but God chose the foolish things of the world, that he might put to shame them that are wise; and God chose the weak things of the world, that he might put to shame the things that are strong;

1:28 and the base things of the world, and the things that are despised, did God choose, yea and the things that are not, that he might bring to nought the things that are:

1:29 that no flesh should glory before God.

Most of us would probably agree that in the main, humankind’s philosophers and religious leaders have not led us to a definitive knowledge of God. Furthermore, it seems to be the epitome of madness that a “crucified messiah”  could be the definitive action of God. The “God” that says this seems to be “playing dice” because is simply against all reason.

But Paul was thorough in communicating what was revealed to him: a deeper look at the cross and at man’s supposed “wisdom” so that God’s hidden power and wisdom can become evident. 

1:22 Seeing that Jews ask for signs, and Greeks seek after wisdom:

1:23 but we preach Christ crucified, unto Jews a stumbling-block, and unto Gentiles foolishness;

1:24 but unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.

Many, with a religious bent, ask for signs because they want a “plain” display of God’s power. Therefore they “stumble” at the idea of the “power of God” in a crucified messiah. So their question is how can the “word of the cross” be God’s power?

Others, with a philosophical bent, seek after wisdom because if anything God must simply make sense! And it does not make sense that God, the ‘unmoved mover,’ the ‘reason’ behind all reason somehow demonstrates wisdom in this crucified man. So their question is how can the “word of the cross” be God’s wisdom?

Paul’s answer is that what the cross was, was not revealed until Jesus was resurrected from the dead showing that he was the “Lord of glory.”

2:7 but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, even the wisdom that hath been hidden, which God foreordained before the worlds unto our glory:

2:8 which none of the rulers of this world hath known: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory

Paul’s provides much more detail in his many letters to the early churches explaining all that actually occurred at the cross.

The Holy Spirit revealed to Paul that these things had been God’s plan all along, actually hidden in Israel’s scriptures, veiled in mystery until then.

Oftentimes the true nature of events in life is hidden. There is the appearance, and then there is the reality. It is generally wise to suspend judgment until “all the facts” and the consequences are discovered and evaluated.

In the popular movie “Gran Torino” the story builds to the climactic confrontation between good and evil with no real hope of a favorable outcome. Walt, the cantankerous old widower played by Clint Eastwood, had gradually befriended his young immigrant neighbors that had been harassed, violently abused, and thereby controlled by a ruthless gang. After one of their most horrific ‘warning’ attacks on the sister, Walt’s young friend wanted to exact revenge for her, knowing that this would undoubtedly bring his own death. But old Walt devised a non-violent solution which also prevented the boy from killing and ensured future safety for the sister and the entire neighborhood. Walt’s wise plan was “hidden in mystery” from all and was only shown to be “powerful” after the conflict. And of course, this solution required his sacrificial death.

In the final confrontation, Walt appeared to be weak and foolish, but proved in the end to have been strong and wise. 

Driven by love for him, Walt thwarted the “wisdom” of his young friend which would have been suicidal foolishness. And driven by love, Walt “became” weakness to enact power effective for salvation.

In the end the “cycle of vengeance” was broken and justice was enabled through Walt’s self-sacrifice.

Gran Torino is fictional, but it powerfully portrays the types of realities that were operative in the cross of Jesus the Christ where utter weakness overcame death, sacrificial love overcame foolishness, so that true wisdom and salvation prevailed. Here we have barely skimmed the surface of all that transpired at the cross of Christ, but can glimpse how God worked wise and mighty wonders therein.

So does God “play dice with the universe?” No, but much is still veiled in mystery. Yet, in the cross of Christ enough is revealed so we may boast in the loving power and wisdom of God.

All scriptures are from 1 Corinthians, The American Standard Version of the Bible

Copyright 2014 by Bryan M. Christman

Thanks for reading. Comments and questions are welcomed.

 

The Happy Endings of Children’s Books : “An Unexpected Gift from on High” or merely Freud’s phenomena of “Wish-Fulfillment”?

A Series of...

“If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book.” (A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Bad Beginning, by Lemony Snicket)

Many people, at least since the time of Freud, have held that belief in God (and by extension the “Happy Ending”) is nothing more than the phenomena of wish-fulfillment. An interesting treatment of an answer to Freud by C. S. Lewis can be found here where the PBS documentary “The Question of God” was reviewed.

I was recently reading the book “Beyond Words” by Frederick Buechner, who writes the following which to my mind also sheds some light on the question of faith as wish-fulfillment. Buechner points out that children, who are more apt to demonstrate the natural response of humans to the mystery of life, do not take the “happy ending” for granted. Continue reading