Volume > Issue > Walker Percy, the Episcopal Church & Kierkegaard’s “Apostle”

Walker Percy, the Episcopal Church & Kierkegaard’s “Apostle”


By Thomas H. Hubert | July-August 2021
Thomas H. Hubert is an independent scholar who taught English at the University of Georgia, McNeese State University, and St. Louis University, among others. A Catholic convert from the Episcopal Church, he writes from Cary, North Carolina.

Walker Percy and Søren Kierkegaard? Yes, of course. Percy and the Episcopal Church? Well, yes again. My argument here is twofold. On one hand, Percy, in his fiction, depicts the Episcopal Church — or, more exactly, some of its representatives — in order to advance both character and plot development and, not least, his satirical purposes. On the other hand, as a way of dramatizing Kierkegaard’s concept of “the Apostle,” Percy pits these folks against representatives of the Catholic Church, who are hardly beyond the barbs of satire themselves. This second part of the argument is the more vital. Kierkegaard’s idea, developed in his seminal essay “Of the Difference Between a Genius and an Apostle” (1847), powerfully influenced Percy’s presentation of character and theological insight in his fiction. (The essay was also arguably a factor in Percy’s conversion to Catholicism, as he himself suggested in a 1987 interview.) We find its firm imprint in Percy’s acclaimed novels The Last Gentleman and, even more significantly, The Second Coming.

What did Kierkegaard mean by an “Apostle” in contrast to a “genius”? We can see what he’s about from a representative quotation, to which Percy’s commentary on it may serve as gloss. Here’s Kierkegaard:

Genius is, as the word itself shows, immediateness…it is a natural qualification [emphasis added], genius is born. Even long before there can be any question as to how far genius is prepared to relate its particular gifts to God, it is genius, and it remains genius even if it does not do so…. In his first communication a genius may be paradoxical, but the more he comes to himself, the more completely will the paradox disappear.

Three key points may be gleaned from this quotation: (1) the gifts of the genius are natural and inborn; (2) the gifts may or may not be specifically related to God; and (3) the genius embodies an element of paradox, at least for a while. Kierkegaard continues, with his contrasting description of the Apostle:

It is otherwise with an Apostle…. An Apostle is not born; an Apostle is a man called and appointed by God, receiving a mission from him…. Apostolic calling is a paradoxical factor, which from first to last in his life stands paradoxically outside his personal identity with himself as the definite person he is…. As a result of this call he does not become more intelligent, does not receive more imagination, a greater acuteness of mind and so on.

In other words, though the Apostle may also have gifts — personal, intellectual — these do not set him apart. The decisive difference between the genius and the Apostle is the divine calling the latter receives, the appointment by God to a special mission. The genius does not have this; the Apostle does. Herein lies the paradox inherent in the latter’s vocation. St. Paul is an Apostle by virtue of his supernatural calling, quite apart from any intellectual gifts; Kierkegaard, by his own admission, is not an Apostle, though he may qualify as a genius by virtue of his intellectual gifts.

Percy expands on the concept, especially as it relates to his fiction. In a 1974 interview with Bradley R. Dewey, a Kierkegaard scholar, Percy said that for Kierkegaard “a genius is a man who arrives at the truth anywhere, anytime, anyplace, whereas an apostle has heard the news of something that has happened, and he has the authority to tell somebody who hasn’t heard the news what the news is.” Percy elaborated:

If the hearer of the news asks the apostle, “On what grounds am I supposed to believe this news?” the apostle simply replies that “I have the authority to tell it to you, and if you don’t believe me it is your fault. If I didn’t have the authority, I wouldn’t be telling you. You better believe it, and if you don’t believe it it’s on your own head.” That was a tremendous distinction, a very clear distinction between the two.

Percy goes on to acknowledge that he worked the concept into several of his novels in various ways. As is evident in those works, the authority of the Apostle is not to be confused with authoritarianism. The Apostle speaks his word; his listeners take it or leave it. He will not and cannot force them.

