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.


  1. Caution should be suggested here. Science and technology are not evils any more than any other aspect of creation is evil, as all creation was deemed by God to be "good". All evil comes from the misuse of God's creation, or our deviation from the divine plan. Man corrupted man's destiny, yet it is man that restores himself in God's sight, through the action of the Incarnation and the Cross. Through original sin, man constantly looks towards a golden calf of some type to take the place of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and it is through the Sacraments that we find the remedy for this. Science, in communion with the Faith and grace of God is pure and just. Science, just like anything else, when God is removed, is unjust.

  2. While I understand and am somewhat sympathetic to your overall argument I have a few observations.

    I find it very curious that you look at modern thought and particularly contemporary scientific thought and see utopianism. I would have thought there was actually a much more dominant apocalyptic (or at least crisis/disaster focused) theme. If you look at what predominates it's a focus on impending or already present global crises including climate change, pandemics, terrorism, economic crashes, and rapid population growth. You also say that this utopianism is present in politics but I think you’re probably drawing on the election of one particular politician in the US. In doing so you are focusing on one phenomenon that emerged from a particular set of circumstances. This may not particularly representative of a dominant theme in society here or elsewhere in the world.

    To echo the comment above, science or politics can be a force for good. Not all politicians or scientists (or those that support particular social programs) are motivated by a desire to replace the spiritual with material ‘progress’. Many are motivated by a genuine desire to improve the lives of their fellow human beings and if done for the right reasons and with the right goals in mind there is nothing wrong with that.

    You also claim that there has been a 5000% increase in youth suicide since the 1950s (by citing an author who offers no evidence in support of this claim) and go on to attribute this increase to a lack of belief in the reality of a life after this one. You might be right, but you are making two huge assumptions without any evidence to support them. Suicide is a sensitive and complex subject and it’s best not to make sweeping statements without any evidence.

  3. Suicide is not necessarily a disbelief in God and eschatology, but is sometimes wrought with a misguided belief in such things; take the suicide bomber for example, or high school shooters obsessed with Satan. Or, it can simply be insanity, a case that would negate it being considered a mortal sin at all. Now, it is also said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, so the desire to do good with having the right results is sometimes itself not enough. In general, you can never tell what motivates anyone to do the things that they do, whether suicide, divorce, etc., since these things are all written in their hearts. Objectively, they're grave evils, but being objectively grave does not equate to a mortal sin (which requires the 3 criteria of objective evil, full knowledge of the evil and repercussions, and a desire to act on it).

    It is true that the world attempts to usurp the position of God, examples can be seen in areas like in vitro fertilization and artificial birth control; but that is why Jesus said that we are not of the world, and it is our mission to act according to God's divine plan.

    Again, the major caution is in making assumptions about what is in people's hearts. Science, technology, and human institutions themselves are not particularly evil until they're used for evil; especially when many classical scientists themselves were theologians and Catholics.

  4. C.S. Lewis remarked in the Abolition of Man, that he knew nothing he could say would stop people from accusing him of attacking science. He denied the charge, and so do we. The point is simply, of course, that the white lab coat is not a replacement for the alb and the chasuble.

  5. To be clear, I didn't accuse you of attacking science; I am simply cautioning to be clear in your terminology, and while C.S. Lewis was an interesting man with deep faith, it should also be noted that he was still not a Catholic, but a high-church Anglican of the Oxford revival who flirted with some aspects of Catholicism, therefore separated from the Sacraments.

    But it must also be stated that there is no quarrel with science and religion. The devil is the one that sets things against each other; that is all. I guess to paraphrase the above commenter, while I agree with aspects of the overall picture, I disagree on some of the assertions.