Flannery O’Connor: Orthodox Progressive?

Is it possible to be theologically orthodox while maintaining a progressive social outlook? Can I hold more traditional beliefs about God as well as dreams of a more tolerant, equal society? These are questions I ask myself.

Here in Northern Ireland, the phrase ‘orthodox progressive’ might sound like an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. Most of us have seen at least a glimpse — others more than we’d care to say — of that old-time Belfast brew of fire-and-brimstone preaching shaken together with traditional ‘family values’ morality which has dominated conversation on theological and social issues here for decades. But is the stereotypical formula of orthodox theology and a distaste for social progress really the only recipe for being a Christian? How do we thin this mixture of ideological commitments in order for a refreshing stream of alternative ideas to flow?

One answer comes from an unlikely source: 1950s and 60s rural Georgia, the pounding heart of the Bible Belt in the heyday of American revivalism. This was the culture in which Flannery O’Connor lived and moved and had her being, yet O’Connor, as a Roman Catholic, was an anomaly in the predominantly Protestant American South. This is one possible font of inspiration for her evocative portrayals of what it means to be an outsider, and for a person to exist in a strange world with which they are at odds.

Let’s get our bearings by looking at O’Connor’s orthodox credentials before considering her progressivism. A practising Catholic for the duration of her short life, O’Connor prized her ability to inject ‘a nasty dose of orthodoxy’ into the theological thinking of her contemporaries. At a certain ‘Symposium on Religion and Art,’ O’Connor narrates in one of her letters, she criticised Emerson for his repudiation of the Lord’s Supper in direct contradiction to her fellow speakers, whose goal was to leave their listeners with ‘a stomach full of liberal religion.’ Her limited patience with any rethinking of the sacrament was driven by her orthodox belief that the body and blood of Christ are present in the communion elements. For O’Connor, a handful of theological matters were simple necessities. Is there anything wrong, or even amiss, with this approach to theology, however, when taken with a progressivist respect for minority identities?

Perhaps O’Connor’s theological orthodoxy is best illustrated in her debut novel, Wise Blood (1952). In this darkly comic tale, O’Connor lampoons, in the most laughable of terms, one man’s ill-fated quest to purge the Christianity of the Deep South of every trace of orthodoxy. Hazel Motes’ creed is simple: ‘the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way.’ His church is ‘the Church Without Christ.’ Bursting with morbid humour throughout, the narrative reaches a farcical climax whenever a disciple of Motes, not believing in the resurrection of the body and in search of a ‘new jesus’ to replace the risen Christ, breaks into the local museum and absconds with a mummified corpse that will do the job.

Though not overtly cautionary in tone, Wise Blood is a warning against the follies of abandoning theological orthodoxy wholesale. This is apparent from a passage in which O’Connor describes the fictional radio show, ‘Soulsease,’ a parody of the many shallow spiritualities which replace religious doctrine with a lethargic soup of ‘Mood, Melody, and Mentality.’ Characterising unorthodox religion as devoid of any substantive truth-claims, O’Connor satirises the mass-market appeal of modern spirituality with its alliterative slogans and obvious consumerism. She would go on to besiege the root of this thinking again, as detailed above, at the ‘Religion and Art’ conference.

So much for the orthodox theological commitments of O’Connor, but what of her social progressivism? We now turn to one of her short stories from around the mid-point of her career, “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” as an example of both O’Connor’s loyalty to tradition and her love of humanity.