No Vague Believer: The Specificity of the Person of Christ According to Flannery O’Connor and Benedict XVI

Damian J. Ference

The Onion, America’s favorite satirical newspaper, featured a story with the headline, “Pope to Ease Up On Jesus Talk; Pontiff Trying Hard Not To Be So In- Your-Face With That Stuff.”1 Of course, the title is funny because it’s not true—it is actually the furthest thing from the truth. The article was published just as Benedict’s second volume of Jesus of Nazareth was being released, a work in which the Holy Father continues his life-long project of understanding the person of Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior of the world. Yet this is how satire works—it exposes the truth in a backhanded sort of way, disclosing what is present by means of what is absent.

Benedict XVI has never wavered in proclaiming that Jesus Christ is the turning point of human history, which is why the following excerpt from the Onion article works so well: “In a routine papal blessing Sunday at St. Peter’s Square, Benedict made far fewer mentions of Jesus than usual and only cited scripture twice, opting for such uncharacteristic phraseology as ‘Sorry if this sounds preachy,’ ‘I’m not here to judge,’ and ‘Hey this works for me, but by all means, feel free to do your own thing too.’”2

Although Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “I don’t know any new German theologians,” if she had lived long enough to read Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, she would have liked what she had found.3 (And I bet she would have really enjoyed the Onion article as well.) For both O’Connor and Benedict share a common faith and a common thesis—that the person of Jesus Christ is not simply one religious figure, or prophet, or political leader, or moral teacher among many—but that he truly is the Son of God, the Savior of the world, and that all of human history and the entire meaning of human existence rises and falls specifically on him—without exception. And both O’Connor and Benedict write for a similar audience, an audience that for the most part, thinks that Christian belief is absurd.

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 specifi city 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.

Specific Believers and Vague Believers

Although some scholars and critics tend to soft-peddle the issue of Flannery O’Connor’s Catholic faith, I will not—because she did not. Her belief was not vague—it was specific. Her Catholic faith was at the center of her life, and at the center of the Catholic faith is the belief in the suffering, death, and resurrection of the person of Jesus Christ—that he is the Son of God and Savior of the world. O’Connor said it herself in a variety of ways:

i.
“For I am no disbeliever in spiritual purpose and no vague believer. I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy. This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in its relation to that.”4
ii.
“I write the way I do because (not though) I am Catholic.”5
iii.
“Let me make no bones about it: I write from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy. Nothing is more repulsive to me than the idea of myself setting up a little universe of my own choosing and propounding a little immoralistic message. I write with a solid belief in all the Christian dogmas.”6
iv.
“If other ages felt less, they saw more, even though they saw with the blind, prophetical, unsentimental eye of acceptance, which is to say, of faith.  In the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness.  It is a tenderness which, long cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory.  When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror.  It ends in forced-labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.”7
v.
“I don’t really think the standard of judgment, the missing link, you spoke of that you fi nd in my stories emerges from any religion but Christianity, because it concerns specifi cally Christ and the Incarnation, the fact that there has been a unique intervention in history. It’s not a matter in these stories of Do Unto Others. That can be found in any ethical cultural series. It is the fact of the Word made flesh.”8

In one sense, writing as a Christian made things easier for O’Connor, because she didn’t have to invent a new world forher characters. Rather, she wrote her characters into the Fallen world—what she considered the “real world”—the world inneed of a Savior. But this also made things difficult. O’Connor explains, “One of the awful things about writing when you are a Christian is that for you the ultimate reality is the Incarnation, and nobody believes in the Incarnation; that is, nobody in youraudience. My audience are the people who think God is dead.”9 O’Connor admitted that it was for these people that she wasconscious of writing.10

Benedict XVI agrees with O’Connor that much of the world does indeed believe God is dead, or at least that “God has nothing to do.”11 Benedict argues that modern man is convinced that he is his own savior, particularly in the arenas of science and politics,and therefore has no need of any outside help. And if there is belief in God, it tends to be vague. Benedict notes that such belief, that is to say, vague belief, is far less specific and far less personal than Christian belief would propose.

