Flannery O’Connor on the suffering of children

by Kim on September 15, 2010

One of the tendencies of our age is to use the suffering of children to discredit the goodness of God, and once you have discredited his goodness, you are done with him…. Ivan Karamazov cannot believe, as long as one child is in torment; Camus’ hero [Rieux] cannot accept the divinity of Christ, because of the massacre of the innocents. In this popular piety, we mark our gain in sensibility and our loss in vision. If other ages felt less, they saw more, even though they saw with the blind, prophetic, unsentimental eye of acceptance, which is to say, faith. In the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness which, long since cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced-labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chambers….

Flannery O’Connor, in Flannery O’Connor: Spiritual Writings, ed. Robert Ellsberg (New York: Orbis Books, 2003), p. 148.

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

1

dh 09.15.10 at 4:05 pm

“It is a tenderness which, long since cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror.”

I love this quote. Really inspiring. I would say that after the word theory I would add “which happens to be wrong”.

Here is something I came up with that was inspiring while thinking about it: All tenderness without Christ is not truly tenderness.

2

Kim 09.15.10 at 4:24 pm

There is a type of bogus, sentimental Christianity with which O’Connor was familiar and which, I’m sure, she would include in her critique as well - the kind that ends in Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and extraordinary rendition.

3

dh 09.15.10 at 8:00 pm

Kim, why did you need to bring all of that stuff up? What does that have to do with the subject matter written at hand? For one cannot be truly tender in the absence of Faith.

4

Pam 09.16.10 at 8:11 am

The suffering of children: my own offspring (3 daughters, 1 son) are no longer little children but I have an uneasy feeling, in an adverse event, I don’t think my faith would give me that much comfort. I believe it’s the one thing that would tear me apart. God would need to find me.
In my work at a primary school, I see plenty of suffering children (broken families where mum/dad are fighting over custody issues, neglect, abuse) and I’ve seen firsthand that tenderness for these precious little people is not restricted to those who have faith.

5

Pam 09.16.10 at 9:44 am

Has everyone in this blog left the building? :)

6

Tim Chesterton 09.16.10 at 10:23 am

I think that to say that there can be no true tenderness without faith in Christ would be to say that the image of God had been completely erased in people until they trust in Christ. I don’t think the scriptures teach that. Even the much-misunderstood (and, in my view, poorly-named) Calvinist doctrine of ‘total depravity’ did not mean that we are literally ‘totally depraved’ (’there is no health in us’, to use the rather misleading language of the Book of Common Prayer), but that there is no part of us that has not been affected by sin - which is not the same as saying that there is nothing in us but sin.

The fact is that people of no faith are still capable of acts of extraordinary tenderness (and the other virtues as well). As Paul says in Romans 2, ‘When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts’.

And Pam - I haven’t left the building, I just live in a very different time zone than some of the others!

7

Pam 09.16.10 at 10:28 am

Thanks, my Canadian friend. I agree with all you say.

8

dh 09.16.10 at 2:45 pm

Tim and Pam, thanks for the input. After rethinking my previous point I would say that my statement was wrong. Pam you are right that children show tenderness. Tim your Romans 2 passage pretty much spells it out as well. When it is clear that I’m wrong I’m not afraid to admit it. Thanks for the “iron sharpen iron” on this particular subject. :)

I will say that with us being human (this statement is totally unrelated to tenderness) that our understanding what is good and bad is flawed.

I did a Bible study on the temptation of Christ and one of the points I found was on the temptation to turn rocks to bread. As you may already know Jesus was hungry and satan tempted Christ to turn rocks to bread. It was true that He was hungry and that clearly was a temptation but I found another multi-faceted temptation with the specific temptation. There were thousands of rocks around for Christ to turn to bread or for satan to tempt Christ to turn rocks to bread. Christ could have turned all of the rocks to bread to feed the entire world. However remember what Jesus said “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every Word that preceedeth out of the mouth of God.” One of the secondary temptations was for Jesus to use Jesus’s “tenderness for the physical poor” to trun rocks to bread to feed everybody to prevent Him of His primary focus to make available to people eternal life.

9

Tony Buglass 09.16.10 at 3:55 pm

DH, I don’t see the point of the Temptations as being related to “tenderness for the poor”, although I can see why you make the link; nevertheless, I think the tenderness issue is peripheral to the case. The Tempations in the desert are about Jesus facing up to easier ways to exercise his ministry, ways that would avoid the cross - I call them half-gospels. Each of them could be a valid and useful employment, whether it is feeding the world, using signs and wonders to prove his point, or taking authority over the world to compel obedience and overcome chaos - except none of them wold have worked, none of them would have addressed the core problem of sin, but only tinkered with symptoms.

