Fredrick Buechner once said, “All theology is biography.” By this he was referring to the ways in which a theologians life and experience impose upon their understanding of God and the world (and everything in between). Peter Gorday shows that the reverse may also be true: biography is theology. By examining the life of François Fénelon, the seventeenth century Quietist, archbishop and theologian, he demonstrates how he synthesized various influences and negotiated political realities to arrive at his unique theological convictions. François Fénelon A Biography: The Apostle of True Love is well researched, drawing on broadly on the scholarly literature on Fénelon, commending his life and teaching to us for the real spiritual insight he offers.
Gorday unfolds the story of Françoi de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon chronologically. He begins by discussing his early classical education, the influence of Neo Platonism (as mediated through Augustine) and the influence of the ‘French School’–Francis de Sales, Pierre de Berulle and Jacques Olier–on his mystical theology. From Francis de Sales he got the concept of ‘pure love’ and ‘holy indifference’ to all other things. From Berulle and Olier he got the idea of self annihilation and the need to fight against one’s own self-glorification at every turn. Later, Fénelon’s synthesis of these three thinkers made him appreciative of Madame Guyon’s literary gifts and practical religious genius(though without doctrinal precision).
But before he met Guyon he was already a rising intellectual star publishing works on the education of daughters, on the training of ministries and philosophical treatises and engaging in mission to the Huguenots (French Protestants). He established friendships with important people, including Jacques-Benigne Bossuet who later would become his chief theological opponent. Fénelon also became the tutor of Lois XIV’s son and spiritual director to Madame de Maintenon, the King’s mistress and second wife and through that relationship an archbishop.
Gorday illustrates how the complicated relationship between Fénelon, Maintenton, and Louis XIV, and his defense of Madame Guyon would eventually lead to the condemnation of his Maxims of the Saints. Maintenon’s relationship with Fénelon soured in part because of the stringent self annihilation he called her to (too much for her to bear) and partly because of the insubordination of some Guyon devotees at Saint-Cyr (a religious boarding school which Maintenon had invited Guyon and Fénelon to help with). The latter led to Madame Guyon’s works being condemned by the bishops at Issy, after which Bossuet wrote a book attacking Guyon and her teaching. Fénelon responded by writing a book (Maxim of the Saints) defending her mysticism as being in line with Catholic mystical theology( quoting orthodox, accepted mystical sources extensively). The battle between Bossuet ( with Louis XIV’s support) and Fénelon raged on leading to a negative assessment on his theology by Pope Innocent XII (again with some pressure from the french crown). Much of the theological argument stemmed from Fénelon’s understanding of passivity in prayer (and Bossuet’s failure to understand what he was talking about) and his relationship with Quietist teaching.
In later years Fénelon was confined to his diocese of Cambrai and his relationship with Louis and Maintenon was severed. Despite this papal condemnation, Fénelon remained in his bishopric and in later years was active in parish ministry in his diocese, spiritual director to many and published anti-Jansenist works (in part because they were prevelant, and part because they had opposed his mysticism).
This is a dense, thoughtful book and Gorday delievers what you want to read from a religious biography. He is sympathetic to his subject but cognizant of critical scholarship and able to make judicious conclusions. He paints a portrait of Fénelon which is warmly appreciative of his theological contribution while acknowledging that in places, Fénelon appears prideful and less than altruistic in his motives (i.e. his opposition to the Jansenists). Gorday also illuminates the contradictions between Fénelon’s alleged quietism and his submission to the church hierarchy and his active pastoral ministry at Cambrai (where his bishopric was).
Gorday argues that Fénelon’s voice is needed now in our age because
his spirituality of pure love speaks to the disllusionment that so many people feel with regard to conventional religiousity. Religion often seems like a consumer product–something packaged and marketed for quick gratification at the cheapest price. . . .Self love corrupts everything, as idealistic people always come to realize. On the other hand, his call to pure love puts Fénelon on the heights. He sets a high standard by challenging us to make God seriously, and by making spirituality a matter not of blissful contentment or contrived ecstaty, but of patient, steady, grueling discipleship. (208)
I certainly agree that François Fénelon’s life and teaching call us to deeper commitment and faithfulness even if I remain skeptical of some of his mystical theology (I am no expert on it, and am willing to admit that I might not get it). I wonder about the reality of ‘disinterested love’ as a spiritual state and whether this is possible or desirable (totally), but I think that Fénelon has some keen insights on fighting our egocentricity and striving towards greater holiness. So I recommend the book with one qualification. This is a meaty book and requires an attentive reading. It is a book of academic history and historical theology which relates discussions about the nature of mysticism. I found I had to read this book slowly to get the nuances that Gorday was communicating and probably still need to go back over some of the descriptions of mystical theology. If you are looking for a light summer read, this is probably not the book for you. But if you love history and are interested in knowing more about Fénelon, mysticism or 17th century France, then this is the right choice. Personally, I am utterly fascinated by the religious landscape in Europe in the 17th century so I really liked it.
Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for this honest review.