First, with vague belief, Jesus is no longer considered the Son of God—Jesus is not divine—he is not God himself. Benedict explains, “Instead of being the man who is God, Christ becomes one who has experienced God in a special way. He is an enlightened one and therein is no longer fundamentally different from other enlightened individuals, for instance, Buddha.”12 In other words, with vague belief, Jesus simply becomes one good religious figure among many. In this view Jesus is not God, and therefore he offers nothing particular or unique to humanity, including salvation. He is no longer the way, the truth and the life, but a way, to some truth, about life. In vague belief Jesus loses his specifi city—he can be accepted or rejected, but neither is a matter of life or death.

Second, Benedict argues that not only does this modern movement of vague belief tend to strip Jesus of his divinity and his specifi city, but that vague belief also tends to diminish God’s personal nature, which is uniquely manifested in the person of Christ. Benedict concedes that, “Most people today still admit in some form or other that there is probably some such thing as a ‘supreme being.’ But people find it an absurd idea that this being should concern himself with man.”13 Vague belief keeps God at a distance—it prohibits God from being personal, relational, and intimate.

Moreover, Benedict explains that in vague belief “The question of whether God should be thought of as a person or impersonally now seems to be of secondary importance; no longer can an essential difference be noted between the theistic and nontheistic forms of religion. This view is spreading with astonishing rapidity.”14 In other words, with vague belief we tend to fade into a nebulous sort of spiritualism with no doctrine, no dogma, no person—and no savior.15 One religion (or religious practice) is as good as the next. God no longer personally communicates with us, and we no longer personally communicate with God.16 God has lost his name as well as the specific manifestation of himself as a person—the person of Jesus Christ.

At the center of what I have termed vague belief is the notion that Jesus is simply one religious figure among many and that God is without a name and therefore cannot enter into relationship with the world—nor would he want to, even if he could. Put simply, vague belief is a denial of revelation—a denial of the specificity of Christ. The way back to specific belief, therefore, will come by way of exposing the naiveté of vague belief, specifically by addressing the power of God’s name and proposing an adequate understanding of the person of Jesus Christ as Son of God and Savior of the world. Of course, this has been Benedict’s life-long project, beginning with Introduction to Christianity all the way to his latest volume of Jesus of Nazareth. But, this return to specific belief is a major component of O’Connor’s project as well.

O’Connor’s Remedy

Like Benedict XVI, Flannery O’Connor recognized that the modern reader was reluctant to accept the reality of the person Christ with specific belief. This is because vague belief enjoys a non-specific God with a non-specific name—a God that, if he can be known at all, is impersonal and therefore can place no demands on us. In other words, the God that vague belief enjoys is not the God of the Bible, he is not the God of specific belief.

Specific belief enjoys what O’Connor calls “an unlimited God and one who has revealed himself specifically.”17 That is to say, specific belief considers God as both transcendent and immanent. With theological precision O’Connor states her case: “(This God) is one who became man and rose from the dead. It is the one who confounds the senses and sensibilities, one known early on as a stumbling block. There is no way to gloss over the specification or to make it more acceptable to modern thought. This God is the object of ultimate concern and he has a name.”18 For O’Connor, this notion of God having a name is not to be taken lightly, for a name indicates that one can be known.

O’Connor addresses this theme of God’s name in her short stories The Turkey and The River.

Ruller McFarney

In The Turkey, eleven-year-old Ruller McFarney is out playing in a field alone when he spots a wild turkey and he tries to catch it. While in hot pursuit of the bird, he runs straight into a tree, which knocks the wind right out of him. Laying on the ground he says, “Nuts.” But then follows shortly after with a cautious “Oh hell.” In a minute, just “hell.” Then it begins.

“God,” he said.

He looked studiedly at the ground, making circles in the dust with his finger.

“God!” he repeated.

“God dammit,” he said softly. He could feel his face getting hot and his chest thumping all of a sudden inside. “God dammit to hell,” he said almost inaudibly.

