Walker Percy’s father committed suicide when Walker was a teenager. After his mother drove her car off a Louisiana bridge, he was raised by an agnostic first-cousin. Such experiences have driven many a young soul to despair. Instead of adopting a grim outlook, however, Walker Percy converted to Catholicism. Religious faith fueled his success as a novelist and essayist. His debut novel, The Moviegoer, published in 1961, won the National Book Award.
Not too long ago, I wrote an essay, “Walker Percy and the God Question,” that was published in the St. Austin Review and Faith and Culture. The Question is straightforward: do you believe in a transcendent God? It is unique in that it is the question that allows full access to human nature. To put it another way: for a human to unfold potential, he or she must ask and answer The Question with all the seriousness such an undertaking requires. We all ask about the existence of God at one time or another, even if the answer is sometimes half-hearted or superficial. Asking The Question is a universal human trait. Too often, however, people simply adopt the beliefs of the culture at large and neglect to give The Question the attention it deserves.
If philosophy writ-large is the love of wisdom, The Question is an authentic contemplation of transcendence. It is all in the asking.
The Question is on my mind again. The year 2020 has been strange. That’s about the only thing everyone can agree upon. The rest is a crapshoot. Due to an almost tangible uncertainty that has fattened the lamb of doubt to bursting over the past several decades, depression continues to skyrocket. Drug and alcohol abuse have become epidemic. Social isolation (engendered by sometimes draconian mandates enacted in the wake of Covid-19) has resulted in an unprecedented suicide rate in teens. Rioting in the streets, shallow rhetoric designed to stir-up fear and hate, the toppling of statues in utter disdain of history and tradition, when combined, can easily prove to be too much. The toxic brew has sent me to the fridge for one more beer too many times as of late. The contested U.S. presidential election, further undermining an already strained confidence in institutions critical to our way of life, isn’t helping. We may be, as Joe Biden contends, in for a dark winter.
Truth and Freedom
Or maybe not. Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Fides et Ratio, wisely observed, “Truth and freedom either go together hand-in-hand or together they perish in misery.” This is not an either/or fallacy where a third option is available. Truth is that which sets us free; there can be no freedom without truth. The source of our discontent is that many of us, it would seem, have been inflicted with a cognitive glitch that conflates freedom and truth. In this garbled conception, freedom supersedes truth in defining it. Freedom becomes truth. This is no hand-in-hand relationship between lovers. It is a lonely affair in which the individual is banished to an outer darkness where she must then create truth for and by herself.
The obvious problem with the equation is that it doesn’t add up. If a person or a culture can create truth for itself, then all competing truths cancel one another out ad infinitum. Freedom = truth, however, does agree with Nietzsche’s dictum, “There are no truths, only interpretations.” But this doesn’t add up either. Is the dictum a universal truth or an interpretation of an individual conception of truth? It is easy to get turned around in such a maze. Soon enough, everything becomes fair game. Am I male? Female? Victim? Oppressor? Atheist? Believer? The list is inexhaustible because every answer is provisional and can change on a whim of mood or the slightest of doubts. On what foundation is the lone individual to construct a worldview when there is no foundation available, not even one of sand, on which to build? Are we, as mortals, to create something out of nothing? This is the cloud of cognitive dissonance that obscures the path that leads to the cliff’s edge called hubris.
Binx Bolling, the narrator of The Moviegoer, is such a lost soul. As observed in the earlier essay:
Scientific objectivity has left him disconnected, an itinerate moviegoer who seeks glimpses of treasurable moments that the age of scientific objectivity has removed from his life. He has affairs with secretaries who come and go like actresses, never quite real, virtual as opposed to authentic. He lives in an age when the phrase, “hopefully awaiting the gradual convergence of the physical sciences and the social sciences” becomes “the very sound and soul of despair.” His is an age in which life is like a film being watched by the actors and actresses as they simultaneously play out their roles.
Binx Bolling can no longer distinguish the real from the unreal. This is an ironic twist for a culture dominated by scientific objectivity. Almost a century later, things have only gotten worse. A colleague recently confided to me that upkeeping his image on Facebook and other social media outlets takes almost as much time as he spends teaching classes and reading to his children. Instead of acknowledging the dignity of each individual, people are now taught (at school and increasingly in the workplace) that we are either oppressors or oppressed depending on the color of our skin or the genitals we happen to be born with.
Stripped of individuality, the Imago Dei is replaced by the accidental circumstances of our birth. We lead virtual lives in cyberspace while sacrificing our individual uniqueness to an imposed group identity. Like Binx Bolling, it is difficult to see ourselves as real.