Tenderness is a human attribute. It isn’t an exclusively Christian attribute. Even Hitler could be very tender to children (he couldn’t resist them, apparently) or to his dogs; the depravity of the man came out in other ways. Such as policies which destroyed many of the children, their homes, their families, etc.

10

dh 09.16.10 at 4:21 pm

Tony, I liked your response and it didn’t seem to contradict what I mentioned in the previous post. I liked your additional posts on the subject. Like I mentioned my first on tenderness only with Jesus if you read my previous post I mentioned that I was wrong. Your insight was even further than Pam’s and Tim’s and I appreicated yours as well as theirs.

I agree the temptations were how you discribed in terms of reasons. However, the temptations of Christ are deep and the reasons are very multi-faceted and the facets don’t contradict in any way. I see the passage that Jesus quoted regarding stones to bread as one that reveals the main reason for Christ to come to earth. People tend to focus on the Gospel as feeding the poor, etc. When the Gospel must include the answer to the question “What must I do to have eternal life?”. At the same time, as part of the Gospel we must live like Christ lived on earth as well. However, the dealing of sin and making the way for people to receive Salvation cannot be diminished. Hense the multi-faceted nature of the Gospel and the temptations of Christ. Thanks again Tony with the additional insight on top of Pam’s and Tim’s. :)

11

Kim 09.16.10 at 4:33 pm

O’Connor is not saying that only Christians can be tender. She is not an idiot. She is making, I think, a point about culture (as, by the way, was Nietzsche when he said “God is dead”): namely, that as atheism increases and faith disappears from what has been called our “social imaginary”, tenderness becomes rootless and subsides into sentimentality - and sentimentality is impotent against the cruelty of a (Nietzschean) universe in which everything is permitted.

12

Tim Chesterton 09.16.10 at 4:50 pm

I must admit I’m having difficulty following Flannery O’Connor’s logic here (specifically, the connection between faith-less tenderness and terror); there’s a synapsis not firing in my brain! I think I’m finding the ‘out of context’ quote a bit difficult. Can you tell us something about the article from which you lifted this, Kim?

13

dh 09.16.10 at 5:08 pm

Kim, I know many are misunderstanding your post but I didn’t. I really liked it and I hope that you appreciated the temptation of Christ discussion as well within the context of “feeding the poor as being tender”. If one looks at the “stones to bread” within that context one can truly see understand what O’Connor is trying to say.

I’m not a big Nietzsche fan but I love this quote: “namely, that as atheism increases and faith disappears from what has been called our “social imaginary”, tenderness becomes rootless and subsides into sentimentality - and sentimentality is impotent against the cruelty of a (Nietzschean) universe in which everything is permitted.”

14

Kim 09.16.10 at 6:55 pm

Tim, it’s from the introduction to A Memoir of Mary Ann. Mary Ann was “an extraordinarily [spiritually] rich litle girl” who died of cancer, aged twelve, at the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Free Cancer Home in Atlanta. She made such a special impression on the nuns that they themselves, at O’Connor’s urging, wrote the memoir.

I’m not sure that info will be of much help. But the point Tony makes about how Hitler could be tender - that’s the kind of tenderness, cut from its (cultural) moorings in the sea of divine love, that O’Connor has in mind - it free-floats into barbarism.

15

Pam 09.17.10 at 8:12 am

dh, @ comment 8: I wasn’t making the point that children show tenderness. I was saying that people of faith, atheists (yes, even someone as deranged as Hitler) show tenderness. It’s not an inherent Christian characteristic. It’s a human characteristic.

16

Pam 09.17.10 at 10:28 am

In addition dh: comment 13: re “misunderstanding the post” - we all respond in our own way, through our own viewpoint (but hopefully not wilfully misunderstanding others). I don’t view responding to a blog as some sort of intellectual test.

17

dh 09.17.10 at 4:26 pm

Pam, you might be surprised, but you may need to reread my post AFTER that one. I mentioned that I was wrong in my previous response and even gave kudos to you and Kim and even Tim for the clarifications. In reference to children showing tenderness the concept of Hitler doing the same was AFTER my response and your response in 4 had no reference to Hitler. It seemed when one looks at point 4 alone that you WERE making that point. You might need to reread KIm’s point 11 it states it pretty good, correct my previous response that was wrong and gives insight into the details. I personally agree and feel that to prevent ones own tenderness from being degraded into “sentimentality” one must place ones own life into Christ.

