Quote of the Day: “A God you understood . . .”

 

“Whatever you do, anyway, remember that these things are mysteries and that if they were such that we could understand them, they wouldn’t be worth understanding. A God you understood would be less than yourself.” — Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being

Flannery O’Connor (1925–1964) was an American writer and southern Catholic, whose novels and short stories are inhabited by some of the strangest characters you’ll meet in fiction: absurd, often violent, and frequently driven by a spiritual fervor. It seems that people either like her fiction, or they find themselves confused and repulsed by it. This is probably because one of her most-anthologized stories — the one you likely read in your high school literature courses — is “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” which is about a family road trip that ends in mass murder.

Literature classes being what they are, you were probably asked to explain the meaning in this story. And good luck with that.

We are blessed, then, that O’Connor herself left us plenty of clues to unlocking her writing. In a book of her letters, collected under the title The Habit of Being, O’Connor writes quite a bit about how being Catholic informs much of her writing. I would call The Habit of Being a necessary book to understanding what the heck she was thinking when she wrote her novels and short stories.

In one letter to a friend (identified in the book only as “A”) she writes “All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless, brutal, etc.” I’d agree with these people. The stories are hard, brutal, hopeless … but grace does frequently enter in, in surprising and sometimes violent ways. Her characters are often brought to a crisis point, at which opportunities to give or receive grace are offered. Yes, the stories are hard to understand, but when it comes to the Christian life, there’s quite a bit that’s hard to understand.

O’Connor would probably dismiss the idea that she was any sort of theologian, but there is much good and useful theology found throughout The Habit of Being. The quote above comes from a long, undated letter to Louise Abbot (in the book you find it among letters dated October 1959) which is full of much wisdom. It begins:

I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened. A faith that just accepts is a child’s faith and all right for children, but eventually you have to grow religiously as every other way, though some never do.

What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God.

As the teacher said in Ecclesiastes, “Of making many books there is no end.” I’d say this is particularly true of the sort of “Christian self-help” books that purport to explain how to live the Christian life (Here is a list of 700 of them.) People are not comfortable with uncertainty. They want explanations for everything. They want to understand.

But what O’Connor writes in this letter to Louise Abbot is that uncertainty is part of the process. That we need to become comfortable with mystery and not having answers for everything. “[I]f they were such that we could understand them, they wouldn’t be worth understanding. A God you understood would be less than yourself.

She closes with “You arrive at enough certainty to be able to make your way, but it is making it in darkness. Don’t expect faith to clear things up for you. It is trust, not certainty…”

Published in Religion & Philosophy
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There are 22 comments.

  1. Misthiocracy secretly Member

    I think it was Avicenna who wrote that one cannot even describe God as “perfect”, because perfection is itself an imperfect human concept.

    • #1
    • July 22, 2019, at 1:04 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  2. DrewInWisconsin, Influencer Member

    Misthiocracy secretly (View Comment):
    I think it was Avicenna who wrote that one cannot even describe God as “perfect”, because perfection is itself an imperfect human concept.

    Image result for Mind blowing gif

    • #2
    • July 22, 2019, at 1:07 PM PDT
    • 9 likes
  3. Vectorman Thatcher

    DrewInWisconsin: As the teacher said in Ecclesiastes, Of making many books there is no end.” I’d say this is particularly true of the sort of “Christian self-help” books that purport to explain how to live the Christian life (Here is a list of 700 of them.)

    This sounds like a corollary to a recent Ricochet post on Management Fads. For many worthwhile things in life, there is no one answer that works 100% of the time.


    The Quote of the Day series is the easiest way to start a fun conversation on Ricochet. We still have 2 days available on the July Signup Sheet. We even include tips for finding great quotes, so choose your favorite quote and sign up today!

    • #3
    • July 22, 2019, at 1:37 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  4. Percival Thatcher

    DrewInWisconsin: A God you understood would be less than yourself.

    That is a pretty good theological theorem, right there.

    • #4
    • July 22, 2019, at 1:55 PM PDT
    • 10 likes
  5. Brian Wolf Coolidge

    Excellent! I have told many an atheist if God could be studied and understood as they demand of Him He would in turn not be worthy of their worship.

    • #5
    • July 22, 2019, at 2:00 PM PDT
    • 13 likes
  6. Susan Quinn Contributor

    I like to think that there is mystery in faith (whether it’s Christian faith). But I’m coming around to the idea that G-d wants us to seek to understand, to question, and that He wants us to know Him as much as we can. Beautiful post, Drew.

