Flannery O’Connor: The choice before us

In the denouement of her short story A Good Man Is Hard to Find, Flannery O’Connor has one of the central characters, the Misfit – a thief and murderer recently escaped from prison – give the following speech:

“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead.” The Misfit continued, “and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can – by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness,” he said and his voice had become almost a snarl.

from Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories (1990), p.132, Faber and Faber.

            Whilst we can take issue with the claim that Jesus was the only one to have raised the dead (Elijah, Elisha and Saints Peter and Paul may have something to say about that for starters), the Misfit’s basic point that Jesus ‘thrown everything off balance’ is a lot harder to argue against. One could rephrase (whilst still preserving the essence of) the Misfit’s argument as: if Jesus was who He claimed to be, and this claim is taken seriously, we have no choice but to ‘throw everything away and follow Him’, and if He didn’t then one might as well enjoy what time we have here by indulging ourselves in ‘meanness’ of various kinds.

This is certainly not to say that one either believes in Christ or becomes a murderous thief. Rather, what O’Connor is doing here is presenting the fundamental choice we all face in stark terms; because, although we can recognise degrees of belief and differences in understanding of the divine, when all the chips are down, this is what we are faced with – a choice between Christ and the void. If Jesus Christ is the Son of God, then God really has entered into human history and revealed Himself to us as a God of Love, who is willing to go to the utmost lengths in order to save us from our sins. Once Jesus arrived on the scene and made this claim, the game was changed. After this revelation of God in Christ, nothing would be the same.

I think what O’Connor hints at here is not simply that without God there is no objective basis for morality, and so there is no ultimate reason why one shouldn’t indulge in hedonism, or ‘meanness’, or whatever one likes. What I think is being laid before us in this story is the situation we face now, living in a post-Christian age. As David Bentley Hart has argued compellingly in his essay Christ and Nothing, Christianity has rendered the old gods and their corresponding spiritualities impotent – though there is at the moment a fascination with ‘new age’ religion that co-opts various aspects of these traditions, it is hard to find in this movement any more than a superficial dressing up of modern egotism with the relics of the past; a making ‘spiritual’ of one’s own fancies that exists solely to provide a sense of self-fulfilment. Instead, as Hart concludes in his essay:

…our age is not one in danger of reverting to paganism (would that we were so fortunate). If we turn from Christ today, we turn only towards the god of absolute will, and embrace him under either his most monstrous or his most vapid aspect. A somewhat more ennobling retreat to the old gods is not possible for us; we can find no shelter there, nor can we sink away gently into those old illusions and tragic consolations that Christ has exposed as falsehoods. To love or be nourished by the gods, we would have to fear them; but the ruin of their glory is so complete that they have been reduced–like everything else–to commodities…

…Nor will the ululations and lugubrious platitudes and pious fatalism of the tragic chorus ever again have the power to recall us to sobriety. The gospel of a God found in broken flesh, humility, and measureless charity has defeated all the old lies, rendered the ancient order visibly insufficient and even slightly absurd, and instilled in us a longing for transcendent love so deep that–if once yielded to–it will never grant us rest anywhere but in Christ.

We are instead confronted between the God of ceaseless, self-sacrificial love revealed in Christ and the swirling nihilistic void of self-determination. I don’t think we in the West appreciate how much not only our culture, but our idea of what God is like is rooted in Christian tradition. Not only our ethics, but our theology is intimately connected with the legacy of Jesus of Nazareth. How many times have you heard people say something along the lines of ‘But God wouldn’t do that’ or ‘That’s not the sort of God I believe in’, with reference to the possibility of hell or similarly unpopular doctrines? The very reason many have a problem accepting hard teachings of the Church is because their idea of God is deeply bound up with the (nowadays often misrepresented) doctrine that God is Love.

Therefore, ultimately we are still faced with a choice – between this God, the God of Jesus, the God of Love, or Nothing. Our concept of God has been so shaped by the revelation in Jesus Christ that nothing else quite fits the bill anymore. So, when one looks past the degrees and variations of belief or unbelief, the choice remains there before us – do we follow Him, or do we turn around to face the void? Most of us try to keep a little something for ourselves, try to follow Him a little bit, but don’t want to accept this or that aspect of His teachings; conversely, many of us try to deny the void, to cover it up with theories that half-convince, or find ourselves a ‘spirituality’ that doesn’t ask too much of us. But, when all is said and done, a decision one way or the other has to be made. Do we follow Jesus and let our lives be informed by the knowledge that the ultimate reality holding everything in existence is Love, or do we face up to the consequences of a truly post-Christian worldview – a hard, cold, meaningless world, where one might as well enjoy what time there is by doing whatever one wills? The choice is there before us.

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