Some time ago I talked about reading The Lure of Saints, by Jon Sweeney. I wanted to follow up on that with a lengthy discourse he writes about the difference between the Protestant and Catholic imagination. I think he captures some very important differences in the following reading and would suggest this chapter (chapter 3) as seminal in laying the groundwork for conversations between Catholics and Protestants.
The Lure of Saints; A Protestant Experience of Catholic Tradition
Jon M. Sweeney
c.2005, Paraclete Press, Brewster, Massachusetts. Pp 33-34.
The Catholic imagination has long distinguished itself as expansive, inclusive, and compelling. R. Scott Appleby, a historian at the University of Notre Dame, recently described it as "the capacious, sacramental religious imagination that operates by analogy rather than linear logic and perceives virtually everything human (including the body and sexual love) as occasion for a graced encounter with the divine mystery."
Another scholar, expressing this in more theological terms has explained: "Catholics see God's taking on flesh in the historical person of Jesus as God's own chosen way of coming to us in history - through physical and material reality. To Catholics, the entire world is sacrament, as the enfleshing of God."
The Protestant imagination focuses on the gulf that separates us from God, while the Catholic view is of the sacramental nature of all that is around us. It is no wonder that while Protestant spirituality focuses on the Word of God (preaching it, hearing it, applying it) in order to repair the separation that divides us from God, Catholic spirituality focuses on finding, lifting, and releasing the Spirit of God that is sometimes hidden or latent in the world around us. This is the world as sacrament, the world incarnated.
Again, to quote Fr. Andrew Greeley, who is an expert in explaining theological distinctions in the clearest of language,
Catholics live in an enchanted world, a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles,
saints and religious medals, rosary beads, and holy pictures. But these Catholic paraphernalia are mere hints
of a deeper and more pervasive religious sensibility which inclines Catholics to see the Holy lurking in
creation. As Catholics, we find our houses and our world haunted by a sense that the objects, events, and
persons of daily life are revelations of grace.
Putting this more plainly, popular Catholic author Scott Hahn writes, "Catholics don't just hear the Gospel. In the liturgy we hear, see, smell and taste it."
Where the Protestant approach to the Spirit is to analyze its meaning, the Catholic approach to the Spirit is to imagine its depths. Where the Protestant mind stops and pulls the strands apart, the Catholic mind makes further connections and intertwines the strands . . .