He looked over his shoulder but no one was there. “God dammit to hell, good Lord from Jerusalem,” he said. His uncle said “Good Lord from Jerusalem.” “Good Father, good God, sweep the chickens out the yard,” he said and began to giggle. His face was very red . . . . “Our Father Who art in heaven, shoot ‘em six and roll ‘em seven,” he said giggling again. Boy, she’d smack his head in if she could hear him. God dammit, she’d smack his goddam head in. He rolled over in a fit of laughter. God dammit, she’d dress him off and wring his neck like a goddam chicken. The laughing cut his side and he tried to hold it in, but every time he thought of his goddam neck, he shook again. He lay back on the ground, red and weak with laughter, not able to think of her smacking his goddam head in. He said the words over and over to himself and after a while he stopped laughing. He said them again but the laughing had gone out. He said them again but it wouldn’t start back up.19

Ruller’s rant of breaking the second commandment is hilarious, but it’s also a turning point in the story. His cussing is not vague—it is specific. As he calls God’s name he “makes circles in the dust with his finger” just as Jesus did when defending the woman caught in adultery. And when he says “Good Lord from Jerusalem” he speaks to a divine attribute of God—his goodness—yet he also speaks of a specific place where the Son of God dwelt—Jerusalem. And soon, Ruller stops laughing. Something serious is going on here. From this moment on, Ruller realizes that he is not alone. In some strange way he has called upon the living and true God and he finds himself in relationship with him. The narrator tells us that Ruller felt that “God must be wonderful” and that Ruller wanted to “do something for him.”20 Ruller experiences gratitude for God and wants to give something back to him. Like O’Connor, Ruller is no vague believer. Ruller’s God has a name and he knows him specifically. Moreover, Ruller is known by God, specifically.

Harry Ashfield

In The River, O’Connor does something similar with the character of Harry Ashfi eld. Little Harry is raised in a very modern home by parents who are secular materialists and whose vague belief is represented in the abstract watercolor hanging on the wall of their apartment. It is not until Harry spends a day with Mrs. Connin, a good Christian woman, that he begins his life of real belief—specific belief. O’Connor writes:

It occurred to him that he was lucky this time that they had found Mrs. Connin who would take you away for the day instead of an ordinary sitter who only sat where you lived or went to the park. You found out more when you left where you lived. He found out already this morning that he had been made by a carpenter named Jesus Christ. Before he had thought that it had been a doctor named Sladewall, a fat man with a yellow mustache who gave him shots and thought his name was Herbert, but this must have been a joke. They joked a lot where he lived. If he had thought about it before, he would have thought Jesus Christ was a word like “oh” or “damn” or “God,” or maybe somebody who had cheated them out of something sometime. When he asked Mrs. Connin who the man in the sheet with the picture over his head was, she had looked at him a while with her mouth open. Then she said, “That’s Jesus,” and she kept on looking at him.21

Through the person of Mrs. Connin, Harry is introduced to the person of Jesus Christ. Up until this point, Harry had never considered the specificity of Christ, that Jesus was really a person, let alone the Son of God. He never considered that God had a name and that God became a human being. But now everything has changed. Because God matters and because God took on matter in the Incarnation, Harry realizes that he can matter too. This is what eventually leads him to the river for baptism—he wants to count. And by the end of the story, it is this real belief in the living and true and specific God that will inspire him to “baptize himself and keep going this time until he (finds) the Kingdom of Christ in the river.”22 Like Ruller, when Harry finds the true God, he finds himself. In addition to addressing the intimate and personal nature of the Incarnate God through his name, Flannery O’Connor also addresses the specificity of Christ by way of image—or icon.

O.E. Parker

In Parker’s Back, O.E. Parker longs for a tattoo that will finally satisfy him, a tattoo that will complete him. He has been collecting tattoos his whole adult life, and his back is the only space left on his body without ink. After crashing his tractor into a tree and having a private revelation, he speedily drives to town to the tattoo parlor and tells the tattoo artist that he wants to see “the book you got with all the pictures of God in it.”23 When the artist asks Parker to be more specifi c, “What are you interested in? Saints, angels, Christs or what?” Parker responds, “God.” The artist wants him to be more precise, “Father, Son or Spirit?” “Just God,” Parker said impatiently. “Christ. I don’t care. Just so it’s God.”24 (Note that once again, O’Connor uses a violation of the second commandment to point to God’s specifi city, particularly in Christ.)