    • #6
    • July 22, 2019, at 2:03 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  7. Stad Thatcher

    Vectorman (View Comment):

    DrewInWisconsin: As the teacher said in Ecclesiastes, Of making many books there is no end.” I’d say this is particularly true of the sort of “Christian self-help” books that purport to explain how to live the Christian life (Here is a list of 700 of them.)

    This sounds like a corollary to a recent Ricochet post on Management Fads. For many worthwhile things in life, there is no one answer that works 100% of the time.

    My wife used to call this “Management by Book of the Month Club”.

    Makes sense. Of course, when the caca hits the fan, we all fall back on . . .

    Crisis management.

    • #7
    • July 22, 2019, at 2:14 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  8. Percival Thatcher

    Percival (View Comment):

    DrewInWisconsin: A God you understood would be less than yourself.

    That is a pretty good theological theorem, right there.

    Sort of the antithesis of this guy.

    • #8
    • July 22, 2019, at 2:20 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  9. Stad Thatcher

    Percival (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    DrewInWisconsin: A God you understood would be less than yourself.

    That is a pretty good theological theorem, right there.

    Sort of the antithesis of this guy.

     

    Does this idiot know God does not have “opinions”? When you create the universe, your thoughts are reality.

    God: Yo, David. When you are deserving of my thoughts, I’ll let you in on the details. In the meanwhile, I find your lack of faith . . . disturbing . . .

    • #9
    • July 22, 2019, at 2:29 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  10. DrewInWisconsin, Influencer Member

    Stad (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    DrewInWisconsin: A God you understood would be less than yourself.

    That is a pretty good theological theorem, right there.

    Sort of the antithesis of this guy.

     

    Does this idiot know God does not have “opinions”? When you create the universe, your thoughts are reality.

    God: Yo, David. When you are deserving of my thoughts, I’ll let you in on the details. In the meanwhile, I find your lack of faith . . . disturbing . . .

    Psst. It’s satire. (But like the best kind of satire, contains a lot of truth!)

    • #10
    • July 22, 2019, at 2:31 PM PDT
    • 8 likes
  11. Percival Thatcher

    Stad (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    DrewInWisconsin: A God you understood would be less than yourself.

    That is a pretty good theological theorem, right there.

    Sort of the antithesis of this guy.

     

    Does this idiot know God does not have “opinions”? When you create the universe, your thoughts are reality.

    God: Yo, David. When you are deserving of my thoughts, I’ll let you in on the details. In the meanwhile, I find your lack of faith . . . disturbing . . .

    The Babylon Bee is a Christian (probably) satire (definitely) site. They’re pretty good.

    • #11
    • July 22, 2019, at 2:38 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  12. Randy Webster Member

    DrewInWisconsin: “A Good Man is Hard to Find,”

    Then there’s Mae West’s “A hard man is good to find.”

    • #12
    • July 22, 2019, at 3:15 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  13. Stina Member

    Misthiocracy secretly (View Comment):
    I think it was Avicenna who wrote that one cannot even describe God as “perfect”, because perfection is itself an imperfect human concept.

    The word God uses to describe himself is “holy” and it’s one word intrinsically defined by Him. Holy is what God is and God is Holy. Self referential like the definition of an ant.

    We do know some qualities of holiness – that we can’t handle it in our humanity and exposing ourselves to His holiness results in death. When the psalmist describes us being refined to holiness, it connotes purity. So we get some idea without fully knowing.

    And when we do fully know, we will be singing “Holy holy holy is the Lord Almighty” and it will take us eternity to truly appreciate how true that is.

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    I like to think that there is mystery in faith (whether it’s Christian faith). But I’m coming around to the idea that G-d wants us to seek to understand, to question, and that He wants us to know Him as much as we can. Beautiful post, Drew.

    Yes – strive to understand, but recognize we will never fully understand.

    • #13
    • July 22, 2019, at 3:23 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  14. Doug Watt Member

    Great post Drew:

    In 1955, the southern author Flannery O’Connor said of herself, “Everybody who has read Wise Blood thinks I’m a hillbilly nihilist, whereas. . .I’m a hillbilly Thomist.” She said that her fiction was concerned with the ways grace is at work among people who do not have access to the sacraments. The Thomist (one who follows the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas) believes that the invisible grace of God can be at work in visible things, just as the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, in the person of Christ.

    In 1955, the southern author Flannery O’Connor said of herself, “Everybody thinks I’m a hillbilly nihilist, whereas. . .I’m a hillbilly Thomist.he said that her fiction was concerned with the ways grace is at work among people who do not have access to the sacraes that the invisiblrace of God can beong us, in the person of Christ.

