Percy was raised in a Presbyterian church. He, however, was an agnostic till he converted to the Catholic Church when he was thirty. Until his conversion Percy was a scientific humanist. He contracted tuberculosis while in medical school. Smith notes: "The illness, which would keep him from ever practicing medicine, caused him to spend almost three years in two sanatoriums. In the first sanatorium, Percy found himself continually debating theological issues with a Catholic man who was well versed in apologetics. Due to this man's skillful use of logic, Percy began to read the works of Augustine and Aquinas. This also may have been the time when Percy first read Kierkegaard. His love for the elegant rationality of the 'pure' sciences never ceased, but after medical school, Percy did begin to doubt that they held all of the answers to life's questions" (252-253). Percy distinguishes between science and scientism in many of his writings. He would hold science in favor his whole life, but would disdain scientism. Scientism is the idea that science holds the answers to all questions. It is also the idea that the scientific method is the only method of knowing.
Percy thought science could only generalized about the human being. It could not speak of the individual person. He thought only the novelist could speak of the individual. Percy thought answers lied outside of science. The only nonreligious alternative for Percy was his uncle Will's southern Stoicism. Percy wrote of this alternative:
"But as beautiful and noble this ethic was, Percy felt that it would never work for him--and wouldn't for the simple yet decisive reason that he lacked the strength of character, the virtue, that was necessary for the upholding of such an ethic. Percy's great feelings of self-disgust and unworthiness made the Stoic option seem beyond reach. . . . Percy came to Christianity precisely out of this powerful sense of his own unworthiness. Indeed, it seemed to him the principal brilliance of the Christian 'anthro-pology' was that it put human corruption and inadequacy at the center of its picture of man, and furthermore, that it taught that recognition of this inadequacy was the first step in hearing the Christian Message (Tolson, p. 199)" .
This is a very interesting observation. Percy saw himself unable to save himself. He saw himself a sinner in need of a savior. One sees these two themes in most of Percy writings. The first theme is to recognize our lostness. The second theme is to be willing to listen to the gospel message to be saved..
Smith notes, "In 1947, at the age of thirty-one, Walker Percy and his wife Bunt Percy was baptized into the Catholic Church" (253). One might ask why did Percy convert to the Catholic Church and not some Protestant denomination. He was raised a Presbyterian. Why didn't he convert to the Presbyterian church? Did his raising in the Presbyterian church influence his post-conversion life?
Smith thinks if Percy read Kierkegaard before or after his conversion is of little importance. Smith states, "Percy found in Kierkegaard some ideas that he had already considered. He also found some new ideas in Kierkegaard, with which he mostly agreed" (254). It is interesting that the major influence on Percy's thinking just prior or after is conversion was a Protestant thinker. Why did Percy turn to Kierkegaard early on? How did Kierkegaard shape Percy's thinking?
Percy writing of Kierkegaard: "I suppose the great bombshell with me was the famous passage of Kierkegaard's describing Hegel as a philosopher who lived in a shanty outside the palace of his own system and saying Hegel knew everything, except what it is to be born and live and die" (Conversations with Walker Percy, p.109)" . I think Luther said something similar about being a theologian. Percy was "drawn" to Kierkegaard's interpretation of Hegel because it was similar to his interpretation of scientific humanism. Percy would say that science describes everything but what it means to live and die. Smith notes, "This theme of the limitations of science is crucial to understanding Percy, as it is a bedrock of his own thought and a recurring theme throughout his novels and essays" (254). Percy would never forget the lessons he learned about the lessons he learned about the inadequacies of science as a patient in the sanatorium.
Smith points out"two significant ideas from Kierkegaard [that] had a major influence on Percy" (254). The first idea is drawn from Kierkegaard's essay, "Of the Difference Between a Genius and an Apostle." Geniuses are People "who have superior intelligence and create works of art or science or philosophy that go uncomprehended in their times" (254). I assume it would be people like Einstein. These ideas are not "essentially new" because this knowledge is already in the world. It is just not discovered yet. The apostle, in contrast, is just an ordinary person. It is the message, not the messenger, which is "extraordinary." The apostle is set apart by a special calling. One thinks of the prophets in the Bible. They were ordinary people who were called by God to deliver His message. Smith notes, "The apostle is called by God to deliver the good news of salvation. Furthermore, unlike the work of the genius, the revelation of the apostle is immune to judgment. One must either accept the gospel or reject it" (254). One can see this distinction in many of Percy's writings. He often says he is not an apostle. He also says he is not authorized to deliver the message. One thinks of his essay, "The Message in the Bottle," where he distinguishes between everyday knowledge and "News." News is knowledge from outside the world. It is a divine revelation. One must either accept it or reject it.
The second key idea that had a major influence on Percy's writings were Kierkegaard's "Stages on Life's Ways" or the "Spheres of Existence" (255). What are these stages? The first one is the Aesthetic stage. People at this stage "live for the moment." Charles Moore notes, "They are observers, spectators, tasters, but not serious participants. . . . Their well-being is determined by the choices or moods of others and by forces that extend beyond their control. . . . Thus, when things go wrong, aesthetic persons never accept responsibility or blame" (255). This includes more than just people "preoccupied with their senses" (255). It includes people "who are merely interested in ideas. . . because they assume that truth can fit into their system of ideas" (255). Smith notes, "Thus, Christianity is reduced to theology and there is no recognition of a living relationship with Christ" (255).
The second sphere is the ethical. The person in this stage "realizes his or her moral duty in making decisions" (255). In addition, "The ethical person takes full responsibility for his or her actions" (255). Charles Moore thinks that a key element of this stage is freedom. Moore writes: "The aesthetic person drifts along with the current around him. The person who lives ethically, however, determines these very currents. . . . The person who lives in the ethical sphere lives intentionally, intensively" (255). This person is inner-directed, instead of being outer-directed.
The third stage is the religious sphere. Smith states, "A person enters the religious sphere when he or she realizes that the ethical sphere is not sufficient in answering life's difficulties" (255). Is this Kierkegaard's famous leap of faith? Smith thinks that sometimes duties conflict with each other. How will the person choose which one to do? According to Smith, "There is something higher than duty, namely God. In order to see oneself as one really is, that person has to see himself or herself before God" (255). Percy mentions this idea in various writings. To know one's own self one must see himself from God's perspective.
"When an individual stands before God he no longer sees himself as self-sufficient. He recognizes his own inability to transform himself. The religious person strives to allow himself to be transformed by God. Such transformation includes three things: (1) Infinite resignation--dying to the world, the willingness to sacrifice any finite good for the sake of God. (2) Suffering-- undergoing a transformation of the self, though not by the self. It is the process of undergoing "self-annihilation' so that God, not self, can do his transforming work. (3) Guilt-- the feeling of one's inability to give oneself completely, unreservedly, to God" (256).
In the next part we will look at how Percy used these ideas in his writing.