The tattoo artist hands Parker the book containing a widevariety of pictures of Jesus Christ and invites him to page through it. The artist tells him, “The up-t-date ones are in the back.” The up-to-date images of Jesus represent the Jesus of vague belief — watered-down and soft: “The Good Shepherd, Forbid Them Not, The Smiling Jesus, Jesus the Physician’s Friend.” (Think of “Buddy Christ” from the movie, Dogma.) As Parker makes his way from the back of the book to the front, the images of Jesus become less reassuring, more demanding, more orthodox, and I would argue, more specific.

Parker returned to the picture—the haloed head of a flat stern Byzantine Christ with all demanding eyes. He sat there trembling; his heart began slowly to beat again as if it were being brought to life by a subtle power.

“You found what you want?” the artist asked.

Parker’s throat was too dry to speak. He got up and thrust the book at the artist, opened at the picture.

“That’ll cost you plenty,” the artist said. “You don’t want all those little blocks though, just the outline and some better features.”

“Just like it is,” Parker said, “just like it is or nothing.”

“It’s your funeral,” the artist said, “but I don’t do that kind of work for nothing.”25

In the image of the Byzantine Christ, Parker finds the Christ of specific belief, and he knows that he must accept him as he is, as the Son of God and Savior of the world. It is not for Parker to make Christ less than he is, that is, to diminish his divinity and his specificity in order to make him more palatable. And Parker also knows that accepting Christ as he is will cost him plenty—it will cost him his life. The tattoo artist offers, “It’s your funeral,” as a way of pointing to the reality that specific belief in Christ calls for a death to self.
I began this essay with an article from The Onion about Pope Benedict XVI’s plan to “ease up on Jesus talk” — a joke. Of course, for Benedict and O’Connor, Jesus is anything but a joke. Yet if he is not a joke, then what is he? What is at the heart of specific belief in him? Why should anyone believe in him? In Benedict’s own words,

“What did Jesus actually bring, if not world peace, universal prosperity, and a better world? What has he brought?”26

Benedict answers his own question: The answer is very simple: God . . . . He has brought God, and now we know his face, now we can call upon him. Now we know the path that we human beings have to take in this world. Jesus has brought God and with God the truth about our origin and destiny: faith, hope, and love. It is only because of our hardness of heart that we think this is too little.27

It is this specific belief in the person of Jesus Christ (as the one who has brought God) that is at the very foundation of the writings of Benedict and O’Connor; it is this same specific belief that is also the foundation of their very lives. Any attempt to dismiss O’Connor’s Christ-centered worldview as accidental or overstated would be foolish.28

Endnotes

1 “Pope To Ease Up On Jesus Talk; Pontiff Trying To Be Not So In- Your-Face With That Stuff.” The Onion 47, (March 16, 2011), http:// www.theonion.com/articles/pope-to-ease-up-on-jesus-talk,19727 (accessed March 16, 2011).
2 Ibid.
3 Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being, ed. and intro. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1979), 449.
4 Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, sel. and ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1969), 32.
5 Habit of Being, 90.
6 Ibid., 147.
7 Mystery and Manners, 227.
8 Habit of Being, 227.
9 Ibid., 92.
10 Ibid.
11 Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, trans. J.R. Foster (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1969), 16.
12 Ibid., 21.
13 Ibid., 145.
14 Ibid., 22.
15 Consider the current fascination with, and participation in, yoga and meditation classes, not to mention the ever-expanding self-help
and new-age sections at bookstores.

16 Ibid., 23.
17 Mystery and Manners, 161.
18 Ibid.
19 Flannery O’Connor, Collected Works, “The Turkey,” (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971), 46-47.
20 Ibid., 51.
21 CW, The River, 163.
22 Ibid., 173.
23 CW, Parker’s Back, 521.
24 Ibid.
25 Ibid., 522.
26 Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: Vol. 1, trans. Adrian J. Walker (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 44.
27 Ibid.
28 I am using accidental here in two senses: “non-substantial” and “non-intentional.”

