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Many writers have commented on the theological elements within the strange world of Flannery O’Connor’s stories. In this essay, Derek C. Hatch asserts that O’Connor’s work has deep theological resonances with twentieth-century Catholic ressourcement thought, especially that of French Jesuit Henri de Lubac. While there is no genealogical link between them, O’Connor’s fiction evidences an overwhelming emphasis on the Incarnation, along with several other characteristics, that mark de Lubac and other ressourcement thinkers as the most fitting background for understanding the theological landscape of O’Connor’s literature. Mr. Hatch is assistant professor of Christian studies at Howard Payne University.

Much has been made of the influence of Thomas Aquinas on the thought of Flannery O’Connor. Indeed, there is a great deal to unpack from O’Connor’s self-description as a “hillbilly Thomist” (and quite likely more to examine regarding “Thomist” than “hillbilly”). Twentieth-century Thomism is a contested landscape, and O’Connor only gives hints regarding where her affinities lie. This leaves readers the task of interrogating O’Connor’s work in order to determine what shape Thomism takes in her theological universe. For example, on numerous occasions O’Connor acknowledged her debt to Jacques Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism for her understanding of Aquinas on the nature of artistic work.1 Yet, there must be more to her Thomism since, as Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt has pointed out, O’Connor’s Thomism is not the “Cajetan-tinged philosophical Thomism of Maritain, nor the Thomism of the Twenty-Four Thomistic Theses, nor is it the strict-observance Thomism of Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange.”2 If O’Connor’s Thomistic sensibilities did not solely come from Maritain (or Garrigou-Lagrange), then what perspective most characterizes her Thomistic imagination?

In answer to this question, Peter Candler offers the suggestion that O’Connor’s work best resonates with Catholic ressourcement theology.3 This essay aims to test this claim, arguing that O’Connor’s Thomism belongs among the theologians of la nouvelle théologie, most notably French Jesuit Henri de Lubac (1896–1991). De Lubac, along with the ressourcement movement as a whole, offered new life to twentieth-century Catholicism by calling for a “return to the sources” of the Christian faith, including a re-examination of the work of Thomas Aquinas without the interpretive lenses provided by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century commentators such as Tommaso de Vio, O. P. (Cardinal Cajetan) and Francisco Suárez, S. J. In de Lubac’s view, these commentators, along with Garrigou-Lagrange, handcuffed Thomistic theology by arguing for what de Lubac called the “Pure Nature Hypothesis” – that humanity has a purely natural end and any desire for union with God is entirely produced extrinsically by grace. De Lubac countered this by returning to Thomas’s works and (re)discovering the forgotten aspects of the Angelic Doctor’s thought, such as the natural desire for God as humanity’s supernatural end.4 Because of these concerns, de Lubac’s work, while focused on the contemporary shape of theology, was largely historical in nature, emphasizing the recovery of the voices of “the great among the vanquished” in order to “nourish, invigorate, and rejuvenate twentieth-century Catholicism.”5

To be sure, O’Connor was not engaged in full-fledged ressourcement, yet there are aspects of her life and work that underscore the importance of reading afresh the texts of the tradition. As evidenced by her letters and personal library, she was familiar with the currents of early twentieth-century Catholic thought and even read Aquinas on a regular basis.6 She owned copies of texts by Romano Guardini, Etienne Gilson, Charles Journet, John Henry Newman, and even de Lubac himself.7 She embraced Aquinas’ understanding of art as “reason in making,” further noting, “As grace and nature have been separated, so imagination and reason have been separated, and this always means an end to art.”8 Moreover, the trajectory of de Lubac and ressourcement was not alien to O’Connor’s work, even if she never mentioned the term. “Ressourcement,” as Kevin Hughes points out,

is not in principle a nostalgic retreat to the theological safety of premodern Christendom. Rather, it is a vital struggle for the proper diagnosis of our present condition and for the proper pharmakon that will treat and heal what ails, not only the church, but the global cultures which now suffer so many afflictions.9

While O’Connor’s fiction is not overtly diagnostic, it maintains a deep concern for the contours of the present age and their current trajectory. In this light, O’Connor will be evaluated as a literary theologian, and as will be seen, her stories offer a robust theological outlook that coheres strongly with ressourcement.

In what follows, after describing the contours of de Lubac’s contributions to Catholic ressourcement thought, I will discuss O’Connor’s work as most resonant with de Lubac and la nouvelle théologie in several key areas: 1) the understanding of the nature and function of patristic/medieval scriptural interpretation, 2) the working conception of the relationship between the natural and the supernatural, 3) the similar evaluations of and counter-arguments to the acids of modernity, and 4) the shared emphasis on the importance of paradox within theological discourse. Rather than seeking a genetic or linear connection between O’Connor and one representative of la nouvelle théologie (such as de Lubac), the goal of such a comparison is to discover how O’Connor’s ressourcement theological outlook permeates her fiction, positioning her as a distinctive and perceptive (even if unsung) voice within twentieth-century Catholic theological discourse.

