Flannery O’Connor: Feelings and Truth

In The Habit of Being, a compilation of Flannery O’Connor’s personal correspondences, she touches upon all sorts of topics. One theme that continues to emerge though, is her unfailing defence of the Church (as well as individual Catholic doctrines) in response to queries and/or criticisms from her correspondents. An issue that comes up a few times in this context is the role that emotions or feelings have in discerning truth claims. For example, in a letter to ‘A’ (on the 6th September 1955), who seems to be claiming that doctrines such as the Incarnation must be emotionally satisfying in order to be right, O’Connor replies:

But I can never agree with you that the Incarnation, or any truth, has to satisfy emotionally to be right (and I would not agree that for the natural man the Incarnation does not satisfy emotionally). It does not satisfy emotionally for the person brought up under many forms of false intellectual discipline such as 19th century mechanism, for instance. Leaving the Incarnation aside, the very notion of God’s existence is not emotionally satisfying anymore for great numbers of people, which does not mean that God ceases to exist. M. Sartre finds God emotionally unsatisfactory in the extreme, as do most of my friends of less stature than he. The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally.

The Habit of Being (1979), pp.99-100, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

            One thing to note first of all, is that O’Connor does not reject the role of emotion in faith out of hand; rather, she puts it in its proper perspective. When she says, ‘I would not agree that for the natural man the Incarnation does not satisfy emotionally’, I take this to mean that she does indeed see that some sort of correlation between orthodox Christian doctrine and the human emotions in their natural state, should be expected – it would indeed be surprising if creatures made to know God were wholly unable to apprehend truths about Him.

What is being rejected here though, is the idea that emotional satisfaction is somehow a guarantee of truth. This, a very modern phenomenon that has developed at least partly in reaction to the endemic materialistic worldview of modernity, is the notion that if something feels right to me, if it generates within me a certain response, then these feelings take precedence over any logical objections I may have therein. For example, presented with historical and/or theological arguments against the validity of some Protestant Eucharists, communicants will claim that, despite these arguments, they ‘just know’ that can’t be true.

This, to me, seems to place the onus on the one who receives, not the Lord who gives of Himself and determines how and where He is to be received. If validity were simply dependent upon feeling, one could start their own church and consecrate the elements themselves. Similarly, what is characteristic of other views that would give emotion priority in determining or verifying truth claims is the propensity to put the subject first, and what is objectively the case (i.e.; what God has decreed) second.

In a letter to Alfred Corn (16th June 1962), O’Connor traces the roots of declining faith and church attendance in the West to this widespread, and eventually institutional, identification of feelings with doctrine:

If what the Church teaches is not true, then the security and emotional release and sense of purpose it gives you are of no value and you are right to reject it. One of the effects of modern liberal Protestantism has been gradually to turn religion into poetry and therapy, to make truth vaguer and vaguer and more and more relative, to banish intellectual distinctions, to depend on feeling instead of thought, and gradually to come to believe that God has no power, that he cannot communicate with us, cannot reveal himself to us, indeed has not done so, and that religion is our own sweet invention.

ibid, p.479.

            Rightly identifying the source of this process (of depending upon feeling instead of thought and the making impotent of God) as being within liberal Protestantism, O’Connor did not live to see how far-reaching this tendency would become within Western culture, even to the point of infecting the Catholic Church there. Later in the same letter, she provides one of the most succinct descriptions of the interaction between natural theology and divine revelation that I have read:

Of course, I am a Catholic and believe the opposite of all this. I believe what the Church teaches – that God has given us reason to use and that it can lead us toward a knowledge of him, through analogy; that he has revealed himself in history and continues to do so through the Church, and that he is present (not just symbolically) in the Eucharist on our altars. To believe all this I don’t take any leap into the absurd. I find it reasonable to believe, even though these beliefs are beyond reason.

ibid.

            This passage also provides a tacit argument for the need to have an infallible authority which guards and correctly discerns the revelation given to us. Implicit in O’Connor’s assertion that we can know God through both reason and revelation is the unspoken assumption that we can know it with assurance – that God did not leave us to chaos. The general tenor of her statement is such that as soon as one acknowledges that God is real, can reveal Himself to us, and indeed has done so, it is not enough to have some vague, uncertain or approximate knowledge about what form this revelation has taken, or what implications it may have for us throughout the ages.

The turning of ‘religion into poetry and therapy’, and the gradual undermining of confidence in revelation and reason in favour of ambiguity and intellectual fuzziness (usually validated by claiming to be thereby deepening our reverence for the essential mystery of the divine) does seem to have its roots in the Protestant principle of private judgement. Once it is decided that the final arbitrator in terms of what are the ‘essentials’ in doctrine is whatever happens to be conducive to individual sensibilities, then the doors are flung wide open for the questioning of any aspect of the Faith according to one’s own preferences.

Now, in a widely relativistic and individualistic age, where this principle of private judgement is applied to every level of public and private life, it is hardly surprising that the final criterion which we use to decide what is acceptable in religion is how ‘we feel’ about this or that doctrine. In the first letter quoted above, Flannery O’Connor claimed that Sartre found the existence of God ‘emotionally unsatisfactory in the extreme’ – suggesting (I think rightly) that atheists are just as, if not more, susceptible to accusations of wishful thinking in their ideology. The danger is that the claims of Feuerbach and Freud that religious believers ground their beliefs in similarly wishful thinking, is, thanks to the effects of private judgement, now becoming a lot harder to argue against. By grounding our beliefs in our feelings, we have essentially grounded them in our selves.