The Episcopal Church, worlds apart from Kierkegaard’s thought though it may seem, has traditionally, and stereotypically, been the spiritual home of the upper layers of Southern society. The Percys were full-fledged members of the upper crust of the Deep South. Walker’s father, who committed suicide when Walker was 13 years old — one of the most traumatic events of Walker’s life — was an Episcopalian until he married, at which point he entered the Presbyterian fold. Walker was raised during his teenage years by Will Percy, a first cousin once removed who eventually lost his Catholic faith. At age 27 Walker married Mary Bernice Townsend, and the two lived for a brief time near Sewanee, Tennessee, participating in the local social life, going to teas and cocktail hours and even attending divine services. But the two never really felt at home among the Episcopalian elite, and within a year, Walker and his wife entered the Catholic Church, an event, Walker said, that “saved my life.”

In his published fiction, Percy occasionally alludes to the Episcopal Church or presents a character connected to it, often in contrast to the Catholic Church, as well as to the Presbyterianism of his early youth, beginning with The Moviegoer (1961) and continuing with The Last Gentleman (1966), Love in the Ruins (1971), Lancelot (1977), The Second Coming (1980), and The Thanatos Syndrome (1987). Though Percy satirizes the Episcopalian characters, gently or otherwise, he does not present the Catholic characters as shining role models. In the interest of brevity, I will illustrate selectively from The Moviegoer, in which Kierke­gaard is explicitly introduced, and then move on to The Last Gentleman and The Second Coming as the two main examples in which the concept of the Apostle is present.

Percy’s first published novel, The Moviegoer, introduces Binx Bolling, a Korean War veteran and New Orleans stockbroker who is spiritually adrift. Equally adrift, and neurotic as well, is his cousin Kate Cutrer. Binx sets out on a loosely defined search for some sort of purpose. Heretofore, his life has consisted of work, watching movies, and short-term affairs with his secretaries. In one suggestive episode, he visits his mother and siblings, who are faithful Catholics, especially his brother Lonnie. Another major character is his aunt, who “likes to say she is an Episcopalian by emotion, a Greek by nature and a Buddhist by choice.” In this terse-tart sentence, Percy sends up Episcopalianism as appealing primarily to the affective side of belief and gigs the aunt’s syncretic religious bent. Binx, “nominally at least also a Catholic,” has little use for religion, particularly as it is practiced faithfully by his uncle Jules and his mother.

At the end of the novel, however, Binx acknowledges a belief in the Resurrection to the siblings of the dying Lonnie, who ask him, “When the Lord raises us up on the last day, will Lonnie still be in a wheelchair or like us?” Binx simply says, “He’ll be like you.” It is impossible for Percy to present Binx as saying more than this, for Binx also acknowledges that he does not have “the authority, as the great Danish philosopher declared, to speak of such matters in any way other than edifying.” Even so, Binx and Kate plan a life together, marked by a muted optimism.

Percy essentially repeats this dictum about authority in his essay “Why Are You a Catholic?” (1990). “I do not have the authority to bear good news or to proclaim a teaching,” he writes. He thus bookends his life’s work with an echo of Kierkegaard’s concession of his lack of apostolic authority, despite the fact that the novelist has in his own indirect and cunning manner spoken with another kind of winning authority: that of the spiritual, moral diagnostician.

Percy’s second novel, The Last Gentleman, introduces a character who is not only spiritually adrift but suffers also from amnesia and fugue states. In his travels from New York to Louisiana and Santa Fe, Will Barrett takes up with members of the Vaught family of Birmingham, Alabama. Chief among them is Kitty, with whom he falls in love. The other siblings are Val, a Catholic nun; Sutter, a failed doctor; and Jamie, the youngest, who is suffering from a terminal disease. A significant subplot is Will’s effort to find out why his father committed suicide. The main plot, however, leads ultimately to getting Jamie — whom Sutter takes to Santa Fe — baptized before he dies. This is Val’s goal, not Sutter’s, and Will, for his part, simply does what he is told to make it happen.

The novel features two particularly telling passages that relate to the concept of the Apostle. In the first, Will visits Sister Val at her hardscrabble apostolate in Mississippi. In describing the trajectory of her conversion to Catholicism, she relates how a nun in the library at Columbia University, with whom she shared a study cubicle, discerned that Val was spiritually “half dead.” The nun invited her to the motherhouse, and Val took instruction in the faith, did all else that was required of her to enter the Church, and entered the order itself — all in the space of six weeks. The nuns thought she was crazy, she tells him. The key line in this passage, which is easily missed, is “When all I’d done was take them at their word.” In short, the nun and her sisters were, for all practical purposes, acting in the role of the Apostle. They shared the Good News as they knew it and knew how to speak it, and Val believed it. While some may find her conversion implausible, it nevertheless illustrates St. Paul’s contention (cf. Rom. 10:17) that faith comes from what is heard. The genuineness of that event depends, at least in part, on the authority of the speaker, as well as the receptivity of the hearer.