Patristic/Medieval Exegesis

Of particular note in O’Connor’s work is her use of patristic and medieval categories of exegesis (literal, allegorical, tropological/moral, and anagogical). She was clearly aware of the relationships between these “senses” of Scripture as well, though she focused particularly on the last: anagogy. From the Greek anagōgē, meaning “lead up,” anagogy refers to the transcendent meaning of a text, leading one toward the fulfillment of one’s ultimate end. In commenting on the importance of this aspect of a text for an author, she writes that the anagogical sense is “the kind of vision the fiction writer needs to have, or to develop, in order to increase the meaning of his story…and that is the kind of vision that is able to see different levels of reality in one image or one situation.”10 In short, she highlights her goal as a writer when she states that anagogy communicates “the Divine life and our participation in it.”11

To pursue this goal, O’Connor notes that each of her stories contains actions or gestures that operate on this anagogical level, where such actions make “contact with mystery.”12 Here, O’Connor displays the Thomistic sensibilities of her work since one of the thinkers (though not the earliest) who described Scripture as having multiple senses was Thomas Aquinas.13 The Angelic Doctor discusses biblical interpretation as of two types: a literal/historical sense, where “words signify things,” and a spiritual sense, where the things signified also signify other things.14 The spiritual sense consists of three subdivisions: the allegorical sense, the moral sense, and the anagogical sense, which Aquinas describes as relating to eternal glory.15 The result is a fourfold sense of Scripture, with the spiritual senses presupposing the literal/historical. O’Connor, drawing on these categories and this interpretive vision, aims, like Aquinas, for a deeper reading of Scripture (and, consequently, all of reality) as part of a life directed toward God.16

Henri de Lubac was no stranger to the history of biblical interpretation. In 1950, he wrote Histoire et esprit: L’Intelligence de l’Écriture d’après Origène, which exposited Origen’s role in the development of multivalent readings of Scripture. Later that decade, he released the first of four volumes of Exégése médiévale: Les quatre sens de l’écriture (1959, completed in 1964). In these texts, de Lubac addresses a problematic extrinsic relationship between Old Testament promises that are flatly answered by the New Testament. Like Aquinas, de Lubac saw the two testaments as intrinsically linked, where the New does not merely answer (and thereby explain) the Old. This expands de Lubac’s earlier work in Catholicisme, where he uses the Incarnation to underscore the significance of the link between history and spirit (in theology and exegesis): “The reality which is typified in the Old—and even the New—Testament is not merely spiritual, it is incarnate; it is not merely spiritual but historical as well. For the Word was made flesh and set up tabernacle among us.”17 Consequently, de Lubac, following Aquinas, embraces the four senses of Scripture, opening the first volume of Exégése médiévale with this old Latin distich: “Littera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria, Moralis quid agas, quo tendas anagogia,” which translates as “The letter teaches events, allegory what you should believe, Morality teaches what you should do, anagogy what mark you should be aiming for.”18

De Lubac describes the literal/historical sense as relating to “the exterior and sensible aspect of things, as opposed to their mystic or hidden signification, which is not at all perceived by the senses but only by the understanding.”19 The allegorical sense presumes the omnipresence of Christ, viewing “all the Old Testament, both its history and its words, as a signification of Christ and the church.”20 The tropological sense brings a Christic morality into focus, leading the church to engage Scripture as “fully for us the Word of God.”21 Regarding anagogy, de Lubac states that it is the sense that points to the eschatological, unifying all senses of Scripture and directing Christians toward the fullness of Christ.22 As de Lubac points out in his study, “Each sense leads to the other as its end.”23 Thus, each transition represents a deeper attentiveness to the wisdom of Scripture. The allegorical sense, extending from the literal/historical, moves “from the letter to the spirit, from the sensible fact to the deep reality, or from the miracle to the mystery.”24 The moral sense presupposes the work of the allegorical sense: “The fruits of tropology can come only after ‘the flowers of allegory.’”25 And the anagogical sense “realizes the perfection both of allegory and of tropology, achieving their synthesis….The eschatological reality attained by anagogy is the eternal reality within which every other has its consummation.”26 The spiritual sense of Scripture, based on the hermeneutical foundation of the literal/historical sense, unites the theological virtues of faith (allegorical sense), hope (anagogical sense), and love (tropological sense), resulting in a biblical text that contains a mystical depth of wisdom for the practice of Christian discipleship.

As part of this project, de Lubac points out that the fourfold interpretation of Scripture was not unique to the medieval period, nor should it be reinstated wholesale. Affirming the emergence of specialized biblical exegesis with the work of Andrew of St. Victor (d. 1175), de Lubac maintains that modern scientific exegetical methods still hold some benefits for the church.27 Viewing these methods as invaluable for understanding the literal/historical sense of the biblical text, he states, “In their right and proper place, these techniques may, without undue pride, be construed as an instance of enormous progress.”28 Moreover, he sees no warrant for opposing the spiritual sense to the literal sense: “Research into the spiritual sense seems to be perfectly compatible with the most strictly critical exegesis; the latter is the work of science, while the other is exercised from within the faith and through all other ways.”29 Nonetheless, Andrew’s innovation is a cause for concern. De Lubac writes that the Bible becomes an object of technical and scientific study, a shift that threatened to divorce science from faith when scientific exegesis exceeded its competence: “The scholar and the believer then are so well divided that the second sees himself robbed of his object.”30

Thus, while de Lubac did not wish to return to a pre-critical period of exegesis, he was clear that contemporary exegetes stand to gain from attending to the dynamics of fourfold scriptural interpretation. For instance, while multiple senses of a text’s meaning are manifested simultaneously (and in fact, coinhere), de Lubac holds to the unity of the scriptural text. In other words, rather than allowing the spiritual senses (that is, allegorical, moral, anagogical) to become disengaged from the literal, de Lubac, following patristic and medieval commentators, sees them as integrally linked: “In Scripture itself, one professes that there is no dissociation of the two senses. The spirit does not exist without the letter, nor is the letter devoid of the spirit. Each of the two senses is in the other….Each needs the other.”31 This means that a single text can offer interpretive, moral, and eschatological insights, all of which are grounded and contained in the literal sense of the text.32

