Date of Award
Restricted to Claremont Colleges Dissertation
School of Arts and Humanities
Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member
Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member
© Copyright Rachel Austring
For much of the twentieth century, conventional wisdom held that as societies modernized, they would become less religious. In recent decades, this secularization thesis has come under fire from many scholars who suggest that the world is not become more secular, but rather that our understandings of religion and faith are changing. The conversation that has emerged within this discussion of “the postsecular” aligns with the perspectives of many who often see religion categorized and reduced in a way that does not correlate with the way they experience religious belief. If experiences of lived belief are not matching the categorizations and reductions around us, perhaps we can look to literature for insight about lived religious experiences. Literature is able to express nuance, accept duality, and embrace mystery in a way that makes it uniquely suited to exploring the complexities of religious belief. Communication theorist Walter Fisher posited that as much as humans think of themselves as rational beings, in reality we are more persuaded by, and communicate more often through, stories (Fisher, Human Communication 24). In a matter such as religious belief, which so often transcends the boundaries of rationality, stories are better suited to communicate our sense of the matter. Rather than using logical evidence to evaluate a story’s “truth,” Fisher’s narrative paradigm theory contends that we can evaluate based on coherence and fidelity. Does a story make sense to us given our perspective and what we know in the world? Does it maintain internal consistency? Does the story follow a “logic of good reasons” that align with our experiences? (Fisher, Human Communication 64, 105). Many people of faith may not be able to rationally explain why they believe aspects of their faith are true, but through literature we can see how these aspects also ring true for others in their lived experiences. Examining what different authors have to say about religious faith and looking at how they portray religious faith in their works offers insight into what this aspect of our humanity means in our lives. This dissertation examines the literature of three authors: Flannery O’Connor, Marilynne Robinson, and Alice McDermott. These authors all proclaim belief in the Christian faith (two Catholic, one Protestant) and also stress the value of art as a way of seeing truth in life. Their dedication to upholding artistic principles in their fiction provides an opportunity to analyze the considerations and experiences of religious faith through this lens. In exploring these three authors’ works, we see depictions of broken, confused characters searching for grace. Rather than responding to these characters’ conditions with a panacea of dogma or religious reductionism, however, these authors acknowledge that faith is an eternal mystery and use their fiction to explore the complexities of this mystery. In doing so, common themes emerge of humanity's need for grace, a representation of the ordinary and everyday (even in consideration of the divine), the difficulty of accepting what we cannot see, and a longing for something beyond what this world can provide. The chapter on Flannery O’Connor examines how she uses her visual arts background within her fiction to represent a world without traditional faith. In depicting worlds and characters that lack authentic religious belief, she is using the artistic principle of “negative space” to show how necessary religious faith and an understanding of grace are. O’Connor’s stories force the reader to reflect on the role religion and grace play in daily life by depicting how stark and hopeless the absence of religious faith would be. In contrast, Marilynne Robinson writes about characters with an established religious faith tradition and who believe in divine grace, but who wrestle with understanding what these things means in their everyday lives. The chapter on Robinson examines the way she uses the ordinary nature of her characters’ everyday lives to explore extraordinary religious beliefs. In prioritizing individual voice and everyday life in her fiction, she lends dignity to the daily reality of many believers and reflects the questionings and doubts they may have. Alice McDermott’s New York Irish Catholic characters are firmly situated within formal and cultural religious backgrounds. The chapter on McDermott focuses on how those religious practices are related to what the characters believe – even when they do not feel the need to fully examine the nature of that belief. Rather than evaluating the validity of a character’s belief, McDermott prefers to examine the impulses that lead them to believe in the first place, revealing how their faith supersedes mere tradition and ritual recitation. All three authors are highly dedicated to artistic quality and contend that dedication to art requires dedication to truth. In writing about what is true, these authors see the truths of their faith depicted on the page. Although their characters are struggling, flawed, broken, and troubled, there is also faith, love, and hope for redemption and grace. None of these authors (nor characters) can claim complete certainty in their faith or fully explain it. But that is the most accurate representation of faith, for when we look at the experiences of lived belief, complete certainty cannot exist. Literature provides us the opportunity to access the religious imagination by embracing a sense of mystery rather than demanding a logical conclusion. This is why literature – and its depictions of lived belief – can reveal so much to us about religious faith.
Austring, Rachel. (2021). Author and Believer: Exploring the Mystery of Faith in the Works of Flannery O’Connor, Marilynne Robinson, and Alice McDermott. CGU Theses & Dissertations, 302. https://scholarship.claremont.edu/cgu_etd/302.
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