Will himself identifies as an Episcopalian on a half-dozen occasions in the story, some trivial, others not. In a typical moment, he reflects on a group of young men socializing at a party: They “were Sewanee Episcopal types, good soft-spoken hard-drinking graceful youths, gentle with women and very much themselves with themselves.” But, he laments, “why ain’t I like them, easy and actual?” After all, he is Episcopalian, too. His question speaks, of course, to his own personal disorientation, a matter distinct from his religious identity. This identity, uncertain as it is, colors his perception, and ours, of the critical drawn-out baptismal scene at the novel’s end.

That Jamie’s baptism has become an urgent issue — besides the fact that he’s dying — is the result of the mixed religion of his parents. When Jamie was born, his father was Baptist, his mother Episcopalian. His father later joined the Episcopal Church, and Jamie was left unbaptized because Baptists do not practice infant baptism. In his explanation of the situation to Will, Sutter takes a swipe at the socially conscious nature of some Episcopalians: “You might say [Jamie] was a casualty of my father’s ascent in status.”

In negotiating with Father Boomer, the Catholic priest, about performing the rite, Will, the self-identifying and somewhat defensive Episcopalian, asks himself, “Where in the world did [my] ready-made polemics come from? Never in [my] entire lifetime had [I] given such matters a single thought and now all at once [I] was a stout Anglican, a defender of the faith.” The most important point to be gleaned from this scene — one which Percy himself elucidates in relation to Kierkegaard’s concept of the Apostle — is that Father Boomer is, for all his ordinariness and matter-of-factness, the embodiment of the Apostle in the Kierkegaardian sense. In this critical scene, to which the whole novel is prologue, Will serves as an uncertain intermediary between Jamie and the priest. As the latter lays out the essential Catholic beliefs of salvation and prepares to administer the sacrament, Jamie asks Will if what the priest is saying is true and why he should believe it. Father Boomer answers, “It is true because God Himself revealed it as the truth,” adding, “If it were not true…then I would not be here. That is why I am here, to tell you.” In short, the truth of the matter is not dependent on Father Boomer’s personal witness or any personal gifts he may have or lack. He is simply an agent, sent on a mission not of his own devising. Of this scene and the priest’s role, Percy acknowledges in his interview with Dewey that it “was a direct steal from Kierkegaard.” No one would confuse Father Boomer with a genius, but by the same token, he clearly, if paradoxically, is to be identified as an Apostle.

The pièce de résistance of the Percy canon in connection with Kierkegaard’s Apostle is The Second Coming, in which the novelist gives form most dramatically to the concept. As a sequel to The Last Gentleman, this novel again features Will Barrett as the protagonist. But he is not quite the Will of The Last Gentleman. Even after a successful legal career and marriage, he is still plagued by physical and emotional issues. Not the least of these is the oppressive memory of his suicidal father and their troubled relationship, one tangled up with the prospect of death in general and Will’s own suicidal thoughts in particular.

Like the Will of the earlier story, the middle-aged Will is still a searcher, one who seeks both eros and the God who is Love, which for him is one quest. In a plot development worthy of Charles Dickens, Will finds and eventually falls in love with Allie, the schizophrenic daughter of his old flame Kitty from the earlier novel, who recently escaped from a psychiatric unit and now lives in an abandoned greenhouse outside Linwood, North Carolina. The two characters complement each other in the sense that he cannot escape the past and she lives only in the present after enduring repeated sessions of shock therapy. Gradually, they fall in love as she nurses him back to physical health — their chance encounter occurs when Will inadvertently falls off a ridge into the greenhouse — and he helps her negotiate her new, independent life.

The spiritual side of Will’s search unfolds in part through his relationship with Jack Curl, a hip Episcopal priest and administrator of the senior-living facility funded by the wealth of Will’s late wife. Though Will does not particularly respect Jack in his clerical role, he sees a clear affinity between Jack and himself in that “Jack too was trying to catch hold of his own life.” But just as clearly, Jack is not the one who can help Will catch hold of his life. Jack tries in his own jaunty, proselytizing manner to bring Will into the Episcopal fold of his late wife. Even though Will had tried for her sake to believe and practice the faith, he had fallen short. Jack queries him: “I seem to be picking up some vibes…that you might be thinking of entering the church — am I out in left field?… Don’t you think you belong here in the church? With your own people.” Will acknowledges that his people were Episcopalians, “but at heart,” he muses, “they were members of the Augusta Legion and in the end at home not at St. John o’ the Woods but with the bleached bones of Centurion Marcus Flavinius on the desert of the old Empire.”