What emerges in this relationship between the literal sense of Scripture and the spiritual sense is a sacramental view of reality, where the literal sense of Scripture is completed by the spiritual. Thus, the spiritual realities of salvation and ultimate fellowship with God are not extrinsic to the literal/historical texture of the Bible. Instead, the spiritual interpretation of Scripture is, in the words of Hans Urs von Balthasar, “an instrument for seeking out the most profound articulations of salvation history.”33 O’Connor recognized this, noting, “Although [the fourfold sense of Scripture] was a method applied to biblical exegesis, it was also an attitude toward all of creation, and a way of reading nature which included most possibilities.”34 She deploys this link between the literal and the spiritual in her stories: “A good story is literal in the same sense that a child’s drawing is literal.”35 As Peter Candler notes, “Far from being a level of meaning superadded to the literal sense, the ‘spiritual sense’ is already inherent in any attempt to render something artistically.”36 In other words, the texture of the story (including metaphor and myth as well as narration) gives rise to its greater significance. For instance, in “Revelation,” when Ruby Turpin questions God by asking, “How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too?,” she is experiencing the link between the literal/historical (the pigs in the pen) and its potential for making contact with mystery (the vision of the heavenly procession).37 However, this link is severed when that meaning occludes the literal sense of the story. Thus, the narrative of a particular story is not extraneous to its meaning. As de Lubac argues, the mystery of the spiritual senses of Scripture is not abstract or ahistorical:

[T]his mystery is entirely concrete. It does not exist in idea. It does not consist in any atemporal truth or object of detached speculation. This mystery is a reality in act, the realization of a Grand Design; it is therefore, in the strongest sense, even something historical, in which personal beings are engaged.38

Likewise, when reading O’Connor’s stories, one cannot quickly distill the narrative to a theme, as though the meaning were an ear of corn contained in the husk of the story. Rather, as she writes, “the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction.”39 As the spiritual senses of Scripture must continually emerge from the fertile soil of the literal/historical sense, likewise any meaning found in O’Connor’s stories must attend to the particular complexities of the characters, their actions, the contours of the narrative’s plot, and even its setting, making the fourfold sense of Scripture a guide for reading all texts, including O’Connor’s fiction, sacramentally.

Nature and Grace

De Lubac’s views on interpreting Scripture were related to his understanding of the natural and the supernatural. In the early twentieth century, the prevalent version of Thomism was the scholasticism of Thomas Cajetan, Francisco Suárez, and Garrigou-Lagrange, which, according to David Grumett, denied “any kind of continuity between grace and nature.”40 For de Lubac, who encountered this form of Thomism on the isle of Jersey where his philosophical studies took place, it distinguished the natural and the supernatural to such a degree that they “flowed along parallel channels in complete harmony.”41 Influenced by the philosophical insights of Maurice Blondel, he argued instead that the natural has an ultimate end it cannot attain on its own; rather, the natural is only completed by the supernatural. In this way, “The supernatural does not merely elevate nature…it does not penetrate nature merely to help it prolong its momentum…and bring it to a successful conclusion. It transforms it.”42 Indeed, de Lubac and other ressourcement theologians argued that the natural and the supernatural should be understood as “distinct, but not separate.” By contrast, they saw the neo-Thomists as dividing the natural from the supernatural so that they occupied separate realms with independent ends, distorting not only dogmatic concepts but theological vision as well. In essence, what was at stake was the meaning of the Thomist axiom gratia perficit naturam, or “grace perfects nature.”43 Does grace superimpose its objectives onto nature (which is helpless to act on its own)? Does grace build on top of self-sufficient nature? Or is it possible for the perfecting operations of grace to transform nature but not entirely eclipse it, leaving room for the two to coinhere?

For de Lubac, humanity was created for communion with God, possessing a natural desire to see God and attain a supernatural beatitude that could only be achieved with the help of God’s gratuitous grace. The goal of the neo-Thomists’ separation of nature and grace was to protect the gratuity of the supernatural, arguing that grace could not be owed to nature. However, as de Lubac and others noted, the result of positing this form of nature (known as natura pura) was the separation of the natural from the supernatural, further divorcing nature from its fulfillment by grace.44 This distinction between the two positions had significant political, philosophical, and cultural implications. Stephen Schloesser notes that in France, this nature/grace dualism manifested itself in other dichotomies such as “Catholicism versus culture, religion versus realism, faith versus fact, eternal versus historical.”45 Thus, de Lubac was not focused on insignificant theological minutiae, since the natural/supernatural relationship carries immense sociopolitical import.

Not surprisingly, O’Connor’s fiction pushes against similar dichotomies, depicting a world where the natural and the supernatural are intermixed, where one must deal with both simultaneously: “Part of the complexity of the problem for the Catholic fiction writer will be the presence of grace as it appears in nature.”46 She opposes any move to divorce nature from grace, indicating that this separation has even deformed fiction:

By separating nature and grace as much as possible, [the average Catholic reader] has reduced his conception of the supernatural to pious cliché and has become able to recognize nature in literature in only two forms, the sentimental and the obscene.47

O’Connor, by responding to the separation of nature and grace, seems to share theological resonance with de Lubac and ressourcement theologians. In her own terms, O’Connor discusses the relationship between the natural and the supernatural by focusing on the link between manners and mystery, respectively: “When fiction is made according to its nature, it should reinforce our sense of the supernatural by grounding it in concrete, observable reality.”48 Manners, or a habituated form of life, are that observable reality. This corollary of the nature/grace relationship underscores how the supernatural is always mediated through the material world. One cannot identify the supernatural as something external to the narrative, as something that must intervene or intrude. In fact, O’Connor seems to understand that the supernatural permeates the natural, indicating in her work that the supernatural is communicated by the natural: “The fiction writer presents mystery through manners, grace through nature, but when he finishes there always has to be left over that sense of Mystery which cannot be accounted for by any human formula.”49 That is, within her fiction, the natural and the supernatural are not divorced from one another. Rather, close attention to the contours of the narrative gives rise to the movement of the eternal within the temporal. Along these lines O’Connor writes, “If [the novelist] is going to show the supernatural taking place, he has nowhere to do it except on the literal level of natural events.”50

