Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Spark and the Flame

Reflecting on the joys of married love, Archbishop Fulton Sheen once suggested that couples recognize that such joys, though great, were only glimmers and echoes of the joys of heaven. He advised couples to accept them as such and ask themselves, “if the spark is so bright, what must be the flame?” In doing so, he followed an old Christian tradition of seeing the goods and joys of the world as glimmers of the future weight of glory and signposts to God. Hence, in one of his more beautiful passages, St. Paul compares the union of a husband and wife to that between Christ and the Church. This attitude recognizes the natural human orientation to God. In the same way, a medieval Franciscan observed that man naturally desired the infinite, since anything less would not content him, hence man naturally desired God. These attitudes recognize the orientation of human nature to its divine end and confirm the world’s goodness as a sign and promise of that of God. And when the material world can be a sign of the spiritual world, the universe suddenly becomes both larger and more exciting.
Today though, the conviction that we are living in a materialistic universe pervades society. God is thought dead, and now the material world can no longer be a sign of the spiritual. In such a world, the universe is forced to take on the role of God. (1) It is not the spark that points to the flame, rather the spark must now become the flame. The finite has to satisfy the human desire for the infinite. There is no hope for heaven; heaven, if it is to be at all, must be in this world.
Doubtless this explains the odd strand of utopianism in modern, often especially modern scientific, thought. The Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft has pointed to a recent Time Magazine cover story that asked why the world was getting so much better (and by better, Time meant wealthier). Another modern philosopher commented on the strong sense of utopianism at a recent Mexican science and technology conference. And the same is present in politics; surely, the next politician or next social program will cure society’s ills.
Yet, there is something empty and unconvincing in materialism and the thought that it really suffices for human hopes. Chesterton suggested that the appropriate response to a modern lunatic who claimed to be Christ would be to tell him that if he were God, then he is not much of a God. He observed the same of a material universe. If the universe be solely material, one has the feeling that it is not much of a universe. If the universe is to fill the role of God, then it is a cheat of a God. The spark is not much of a flame. In politics, we find we have placed our hope in fallible institutions and fallible men, and that science and technology are no cure for human sin.
The youth recognize this. In the same article, Peter Kreeft observed that suicide among the youth has increased 5000% since the 1950s (2). They can no longer say with St. Paul, “I reckon the sufferings of the present life are not to be compared to the glory that awaits us.” They no longer believe future glory does await them. Divorce rates show it too. Marriage cannot be a sign of God, it has to replace God. Forced into a role it was never meant to play, it is a poor replacement, and so rather than accept their love as a glimmer and anticipation of God, the couple thinks their love a cheat and separates in search for the real infinite they desire. An author I do not remember said that they are right to seek the infinite, but wrong to seek it in human persons.
St. Augustine offers the answer. He sought for God and said,
“I asked the earth and it said, ‘I am not He…’ I asked the heavens, the sun, the moon, the stars. They replied, “neither are we the God Whom you seek…” I said “you have told me something concerning my God that you are not He; tell me something of Him.” And they all answered with the loud voice, “He made us!” (3)
The world is not a cheat, it was never meant to fulfill the infinite desires of human beings. The material is a sign of the spiritual, and so the answer is to affirm human and worldly joys and say of them with Fulton Sheen, “if the human heart can so thrill me, what must be the heart of God; if the spark is so bright, what must be the flame?"
(1) Incidentally one skeptical astronomer, Carl Sagan, has always spelled “Cosmos” with a capital “C.”—cited from Reasonable Faith (2008) , p. 82.
(3) Confessions, Book 19, chapter 6.