Walker Percy on the Bankruptcy of Naturalistic Materialism

About a year ago I took a solo road trip from Jackson, MS to St. Joseph's Abbey in Covington, LA, which is the final resting place of the Roman Catholic novelist, Walker Percy. It was an opportunity to pay my respects to one of my favorite authors.

Though Percy found fame (and a Pulitzer Prize) as a novelist, he also wrote several collections of essays. His book Lost in the Cosmos is among the great works of popular apologetics that most Protestants have never even heard of. It is a fictional handbook that bills itself as "The Last Self-Help Book."

I know many theologically Reformed friends who have a strong appreciation of the writings of Walker Percy, but I know even more who seem to have never heard of him, which is a problem that (in my opinion) needs remedying. What I hope to do is explain one aspect of Percy's thinking that will hopefully cause some to take notice of his writings. Specifically I want to focus on his criticism of naturalistic materialism.

Bankrupt on Two Accounts
For Percy, modern science, with its uncompromising naturalistic materialism is bankrupt on at least two accounts:

First, naturalism cannot provide humanity with meaning or direction. Percy points out that there is something deeply and unavoidably sick about humanity, and we can see it all around us. Yet the current scientific age is more lost than any age ever has been. Naturalism has taken the wheel, and yet all that naturalism can do is point out indicatives about what is observable. It can speak nothing to man's deepest needs beyond survival and physical comfort. In materialistic terms there is no such thing as a consistent "ought" statement regarding humanity's ultimate direction, essence, destiny, or purpose. "You live in a deranged age - more deranged than usual, because despite great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing" (Lost in the Cosmos). If Percy were alive today, he would probably point to the increasing normality of transgenderism as one symptom of this lostness and confusion.

A purely naturalistic approach cannot with any consistency help man in his lostness--and yet for so many (especially in popular culture and academia) this has become the only option of seeking help.

Percy's second reason why naturalistic materialism is bankrupt is that it regards human beings as an exclusively material organism while expecting it to somehow, and in some sense, transcend said nature. He must be both animal and angel, simultaneously amoral and moral. The naturalistic materialistic age we live in expects homosapiens to see themselves as animals, while transcending that very nature. This transcendence is an unavoidably human need. Unfortunately, naturalism breaks man into constituent parts (angel and beast) but cannot account for a whole man nor harmoniously bring the parts together.

Unhappy People in Comfortable Places
Much of Percy's fiction depicts a confrontation between the comforts science has provided and mankind's inescapable unease in spite of it all. Percy helpfully exposes this unease near the beginning of Lost in the Cosmos:

Why do people often feel bad in good environments and good in bad environments? Why did Mother Teresa think that affluent Westerners often seemed poorer than the Calcutta poor, the poorest of the poor? The paradox comes to pass because the impoverishments and enrichments of a self in a world are not necessarily the same as the impoverishments and enrichments of an organism in an environment.

Percy's answer to this very real dilemma, informed by his Christian worldview, is that man is a self, not an organism. He is a person, not a mere thing. Just because you input the right information or fulfill desires does not mean that a human being will respond appropriately. As Percy says, science has got man all wrong but due to self-imposed limitations it also cannot do any better. "The organism is needy or not needy accordingly as needs are satisfied or not satisfied by its environment" (Lost in the Cosmos). Now that man's needs are being met by science and commerce, why isn't he at rest and contented? Why are suicide rates so high in the most affluent areas of the world?

Percy's complaint against naturalism is expressive of C.S. Lewis' own insight (though in a slightly different context) when Lewis noted: "In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful" (The Abolition of Man). Naturalism has robbed humanity of the very thing God has given to ground human fulfillment and meaning. We want meaning, but now must find it without transcendence (a tall order indeed)!

It's as much a mistake for man to think of himself in distant, abstract, purely transcendent terms (Percy calls this tendency "angelism") as it is to think of man in animal terms. In his book Love in the Ruins, Percy's protagonist creates a device that heals mankind of his split problem of angelism and animalism. Speaking of his ability to heal this problem the main character says the following:

For the world is broken, sundered, busted down the middle, self ripped from self and man pasted back together as mythical monster, half angel, half beast, but no man...Some day a man will walk into my office as a ghost or beast or ghost-beast and walk out as a man, which is to say sovereign wanderer, lordly exile, worker and waiter and watcher.

There must be a balance between transcendence and immanence. "...the self can be as desperately stranded in the transcendence of theory as in the immanence of consumption" (Lost in the Cosmos). To overcorrect is still to miss the solution. Percy speaks in another way of this balance and need for God as the solution to this dilemma of transcendence and immanence elsewhere in Love in the Ruins: "Dear God, I can see it now, why can't I see it the other times, that is you I love in the beauty of the world and in all the lovely girls and dear good friends, and it is pilgrims we are, wayfarers on a journey, and not pigs, nor angels."

The naturalistic approach to man cannot strike anything resembling the needed balance. There is nothing resembling transcendence in the naturalistic approach to humanity beyond an unaccountable yearning for it. The Christian understanding of man is that he was formed of the dust of the earth but that he himself was created by God as a "living soul" (Gen. 2:7). The cosmos is filled animals and angels, but Humanity is neither; rather, he is unique among all the creatures of the universe--the fleshly bearer of God's image.

Percy's suggestion, of course, is that the Christian understanding of humanity is the answer to this particular dilemma. Humanity's true state, as revealed in Scripture, strikes the balance of transcendence and immanence. The materialistic solution is incapable of meeting mankind's need for transcendence. The mystical approach, similarly, is all transcendence and no immanence. Only in the Christian approach, given to us by revelation from God, do we find the answer to balance in mankind's understanding of himself.

Adam Parker is the Assistant Editor of Reformation 21. He is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary (Mdiv.) in Jackson, MS, where he lives with his wife and four children. He is currently looking for a call in the Presbyterian Church in America.