Everything That Rises Must Converge | Study Guide

Flannery O'Connor

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Everything That Rises Must Converge | Context


Teilhard de Chardin and Flannery O'Connor

The title of this collection is taken from a remark made by theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955), a Jesuit priest and paleontologist. Teilhard was a strong supporter of the theory of evolution, although he parted company with British naturalist Charles Darwin (1809–82) by believing God's ultimate purpose or goal drew evolution forward. He famously said, "Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge."

As a paleontologist, Teilhard came under fire for his interpretation of the Catholic doctrine of original sin as it relates to evolution. According to orthodox dogma, humanity fell from grace when Adam and Eve disobeyed God's command in the Garden of Eden to refrain from eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. To redeem humanity, God entered the world as the Second Person, or Jesus Christ, and was crucified to atone for human sin. Human beings are born with this original sin, the stain of the first parents, which may be expunged only through baptism. This line of thinking presupposes Adam and Eve were already in a state of perfect grace before the Fall.

On the other hand, Teilhard says original sin can best be understood as the condition of the original act of creation. He sees Darwinian evolution as a process of becoming, in which human beings are moving toward perfection. In the book of Revelation, Jesus Christ says, "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the beginning and the End."Teilhard says the Omega point is the living Christ. Because the point keeps receding, humanity continues to perfect itself as it pursues God. The final goal of evolution is to arrive at that place in which individuals and all of humanity become perfected and united in God, and the world becomes divinized and filled with God.

In the first half of the 20th century, the Catholic Church had objections to Teilhard's theological writings. It objected first because it saw the theory of evolution as a threat to Church teachings about how the world was created and second because Teilhard's ideas indirectly challenged the Catholic view of original sin and the reason for Christ's incarnation. (Nowadays, the Church accepts the theory of evolution and can reconcile it with Catholic doctrine.) Pope Pius XI (1857–1939) ordered Teilhard to sign a statement disavowing his ideas on original sin. In 1928 Teilhard's Jesuit superiors forbade him to pursue further theological work and ordered him to confine himself to scientific study. Consequently, Teilhard's major philosophical works were published after his death in 1955, and the Church put a warning on them in 1962 for "ambiguities and indeed even serious [doctrinal] errors." However, reading Teilhard was not strictly forbidden to Catholics, and as a result, he became quite popular with intellectual Catholics of O'Connor's era.

O'Connor was widely read in Christian theology, both Protestant and Catholic. She had read Teilhard and felt an affinity with some of his views, although it is likely she did not entirely subscribe to his view of original sin. Critics disagree about how far O'Connor's thinking was aligned with this modern-day Catholic mystic. O'Connor scholar Ralph C. Wood says, "At one time ... she became enamored of Teilhard de Chardin's attempt to unite evolutionary naturalism with Christian faith" but later rejected this theory. O'Connor particularly liked Teilhard's idea of passive diminishment, in which a person must learn to bear "those afflictions that you can't get rid of."

In the introduction to Everything That Rises Must Converge, American poet and critic Robert Fitzgerald (1910–85), O'Connor's literary executor and close friend, notes the title is taken from Teilhard "in full respect and with profound and necessary irony." A practicing Catholic like O'Connor, Fitzgerald calls Teilhard's vision of the omega point at the end of time as "one more path past the Crucifixion." He calls O'Connor's stories in this volume a "corrective" of that view. He writes, "Her vision will hold us down to earth where the clashes of blind wills and the low dodges of the heart permit any rising or convergence only at the cost of agony." Fitzgerald calls O'Connor's work tragicomedy, which he considers to be "the most Christian of genres" and reminds readers O'Connor described her first collection as "nine stories about original sin." Thus, O'Connor applies Teilhard's vision as verbal irony, naming and juxtaposing his vision to the sinful state of the world. And only at great cost does a human being in O'Connor's stories experience any rising or convergence—and often at the moment of death.

