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

Article excerpt

"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."


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. …