Friday, November 04, 2011

In the society of ducks

"Mystery isn't something that is gradually evaporating. It grows along with knowledge."

A quote from Flannery O'Connor I came across years ago. It could stand as the epigraph of this blog. I never used it in anything I wrote, however, because I never got around to sourcing it.

As it happens, I recently stumbled on the origin.

In the spring of 1961, O'Connor gave a talk to an English class at Emory University in Atlanta. In the audience was a freshman named Alfred Corn who was wrestling with matters of faith and doubt. He was too shy to approach O'Connor after the talk, but later wrote her at home, agonizing over falling away from the biblical faith of his family. O'Connor was then 37 years old and the orthodox Catholic she would be for the rest of her life.

She responded at some length. Authentic faith must be grounded on doubt, she affirms: "Where you have absolute solutions…you have no need of faith. Faith is what you have in the absence of knowledge."

Several more letters followed, including the one with the remark about mystery,

Nineteen-sixty-two is about the time I was having the same crisis of faith as Alfred Corn, although I was somewhat older. I had already experienced in university and graduate school a passionate immersion in the murky spiritual depths of European literary Catholicism with all of its psycho-sexual drama. Gulping my way to the surface, I then latched onto some of the same writers O'Connor recommended to Corn -- Gerard Manley Hopkins, Teilhard de Chardin -- doubt and faith tugging in opposite directions, held together by the fraying threads of a poetic mysticism.

But there was science too, and as I studied more of its history and philosophy mystery did indeed seem to evaporate. I loved the clarity of science, the systematized skepticism, the search for tentative answers. It would be more years before I grasped the gist of the O'Connor quote -- that mystery grows along with knowledge.

But O'Connor was not to be my guide. She tells Corn of her willingness to accept the Church as her infallible teacher in matters of faith and morals. Left to herself, she says, she wouldn't know what is true or false, right or wrong. In this, I could not follow. It seemed an abdication of everything that makes us uniquely human, and to contradict what she told Corn about the importance of doubt.

Faith is not what you have in the absence of knowledge. Mystery is what you have, and curiosity.

Alfred Corn the anguished freshman, became Alfred Corn the poet. More of that on Monday.