Catholics and Protestants in the South

The first form of Christianity in the American South was Catholicism, brought by the Spanish Catholic conquistadors. They arrived with Jesuit priests, whose mission was to convert and "civilize" the indigenous people. The Jesuits worked among the Native Americans near Chesapeake Bay and at Parris Island, South Carolina. Catholicism became the dominant religion in Louisiana and parts of Florida. Maryland was founded in the 17th century by Catholics who came to the New World to escape the persecution of English Protestants. Nonetheless, the religious history of the South is almost exclusively Protestant, much of it evangelical and fundamentalist, meaning Protestant Christians in the South sought to convert others to their belief that the words of the Bible were literal truth from the mouth of God.

The first form of Protestantism in the South was Anglicanism, the religion of the Church of England. After the American Revolution (1775–83), the Anglican Church was "disestablished," and the Episcopal Church took its place. Most American Episcopalians belonged to the upper classes. After 1750 Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, Lutherans, and Methodists moved South because land was cheap. These new influences overpowered the earlier Anglican and Episcopal belief systems. Whereas the First Great Awakening, a series of Christian revivals in the 1730s and 1740s, was primarily a Northern religious movement, the Second Great Awakening, beginning around 1800, was a national movement that had a profound impact on the South.

The evangelical Protestantism of the Second Great Awakening emphasized personal religious experience over religious book learning. American Evangelicals shared the Calvinist belief in humanity's basic sinfulness. (Calvinism is another sect of Protestantism.) They also believed in God's grace, which led to salvation. The experience of conversion—a transformative experience in which a person turns away from sin and accepts God's grace—was a key feature of evangelicalism. In the conversion experience a person feels the omnipotence of God—both his power and mercy—and realizes Jesus Christ has brought salvation to humanity through his death on the cross to atone for human sin.

Fundamentalism was linked to evangelism, or the imperative to spread the Christian word of God. Opposed to scientific thinking, particularly evolution, fundamentalists accept Bible stories literally.

Baptists and Methodists were the hub of this more democratic religion that did not rely on an elitist clergy and that empowered poor and working-class people. Early Evangelicals criticized slavery and won early converts among the slave population. But as this new Christianity spread and its adherents became more prosperous, they abandoned their earlier ideals, including their hostility toward slavery.

As the Northern and Southern states grew further apart over the issue of slavery, Southern religious leaders sided with slave owners and helped promote Southern nationalism. Before the South seceded from the Union in the run-up to the Civil War (1861–65), the Baptists and Methodists in the South had seceded from their religions, becoming the Southern Baptists and the Southern Methodists. The Presbyterians also split with their Northern brethren before the war. After the Civil War, the Southern churches continued to promote regionalism and Southern culture.

The Catholics were a small part of the religious picture in the South since most Catholic immigrants went North. Nonetheless, some Catholics remained in the South, and some had a long history there. The Catholic Church in the South sanctioned slavery, with one Catholic bishop even delivering a pro-slavery sermon at the beginning of the Civil War. After the war, Southerners defended "Southern civilization," closely associated with certain attitudes, customs, and cultural beliefs that were linked to the legacy of slavery and unequal relations between blacks and whites. Religious institutions in the South sanctioned the "Southern way of life," blurring the lines between Christianity and regional culture. Much more than in the North, religion was at the center of Southern lives.

Southerners continued to be haunted by their defeat in the Civil War and by their humiliation at the hands of Northern Reconstructionists who attempted to impose new values on them. Southern attitudes only hardened as a result, and by the 1890s, white supremacy was a tenet of faith for proponents of the "Southern way of life." In a series of Supreme Court cases, civil rights acts meant to uphold the rights of African Americans were weakened. In the case of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Supreme Court ruled states had the right to segregate the races, as long as the accommodations or services offered to the separate races were "equal." This ruling ushered in the Jim Crow era and institutional segregation below the Mason-Dixon line. Although white churches did not condone racial violence, they supported segregation and disenfranchisement of black voters.