The result is that de Lubac’s work on the natural and the supernatural, which centers on Augustine and argues that human beings have a natural desire to see God, finds a literary home in O’Connor’s stories. That is, Augustine’s famous phrase – “Fecisti nos ad te, Deus, et inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te,” or “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” – is dramatically portrayed in the pages of O’Connor’s work.51 Francis Marion Tarwater in The Violent Bear It Away, as he discerns his path after his great-uncle’s death, can be viewed as perhaps the most visceral example of this cor irrequietum, as he is constantly hungry, yet never sated in his journey until his final revelation. This is not to say that all of O’Connor’s characters ultimately find fulfillment of their restless hearts in God. In fact, many only proceed as far as recognizing such a natural desire within their being. Concerning this, de Lubac notes that the natural desire to see God is in fact unattainable by human effort alone, creating something of a theological conundrum. This dilemma is also embodied by many of O’Connor’s characters who, like Hazel Motes in Wise Blood, endlessly wander about the Southern Gothic landscape, disillusioned by all options for willfully-gained satisfaction.

Nihilism and Modernity

In 1944, de Lubac published Le Drame de l’humanisme athée (The Drama of Atheist Humanism). In its pages, he confronts the major voices of nineteenth-century secular philosophy: Auguste Comte, Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Each in their own way argued that human beings did not need God to fulfill their destiny. In fact, they viewed religious institutions and belief as a hindrance to human flourishing. Instead, human beings were fundamentally capable of achieving their natural ends without any additional assistance. De Lubac viewed their humanisms, with their overwhelming optimism in human ability, as characterized primarily by a shared negation, namely antitheism: “Their common foundation in the rejection of God is matched by certain similarity in results, the chief of which is the annihilation of the human person.”52 That is, for de Lubac, thinkers such as Feuerbach, Marx, and Nietzsche lost the genuine sense of humanness by pitting God against humanity. In short, “Exclusive humanism is inhuman humanism.”53 Attempts to define the human person apart from God divorce human beings from what makes them human. Arguing that without the transcendent, human beings lack any sense of intrinsic value that would prevent them from being instrumentalized, de Lubac states that the further result is a cacophony of problematic replacement anthropologies (based on the logics of biology, economics, and so on):

Beneath these diversities there is always the same fundamental creature, or rather the same absence of any creature. For this man has literally been dissolved….In reality there is no longer any man because there is no longer anything that is greater than man.54

De Lubac understood genuine humanism to be bound up with Christianity, with secular humanism as “the absolute antithesis of the Gospel.”55 Regarding the rise of nihilism, de Lubac writes, “The ‘death of God’ was bound to have fatal repercussions. Thus we are confronted with what Nicholas Berdyaev…has rightly called ‘the self-destruction of humanism.’ We are proving by experience that ‘where there is no God, there is no man either.’”56 This “experience” included the rise of Nazism in Germany, but also involved the support given to Nazism by certain French Catholics as well as the strength of the fascist organization l’Action Française in France. Consequently, de Lubac’s scholarly work also included participation in what he called an “intellectual resistance” to Nazism by contributing essays to Les Cahiers du Témoignage chrétien. Ultimately, he viewed neo-scholastic attempts to protect the supernatural by divorcing nature from grace as counterproductive, resulting in the exile of the supernatural from the natural order. This further aided secular philosophy (or “naturalism”) by severing the human person from the divine presence:

Such a dualism, just when it imagined that it was most successfully opposing the negations of naturalism, was most strongly influenced by it, and the transcendence in which it hoped to preserve the supernatural with such jealous care was, in fact, a banishment. The most confirmed secularists found in it, in spite of itself, an ally.57

O’Connor, like de Lubac, was concerned about the pervasiveness of nihilism and saw it as an inextricable part of the modern world: “If you live today you breathe in nihilism. In or out of the Church, it’s the gas you breathe.”58 She echoes de Lubac’s claim that modern designs for a grand humanism had ironically tragic results:

There is no sense of the power of God that could produce the Incarnation and the Resurrection. They are all so busy explaining away the virgin birth and such things, reducing everything to human proportions that in time they lose even the sense of the human itself, what they were aiming to reduce everything to.59

Moreover, these prevalent nihilistic vapors had devastating moral consequences on the worldwide stage. In a 1955 letter, she commented on the nihilism of her context by writing that

It is easy to see that the moral sense has been bred out of certain sections of the population, like the wings have been bred off certain chickens to produce more white meat on them. This is a generation of wingless chickens, which I suppose is what Nietzsche meant when he said God was dead.60

Likewise, O’Connor saw the effects of the acids of modernity manifested in global politics. Ralph Wood notes that

O’Connor believed that the outward carnage of the modern world, as evidenced most notably in the Soviet Gulags and the Maoist Cultural Revolution, in the Holocaust and Hiroshima and Dresden, is the direct consequence of a massive inward nihilism.61

In her fiction, O’Connor depicts this link by having her characters make brief (often subtle) references to these regimes. For instance, in “The Displaced Person,” Mr. Guizac, a Polish immigrant fleeing from the horrors of the Second World War, is killed in the South as a result of the same racism he originally fled.62