Jay Tolson in Pilgrim in the Ruins: A Life of Walker Percy (1992), citing this passage in particular, argues that Percy presents the Episcopal Church in a more favorable light than the one I am describing here. But Tolson bases his interpretation partly on a misreading. He identifies Will as actually being an Episcopalian in The Second Coming; indeed, he had presented himself as one in The Last Gentleman. But the passage cited does not support Tolson’s view. Nevertheless, I concur that it is not Percy’s intent to attack the Episcopal Church arbitrarily. As Tolson notes, and in the interest of both fairness and truth, the Episcopal Church, historically, has had much to offer. For Percy, however, in this novel in particular, it mainly provides a useful contrast to the Catholic Church. The heart of the matter is that Will sees in Father Weatherbee, an aged, doddering Catholic priest, a person through whom he believes he can find his way to truth, love, and life.

Will is not convinced that Jack himself believes in God, and in any case, he does not see him as a “go-to guy” to assist him on his spiritual quest. Instead, Father Weatherbee might just be that man, unimpressive though he is. Jack jokingly introduces Father Weatherbee to Will, saying the priest believes in two things: “One is the Seaboard Airline Railroad and the other is Apostolic Succession.” When Will asks about the latter, Jack explains it as “a laying on of hands which goes back to the Apostles.” All Father Weatherbee says is, “It occurred.” Not much to go on, but it is enough, for this little bit of dialogue introduces a key concept. To Percy the writer, this muted, understated presentation is the only way to insert such a concept into the text and hope to get away with it. He tells Charles Bunting in a 1971 interview that the Christian novelist “nowadays has to be very indirect, if not downright deceitful, because all he has to do is say one word about salvation or redemption and the jig is up.”

When Will asks Father Weatherbee to witness his marriage to Allie, the priest immediately refers him to Jack Curl. Will won’t have it. “No, you’re my man. I perceive that you seem to know something — and that by the same token Jack Curl does not.” The poor old priest is at a loss to make out what this stranger is seeking. Though Will is an unbeliever, he allows that what the Church teaches “may be true.” On the other hand, even though he and Allie are willing to take instruction, Father Weatherbee must recognize that they cannot accept all the doctrines. But Will asserts one vital qualification: “Unless of course you have the authority to tell me something I don’t know” (emphasis added). He intuits that the priest has it, or he would not have approached him in the first place. In short, Father Weatherbee is an Apostle.

Perhaps it is this reference to authority that jogs the priest’s memory of ministering to Philippine village people many decades earlier. In contrast to the unhappiness and selfishness of affluent Americans, the Filipinos, though poor, were gentle, loving, and happy. Percy is not interested here in depicting an idyllic primitive life. The point he is making through the priest is simply that these people accepted what the priest said. “They believed me!” Father Weatherbee recounts. “They believed the Gospel whole and entire, and the teachings of the church. They said that if I told them, then it must be true or I would not have gone to so much trouble.” The priest told them what he told them not as a salesman, a politician, an orator, or a genius, but simply as an Apostle of the Word. It makes all the difference in the world.

Will responds to the priest’s speech with enthusiasm and asks him fervently if he believes there are, at this moment, signs that point to Christ’s second coming. In contrast to Father Weatherbee, who now wants nothing so much as to leave, Will is on fire. He knows what he wants and is absolutely determined to have it: “Could it be that the Lord is here, masquerading behind this simple silly holy face? Am I crazy to want both, her and Him?” And there Percy leaves it — and us — with the prospect that, in time, Will just might have both his lover, who is sign, and the Giver of the sign, Love Himself.

The essential point in Percy’s application of Kierkegaard’s idea is that the Apostle — in whatever guise he may be found — is that rare person who is ordained by God to carry His Word to His people and speak it with authority. What the people do with it is not the Apostle’s responsibility but of those to whom he is sent. As it may be said perennially, let those hear who have ears to hear.


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