The South was historically anti-Catholic, like the rest of the nation, but this prejudice lasted longer in the South than elsewhere. Protestants in the South perceived Catholics as alien, and anti-Catholic sentiment united Southern white Protestants against a common enemy. The divide between Protestants and Catholics was rooted in long-standing animosities brought from Europe. Protestant distrust of Catholics is connected, to some degree, with the fear that because Catholics obey the pope, they do not believe in separation of church and state as laid out in the U.S. Constitution. Until the Civil Rights movement united white Christians in their opposition to social change, religion had been almost as important as race as a boundary between social groups.

To understand Flannery O'Connor, it is important to understand this religious history of the South. O'Connor's family were well-established Southern Catholics, and O'Connor gives little indication in her stories of the role of Catholics as outsiders. Rather, many of her characters are Protestant fundamentalists of firm faith who maintain the Bible is literal truth and focus on Jesus Christ, the incarnation of God. Unlike Catholics, they do not believe in Purgatory, an intermediate place after death in which a person expiates their sins until they are purified enough to be accepted into heaven. Fundamentalists believe human beings go either to heaven or hell when they die. At the heart of O'Connor's stories is the Protestant notion of conversion—or what O'Connor, as a Catholic, calls the reception of divine grace. Protagonists are tested and often come up short—either missing grace altogether or receiving grace only at the moment of death.

O'Connor and Race

Sympathy with the South and loyalty toward her Southern roots are largely responsible for Flannery O'Connor's ambiguity about the Civil Rights movement and integration. O'Connor was suspicious of the moral righteousness of Northerners on the subject of race, and she did not hide her own prejudices from herself or from the world. She believed the cause of integration was just, but on the other hand, she feared the passing of a way of life imbued with a preoccupation with God. She understood that because Southern Christian ideals were so inextricably linked with racial inequality, it was inevitable that greater equality would undermine traditional Southern religious values, manners, and mores.

In her stories she freely uses the highly pejorative and emotionally charged term nigger, putting this offensive word in the mouths and minds of her characters as part of everyday speech and thought. Yet her stories reproduce authentic regional dialogue as well as ingrained racist attitudes. Conversely, the narrative voice in her stories always uses the more respectful term of her time, Negro, to refer to African American characters. However, O'Connor also used the term nigger in her nonfiction writing and in conversations with friends when referring to black people as part of her everyday speech, echoing regional Southern diction. While she clearly saw racism as an evil, she also was aware she herself had racial prejudices for which she did not apologize.

O'Connor and the Devil

The devil is a real and malevolent presence in the world, both for a fundamentalist Protestant and a self-described 13th-century Christian like Flannery O'Connor. In Christian origin stories, the devil is equated with the serpent in the Garden of Eden, a narrative that appears in Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Bible. This same serpent who becomes the devil is also equated with the brightest and most favored of the angels, Lucifer, expelled from heaven because he wished to be the equal of the Creator. Thus, Lucifer and his army are cast down into hell because of their extreme hubris, or ego. They lack the humility of a creature of God, who owes everything to the Creator yet forgets where he or she came from.

While O'Connor likely believed the devil tempted people to commit evil deeds, she never inserts the devil into her stories in any blatant or literal way. Rather, as noted by literary critic Melita Schaum, a "Lucifer-Trickster" character often appears to test the protagonists, bringing to light their duplicity, greed, selfishness, or egotism. More often than not, the Lucifer-Trickster facilitates a protagonist's self-destruction. While the Lucifer-Trickster is prominent in O'Connor's earlier stories, he shows up as an abstraction in the stories in Everything That Rises Must Converge—more specifically, as people's delusions about themselves. For example, in the title story of the volume, Julian deludes himself into believing he is liberal about race and superior to his mother for this reason, when in fact he longs for the days of the antebellum or post–Civil War South, even as he persecutes his mother for her racism. He pretends he does not lean on his mother or need her, but when she falls down with a stroke, all he can do is cry out, "Mamma!"

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