Monday, December 18, 2006

Fulton Sheen

Fulton Sheen has a very unusual technique. He starts by giving some philosophical definitions and distinctions that seem inadequate, simplistic or even wrong-headed. Then he reflects on them at length. By the end he winds up making an astounding spiritual point that "heals" whatever seems to have been "broken" in his original exposition.

He does this at least twice in the opening pages of The Power of Love. He begins the book by making a stark, almost cartesian contrast between body and spirit. The point he is trying to make is the reality and priority of the invisible, but he does so in a way that might seem to denigrate the body and its value and relationship to the spiritual. By the end of the section he clearly and beautifully affirms the necessary connection between the visible and invisible. "The happiness of life depends not on ignoring the things of time, but on impregnating them with eternity, using the world as it is, and getting our vision level for eternal things through time and in it." (p. 11)

The second instance is in his treatment of eros and agape (which ends up being an application of the above quoted principle). He first strongly disparages eros--seemingly equating its essence with its existential form distorted by Original Sin. It seems to be a depersonalizing, selfish "love." "The frosting on the cake is eaten, but the cake is ignored." (p. 13)

In the end, though, eros is not rejected and contrasted with agape--as in Nygrens--but is redeemed and transformed. "Once this Agape began to exist, then it flowed down to illuminate even Eros; Eros became the sensible expression of the Divine love." (p. 14) This is theology of the body stuff.

I do not know whether Sheen himself held defective philosophical opinions, that were then miraculously overcome by his deep, penetrating spiritual insight, or whether he intentionally proposed defective commonplaces so that he could redeem them before the reader's eyes--beginning where his readers are and leading them where they needed to go without first knocking their intellectual feet out from under them. Elevating and mending in a Catholic sense, rather than tearing down and rebuilding in a Protestant sense.

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