Thursday, December 10, 2015

The American Chesterton, II: The World of Fulton Sheen


One of the things that strikes the reader of Fulton Sheen’s God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy — assuming that Chesterton’s The “Dumb Ox” and Knox’s Enthusiasm were read first and the reader has a little knowledge of what was really going on in the world of the 1920s — is the pervasiveness of certain ideas that Sheen found in both civil and religious life.  Understanding these ideas and becoming somewhat familiar with the environment and culture within which Sheen wrote go a long way toward helping us understand what Sheen was doing.  By that we mean the world in which he lived and that provided the environment within which he formed his thought when he began writing, and against which, in large measure, he was reacting.

Thought crimes, Newspeak, and Improvised History
The “Christian World” of the 1920s was in a state of spiritual and moral chaos that is little appreciated (if it is even acknowledged) by people today, but that paralleled the political and civil disorder following World War I.  Our modern ignorance is in part, however, understandable and to some extent excusable.  People tend to look back on the time before they were born as a sort of Golden Age, the “Good Old Days.”  What is inexcusable is the failure of Academia to instruct students of actual events instead of histories “improvised” à la 1984 to meet various agendas.

After the Great War, “Mitteleuropa” — what was left of the German Reich and the Austro-Hungarian Empire (“the Heart of Europe”) — to say nothing of the Russian Empire, were in ruins.  What the war hadn’t destroyed, the hyperinflation took care of until brought under control by Hjalmar Schacht, “the Old Wizard,” at least in Weimar Germany.

The victors weren’t in much better shape, except for the United States, which had only been involved directly in the war for a year and escaped having any battles fought on U.S. soil, the Zimmerman Telegram notwithstanding.  Even the term “victor” is something of a misnomer, as the Armistice was sold to the Central Powers (primarily Germany) as a peace without victory based on U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points.  This later allowed Germany, Austria, and Hungary with some justification to claim the Allies had betrayed them.

Major Douglas's "social credit" is a form of socialism.
Socialism, which had gained momentum as private ownership of capital became increasingly concentrated prior to the Great War, seemed to have come into its own.  The variations, from Keynesian economics, through Major Douglas’s “social credit,” to Marxism triumphant in Russia, were endless, and seemed the wave of the future; Msgr. John A. Ryan (without calling it socialism) expressed great enthusiasm for “public ownership.”  As Lincoln Steffens declared early and often about the new Soviet Union (first stated in a report filed before he arrived in Russia), “I have seen the future and it works.”

Spiritually, that is, in religion and philosophy, the New Age had made great inroads.  It became an accepted part of popular culture as well as pervasive throughout Academia among both faculty and students.  A cartoon published in a college humor magazine in the early twenties, for example, shows two women with car trouble wondering aloud whether they should consult their Ouija Board for help.

Not that this was restricted to the period between the two world wars.  It is pervasive today.  As Mortimer Adler noted, using “pagan” in the sense of non-Abrahamic believer or non-believer who, as a general rule, knows nothing of philosophy prior to what passes for it in the twentieth century,

Adler: The proliferation of pagans in modern times.
“The number of pagans in the West today may be larger than in any previous century.  It is not the number of these that matters, but their state of mind.  The pagans of our day have had their minds formed by some acquaintance with 20th-century science, especially 20th-century cosmology and 20th-century subatomic physics.  The cosmology and physics of classical antiquity, which provided the conceptual framework, the imagery, and the vocabulary employed by ancient pagans in their thinking about God, must be completely cast aside in any discourse about God addressed to 20th-century pagans.  That conceptual framework, imagery, and vocabulary persisted throughout the Middle Ages and well into modern times; in fact, to the end of the 19th century.  The cosmology of Newton as well as that of Aristotle is now completely antiquated, no longer a medium of intelligible and persuasive communication.” (Mortimer J. Adler, How To Think About God: A Guide for the 20th-Century Pagan.  New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1980, 4-5.)

And for the non-thinking?  It was the era of the weird cult and bizarre belief system, depicted in films, magazines, newspapers, and novels, almost always based on some distorted and half-understood “Eastern Mysticism.”  “Buddhism” — that no Buddhist would recognize — was mixed willy nilly with Christianity with surprising results, something to which G.K. Chesterton drew his readers’ attention in his own inimitable fashion:

Mixing the Enlightened One with the Anointed One.
“A distinguished military gentleman recently wrote to the newspaper to announce that a Chinese Buddhist is shortly to visit England, with the firm intention of finally abolishing war. He — I mean the military gentleman — explained that Buddhism is a word that means Enlightenment, and that only Enlightenment can abolish War. This seems in itself a simple process of reason and reform. But I should not be moved to criticise anything so excellent in intention, if the writer had not dragged in the dreary old trick of comparing the enlightened condition of Buddhists with the benighted condition of Christians. It is true that, like most men in this modern confusion of mind, he needlessly muddles himself by using the same word in two senses and on both sides, and setting Christianity against itself. Buddhism is Christianity, and Buddhism is better than Christianity, and Christianity will never be itself until it is enlightened enough to become something different. But this mere logomachy [a dispute over words — ed.] does not alter the essentials of the opinion, which most of us have seen in one form or another for a great many years past. The key of the situation is that the military critic says that ‘Christians have failed’ to abolish War; and that this is due to the lamentable fact that Christians are not enlightened; or, in other words, to the curious fact that Christians are not Buddhists.”  (G.K. Chesterton, “Buddhism and Christianity,” Illustrated London News, March 2, 1929.)

If it were not obvious that Chesterton was responding to “a military gentleman,” he might almost have been alluding to Fulton Sheen’s comments made the previous year in Religion Without God.  These referred to the pseudo Buddhism (Chesterton labeled theosophy "Esoteric Buddhism") mixed in with equally faux Christian philosophy and theology (modernism) that seemed to pervade popular culture and Academia.  Chesterton was almost certainly familiar with Religion Without God, as he was cited in it and had written the introduction to God and Intelligence.  As Sheen said in one of his references in the later book to the fake “Eastern Mysticism” that flooded Academia in the twenties,

Otto: No distinction between Buddhist and Christian mysticism.
“Professor [Rudolf] Otto [1869-1937] denies primitive Monotheism, and seems to take a substantial religious evolution for granted, never making a distinction between Buddhistic and Christian mysticism or even attempting a distinction of the true and the spurious.” [Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1923, 133, 135, note in text.] (Sheen, Religion Without God, op. cit., 35.)

So much for Academia in the Roaring Twenties, at least in outline.  It becomes easy to understand why the Very Reverend Canon Léon Noël of the University of Louvain suggested the specific topic of the decline and transformation of religion due to the abandonment of reason to his star pupil, Fulton Sheen.  It also explains why G.K. Chesterton and Msgr. Ronald Knox got involved in the project.

Noël, by the way, was one of the world’s leading Thomists in the first half of the twentieth century.  Pope Pius XI named him head of the Higher Institute of Thomistic Philosophy at the Louvain in 1928, the same year Religion Without God was published.

Yet, if it were simply Academia that was affected, it would hardly have been important enough for Noël to suggest the topic or for Sheen to waste his time on it.  Nor was that the case — as we will see in the next posting in this series.

#30#

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