A review of
Francois Fénelon: A Biography, The Apostle of Pure Love
Reviewed by Alex Joyner
By the time Paul McCartney asked what was wrong with “Silly Love Songs” in 1976, we were in deep. Having gorged ourselves on pop culture confections of romantic transcendence, we were in danger of running out of new clichés to apply to this crazy little thing called love. Even McCartney himself grasped for new words by the end of his song. “How can I tell you about my loved one?” he repeated without answer over the disco beat that was drumming in a new age of cynicism about love. Things were about to get a lot more complicated.
Or perhaps just re-complicated because, as Peter Gorday reveals in his new biography of the pre-Enlightenment French archbishop Francois Fénelon, love has always been a many-splintered thing, the source of great passions, great inspiration, and great controversy. In Fénelon he finds a rich spirituality of “pure love,” a theme Gorday feels “speaks to the disillusionment that so many people feel with regard to conventional religiosity” (208). If contemporary society has fallen victim to narratives of self-love or to the cheap packaging and fleeting fulfillment of Osteen-style faith, Fénelon gives us a journey to God that is less about us and more about God – less about consumer and more about cross.
Gorday, a parish priest with a PhD (look out!), is an intellectual historian who delights in recreating the conflicted environment in which Fénelon worked. He narrates the intrigue of the court of Louis XIV around which Fénelon spent much of his adult career, including as private tutor to the Duc de Bourgogne, grandson of the king. We get the particulars of Fénelon’s controversial relationship with Madame Guyon, a seeker in the ways of prayer whose views ran afoul of the Catholic hierarchy, particularly Jacques-Benigne Bossuet, the bishop of Meaux, who became Fénelon’s long-time adversary. Gorday gives us glimpses of Fénelon’s later life in semi-exile as archbishop of Cambrai where he engaged in critiques of Louis’ excesses and Jansenist influence.
But Gorday is most at home when he can settle in to explain the intricacies of the theological landscape in late seventeenth and early eighteenth century France. The success of his book is his ability to do this in a way that also illumines our own theological context. In this way, as in Winn Collier’s recent Let God: The Transforming Wisdom of Francois Fénelon [Paraclete, 2007], Fénelon becomes a figure of contemporary import, offering wisdom on human psychology and central Christian affirmations about God that survive the advent of the modern and post-modern periods.
“Pure love,” it turns out, has a lot to do with developing notions of the human self. The crisis precipitated by the Cartesian turn in the early modern West resulted in a newfound interest in the inner self. Gorday devotes a section of the book to describing the ways in which this interest was playing itself out in Catholic thinking, partially through the officially-condemned work of the Spanish priest Miguel de Molinos, a figure who was important for both Guyon and Fénelon. Molinos, in Gorday’s telling, made an “uncontroversial distinction” between an inner life that “is subjective, invisible, and knowable introspectively only to that individual and to God” and an outer life that “is objectively available to others for description and evaluation” (73). Where Molinos ran into trouble with the Roman authorities was in his emphasis that a retreat into interiority as a way of communing with God was a way to “become passive in the hands of God, ready to endure all that God sends and to be uplifted by God alone” (76). To Rome this sounded too much like a total abdication of human response, a quietism that declared that “the inner life is favored at the expense of ordinary human obligation” (76-7).
Fénelon was a great advocate of the journey into interiority as a means of growing out of self-love and towards a disinterested love of God, but he redeemed the Molinarian impulse toward a bad kind of passivity by emphasizing “that loving our natural selves and the world around us precisely because God loves them and not as a form of self-glorification is an important way of loving and serving the Creator-God” (78). His own conflicts with the authorities would have to do with defining this “passivity” in such a way that it satisfied concerns about human agency in the work of salvation. Fénelon was ever the champion of loving God for God’s self, to the extent of loving God even if God chose to condemn him to damnation, (an impossible possibility for Fénelon).
Fénelon is a complex figure and Gorday’s portrait of him is unsatisfying, though not through any fault of the author. It is the subject himself, the good bishop, who resists settled judgments. At times Fénelon comes across as a French John Wesley, promulgating a doctrine of sanctification in a world on the verge of Voltaire. At other times he appears as a proto-Enlightenment autodidact, exploring political philosophy, classical fables, and educational technique with the curiosity of a Thomas Jefferson. And at yet other times he has the veneer of an effete sophisticate with a precious and ornate theology to match the rarified world of Versailles.
None of these sketches ultimately does justice to the man, however, and Peter Gorday is an able guardian in rescuing Fénelon from stereotype. There is a solid core to Fénelon that may resist easy description but what we can see is a well-formed soul that has explored Augustine as well as his own desires and found something that resonates beyond his own lifetime. He may not be the founder of an order or a household name, but his exploration of love can redeem the word from its vacuous distortions in so many realms. And, to coin a phrase from McCartney, what’s wrong with that? I’d like to know.
Alex Joyner teaches Reformation history at the Course of Study School at Perkins School of Theology, SMU, and is pastor of Franktown United Methodist Church on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. He is the author of Hard Times Come Again No More: Suffering and Hope [Abingdon, 2010]