Because of this context, O’Connor’s opposition to nihilism echoes de Lubac’s diagnosis of modernity by centering on a recovery of the genuinely human and natural. She does this by presenting us with a series of characters who wholeheartedly embrace nihilism in her stories. At times, one character’s nihilism is supplanted by that of another. In this way, O’Connor pushes nihilism to its destructive finis so that she can uncover modernity’s underside. It is only at this point that redemption is possible for some of her characters. For example, in “Good Country People,” Hulga Hopewell’s Heideggerian nihilism is conquered by the young Bible salesman who has been “believing in nothing ever since [he] was born.”63 Even the Misfit, perhaps O’Connor’s nihilistic character par excellence, is invaluable in clearing the Grandmother’s vision at the end of “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” even if only for a moment, by shooting her three times in the chest.64 In many ways, then, O’Connor, while opposing nihilism, chases it to its logical conclusion in order to speak truthfully about post-Enlightenment anthropologies (even those that outwardly appear to be Christian). Similarly, de Lubac, by pointing to the manner in which neoscholasticism gives warrant to nihilistic claims about Christianity, also appreciates the criticism of modernity leveled by nihilism. Thus, the overall picture that emerges from this French Jesuit resembles the conclusions reached by O’Connor and expressed by the Misfit: one either accepts the world as transformed by the incarnation of Jesus Christ or one embraces the ever-present abyss of modernity.

Alternatively, de Lubac and O’Connor describe a world that is permeated by the sacred. As described above, de Lubac’s concerns about a divide between the natural and the supernatural have significant political ramifications. Even some of O’Connor’s self-described Christian characters inhabit this dichotomy. In response to these circumstances, she portrays self-assured nihilistic characters that are radically confronted by manifestations of the divine. Yet, as if to display that the divine permeates the entire material world (not just the good parts), O’Connor often mediates the divine to her characters in the form of the grotesque, further mitigating the strength of the nihilist position. Overall, both O’Connor and de Lubac view modernity in a similar manner: an attempt to divorce the natural from the supernatural, or manners from mystery. In their own distinct idioms, they also argue that the result of this separation is the abyss of nihilism and the loss of what is genuinely human, both intellectually through philosophy and theology and politically through wars and atrocious violence committed against other human beings created in God’s image.


Paradox is a crucial theological category in de Lubac’s work. In fact, de Lubac wrote three books that treated various paradoxes of the Christian faith. He notes that paradoxes are “the simultaneity of the one and the other….They do not sin against logic, whose laws remain inviolable; but they escape its domain.”65 He further states that paradox is inseparable from mystery because the temptation is to force a choice onto a paradox, making it an either/or. Instead, de Lubac argues that one truth should not be abandoned for another. Heterodox ideas are not a failure to toe a narrow line of right teaching. Rather, quoting from Pascal’s Pensées, de Lubac notes, “Heretics, ‘being unable to reconcile two opposing truths, and believing that to admit one involves excluding the other, therefore accept one and reject the other, and think that we are simply doing the reverse.’”66 In other words, a synthetic task is always presented to the theologian, a task to reconcile multiple truths of the faith. De Lubac advises that, if such a union cannot be located at present, then one should at least “hold both ends of the chain,” despite the perceived dissonance.67

This encouragement is crucial because de Lubac notes that Christian theology cannot avoid encountering paradoxes, and this requires constant maintenance of a nuanced tension. For instance, human beings have a natural desire to see God, which is juxtaposed to humanity’s inability to fulfill that desire. This paradox struck at the center of the nature/grace discussion that immersed de Lubac, yet it was only one paradox among many: “Remember, after all, that the Gospel is full of paradoxes, that man is himself a living paradox, and that according to the Fathers of the Church, the Incarnation is the supreme Paradox.”68 In other words, the coinherence of divine and human natures in one person is the quintessential paradox, and to fail to recognize it as such is to misdirect one’s devotional and intellectual energies. Indeed, as Susan Wood writes, the heart of de Lubac’s thought proceeds from the hypostatic union of humanity and divinity in Christ.69 For de Lubac, the paradox of the Incarnation permeates all of reality, informing the manner in which Christians inhabit the world.

O’Connor embraces and deploys paradox as well. Moreover, by describing her own work as an “incarnational art,” she highlights the centrality of the paradox of the Incarnation.70 She says as much by stating, “When you are a Christian… the ultimate reality is the Incarnation, the present reality is the Incarnation.”71 In other words, the doctrine of the Incarnation is not simply a description of Jesus’ manner of existence. The human and divine, material and spiritual, natural and supernatural intersect in Jesus. By seeing her own work as grounded in the paradox of Christ’s Incarnation, O’Connor understands her stories to be pushing back against a Gnostic impulse to undermine the importance of bodies (an impulse she calls “Manichean”). In concert with the nihilistic loss of the genuinely human, Manichaeism separated spirit from bodies in order to denigrate materiality.72 This threatened not only good theology, but also good fiction. Thus, as Christina Bieber Lake writes, “Bodies in O’Connor stories serve always to remind characters and readers of what the Incarnation validates—the inescapable reality of human embodiment.”73 Even grotesque bodies (such as the hermaphrodite in “A Temple of the Holy Ghost”) highlight the significance of bodies for theological discourse.74

With the Incarnation as a hermeneutical lens, then, something like a theandric vision of the world emerges, where O’Connor understands fiction as concerned “with mystery as it is incarnated in human life.”75 For instance, in “Parker’s Back,” the tattooed atheist Obadiah Elihu (O.E.) is much more capable of discerning the divine within the material world than his wife, Sarah Ruth, who is a professing Christian. Thus, when involved in the tractor collision (which sets a tree on fire), he immediately recognizes something mysterious in the events and in his resulting decision to mark his body with the Byzantine Christ. Sarah Ruth, on the other hand, has divorced the material from the spiritual through theological sleight of hand (she exclaims that God “don’t look” and “He’s a spirit”).76 Her attitude allows her to neglect the ways in which the physical world participates in the divine, ultimately leading her to strike the face of Christ (and reject the Incarnation) on her husband’s back. Thus, O’Connor’s theological outlook is “incarnational” in the sense that Christ’s presence is recognized throughout the world, though not as a wholesale affirmation. Rather, the Incarnation provides a lens for judging both characters, affirming certain actions and characteristics and critiquing others. In the end, it is Obadiah Elihu who has encountered the divine (and is thus affirmed even as he weeps from his physical and emotional wounds), while his wife remains unillumined, caught up in a stale form of dialecticism, betraying Christ’s incarnational paradox.

