According to Wikipedia, “Walker Percy (May 28, 1916 – May 10, 1990) was an American Southern author whose interests included philosophy and semiotics.” We’re not quite sure what semiotics is, but we’re convinced Walker Percy was far more than this.
An agnostic-turned-Catholic and existentialist, he published his first novel, The Moviegoer (Knopf), in 1961. His most popular work, however, was a non-fiction social satire piece titled, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1983). In it, he wrote,
“The churches are disappointing, even for most believers. If Christ brings us new life, it is all the more remarkable that the church, the bearer of this good news, should be among the most dispirited institutions of the age. The alternatives to the institutional churches are even more grossly disappointing, from TV evangelists with their blown-dry hairdos to California cults led by prosperous gurus ignored in India but embraced in La Jolla.”
Percy was one of the most notable Southern writers of his lifetime (along with Flannery O’Connor, of course) who was able to speak about faith without actually speaking about faith. The following is an interview from “Questions They Never Asked Me,” which appears in Conversations with Walker Percy:
Q: What kind of Catholic are you?
Q: No. I mean are you liberal or conservative?
A: I no longer know what those words mean.
Q: Are you a dogmatic Catholic or an open-minded Catholic?
A: I don’t know what that means, either. Do you mean do I believe the dogma that the Catholic Church proposes for belief?
Q: How is such a belief possible in this day and age?
A: What else is there?
Q: What do you mean, what else is there? There is humanism, atheism, agnosticism, Marxism, behaviorism, materialism, Buddhism, Muhammadanism, Sufism, astrology, occultism, theosophy.
A: That’s what I mean.
Q: To say nothing of Judaism and Protestantism.
A: Well, I would include them along with the Catholic Church in the whole peculiar Jewish-Christian thing.
Q: I don’t understand. Would you exclude, for example, scientific humanism as a rational and honorable alternative?
A: It’s not good enough.
Q: Why not?
A: 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. I don’t see why anyone should settle for less than Jacob, who actually grabbed aholt of God and would not let go until God identified himself and blessed him.
Q: Grabbed aholt?
A: A Louisiana expression.
Q: But isn’t the Catholic Church in a mess these days, badly split, its liturgy barbarized, vocations declining?
A: Sure. That’s a sign of its divine origins, that it survives these periodic disasters.
Q: You don’t act or talk like a Christian. Aren’t they supposed to love one another and do good works?
Q: You don’t seem to have much use for your fellowman or do many good works.
A: That’s true. I haven’t done a good work in years.
Q: In fact, if I may be frank, you strike me as being rather negative in your attitude, cold-blooded, aloof, derisive, self-indulgent, more fond of the beautiful things of this world than of God.
A: That’s true.
Q: You even seem to take certain satisfaction in the disasters of the twentieth-century and to savor the imminence of world catastrophe rather than world peace, which all religions seek.
A: That’s true.
Q: You don’t seem to have much use for your fellow Christians, to say nothing of Ku Kluxers, ACLU’ers, northerners, southerners, fem-libbers, anti-fem-libbers, homosexuals, anti-homosexuals, Republicans, Democrats, hippies, anti-hippies, senior citizens.
A: That’s true – though taken as individuals they turn out to be more or less like oneself, i.e., sinners, and we get along fine.
Q: Even Ku Kluxers?
Q: How do you account for your belief?
A: I can only account for it as a gift from God.
Q: Why would God make you such a gift when there are others who seem more deserving, that is, serve their fellowman?
A: I don’t know. God does strange things. For example, he picked as one of his saints a fellow in northern Syria, a local nut, who stood on top of a pole for thirty-seven years.
Q: We are not talking about saints.
A: That’s true.
Q: We are talking about what you call a gift.
A: You want me to explain it? How would I know? The only answer I can give is that I asked for it, in fact demanded it. I took it as an intolerable state of affairs to have found myself in this life and in this age, which is a disaster by any calculation, without demanding a gift commensurate with the offense. So I demanded it. No doubt other people feel differently.
Q: But shouldn’t faith bear some relation to the truth, facts?
A: Yes. That’s what attracted me, Christianity’s rather insolent claim to be true, with the implication that other religions are more or less false.
Q: You believe that?
A: Of course.
Q: I see. Moving right along now –
Have you read any of Walker Percy’s works, and if so, how did they effect you? What do you think of this curious interview?