Walker Percy, the South, & Kierkegaard

Happy 98th birthday, Walker Percy. Just like the great internecine American war, the battlegrounds of the “culture war” are for the most part located in the American South. What is a Louisiana boy to do, caught in between the “new Christendom of Carolina” (The Second Coming, 272) and self-congratulatory secular humanism? (Especially those of us who see a cautionary tale in Rod Dreher…) My friend Matt Sitman dug up an old Percy dig against secular humanism:

This life is too much trouble, far too strange, to arrive at the end of it and then to be asked what you make of it and have to answer ‘scientific humanism.’ That won’t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight, i.e., God. In fact I demand it. I refuse to settle for anything less (Signposts, 417).

On the other hand, Christianity can be small-minded: attempts to constitute the “mind of Christ” as exactly as possible. The splintered white church in the South gives absolute priority to dogmatic theology, with no apparent criteria (in praxis, in freestanding ecclesiology) for how serious a theological disagreement must be to avoid further fracture. I have read Peter Leithart’s celebration of micro-Christendoms, but there are significant dangers in abandoning a global vision of the church.

Christianity in the American South is a long experiment in fervent “standalone Protestantism”. Kierkegaard was pivotal for Percy’s tertium quid. There is nothing strange about Kierkegaard inspiring a Catholic novelist, as Karl Barth and Erich Pryzwara recognized. (On this influence, Jay Tolson’s Pilgrim in the Ruins is a better literary biography than Kieran Quinlan’s book Walker Percy: The Last Catholic Novelist.) Heinrich Roos, on the other hand, provides a good corrective, distinguishing Kierkegaard from the mainstreams of Catholic theology.

Kierkegaard, anyway, criticizes Protestants who forget they are Catholics:

Are not Catholicism and Protestantism related to each other like — it may seem extraordinary but is really so physically — like a building which cannot stand, to a buttress which cannot stand alone, whereas the whole is even very firm and secure, so long as they keep together, the building and the buttress which supports it. In other words: surely Protestantism, Lutheranism is really a corrective; and the result of having made Protestantism into the regulative has been to produce great confusion (Living Thoughts, ed. Auden, 213).

Kevin Davis goes on to describe Kierkegaard’s critique “standalone Catholicism” as a kind of fatalistic anti-humanism.


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