Likewise, the Incarnation highlights the importance of place in O’Connor’s work – not only her physical residence in Georgia, but also the setting of her stories. With her emphasis on mystery and manners, O’Connor notes that “The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet.”77 In her essays, she makes much of the American South as a place charged with theological energy, a region that is unique and possibly even providential in its pregnant possibilities for portraying the interplay of mystery and manners. A major part of this understanding of the South is the effect of the Civil War on Southern consciousness. O’Connor notes that the military loss in April 1865, coupled with the long, arduous process of rejoining the United States, constituted a more than rich soil for a fictional imagination that shunned pious sentimentality: “We have gone into the modern world with an inburnt knowledge of human limitations and with a sense of mystery which could not have developed in our first state of innocence.”78 In short, defeat in the Civil War constituted the South’s Fall.

Furthermore, O’Connor notes that the South’s identity as a region comes from

Those beliefs and qualities which she has absorbed from the Scriptures and from her own history of defeat and violation: a distrust of the abstract, a sense of human dependence on the grace of God, and a knowledge that evil is not simply a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be endured.79

Here the double-edgedness of the Incarnation is made clear, because, for O’Connor, the South is by no means a Christ-centered place (which would presume a blanket affirmation of all its activities); it is instead “Christ-haunted.” Because of this, in her stories, we find characters, such as Mrs. May in “Greenleaf” who, despite not believing anything related to the Christian gospel, “was a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion.”80 That is, in the strangeness of the Southern landscape, there is something mysterious at work, yet that mystery is manifested at various points as affirmation, judgment, or both simultaneously. Sometimes, this mystery is a pleasant surprise, but, as readers of O’Connor know very well, it is often unveiled as a shocking revelation. As Rowan Williams writes of this paradox of place: “The Catholic writer of fiction must offer a recognizable world that is also utterly unexpected.”81 Ultimately, then, O’Connor’s work, grounded in Christ’s Incarnation, displays the scandal of particularity – another paradox of sorts – that the odd region of the American South (populated by an equally odd cast of characters) is fertile ground for revealing the divine to readers from all regions.


When discussing the history of twentieth-century Catholic theological discourse, one cannot ignore the place and influence of la nouvelle théologie in general and Henri de Lubac in particular. Indeed, this French Jesuit’s fingerprints are unmistakable on Catholic conversations before, during, and after the Second Vatican Council. French Dominican Serge-Thomas Bonino states that de Lubac’s publication of Surnaturel in 1946 marked a “turning point in the history of contemporary Thomism.”82 He elaborates by stating, “In short, if in the year 2000 no one is any longer a Thomist in quite the same way he would have been in 1900 or even in 1945, it is partly because of Fr. de Lubac.”83 In many ways, then, it is not at all surprising to find that, even though they lived in different parts of the world and operated in different fields, aspects of O’Connor’s mid-twentieth-century fiction resonate with the ressourcement thought of de Lubac. Moreover, there has been scholarly attention directed toward the ways in which currents in Catholic theology have impacted cultural productions such as literature, art, film, and music. It makes sense, then, that such a significant Catholic thinker as de Lubac would have ripples of impact in the world of Catholic fiction as well.

O’Connor’s hillbilly Thomism is best understood to resemble the Thomism that emerges from la nouvelle théologie. That is, despite the fact that O’Connor read minimally from scholars like de Lubac, her theological sensibilities place her alongside the voices of ressourcement. By understanding her work in conversation with (and at home within) this theological movement, three things are accomplished. First, O’Connor’s work is situated within a robust theological context, giving her a broader spectrum of interlocutors. Thus, her literature is placed in conversation not only with de Lubac, but also French Dominicans Yves Congar and Marie-Dominique Chenu, as well as Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, and German theologian Joseph Ratzinger.

Second, the sociopolitical aspects of O’Connor’s works are brought (further) to the fore. Indeed, this author from Milledgeville, Georgia, becomes something of a prophet, warning about the material dangers of excessively separating the natural and the supernatural. This coheres with the work of de Lubac and others. During the Second World War, de Lubac twice fled his home in Lyons to evade Vichy forces and the Gestapo, carrying with him notes and manuscripts for what would eventually become Surnaturel, in the pages of which it is argued that an excessive separation between the natural and the supernatural would make possible Catholic support for Nazism and l’Action Française. Indeed, both he and O’Connor sought to make clear that theological discourse was not mere abstraction, but had genuine political ramifications.

Finally, with O’Connor placed within the orbit of ressourcement Catholic thought, she stands as a prominent American Catholic theologian within the nature/grace conversation (a conversation that is largely populated by French and German thinkers). That is, American Catholics have been considered bystanders to many of the major theological discussions of twentieth-century Catholic thought. By situating O’Connor within the context of la nouvelle théologie, her fiction is viewed as consistent with the conviction that “art as art, story as story, is necessarily theological.”84 In this light, her work can provide crucial theological insights to questions that pervade the American context, such as the autonomous self and racial reconciliation. To conclude, through her ressourcement theological vision, O’Connor, in her own unique manner, is theologically instructive more broadly to American Christians as they contemplate the form of Christ in the modern world and participate in the life of the church catholic on pilgrimage to God.