Comments

  1. Andkaras says

    I,m always so happy to hear that people still read Flannery Oconner.I hope some day she gains a following like G.K. Chesterton has with the Chesterton society. When I worked at a Catholic Book and supply store I promoted her every chance I got .To my dismayI have only one among all my aquaintences with whom I can discuss her works.Oh yes and I have a rooster named Peter.

  2. Michael gardner says

    I too believe O’Conner merits high praise in the Christian community. Strangely (but pleasingly) the only people who I know who’ve read her are anti-Christian. But even if she never gets recognition this side of the Day she is known and that pleases me.

    Also kudos to the author for such detailed careful scholarship. I can well imagine a “vague believer” approving of the description given to their beliefs.

  3. James R. Rellihan says

    Beautiful essay. I posted it every where I could. I have been praying that the cause of Flannery O’Connor for beatification and canonization would be introduced in the Church. Not only is she one of the best writers the world has ever seen but she lived her Catholic faith heroically by her clear out-spoken witness to Christ and the Church, moral integrity and patient acceptance of her sufferings. May the devotees to Flannery unite and start her cause for the good of our world and the glory of God!

  4. says

    Flannery O’Connor writes the way I wish I did. Nice piece. And you’re absolutely right. You can copy, paste and print that last sentence and carry it around with you. It’s nice to be reminded when we’re right. :)

  5. Bill M. says

    Excellent piece, but the passage from Mystery and Manners excerpted above seems to have been skewed, perhaps from formatting. It should read, “When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced-labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber . . .”.

    I only remember because it’s one of my favorite passages.

    • Liz O. says

      Can you help me break that sentence open? What is tenderness when it is detached from its source? I mean, is she talking about a kind of passive acceptance that says all things are good?

      • Deal Hudson says

        The logic of ‘tenderness leads to the gas chamber’ (also used by Walker Percy) goes like this:
        The ‘tender’ don’t want people to suffer — Eliminating pain from human existence is their highest value. Thus, a life is not worth living if a person is destined to ‘suffer.’ The relation to abortion and euthanasia is obvious Why the ‘gas chamber’? Those who sent the Jews to the gas chambers saw them as both a scourge to society, responsible for a variety of its ills, and a lower form of human life, who benefit from being relieved of their ‘miserable’ existence.

        • Liz O. says

          Thanks so much!

          Yes, this is an idea I completely agree with but expressed in a way I’d never heard. Working in the social services field, I see this brand of tenderness a lot.

          Thanks again!

  6. Deal Hudson says

    This comparison is very well done — too often the attempt to read a writer of fiction alongside a theologian ends up sacrificing the former to the latter. Mr. Ference holds the tension between the two very deftly, and does full justice to both. Bravo!

  7. kath says

    Michael — Flannery O’Connor is read by this Christian; and she is one of the main reasons I am Christian today, as I read my way back into the Catholic Church through great literature. As much as I love Chesterton and Lewis and their ideas and wit, it was Flannery’s Incarnational “specific” belief that hit me in the gut. Plus, she’s funny as shit.

  8. Mark D. says

    Maybe there is something wrong with me. I find it a chore to read Flannery O’Connor. Sitting down to a dose of O’Connor’s fiction reminds me of those Sundays when I go to Mass purely out of a sense of obligation.

  9. Deal Hudson says

    To Mark D. I know how you feel. There have been times in my life (63) when it felt like a chore to read the “classics” or listen to some of the “great” composers. I think it’s a matter of timing. For example, twenty years ago I listened to Haydn almost daily, now he borese a bit. I could get through Dostoevsky, now I devour him. Beethoven came to my ears late, as did the poetry of Auden. Art is not an obligation. Enjoy whatever you enjoy and keep an open mind: What seems a chore now may gleam in your hand a few years down the road. Beauty always surprises me, and I am grateful.