This was written by Flannery O’Conner (who, along with Dean Koontz and Walker Percy, ranks as the most widely famed of Catholic and Southern authors) to a student who had, or thought he had, lost his faith in College.
30 May 1962
To Alfred Corn,
I think that this experience you are having of losing your faith, or as you think, of having lost it, is an experience that in the long run belongs to faith; or at least it can belong to faith if faith is still valuable to you, and it must be or you would not have written me about this.
I don’t know how the kind of faith required of a Christian living in the 20th century can be at all if it is not grounded on this experience that you are having right now of unbelief. This may be the case always and not just in the 20th century. Peter [sic] said, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” It is the most natural and most human and most agonizing prayer in the gospels, and I think it is the foundation prayer of faith.
As a freshman in college you are bombarded with new ideas, or rather pieces of ideas, new frames or reference, an activation of the intellectual life which is only beginning, but which is already running ahead of your lived experience. After a year of this, you think you cannot believe. You are just beginning to realize how difficult it is to have faith and the measure of a commitment to it, but you are too young to decide you don’t have faith just because you feel you can’t believe. About the only way we know whether we believe or not is by what we do, and I think from your letter that you will not take the path of least resistance in this matter and simply decide that you have lost your faith and that there is nothing you can do about it.
One result of the stimulation of your intellectual life that takes place in college is usually a shrinking of the imaginative life.
This sounds like a paradox, but I have often found it to be true. Students get so bound up with difficulties such as reconciling the clashing of so many different faiths such as Buddhism, Mohammedanism, etc., that they cease to look for God in other ways. Bridges once wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins and asked him to tell him how he, Bridges, could believe. He must have expected from Hopkins a long philosophical answer. Hopkins wrote back, “Give alms.” He was trying to say to Bridges that God is to be experienced in Charity (in the sense of love for the divine image in human beings). Don’t get so entangled with intellectual difficulties that you fail to look for God in this way.
The intellectual difficulties have to be met, however, and you will be meeting them for the rest of your life. When you get a reasonable hold on one, another will come to take its place. At one time, the clash of the different world religions was a difficulty for me. Where you have absolute solutions, however, you have no need of faith. Faith is what you have in the absence of knowledge. The reason this clash doesn’t bother me any longer is because I have got, over the years, a sense of the immense sweep of creation, of the evolutionary process in everything, of how incomprehensible God must necessarily be to be the God of heaven and earth. You can’t fit the Almighty into your intellectual categories. I might suggest that you look into some of the works of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (The Phenomenon of Man et al.). He was a paleontologist–helped to discover Peking man–and also a man of God. I don’t suggest that you go to him for answers but for different questions, for that stretching of the imagination that you need to make you a sceptic in the face of much that you are learning, much of which is new and shocking but which when boiled down becomes less so and takes place in the general scheme of things. What kept me a sceptic in college was precisely my Christian faith. It always said: wait, don’t bite on this, get a wider picture, continue to read.
If you want your faith, you have to work for it. It is a gift, but for very few is it a gift given without any demand for equal time devoted to its cultivation. For every book you read that is anti-Christian, make it your business to read one that presents the other side of the picture; if one isn’t satisfactory read others. Don’t think that you have to abandon reason to be a Christian.
A book that might help you is The Unity of Philosophical Experience by Etienne Gilson. Another is Newman’s The Grammar of Assent. To find out about faith, you have to go to the people who have it and you have to go to the most intelligent ones if you are going to stand up intellectually to agnostics and the general run of pagans that you are going to find in the majority of people around you. Much of the criticism of belief that you find today comes from people who are judging it from the standpoint of another and narrower discipline. The Biblical criticism of the 19th century, for instance, was the product of historical disciplines. It has been entirely revamped in the 20th century by applying broader criteria it, and those people who lost their faith in the 19th century because of it, could better have hung on in blind trust.
Even in the life of a Christian, faith rises and falls like the tides of an invisible sea. It’s there, even when he can’t see it or feel it, if he wants it to be there. You realize, I think, that it is more valuable, more mysterious, altogether more immense than anything you can learn or decide upon in college. Learn what you can, but cultivate Christian scepticsm. It will keep you free – not free to do anything you please, but free to be formed by something larger than your own intellect or the intellects of those around you.
I don’t know if this is the kind of answer that can help you, but any time you care to write me, I can try to do better.
Source: The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, edited by Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1979), pages 476-78.
Hear, hear. Wisdom is in all these words, but particularly the paragraph where she speaks of the limitation of the imagination which hinders faith.
This is a mental disorder inflicted by modern education. It is a narrowing the mind in the name of broadmindedness, and the closing of the mind in the name of openmindedness.
It is the folly of those who are taught only enough of a subject to be told the objections and questions undermining its foundations, but not enough to do the disciplined and rigorous intellectual work, yes, the hard work, of answering those objections or sitting as a judge and making a determination of their admissibility, as debating as a juror and weighing their probity and pertinence.
Her advice, written in the day when America was still a Christian culture, that is, the unspoken moral assumptions were fundamentally Christian, and only in Academia was there a moral atmosphere alien to Christianity growing, is even more poignant these days, when that atmosphere has conquered, and now smogs every city, hamlet, and farm. For every antichristian book you read, read a Christian one. Hear both sides of the argument. Don’t place faith in those who sneer that the other side has no argument. Each side always has an argument. Always. The human cannot exist that does not justify his acts.
I pass this letter along to any who might read these words who is struggling with his faith in a fashion, thanks be to the astonishing grace of God, I have not had to struggle, and, until I read this letter, I was not blissfully unaware that anyone had to struggle.