Cite this article
Derek C. Hatch, “Wingless Chickens and Desiderium Naturale: The Theological Imaginations of Flannery O’Connor and Henri de Lubac”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 44:2 , 117-133


  1. In an April 20, 1957 letter to Elizabeth “Betty” Hester, O’Connor wrote Art and Scholasticism was the book she “cut [her] aesthetic teeth on” (Flannery O’Connor, “Letter to ‘A,’ April 20, 1957,” in The Habit of Being [hereafter HB], ed. Sally Fitzgerald [New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1979], 216). Later that year, she mentioned to Cecil Dawkins that Maritain’s understanding of art is drawn from Aquinas, who saw “art as a virtue of the practical intellect” (O’Connor, “Letter to Cecil Dawkins, May 19, 1957,” in HB, 221).
  2. Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt, “Shouting in the Land of the Hard of Hearing: On Being a Hillbilly Thomist,” Modern Theology 20.1 (January 2004): 165.
  3. Peter M. Candler Jr, “The Analogical Imagination of Flannery O’Connor,” Christianity and Literature 60.1 (Autumn 2010): 17.
  4. This task was partly accomplished by recognizing the degree to which Aquinas was influenced by both Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius.
  5. Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Theology of Henri de Lubac: An Overview, trans. Joseph Fessio and Michael M. Waldstein (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), 30–31; Marcellino D’Ambrosio, “Ressourcement Theology, Aggiornamento, and the Hermeneutics of Tradition,” Communio 18 (Winter 1991): 538.
  6. O’Connor, “Letter to ‘A,’ August 9, 1955,” in HB, 93.
  7. See, for example, Lorine M. Getz, Flannery O’Connor: Her Life, Library and Book Reviews (New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1980).
  8. Flannery O’Connor, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, eds. Sally Fitzgerald and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1970), 82.
  9. Kevin L. Hughes, “The Ratio Dei and the Ambiguities of History,” Modern Theology 21.4 (October 2005): 645.
  10. O’Connor, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” 72.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Flannery O’Connor, “On Her Own Work,” in Mystery and Manners, 111.
  13. This literal/spiritual hermeneutic, which eventually develops into a fourfold sense of Scripture, is found throughout patristic and medieval exegetical works, including those by Origen, Augustine, and Pseudo-Dionysius. Thus, it did not originate with Aquinas, though his articulation is notable for its clarity.
  14. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae (hereafter ST) 1, q. 1, a. 10.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Aquinas restricted the use of the fourfold sense to Scripture since, as Bauerschmidt writes, “only God can make history meaningful” as a “web of signs…through which God communicates to us the mysteries of faith” (Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt, Thomas Aquinas: Faith, Reason, and Following Christ [New York: Oxford University Press, 2013], 66). Nonetheless, while O’Connor’s understanding of the fourfold sense as “an attitude toward all of creation” marks a departure from the Angelic Doctor, it does not leave her outside the entire tradition of the quadriga (O’Connor, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” 72–73). David Lyle Jeffrey notes that Bonaventure deployed the fourfold sense analogically: “For Bonaventure, it follows by analogy that in sense perception, as in the literal sense, all the other powers of insight are nascent, poised and ready to flower as stimulated, respectively, by the operations of memory, intellect, and will….Words inhere in the Word: in language and in vision the processes of creativity are analogous to the form of the creator” (David Lyle Jeffrey, People of the Book: Christian Identity and Literary Culture [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996], 154–155).
  17. Henri de Lubac, Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man, trans. Lancelot C. Sheppard and Elizabeth Englund (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 169.
  18. Henri de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis: The Four Senses of Scripture, 3 vols., trans. Mark Sebanc and E. M. Macierowski (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998, 2000, 2009), 1.1.
  19. Ibid., 2.42.
  20. Bryan C. Hollon, Everything Is Sacred: Spiritual Exegesis in the Political Theology of Henri de Lubac (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2009), 168.
  21. de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis, 2.140; emphasis in original.
  22. Ibid., 2.187, 197.
  23. Ibid., 2.203.
  24. Ibid., 2.127.
  25. Ibid., 2.128.
  26. Ibid., 2.187.
  27. Ibid., 3.271.
  28. Ibid., 1.xx. For a more thorough discussion, see Marcellino D’Ambrosio, “Henri de Lubac and the Critique of Scientific Exegesis,” Communio 19 (Fall 1992): 368–372.
  29. Henri de Lubac, At the Service of the Church: Henri de Lubac Reflects on the Circumstances that Occasioned His Writings, trans. Anne Elizabeth Englund (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 313.
  30. de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis, 3.272.
  31. Ibid., 2.26.
  32. ’Ambrosio notes de Lubac’s indebtedness to Maurice Blondel for this dynamic relationship: “From the letter to the spirit … there is a perpetual exchange and an intimate solidarity. The letter is the spirit in action. … If the spirit demands and evokes the letter, the true letter inspires and vivifies the spirit” (Maurice Blondel, Action [1893]: Essay on a Critique of Life and a Science of Practice, trans. Oliva Blanchette [Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984], 372–373).
  33. Von Balthasar, 76.
  34. O’Connor, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” 72–73.
  35. O’Connor, “On Her Own Work,” 113.
  36. Candler, 15.
