The life of the American Catholic novelist and philosopher Walker Percy (1916–1990) dramatically illustrates the tensions of faith, reason, and science. Percy was raised in an affluent and prominent Southern family marked by a history of melancholy, depression, and tragedy.1 As Paul Elie explains, “There was a suicide in nearly every generation. One Percy man dosed himself with laudanum; another leaped into a creek with a sugar kettle tied around his neck. John Walker Percy—Walker Percy’s grandfather—went up to the attic in 1917 and shot himself in the head.”2 His father, Leroy Pratt Percy, committed suicide in the attic in 1929. Percy remarked, “The central mystery of my life is to figure out why my father committed suicide.” In fact, wondering if he were destined for the same fate, he often referred to himself as an “ex-suicide.” As Grant Kaplan notes, “the question was how to get on living after deciding to live.”3
This article explores several connections between the work of the American novelist and philosopher, Walker Percy, and the Canadian Jesuit philosopher and theologian, Bernard Lonergan [End Page 63] (1904–1984). As far as I can tell, neither thinker ever referred to the other.4 Yet, as I have argued elsewhere, there are many unexplored connections between the two thinkers.5 The particular focus of this article is human quest and divine disclosure according to Walker Percy with special attention given to the work of Lonergan. After narrating Percy’s shift from scientism to a broader examination of the human condition, I will show Percy’s attempt to articulate a kind of knowledge that might account for this widening of horizons. The analysis then treats Lonergan’s understanding of reason, faith, and belief as a heuristic for illuminating the same themes explored in two of Percy’s novels—The Moviegoer and Lancelot—both of which are permeated with questions concerning the human quest, belief, and faith in the modern world.
Percy’s Broadening of Horizons6
Early in his life Percy had an inclination toward science. As Jay Tolson observes, even in his high school years in Greeneville, Mississippi, in the wake of deep tragedy, Percy was “looking for certainties, and though he attended Greenville’s Presbyterian church along with his brothers,” he found them, not in religion or in his Uncle Will’s Stoicism, but “in science—or, more accurately, in that exaggerated faith in science that is called scientism.”7 Attracted by its elegance, beauty, and simplicity, science exhibited for him a “constant movement” in the “direction of ordering the endless variety and the seeming haphazardness of ordinary life by discovering underlying principles,” which become formulated more rigorously.8 Trained at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, Percy contracted pulmonary tuberculosis while working as a pathologist at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. As a result of this diagnosis, he was forced to spend a significant amount of time in a sanatorium in the Adirondack Mountains. This forced exile deeply transformed his inner life, and indeed, shaped the intellectual and existential trajectory of the rest of his life. [End Page 64]
What were the consequences of this illness and interruption? Although Percy never abandoned his allegiance to and love for the “rigor and discipline of the scientific method,” he experienced “a shift of ground, a broadening of perspective, a change of focus.”9 On his sickbed, he began to read Dostoevsky, Camus, Jaspers, Marcel, and Heidegger, among others. Indicative of his expanding horizons, Percy became less interested in the physiological and pathological processes of the human body and more fascinated by questions concerning the nature and destiny of the human person, and, more specifically, by the peculiar predicament of human persons “thrown” (to use Heidegger’s image) into a modern technological society. Percy writes:
If the first great intellectual discovery of my life was the beauty of the scientific method, surely the second was the discovery of the singular predicament of man in the very world which has been transformed by science...