Pam, did I ever say this was an “intellectual test”. I only stated that I understood the post of Kim’s and that I appreciated it. If a person understands or not is not an indication of ones intelligence and I never gave that indication in any way in any of my responses.

I gave further insight in my appreciation. I personally agree with Kim and O’Connors premise here: “But the point Tony makes about how Hitler could be tender - that’s the kind of tenderness, cut from its (cultural) moorings in the sea of divine love, that O’Connor has in mind - it free-floats into barbarism.”

18

Pam 09.17.10 at 11:57 pm

Your clarification, as ever, dh, was a strain for me to understand. Maybe we live on different planets. The last few lines about Hitler: he was a deranged individual who managed to take his country with him into a deranged state. Not all atheists, who are supposedly cut off from their mooring in the sea of divine love, free-float into barbarism.

19

Pam 09.18.10 at 3:15 am

Additionally, dh, I find your use of capital letters to emphasise your point a put down. Do you really think you are superior in any way to an atheist? Do you think because you can quote Bible verses to explain every shade of situation that you can bulldoze your way to being respected? I DON’T THINK SO.

20

dh 09.20.10 at 5:37 pm

Pam,
What about this is it hard to understand from point 8: “Tim and Pam, thanks for the input. After rethinking my previous point I would say that my statement was wrong. Pam you are right that children show tenderness. Tim your Romans 2 passage pretty much spells it out as well. When it is clear that I’m wrong I’m not afraid to admit it. Thanks for the “iron sharpen iron” on this particular subject.”

I’m sorry you took the capitalization of my words as that I’m superior or that it was a put down. I was truly, solely using that for emphesis. How would you suggest I do that without making you upset? I couldn’t come up with anything for emphesis without using capitalization. I’m not saying or ever thought I was superior or that I was trying to put you down in anyway. I know for sure that if we were with Richard drinking a coffee that you would know that I wasn’t having that attitude. I do understand that in writing that much is hidden and in this case that was the case as well.

My view on barbarism is that all rebellion toward God is barbarism. However, I do understand and mentioned in point 8 how people can be tender as well.

21

Pam 09.21.10 at 1:51 am

dh, I had a bit of a go at you, that’s for sure. My husband tells me (frequently) that I’m stubborn and irritating and, after 26 years of marriage, he just might be right! He also (occasionally) says something nice about me. All this to say, I’m sure you are stubborn, irritating and nice as well.

22

dh 09.21.10 at 4:38 pm

Pam, no offense taken on any of the replies. I actually enjoyed the discussion we are having on this subject.

I happened to mention earlier this: “My view on barbarism is that all rebellion toward God is barbarism. However, I do understand and mentioned in point 8 how people can be tender as well.”

If you happen to agree with this then I think that this is the point of the post and Kim’s analysis from the post that has a pretty good conclusion on this subject natter.

What do you think? I hope this helps you to better understand the post and Kim’s analysis. I hope it will enlighten you as it did me. It happens to be one of those that Evangelicals of any pursuasion would find difficult to disagree with. I understand how to you you might initially disagree with it. I’ll be glad to assist you in understanding it in that in this case I did. Other times it is the other way around. :)

P.S.: I hope your husband thinks you are nice for I think you are as well. Thanks for the compliment. :)

23

Beth 09.22.10 at 6:15 pm

Kim - why must tenderness degenerate into sentimentality when divorced from faith? I don’t see that this is an inescapable progression.

24

Kim 09.23.10 at 2:45 pm

Beth, the progression is that atheism collapses into nihilism = the obliteration of foundational meaning and value. Without the latter (to redeploy Eliot’s phrase) objective correlative, I submit, feelings ultimately become merely subjective (”you tell me your affections, I’ll tell you mine”), superficial, ephemeral, manipulable. Don’t you see this happening as a cultural phenomenon?

Again, I’m not saying that believers alone feel tenderness (though I reckon the hard-hearted believer actually worships an idol), or that atheists can’t feel tenderness. At least not yet. But I reckon Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to be a chillingly accurate thought-experiment in what finally happens to tenderness in an atheist/nihilist society: you will find it only in pockets of resistance - and the rats will finally get it.

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