You’ve been saved. Now what?

Michael Baruzzini at First Things has a thoughtful discussion of novelist Walker Percy, bourbon, and existentialism.  But it all comes down to vocation:

Will Barrett, the protagonist of Walker Percy’s novel The Last Gentleman, complains that he cannot figure out “how to live from one minute to the next on a Wednesday afternoon.” Even Christians, with a solid theological and philosophical grounding, can find the question troubling. So you believe in God, and you believe the Second Person of the Trinity became incarnate and died for your sins. You’ve been baptized. You’ve been saved. Now what?

Here is where Percy’s existentialist-inclined Christianity comes in, and his famous paean to the South’s whiskey. In his essay, “Bourbon, Neat,” Percy’s literary mind was perceptive enough to find the connection between taking an evening drink and finding meaning in a daily life. The mind inclined to the questions of existentialism, like Percy’s, struggles with a particular problem: the question of how to be in a particular time and place. Percy slyly suggests that bourbon is the answer. No, not in the sense of drowning sorrows in alcoholic stupor, but in recognizing that it is in concrete things and acts that we are able to be in the world. “What, after all, is the use,” Percy asks, “of not having cancer, cirrhosis, and such, if a man comes home from work every day at five-thirty . . . thinking: ‘Jesus, is this it? Listening to Cronkite and the grass growing?’”

No, this isn’t it, says Percy. It isn’t all just about the fatal acts of nature and the crass manipulation of mass society. It is distinctively personal acts, like having an evening glass of bourbon, that construct a life. It is this aesthetic, this incarnation, simply this way to be, which gives a glass of bourbon its real value. But this incarnation of being extends beyond evening drinks, and informs every action we make in our lives. Take affection, for instance. Husbands and wives do not merely sit across the room maintaining a cerebral love for each other. Affection is made concrete with actions. Handshakes between colleagues, hugs and kisses between friends not only display, but actually create or make real the respect and affection between people. The true value of a family dinner lies at this level: we are a family because we eat together; we eat together because we are a family. It is in this act that our being as a family is made real, not fantasy. To take what may be the most powerful example, marital love is incarnated in the marital act. The coy euphemism “making love” has more truth to it than we may realize.

Looking to the concrete helps us discover the Christian notion of sacramentality. It is in water that we are born again; it is with bread and wine that we encounter Christ in the flesh in today’s world. It is these things that make our Christianity more than an academic exercise. So Percy would answer Barrett’s question by saying: just do it. It is Wednesday afternoon and you are a Christian: sing a song of praise, or go to Mass and eat God’s flesh. You are a loving husband, so kiss your wife. You are a father: play catch with your son or help him with his homework. You are a man at the end of a day of work: make a cocktail. If you want to be these things—a husband, a father, a son of God—there are things to do to make it real.

Christians must choose, among myriad options, how to be in specific ways in the world. But how do we know what to choose? Percy’s own conversion was motivated by his reading of the Catholic realist Thomas Aquinas, in addition to the Christian existentialist Kierkegaard. Rejecting the nihilistic varieties of existentialism, Percy recognized that there is an absolute truth surrounding the multiple ways to choose to be. Some ways are in more conformity with truth and happiness than others.

The Christian answer to the dilemma of how to be lies in the concept of grace and vocation. Here is where the Holy Spirit comes in. Vocation is the Christian call to be in a specific way in the world. It is a call to truly be, in a concrete way, who God has called you to be. It is not to be a robot obeying a program; it is to be an eagle joyfully choosing to fly or a mole enthusiastically choosing to dig, because that is what you are, what you are good at, what you love. It is an existential choice, but one that is grounded in God, outside of the isolated self.

via Walker Percy, Bourbon, and the Holy Ghost | First Things.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://BalaamsAss51@gmail.com Matthew H

    “Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is for one to eat and to drink and to enjoy himself in all his toil that he performs under the sun during the number of the days of his life that God has given to him, for this is his lot.” Ecclesiastes 5:17. Also Eccl. 9:7-10. Trans Bollhagen out of the Concordia Commentary.

  • http://BalaamsAss51@gmail.com Matthew H

    “Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is for one to eat and to drink and to enjoy himself in all his toil that he performs under the sun during the number of the days of his life that God has given to him, for this is his lot.” Ecclesiastes 5:17. Also Eccl. 9:7-10. Trans Bollhagen out of the Concordia Commentary.

  • SKPeterson

    Matthew beat me to it, but I was going to say Ecclesiastes is chock full of similar sentiment.

  • SKPeterson

    Matthew beat me to it, but I was going to say Ecclesiastes is chock full of similar sentiment.

  • Booklover

    “It is an existential choice, but one that is grounded in God, outside of the isolated self.”

    . . .and outside of the burgeoning, bludgeoning State.

  • Booklover

    “It is an existential choice, but one that is grounded in God, outside of the isolated self.”

    . . .and outside of the burgeoning, bludgeoning State.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    Your own Lutheran Pietists were correct in the sense that they saw the danger of an exclusively cerebral Christianity and wanted to move from the doctrinal to the practical, albeit they overcompensated by excluding the doctrinal.

    If Christianity has no impact on life, then it’s not Christianity; it’s nothing more than philosophy.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    Your own Lutheran Pietists were correct in the sense that they saw the danger of an exclusively cerebral Christianity and wanted to move from the doctrinal to the practical, albeit they overcompensated by excluding the doctrinal.

    If Christianity has no impact on life, then it’s not Christianity; it’s nothing more than philosophy.