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11 thoughts on “Flannery O’Connor: Feelings and Truth

  1. Brilliant analogy Mike!
    You have laid out succinctly the rather more convoluted ideas of the wonderful Flannery O’Connor. In fact I have always intuitively understood this evident truth of how many let emotions dictate what is to be believed rather than Faith and Reason, history and Tradition, without being able to analyse or put it into words as you (through Miss O’Connor) have done here. The old seduction of the serpent in the Garden of Eden: “You shall be like gods” tempts our prideful human ego today just as much as it did our first parents.

    This is so evident that the more solid Protestant thinkers (and perhaps the ultra-liberal wing of Catholics perhaps) will be rubbed up the wrong way no doubt. Too bad – sometimes the truth hurts.

    • Thank you! And I can certainly agree that Flannery O’Connor is wonderful 🙂

      It really is amazing isn’t it, how often (once you get to the bottom of things) the real reason people reject this or that doctrine is because either it doesn’t feel right to them or that it challenges the way they feel religion should be (i.e.; emotionally satisfying/comforting. No wonder Richard Dawkins et al accuse religious people of wishful thinking – what worries me is that, having jettisoned revelation and reason as bases for belief, and turning religion into so much ‘therapy’ (as O’Connor rightly says), their accusations are becoming more and more credible.

      As you say, this is the oldest trick in Satan’s book – he just finds newer and more subtle ways to help us trick ourselves into creating a faith according to our own inclinations whilst still believing ourselves to be following the will of God. The principle of private judgement is one of the best examples of that – each will have their own interpretation of what the truth is, and each will veer away from it in different directions and to different degrees, but they will all think themselves to be in the right. I think, in this case, the liberals come off best – at least they are consistent!

      • Oh you are so right! Your thinking is straight and logical and very Catholic.

        It is IMPOSSIBLE to follow Our Lord Jesus Christ as he has invited us, his disciples, to do without the cross. Faith is not all emotions and “feel-good” pie-in-the-sky! Being a faithful Catholic often entails a type of constant self-denial of our bodily instincts and desires. Yet the paradox of this is, that by willingly taking up one’s daily cross (that many will see as nothing more than pure masochism) it becomes the doorway to real inexplicable joy and peace of mind.

        This can only be explained through the outpouring of God’s grace on the person who is doing their best to fulfill their Christian duty, for God is never outdone in generosity.

        God bless you and many thanks for the beautiful articles you are writing here.

    • P.S. I found this video the other day, which illustrates the issue around private judgment perfectly. It is by Keith Ward, a liberal Protestant theologian, and he makes the (valid) point that as soon as you accept this principle, everyone becomes a liberal, because you have made yourself the final interpretive authority. It is just that some follow this through more than others.

      Just as a heads-up though, there are a few lazy mischaracterisations (and some plain errors) wrt Catholic teaching, which is very annoying, especially given the confidence with which he asserts them. If you can ignore these elements, it is a very instructive video – basically, Protestantism inevitably leads to Liberalism!

    • And many thanks to you for all your kind comments – again, they are very much appreciated 🙂

      It is true, in fact you could say it is central to the Christian life, that there can be no resurrection without a cross (I think Fulton Sheen said somewhere that this is the unwritten law of Christianity) – the seed must fall into the ground and die before it can bear fruit. But we all want Christ without the Cross! And yet, as you say, the times when we accept our burdens, make our sacrifices, in the name of love, it brings incomparable joy and peace of mind. The only question is why we don’t do it more often (I am speaking from personal experience here) – we humans are insane!

      • Why don’t we do it (take up our daily cross) more often?
        ‘Seasy Mike! 😉

        It’s because we cannot help having some vestiges of AFFECTION for our weaknesses (a.k.a. sins)! One of Screwtape’s nasty little helpers keeps whispering into our ears how much better they are than virtue and sacrifice – and we entertain him instead of telling him to GET LOST!

        Example: he tells me how much nicer it is to carry on sleeping snuggled up in bed, instead of getting up for the early morning Mass (knowing full well I won’t have time to go later.) [Sins of Laziness, Self-indulgence, not putting God first in my life, etc.]
        Or he advises me to turn away from having to say a friendly hello to that “awful” neighbour who I bump into, who I know is a rabid anti-Catholic. [Sin of Pride, Lack of Christian charity, etc.]

        And so on and so on…. I’m sure your get my drift.

        (I think I might soon write a post about this very subject: our crazy “affection” for sins!!)

        • Absolutely – our attachment to these things that we know will make things more difficult or even make us miserable later down the line, outweighs our commitment to taking up those daily crosses which, whilst initially are difficult, lead to increasing peace and joy. This is the insanity of sin! Btw, have you read Theology and Sanity by Frank Sheed? There is some great stuff in there about this very issue.

          Having said all that though, I very much enjoyed and was very encouraged by your post today – a good cure for the feeling of frustration that comes after considering the stupidity of one’s own actions. I constantly need to be reminded to see things from God’s perspective and not limit what He can do according to my own sense of worth or unworth!

  2. Thank you Michael. I take that as a great compliment coming from you.

    No, I haven’t read the book you mention, but now that you’ve recommended it I’ll put in on my reading list. (I think the word “theology” is often rather off-putting; it tends to make us less scholarly types think the book will be rather heavy-going! 😉 )

    By the way, you might be interested to know your post “Art and Language: What makes us human?” is coming under discussion between Toad and me on our blog post, “Man’s deepest questions”.

    • Yes, I know what you mean about the term ‘theology’! But, strangely enough, I occasionally find reading strictly theological works more spiritually illuminating than overtly devotional works – only sometimes though. I think it is just my temperament.

      I certainly am interested to know that one of my posts is under discussion on your site! I shall go and have a look now (though I am bracing myself for what Toad has had to say on the matter) 🙂

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