  37. Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1971), 506.
  38. de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis, 2.93–94.
  39. O’Connor, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” 73.
  40. David Grumett, De Lubac: A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: T&T Clark, 2007), 13.
  41. Henri de Lubac, The Mystery of the Supernatural, trans. Rosemary Sheed (New York: Herder & Herder, 1998), 41.
  42. Henri de Lubac, A Brief Catechesis on Nature and Grace, trans. Richard Arnandez (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1984), 81; emphasis in original. See Aquinas, ST 1, q. 1, a. 8, ad 2. “[G]race is proportionate to nature as perfection is to the perfectible” [Thomas Aquinas, De Veritate, q. 27, a. 5, obj. 17; quoted in de Lubac, The Mystery of the Supernatural, 23].
  43. Aquinas, ST 1, q. 1, a. 8, ad 2.
  44. See, for example, Hollon, 85-86. For a contrasting reading of the nature/grace debate, see Laurence Feingold, The Natural Desire to See God According to St. Thomas Aquinas and His Interpreters, 2nd ed. (Naples, FL: Sapientia Press, 2010).
  45. Stephen Schloesser, Jazz Age Catholicism: Mystic Modernism in Postwar Paris, 1919-1933 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), 49.
  46. Flannery O’Connor, “The Church and the Fiction Writer,” in Mystery and Manners, 147.
  47. Ibid.
  48. Ibid., 148.
  49. Ibid., 153. As Christina Bieber Lake states about the work of the artist: “The artist does not imitate God in the act of creation; instead, she shows the God of creation through the beauty of the made” (Christina Bieber Lake, The Incarnational Art of Flannery O’Connor [Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2005], 10).
  50. Flannery O’Connor, “Catholic Novelists and Their Readers,” in Mystery and Manners, 176.
  51. Augustine, Confessions 1.1.
  52. Henri de Lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism, trans. Edith M. Riley, Anne Englund Nash, and Mark Sebanc (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 12.
  53. Ibid., 14.
  54. Ibid., 66.
  55. John Milbank, The Suspended Middle: Henri de Lubac and the Debate concerning the Supernatural (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 9.
  56. De Lubac, Drama of Atheist Humanism, 65.
  57. De Lubac, Catholicism, 313–314.
  58. O’Connor, “Letter to ‘A’, August 28, 1955,” in HB, 97. In The Drama of Atheist Humanism, de Lubac agrees, “Nietzscheism is nearly everywhere today, whether in its aggressive and, in appearance, triumphant form or in its corrupt forms. In illusion or in clarity, it gnaws like an acid at the consciousness of our contemporaries” (398).
  59. O’Connor, “Letter to Dr. T.R. Spivey, October 19, 1958,” in HB, 300
  60. O’Connor, “Letter to ‘A,’ July 20, 1955,” in ibid., 90.
  61. Ralph C. Wood, Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 179.
  62. See, for example, O’Connor, Complete Stories, 194–235. About this story, Ralph Wood writes that “a Polish refugee is in fact slain by the same sort of ‘good country people’ who operated Hitler’s ovens,” leading to the judgment that “the death camps could have been constructed in her own native Georgia as readily as in far-off Poland” (Wood, O’Connor, 16). 63O’Connor, Complete Stories, 291.
  63. O’Connor, Complete Stories, 291.
  64. After shooting her, the Misfit remarks that a more permanent redemption was possible for the Grandmother “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life” (O’Connor, Complete Stories, 133).
  65. Henri de Lubac, Paradoxes of Faith, trans. Paule Simon, Sadie Kreilkamp, Ernest Beaumont (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), 12.
  66. De Lubac, The Mystery of the Supernatural, 167–168.
  67. Ibid., 183.
  68. De Lubac, Paradoxes, 8.
  69. Susan Wood, “The Nature-Grace Problematic within Henri de Lubac’s Christological Paradox,” Communio 19 (Fall 1992): 401.
  70. O’Connor, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” 68. Lake describes O’Connor’s use of the grotesque as producing a paradox that “insist[s] that both sides of a contradiction be kept” (Lake, 37).
  71. Flannery O’Connor, “Letter to ‘A,’ August 2, 1955,” in HB, 92.
  72. “The Manicheans separated spirit and matter. To them all material things were evil. They sought pure spirit and tried to approach the infinite directly without any mediation of matter. This is also pretty much the modern spirit” (O’Connor, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” 68).
  73. Lake, 9.
  74. Lake: “When O’Connor’s characters, poisoned by the modern world, try to act as if what they do in the body (or to other bodies) does not matter, the grotesque body violently insists that it does” (ibid., 36).
  75. O’Connor, “Catholic Novelists and Their Readers,” 176. For O’Connor, the Eucharist was a central moment in this incarnational economy. Thus, she viewed “merely symbolic” conceptions of the sacraments with disdain. This was prominently displayed in her famous encounter with Mary McCarthy, who understood the Eucharist as “a symbol” and “a pretty good one,” to which O’Connor responded: “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it” (O’Connor, “Letter to ‘A,’ December 16, 1955,” in HB, 125).
  76. O’Connor, Complete Stories, 529; emphasis in original.
  77. O’Connor, “The Regional Writer,” in Mystery and Manners, 59.
  78. Ibid.
  79. Flannery O’Connor, “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South,” in Mystery and Manners, 209.
  80. O’Connor, Complete Stories, 316.
  81. Rowan Williams, Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love (London: Continuum, 2005), 103.
  82. Serge-Thomas Bonino, Surnaturel: A Controversy at the Heart of Twentieth-Century Thomistic Thought, trans. Robert Williams and Matthew Levering (Ave Maria, FL: Sapientia Press, 2009), viii.
  83. Ibid.
  84. Lake, 10.

Derek C. Hatch

Howard Payne University
Derek C. Hatch is Associate Professor of Christian Studies at Howard Payne University.