Walker Percy on Original Sin

Walker Percy has, relatively recently, become one of my favourite authors. I have come to his work a little late, considering that I have been a devotee of many of his contemporaries for quite a long time. Anyway, I am currently reading Love in the Ruins, and in doing so came across a passage that seemed to me to sum up the unavoidability of discovering Original Sin in one’s daily life. Chesterton famously said that it was the only Christian doctrine that could really be proved, simply by picking up a newspaper. The excerpt below shows just how easy it is to observe in the man sitting right next to you. What I think this passage shows particularly well is the ever-present nature of Original Sin, its persistence even in the best us, as if (as taught by the Church) it is a kind of macula or stain on our souls.

Leroy Ledbetter stands by companionably. Like me he is seventh-generation Anglo-Saxon American, but unlike me he is Protestant, countrified, sweet-natured. He’s the sort of fellow, don’t you know, who if you run a ditch or have a flat tire shows up to help you.      

We were partners and owners of the old Paradise Bowling Lanes until the riot five years ago. In fact, the riot started when Leroy wouldn’t let a bushy-haired Bantu couple from Tougaloo College have an alley. I wasn’t there at the time. When Leroy told me about it later, an artery beat at his temple and the same metallic taste came in my throat. If I had been there…But on the other hand, was I glad that I had not been there?

“Lucky I had my learner ready,” Leroy told me.

“Your learner?” Then I saw his forearm flex and his big fist clench. “You mean you…”

“The only way to learn them is upside the head.”

“You mean you…?” The taste in my mouth was like brass.

Where did the terror come from? Not from the violence; violence gives release from terror. Not from Leroy’s wrongness, for if he were altogether wrong, an evil man, the matter would be simple and no cause for terror. No, it came from Leroy’s goodness, that he is a decent, sweet-natured man who would help you if you needed help, go out of his way and bind up a stranger’s wounds. No, the terror comes from the goodness and what lies beneath, some fault in the soul’s terrain so deep that all is well on top, evil grins like good, but something shears and tears deep down, and the very ground stirs beneath one’s feet.

Love in the Ruins (1971), p.152, Picador.

            We cannot escape Original Sin; cannot eliminate it by better education, better social housing or increased access to leisure time. In fact, given the enormous amount of ‘terror’ (such as described by Walker Percy above, and in many of his other works) experienced by the most well-educated, affluent and secularised of us, it is tempting to surmise that these Pelagian attempts to improve our natures by various acts of social engineering (admirable in intention though they may be) are actually making the matter worst, by insisting on man as a purely material being and denying humanity access to the very ground of its being. In another work, entitled Questions They Never Asked Me So He Asked Them Himself, Percy addresses this situation:

Q: What kind of Catholic are you?

A. Bad.

Q: Are you a dogmatic Catholic or an open-minded Catholic?

A: I don’t know what that means . . . . Do you mean do I believe the dogma that the Catholic Church proposes for belief?

Q: Yes.

A: Yes.

Q: How is such a belief possible in this day and age?

A: What else is there?

Q: What do you mean, what else is there? There is humanism, atheism, agnosticism, Marxism, behaviorism, materialism, Buddhism, Muhammadanism, Sufism, astrology, occultism, theosophy.

A: That’s what I mean.

Q: I don’t understand. Would you exclude, for example, scientific humanism as a rational and honorable alternative?

A: Yes.

Q: Why?

A: It’s not good enough.

Q: Why not?

A: This life is too much trouble, far too strange, to arrive at the end of it and then to be asked what you make of it and have to answer “Scientific humanism.” That won’t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight, i.e., God. In fact I demand it. I refuse to settle for anything less. I don’t see why anyone should settle for less than Jacob, who actually grabbed aholt of God and would not let go until God identified himself and blessed him.

taken from Conversations with Walker Percy (1985), p.158, University Press of Mississippi.

            This life is indeed, far too much trouble, far too strange, and far too wonderful to arrive at the end of it and summarise the philosophy used to interpret one’s experience of its highs and lows with the answer ‘Scientific Humanism’. The inevitable and inextricable experience of Original Sin is one hint to mankind that there is more to us than eating, sleeping, pleasure-seeking, and dying. It is an unavoidable sign that though we are blessed with great powers of rationality, creativity and the ability to go beyond ourselves and love another person, sometimes to the point of self-forgetfulness, we are also the inheritors of a deep inbuilt self-orientation that can lead to anything from careless slander to unimaginable cruelty. It is this doctrine, Original Sin, most maligned of all doctrines, that could perhaps bring modern man to wake up from his slumber and ask ‘what is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him?

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