Monday, August 19, 2013

Soteriology of Walker Percy Part 4

Andrew Smith in the last part of his article, "Soteriology According to Walker Percy," explains his method and he then applies it to three different works: Lost in the Cosmos, The Moviegoer, and The Second Coming. I will just summarize what he has to say about Lost in the Cosmos. As has already been mentioned, Percy's fiction and non-fictional writings have soteriological themes. Smith's method is to ask three questions to the text: "(1) From What is the person being saved? (2) By what or whom is the person being saved? (3) To what is the person being saved?" (258).

Lost in the Cosmos

Lost in the Cosmos is not a novel. It does contain stories, but it is "more in line with a satirical essay" (259). Its major subject is the search for the self, or as Smith says, "the problem of being human" (259). We will now apply Smith's three questions to the text.

The first question is "From what is the person being saved?" Lost in the Cosmos asserts that we "do not know ourselves" (259). Percy begins the book with a list of questions. One of these questions asks "Why is it possible to learn more in ten minutes about the Crab Nebula in Taurus, which is 6,000 light-years away, than you presently know about yourself, even though you've been stuck with yourself all your life" (259). Percy then gives a quiz to see if the readers knows himself. The rest of the book is made up mainly of 20 question quizzes to different "types of self" that are "presented to the reader." The idea is to help the reader "to think about who he is and why he operates as he does" (259).

One of the sections where Percy clearly answers question one is the section entitled, "The Self Marooned in the Cosmos." This section is in the last part of the book. In some sense, it is a parable. It is the story of a spacecraft "in deep space, searching for intelligent life and fearing that life on earth has ceased to exist (259). The spacecraft eventually makes contact with a planet called PC3 and tries to land, but they are restrained from landing. The planet says they must answer a few questions before they can land. The first major question is, "What is your C-type (Consciousness type)?" PC3"identifies itself" as type C1. They then go on to explain the three types of consciousness, "designated as C1, C2, and C3" (259). C1 consciousness is similar to a "child grown mature and sophisticated but maintaining its innocence permanently and avoiding the malformations of self-consciousness . . . " (260). C2 is those who once was a C1 and then fell "into the pit of itself" (260). C3 consciousness is a C2 "that has become aware of its problem and received help" (260).

Through a question and answer dialogue the reader and PC3 finds out that the American spacecraft is a C2. The members have been practicing a free sexuality and even some of the members of the crew have been killed because of jealousy. Smith asserts that the answers given by the spacecraft show "From what we need to be saved is our predicament in life, that we do not know ourselves, which necessarily includes coming to an awareness of that predicament" (260). The crew is not aware they have a problem.

The second question is "By what? Smith notes, "Percy does not explicitly say what can save us from our predicament. The book itself only points out the problem: we do not know ourselves. Many times in the book, though, Percy brings God and religion into the picture and then hastily dismisses them as real options" (260). This is part of Percy's indirect method. The reader must make up his own mind. Percy does not want to be caught preaching. The gospel, however, is very present in this short story.

Smith gives an example of how Percy brings God in the picture in the section on transcendence. Scientists and authors are prone to "orbit" to transcendence. Percy discusses the problem of "reentry" for self caught in transcendence. He gives the example of Faulkner getting drunk after writing Light in August. One cannot stay in the orbit of transcendence forever. What is the best way of reentry? Smith notes, "One of the best options that Percy offers is reentry through the direct sponsorship of God" (260). He then dismisses the idea, saying it is a "difficult if not nigh-impossible task" (260). Is he saying it is an option not considered by modern man. He does say, "there have existed, so I have heard, a few writers even in this day and age who have become themselves transparently before God and managed to live intact though difficult lives . . ." (260-261). One of the writers he names is Flannery O"Connor. Percy leaves it open that direct sponsorship by God is a possibility. Only God can tell us who we truly are, but Percy must leave it open and not explicitly say it is the best way of reentry.

The last question is "To what?" Smith states that "The obvious answer to this question is that salvation includes us having a knowledge of ourselves as individuals" (261). Percy is seeking more than that. He wants us to be open to hear the gospel, the message in the bottle. The message in the bottle is the good news of salvation. Smith notes that Percy ends the book with questions the questions that PC3 asked the American spacecraft: "Are you in trouble? How did you get in trouble? If you are in trouble, have you sought help? If you did, did help come? If it did, did you accept it? Are you out of trouble? What is the character of your consciousness? Are you conscious? Do you have a self? Do you know who you are? Do you know what you are doing? Do you love? (261)" By answering these questions the reader "should see that he or she is in trouble and that help is available" (261). Before we seek the answer the Gospel gives we must realize that we are fallen and we need help.

Smith thinks that "though Lost in the Cosmos is primarily a diagnosis of what is wrong with almost everyone, the book is soteriological in its ultimate intention. Percy wants people to understand their predicament" and how many of our responses to it are futile and without success. He thinks "the only real answer to the predicament of the person not knowing his or self is found in God" (261). According to Percy, it is only in God that we can know ourselves. Percy often quoted Kierkegaard on this idea: "the self becomes itself only when it becomes itself transparently before God" (261-262). Smith notes, "This is the classic Christian teaching of the 'double knowledge,' taught by Augustine, Calvin, Pascal, and Kierkegaard" (262). Divine revelation gives us knowledge both of ourselves and our selves before God. Smith thinks that "Percy's goal in Lost in the Cosmos is to provide an instrument by which a person will come to this double knowledge" (262).   

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