Reason and Awe
None of this, of course, stands to reason. Reason alone, however, will not be enough to right the ship before it sinks into a sea of despair. We live in a disenchanted world where the mythopoetic forces that have shaped human understanding for eons have been suppressed by so-called scientific objectivity, which has been co-opted by social scientists with political agendas. As a result, reason eats at its own tail. If it is to function properly, reason cannot be decoupled from the kind of awe that prompted the likes of Plato and Aristotle to philosophize about the nature of existence. In his commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Aquinas observed, “Because philosophy arises from awe, a philosopher is bound in his way to be a lover of myths and poetic fables. Poets and philosophers are alike in being big with wonder.” Reason is born of awe. Stripped of wonder, it becomes hollow, a ghost of what once was. It becomes unreal.
This awe—awe at existence, the wonder of being—bridges the gap not only between reason and imagination but between reason and faith. A healthy imagination can break through the fog of cognitive dissonance like a sudden star in the blackest of nights. Imagination is nourished by awe and structured by reason so that it can be communicated from one person to the next across time and culture. Awe, however, also requires nourishment. If left to itself, in awe of its own awe, it delivers to both imagination and reason the most destructive of delusions, the very same hubris suffered by those who believe it is up to them to impose meaning on a meaningless world.
Real wonder, the kind that is awe-full, must be nourished by that which lies just beyond the grasp of both reason and imagination. Wonder owes its existence to faith in the transcendent. It is that simple. Devoid of faith, wonder loses its curiosity. Deprived of awe, both reason and imagination are stripped of the animating spirit of creativity. They become like ghosts haunting themselves.
The self and the divine
As finite creatures in a vast universe about which we know so little, we must be careful not to be tricked into thinking that the cage of “self” is a microcosm containing the mystery of the whole. If it were otherwise, we would become prisoners of a form of pantheism where the divine is emptied of meaning. If all existence is divine, then even sin is divine. This makes no sense. Faith and reason must walk together hand-in-hand or together they will perish.
When we are fooled by the trickster, we succumb to the lie that we have the power to create meaning and enforce it on a pointless universe. The situation becomes untenable and, as in Orwell’s nightmarish novel 1984, the only slogans left available are “WAR IS PEACE; FREEDOM IS SLAVERY; IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.” Here, each man is at war with himself, a slave to his own freedom, and convinced, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, that he is like a god who can create meaning ex nihilo. At the rate things are going, it would have been more accurate to title Orwell’s novel 2024.
In posing The God Question to those around us, in public and in private, we begin to challenge the cognitive dissonance that has come to define the Age of Disenchantment. It is a very old question, and, if asked honestly and curiously in the spirit of wonder (rather than didactically), it can serve to open up the mystery that has been closed off to so many. That is the first step in the right direction.
Politics and religion aside
My grandmother warned me never to talk politics or religion in mixed company. The Question is neither political nor religious, but it is at the root of both politics and religion. Pondering the meaning of existence comes prior to the formation of any system; it is the primordial undertaking of contemplating our humanity. The task is not to create something out of nothing but to wonder why there is something rather than nothing. This line of conversation leads inevitably to The Question.
I closed the previous essay with the following and it is relevant here as well:
At the close of The Moviegoer, Binx ponders the man exiting the church on Ash Wednesday. He wonders why the man is there. Is it just part of the complexity of being in the world or is it something else, something deeper and more mysterious?
“The Negro has already come outside. His forehead is an ambiguous sienna color and pied: it is impossible to be sure that he received ashes. When he gets in his Mercury, he does not leave immediately but sits looking down at something on the seat beside him. A sample case? An insurance manual? I watch him closely in the rear-view mirror. It is impossible to say why he is here. Is it part and parcel of the complex business of coming up in the world? Or is it because he believes that God himself is present here at the corner of Elysian Fields and Bons Enfants? Or is he here for both reasons: through some dim dazzling trick of grace, coming for the one and receiving the other as God’s own importunate bonus?
“It is impossible to say.”
It is impossible to say. Here Binx is on the brink of asking The God Question. And in accepting the unknown, the impossibility of knowing with scientific objectivity the answers to the mysteries of life, the only way to proceed is through faith. Binx Bolling has now become authentically human, the moviegoer converted.
The best way to stave off depression and despair these days may be to lay down the burden of the isolated self that so many have been tricked into believing is their birthright. We do not create reality; we live within it. Reality is much bigger than us, it contains both the seen and the unseen. The Question uncovers that which mainstream society, with all its distractions and seductions, attempts to cover up. It’s all in the asking.
For example, the maxim “where there is no God, everything is permitted,” if posited as a question, can spark the realization that only faith in the transcendent is able to give rise to the kind of hope that engenders true charity. In this light, The God Question is a gift from on high to those who can receive it with gratitude, a sudden light in the darkest of winters.
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