The Saint vs. the Scholar (Jon M. Sweeney)

The word monastery seemed rather commonplace and easy to spell, I thought, until my Medieval philosophy course in college. There, our French-born professor who retained her thick accent pronounced it clearly: “mon-AH-ster-y.” The word came up first when she spoke of Peter Abelard and his love affair with Heloise. With that introduction, we began our comparatively mundane, and mercifully brief, study of Abelard’s approach to universals.

Abelard and Heloise factor into The Saint v. the Scholar (see Chapter 8–“The beautiful Heloise wrote these words to Peter after their affair violently ended, when she was an abbess and he an abbot. There you have it: the chapter spoiler, in case you didn’t already know.”), but she is certainly not the “Saint” that is the subject of Sweeney’s book. That role is filled by St. Bernard of Clairvaux who, with the pope, was “at least one of the two most powerful men in the Catholic Church, perhaps the world” at the time. (34)

In stark contrast, Sweeney portrays Peter Abelard as a misunderstood man who came of age before his time. Sweeney repeatedly refers, for instance, to Aquinas using Abelard’s method, the only difference being that Abelard’s method had become accepted by the time that Aquinas used it. It’s a nice theory, but I think there are fundamental differences between Abelard and Aquinas or other later scholastics that Sweeney overlooks. The differences between Aquinas and Abelard are similar to the differences between Bernard and Abelard. And Sweeney seems too forgiving to Abelard and too critical of Bernard.

Despite what I consider to be some faults in the way he treats the major players, and an analysis that seems skewed to match Sweeney’s own political and social viewpoints, Sweeney’s book offers a detailed glimpse into the political and theological situation of the 11th century. It is an interesting narrative, and gives the student, scholar, and layman alike a more personal introduction to the times. If you have read Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence, Sweeney’s book will remind you of the transitional vignettes that Barzun includes.

The debate that Sweeney describes in Chapter 14 sums up my dislike of Abelard, and my disagreement with Sweeney. I don’t deny that Abelard was a genius or that he contributed to the development of philosophy in a significant way. But we can’t say that it was beneficial for the Catholic faith. Abelard’s development of nominalism–the idea, essentially, that universals are nothing more than words–leads to the conclusion that “universality” of attributes among many individuals is a semantic exercise. As a practical example, the universal chair we commonly attribute to an object that has legs or supports that we can sit upon (from a three-legged stool to a La-z-boy recliner).

Universals have a know-it-when-you-see-it quality, meaning that even if you have never seen a particular style or type of chair before (say on a trip to a foreign country), you still can identify it as a “chair.” The sum total of your experiences of individual chairs give you a universal concept of “chair” that you can apply to other individual instances. In fact, the more we understand what a “chair” is, the less we think about individual attributes of particular chairs.

Abelard’s nominalism takes the concept of universals and dissociates it from truth, and ultimately from Truth itself. Sweeney explains that Abelard’s approach to God was that “Nothing can be believed if it is not first understood.” (118) But we cannot understand  God by use of our reason. If Abelard means this in the sense that we need to understand what a unicorn is in order to believe that one exists, then it seems plausible, but I think there is something more underlying his comment. To believe in a unicorn, we need to know that it is a horse with a horn on its head. But do we? It seems that Bernard’s approach is more consistent with God’s action in the world and in our own souls.

“Bernard says again and again, you must first have faith. t is by faith that God purifies your heart. Unless you first abandon yourself to God, you will never know God. The more you love God, the deeper your faith, and the more love and faith you possess, the more you know what’s true.” (118) As Sweeney notes, “[a]ll of this is truly biblical, and represents well the tradition of the Church fathers and mothers.” (118) Bernard’s approach respects the order God has arranged for His relationship with us. That is, we act in response to His acting first. God is the ultimate lover who seeks us out and wants to be in relationship with us. It’s no coincidence that Bernard took so easily to the Song of Songs and wrote his famous commentary on them.  By entering into that mystery of divine love, we come to know God more intimately. Just as in human love, where we experience an emotional desire for the other before we necessarily know everything that makes them tick, that initial emotional attachment leads us to desire to know the other more and more. And the more we know, the more we want to know. Loving and knowing are intertwined as the relationship grows and deepens.

What Abelard’s approach does is call all of that into question. Although he is praised for questioning reality as a form of philosophical inquiry, Sweeney seems to overstate his stature as a practicing Christian. Abelard might have “tried to become the best monk the world had ever seen,” (129) but it is easy to think that Abelard was motivated not by his desire for God and a more intense relationship with Him, but by the same self-serving desire to be the “best,” to stand out among his peers, that drove his academic pursuits. Bernard, by contrast, may have been misguided in his adherence to the tradition of the fathers, as Sweeney puts it, but there is little doubt that Bernard’s actions derived from his search for God and his desire to promote and uphold Church teaching. It seems that Bernard followed the nobler path.

Sweeney’s ultimate conclusion is also unpersuasive: “The damning conclusion of the Council of Sens solidified a way of talking about faith and reason that still plagues the Church. Those who champion their faith still trumpet their faith as if to silence reason, and those who want reason to rule too often sneer at the commitments of those who love God.” (151) “Reason and faith were split wide open, forever separated.” (152) I can’t agree. In fact, I’ve seen the exact opposite. In light of John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio, many Catholic intellectuals have taken the mission seriously and have striven to maintain the unity of faith and reason that John Paul II describes. The intellectual descendants of Abelard are more likely to be among the many skeptics today rather than a Catholic intellectual in search of the truth. There does not need to be the “separation” that Sweeney describes. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and others have proven that there is no “way of talking about faith and reason that still plagues the Church.” (151) For those who seek the Truth from a foundation of faith, like Bernard, faith and reason work together harmoniously. Sweeney suggested this “third way” of harmonizing faith and reason (159) but it is clear that Sweeney does not think that anyone has actually done it. I think they have, and there is a lot we can learn from John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Even though I disagree with Sweeney’s conclusion, I think that Sweeney’s discussion is worth reading given the background that he provides and the context that helps to inform the discussion. It’s a useful study. Even if it does not make you change your mind about the major players, it will make you reassess your views, which is a useful exercise in itself.

For this honest review, I received a complimentary review copy of the book. To order the book, visit Franciscan Media


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