    • #14
    • July 22, 2019, at 5:46 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  15. Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu Coolidge

    Misthiocracy secretly (View Comment):

    I think it was Avicenna who wrote that one cannot even describe God as “perfect”, because perfection is itself an imperfect human concept.

    Maimonides (same 11th-12th century period as Avicenna) says in his “Guide for the Perplexed” that it is only by negative attributes that we know G-d. The following is from Wikipedia:

    Maimonides was an adherent of “negative theology” (also known as “Apophatic theology”.) In this theology, one attempts to describe God through negative attributes. For instance, one should not say that God exists in the usual sense of the term; it can be said that God is not non-existent. We should not say that “God is wise”; but we can say that “God is not ignorant,” i.e., in some way, God has some properties of knowledge. We should not say that “God is One,” but we can state that “there is no multiplicity in God’s being.” In brief, the attempt is to gain and express knowledge of God by describing what God is not, rather than by describing what God is.

    • #15
    • July 23, 2019, at 1:07 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  16. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher

    Thanks Drew.

    • #16
    • July 23, 2019, at 3:30 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  17. Michael Brehm Member

    This somehow seems appropriate to your post, Drew. I have a Library of America collection of her fiction I will have to dip into once again soon.

    • #17
    • July 23, 2019, at 5:49 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  18. Stad Thatcher

    DrewInWisconsin (View Comment):

    Stad (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    DrewInWisconsin: A God you understood would be less than yourself.

    That is a pretty good theological theorem, right there.

    Sort of the antithesis of this guy.

     

    Does this idiot know God does not have “opinions”? When you create the universe, your thoughts are reality.

    God: Yo, David. When you are deserving of my thoughts, I’ll let you in on the details. In the meanwhile, I find your lack of faith . . . disturbing . . .

    Psst. It’s satire. (But like the best kind of satire, contains a lot of truth!)

    LOL! Sorry, I took it seriously because there are people like that out there . . .

    • #18
    • July 23, 2019, at 2:20 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  19. Bob Wainwright Member

    DrewInWisconsin (View Comment):

    Misthiocracy secretly (View Comment):
    I think it was Avicenna who wrote that one cannot even describe God as “perfect”, because perfection is itself an imperfect human concept.

    Image result for Mind blowing gif

    This reminds me of Paul Tillich’s assertion that even existence is not something we can apply to God. To say that God exists seems to mean that God is merely the highest of all existing beings or things, and not the ground or source of existence itself. Tillich actually wrote “God does not exist.” 

    • #19
    • July 23, 2019, at 2:43 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  20. TBA Coolidge
    TBA

    Doug Watt (View Comment):

    Great post Drew:

    In 1955, the southern author Flannery O’Connor said of herself, “Everybody who has read Wise Blood thinks I’m a hillbilly nihilist, whereas. . .I’m a hillbilly Thomist.” She said that her fiction was concerned with the ways grace is at work among people who do not have access to the sacraments. The Thomist (one who follows the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas) believes that the invisible grace of God can be at work in visible things, just as the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, in the person of Christ.

    In 1955, the southern author Flannery O’Connor said of herself, “Everybody thinks I’m a hillbilly nihilist, whereas. . .I’m a hillbilly Thomist.he said that her fiction was concerned with the ways grace is at work among people who do not have access to the sacraes that the invisiblrace of God can beong us, in the person of Christ.

    This is an amazing rendition, perhaps in part because the singers have a long tradition of trying to make music that is pleasing to God while avoiding vanity. 

    • #20
    • July 23, 2019, at 3:43 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  21. Randy Webster Member

    Stad (View Comment):
    LOL! Sorry, I took it seriously because there are people like that out there . . .

    Parody is sometimes hard to figure.

    • #21
    • July 23, 2019, at 4:02 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  22. Percival Thatcher

    Stad (View Comment):

    DrewInWisconsin (View Comment):

    Stad (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    DrewInWisconsin: A God you understood would be less than yourself.

    That is a pretty good theological theorem, right there.

    Sort of the antithesis of this guy.

     

    Does this idiot know God does not have “opinions”? When you create the universe, your thoughts are reality.

    God: Yo, David. When you are deserving of my thoughts, I’ll let you in on the details. In the meanwhile, I find your lack of faith . . . disturbing . . .

    Psst. It’s satire. (But like the best kind of satire, contains a lot of truth!)

    LOL! Sorry, I took it seriously because there are people like that out there . . .

    Yeah, and if you draw out most any atheist long enough, he’ll take the same effective position that this fictional guy takes. He’ll run away from it. He’ll deny it with every fiber of his (a)moral being. But it is true nonetheless.

    • #22
    • July 23, 2019, at 5:12 PM PDT
    • 2 likes