Flannery O'Connor's Use of Symbol, Roger Haight's Christology, and the Religious Writer.`

By Yaghjian, Lucretia B. | Theological Studies, June 2002 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Flannery O'Connor's Use of Symbol, Roger Haight's Christology, and the Religious Writer.`


Yaghjian, Lucretia B., Theological Studies


"IF IT'S A SYMBOL, to hell with it." (1) When Flannery O'Connor, American Catholic novelist of the Protestant South (1925-1963), (2) made this celebrated defense of the Eucharist, she voiced a characteristic religious ambivalence concerning symbol. (3) This ambivalence is not only evident in ecumenical conversations, (4) but also among those who consider symbol integral to Catholic theological imagination and liturgical life. (5) Although Karl Rahner declared "the whole of theology" to be "incomprehensible if it is not essentially a theory of symbols," (6) he cautioned elsewhere that "a purely figurative and symbolic interpretation [of the Eucharist] ... would say less than the Tridentine dogma." (7) Writing in Rahner's wake, Tad Guzie declared "our ability to think symbolically, to let the symbols of our religious heritage speak to us" is still in need of renewal. (8) For contemporary Roman Catholics as for O'Connor, it would seem that a good symbol is hard to find.

While a defense of the use of symbol in Catholic theology and liturgy exceeds the scope of this article, I focus here upon the common symbolic imagination that I have found in Flannery O'Connor's fiction and prose writings and in Roger Haight's Christology. I argue that O'Connor the "literary theologian" (9) and Haight the systematic theologian (10) share a common theological language of symbol, a common christological starting point in relation to their respective audiences, and a common task as religious writers "writing the transcendent from below."

A COMMON THEOLOGICAL LANGUAGE OF SYMBOL

First, O'Connor and Haight share a common theological language of symbol. Although, as Haight observes, "the term `symbol' has somewhat different meanings in different contexts," (11) when understood in its own context, there is no such thing as "merely a symbol" for either of these writers. While O'Connor's view of symbol as a religious category was that of a Tridentine, doctrinally orthodox Roman Catholic who subordinated the religiously symbolic to the ultimately "real," her literary use of symbol does not separate those categories so neatly. As a fiction writer, O'Connor understood that "the word symbol scares a good many people off.... They seem to think that it is a way of saying something that you aren't actually saying, and so if they can be got to read a reputedly symbolic work at all, they approach it as if it were a problem in algebra.... [But] for the fiction writer himself, symbols are something he uses as a matter of course." (12)

However, theologians also use symbols to speak and write about God "as a matter of course." In his controversial but challenging Jesus Symbol of God (1999) Haight uses the category of symbol to construct a historically conscious, systematic Christology from below in which Jesus is both concrete symbol, or medium of God and "center of Christian faith." At the same time, Haight intimates a narrative Christology that invites readers to think symbolically as they follow the historical Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels into the dogmatic worlds of Nicaea and Chalcedon and classical Christology, and ultimately into our own postmodern world beyond those texts. This symbolic imagination is necessary and appropriate for the theologian because "All language about God is symbolic." Yet Haight frames the concept of symbol in its rigorously sacramental sense when he explains: "If something is `merely' a symbol, it is no symbol at all, for a symbol ... truly reveals and makes present what it symbolizes." (13)

As one who also used symbols "as a matter of course," I presume that O'Connor would have respected Haight's use of symbol within his own context, even if she were to ask him how his theological understanding of symbol contrasted with her literary use of symbol. I proceed, then: (1) to distinguish between literary symbols and religious symbols, using Northrop Frye's categories; (2) to examine each author's more specific definition of symbol, and to summarize its characteristic features; (3) to watch each author at work as they use symbol in their fiction and Christology, respectively; and (4) to compare and contrast their understandings of symbol.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Flannery O'Connor's Use of Symbol, Roger Haight's Christology, and the Religious Writer.`
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.