This gift of faith is no merit of mine, and I am not boasting. I know of no divine gift given so freely to a man less worthy of it. As if a mad Caesar had found a thieving beggar, crawling with lice and rolling his the mire of the gutter, and made him Augustus. Madness, perhaps, but it is a divine madness, for the lovingkindness of the Lord surpasses the understanding of men far wiser than I.
I suppose my experience of being a very well informed and energetic atheist for 35 years gives me such a clear insight into all atheists doubts as to recognize their utter worthlessness.
If you had been a devout believer in the flat earth theory, or a votary of the notion that the moonlandings were faked on a soundstage, from age seven to age fourty-two, and every day mediated or debated every nuance of evidence and proof for and against your cockamamie theory; and then by some unearthly power were lifted to the moon and stood in the Sea of Tranquility so that you could see Neal Armstrong’s unchanging footprint, and, raising your eyes to heaven, could see the serene Earth in her glorious and blue roundness, so that all your empty words exploded out of your mind with an explosive decompression of laughter, such a man would never be lured again by the bogus appearances of his superficial and supercilious theory, no more than a mortician is fooled by lipstick on a corpse.
Likewise, I am unlikely to be attracted to the meretricious charms of the atheist argument because at 42 I matured to the level ordinary people, by which I mean Christian people, reach at age 7. I cannot go back to childish things: the mobile over the crib and the clown-faces on the nursery walls have no more appeal to me.
But the analogy is poor, because children are attracted to wholesome images: smiling faces; flowers; sun. A better example would be the infection of attraction which afflicts some early teens to dark and morbid images, harsh metallic unmusical music, posters of romanticized diabolism.
There are a those few respectable men who honestly disbelieve because of sober philosophical doubt. They are perhaps one in ten or one in a hundred. Their doubts must be taken seriously and answered seriously. That is the task of apologetic. We do not reason with sober atheists to give them faith, for only the Holy Ghost gives faith. We reason with them to show that the objections and obstacles to faith are not grounded in reason.
Take it from one who knows, who has been there, who has lived the life. Honest atheists are gullible, despite that we (I use the word advisedly) pride ourselves on our skepticism. We let ourselves be fooled by flimsy arguments and trivial objections. The task of Christian apologetic is to teach these sophomores skepticism, to teach them the ancient and manly art of logical reasoning.
Oh? Did you think that reason was on their side, and our side was the side of blind faith? How gullible of you. Examine your axioms.
The other nine-tenths or ninety percent merely pretend, and not very convincingly, to be such men. These are men addicted to condescension, who think a sneer is an argument, who are angry at the God in which they claim not to believe, and are tormented by unquiet consciences, and slaves to the shallow intellectual fashions of a world that despises reason and right reason.
They will be convinced, if at all, by the witness of how good Christians live their lives: they will see our charity and chastity and forbearance and be amazed. That task is, alas, for hands cleaner than mine.
This is as true in the battle for the imagination of the West as it is in the battle for the intellect. As I say above, all atheists claim to be intellectuals, but nine-tenths or more are atheists for unintellectual reasons, namely, that their imaginations have been narrowed or closed to the images of the divine. They literally cannot imagine the truth. Their literature sees to that.
So I would emphasize Flannery O’Conner’s advice. For every anti-Christian work of philosophy you read, read a Christian one. But also for every work of anti-Christian fiction, or, if I may permitted, of science fiction. This should apply to movies and television shows as well. Let it be at least one for one.
So the next time you see an episode of your favorite cop show where the Catholic priest is a pedophile ax-murderer, go watch THE BELLS OF SAINT MARY’S starring Bing Crosby and the luminous Ingrid Bergman. If you see JESUS CHRIST, SUPERSTAR, which portrays the Savior as a shallow rock star drunk on fame, then go see THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, which portrays the Savior as profound.
And I do not limit my comments to openly and overtly anti-Christian works, nor am I suggesting reading stories that are overly Christian in theme. The Antichrist is a spirit, a mood, a moral atmosphere: it is indeed the temptation to delight in nothingness.
If you read BLINDSIGHT by Peter Watt, which portrays a world in which reason is impotent, then go read FIRST LENSMAN by E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith, which portrays a world where reason is omnipotent; or if you read A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA by Ursula K LeGuin, which portrays Taoist quietism and acceptance of one’s own dark side as admirable and natural, then go read VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER by C.S. Lewis, which portrays the dark and dragonish side of one’s own soul as a monstrous skin that must, not without pain, be shed. It is a much more honest view.
My point here is that any who are not against us, even if they are not explicitly Christian, are for us. I do not, for example, happen to know or want to know the personal beliefs of Jim Butcher or Neal Stephenson, but their even-handed portrayals of men of faith, or of the beauty of normal things, makes them fellow travelers with us, whether they know it or not, or like it or not. Anything that paints a picture in true perspective, undistorted, unidisgusting, uninsane, or, in a word, not in the camp of Picasso, intentionally or not is in the camp of the pre-Raphaelites.
Unfortunately, if you do this, you might find that the films and books with more craftsmanship and art, more wit and humor, are mostly on the side of the unchristian spirit.
That is the advantage the dark side has: the Dark Lord is trying to get us to trip and fall. And it is easy to get men to believe easy and stupid answers, to walk about with their eyes half closed and their minds half empty, because the natural sloth which grows like moss in every human heart is the dark side’s ally. The darkness lulls us to sleep.
The Promethean task of lighting a fire, and shaping the inner ape to stand on his own two feet like a man, ah, that is harder, and is much harder to portray. It cannot appeal to man’s lower instincts, to sneering pride or prurient lust. It can only appeal to the highest.
The Nothingness promises peace. The Nothingness promises so much. It is the Christian story-teller’s task to tell stories to remind the half-slumbering reader that the Nothingness, if you believe the promises and sell yourself to it, will give you in return exactly that: you will get nothing, fall into nothing, and become nothing.