  • Dennis Peskey

    Percy’s novel addresses the Thomas question of John14:5, “How can we know the way?” The heart of an existentialist beats minute by minute with this question. If your lot in life is cast with the secular (anything non-christian), there is no answer. Other religions or belief systems layer law upon law to hide the angst inherent in this question to no avail. In the end, when reflection or meditation takes hold and the pseudo-law answers are stripped away, only nihilism is found (Sartre’s foundation of Being and Nothingness).

    For the Christian, Jesus gives the one true answer in John 14:6 “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” In one short response, Jesus gives us foundation, direction and meaning to our existence; life will and must be found in him alone if we seek to know the Father. If we choose to hide behind our decorative figleafs, the inevitable decay will strip this facade away leaving us isolated and alone. If we heed the Father’s pleading and listen to His beloved Son, the way of vocation and life will be given to us – for us. It is a frightening choice the Holy Trinity permits; God does not force himself upon us as law, but leads us to truth and life through grace. Sola Deo Gloria.
    Pax,
    Dennis

  • Dennis Peskey

    Percy’s novel addresses the Thomas question of John14:5, “How can we know the way?” The heart of an existentialist beats minute by minute with this question. If your lot in life is cast with the secular (anything non-christian), there is no answer. Other religions or belief systems layer law upon law to hide the angst inherent in this question to no avail. In the end, when reflection or meditation takes hold and the pseudo-law answers are stripped away, only nihilism is found (Sartre’s foundation of Being and Nothingness).

    For the Christian, Jesus gives the one true answer in John 14:6 “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” In one short response, Jesus gives us foundation, direction and meaning to our existence; life will and must be found in him alone if we seek to know the Father. If we choose to hide behind our decorative figleafs, the inevitable decay will strip this facade away leaving us isolated and alone. If we heed the Father’s pleading and listen to His beloved Son, the way of vocation and life will be given to us – for us. It is a frightening choice the Holy Trinity permits; God does not force himself upon us as law, but leads us to truth and life through grace. Sola Deo Gloria.
    Pax,
    Dennis

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    Now what?

    How about loving and serving others?

    I can speak for myself in that my natural desire to serve others is somewhere between zero and a negative number. I can honestly say that the reason I am so involved in charity and community work as well as being motivated to have and care for my children comes solely from Christ. From my own black heart, there is no charity or interest in the welfare of anyone anywhere ever.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    Now what?

    How about loving and serving others?

    I can speak for myself in that my natural desire to serve others is somewhere between zero and a negative number. I can honestly say that the reason I am so involved in charity and community work as well as being motivated to have and care for my children comes solely from Christ. From my own black heart, there is no charity or interest in the welfare of anyone anywhere ever.

  • Helen K.

    following….

  • Helen K.

    following….

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Baruzzini’s article was good. Thanks for sharing it.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Baruzzini’s article was good. Thanks for sharing it.

  • mds

    “Percy asks, “of not having cancer, cirrhosis, and such, if a man comes home from work every day at five-thirty . . . thinking: ‘Jesus, is this it? Listening to Cronkite and the grass growing?’
    For those of us have have been down the cancer path, got the chemo veins and the radiation tattoos, I understand. When Mr. Dr. says the C word and refers you to Mr. Oncologist when you are just retiring from your first career (military), ready to take on the world with your next career, it wakes you up. You can wallow in your pity and try to understand it from world view or you can tackle it from a Christian view, which I was lacking at the time. When I told my family I had been diagnosed with cancer my brother brought over a bottle of Scotch, which I really don’t like, but we toasted the occasion and what was to come. A fond memory from a miserable time. But, despite it all, it drove me to search what I was lacking in understanding of what grace meant, which drove me back to try to understand what I had been raised and taught. In this stuggle I rediscovered my Lutheran roots and Reformational understanding. Apparently the Holy Spirit never gives up or gives in. Dennis at 5 “For the Christian, Jesus gives the one true answer in John 14:6 “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” Amen. I now fullly understand that.

  • mds

    “Percy asks, “of not having cancer, cirrhosis, and such, if a man comes home from work every day at five-thirty . . . thinking: ‘Jesus, is this it? Listening to Cronkite and the grass growing?’
    For those of us have have been down the cancer path, got the chemo veins and the radiation tattoos, I understand. When Mr. Dr. says the C word and refers you to Mr. Oncologist when you are just retiring from your first career (military), ready to take on the world with your next career, it wakes you up. You can wallow in your pity and try to understand it from world view or you can tackle it from a Christian view, which I was lacking at the time. When I told my family I had been diagnosed with cancer my brother brought over a bottle of Scotch, which I really don’t like, but we toasted the occasion and what was to come. A fond memory from a miserable time. But, despite it all, it drove me to search what I was lacking in understanding of what grace meant, which drove me back to try to understand what I had been raised and taught. In this stuggle I rediscovered my Lutheran roots and Reformational understanding. Apparently the Holy Spirit never gives up or gives in. Dennis at 5 “For the Christian, Jesus gives the one true answer in John 14:6 “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” Amen. I now fullly understand that.

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com Steve Martin

    “You’ve been saved. Now what?”

    Keep being saved, and speak of graciousness to others.

    Beyond that…what do you want to do?

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com Steve Martin

    “You’ve been saved. Now what?”

    Keep being saved, and speak of graciousness to others.

    Beyond that…what do you want to do?

  • Helen K.

    MDS @ 9.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience. May the Lord continue to bless you with good health.

  • Helen K.

    MDS @ 9.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience. May the Lord continue to bless you with good health.


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