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The Saint vs. the Scholar: The Fight between Faith and Reason Hardcover – April 28, 2017
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The Saint vs. the Scholar gave me an introductory education into the personalities and philosophies of two people whose lives and writings I have heard about, but never really researched on my own: Bernard of Clairvaux (the saint) and Peter Abelard (the scholar). The book, written in a popular style to reach the lay reader who wants to understand why faith and reason seem to be at odds with one another (when in reality they are merely set at odds with one another), is structured the way many movies are nowadays: we are shown the conflict coming to a head at the start, and then we are introduced to the lives of the two people who are the subject of the conflict, before being brought back to the "present" of the conflict, and finally to the present day, where their conflict still lives on.
Sweeney takes us back nearly nine centuries to Sens, France, in 1140, where Bernard puts Peter (and his dangerous inquisitive philosophy) on trial, and we learn the verdict almost immediately. Then we are given the backstory for Peter Abelard, and the backstory for Bernard of Clairvaux. Both men took parallel, and yet somehow divergent, paths in the Church that would ultimately result in their disdain for one another's theological methods: Bernard the mystic favoring faith and a surrender to divine mystery, Peter favoring reason and the study of the divine mystery. Alas, for Bernard and Peter, these two sides of one coin can never both be facing up. One side must always be down for the other to be up; one must be humbled for the other to be exalted. This dichotomy between faith and reason, between a belief that accepts the divine mystery and an inquiry into that mystery so that one may believe, is the crux of their conflict and the core of this book.
Sweeney gives brief but adequate biographies of the two main players. Having heard of Peter's affair with Heloise, it was fulfilling to finally read about it; the same can be said for his seminal work Sic et Non, "Yes and No", which looks at the contradictory viewpoints of the Church Fathers. And it must be added that Sweeney pulls no punches in describing Peter's attitude toward, and opinion of, other philosophers and scholars (and men in general). Likewise, I had known that Bernard of Clairvaux was a mystic whose sermons on the Song of Songs were without equal; so too, apparently, was Bernard himself, at least in terms of his influence over popes and his authority in the Church. Bernard was behind (and alongside) more than one pope during his lifetime, and he played a fundamental role in legitimizing the crusades.
After these biographies, we are presented with these men's answers to two fundamental questions: who man is in relation to God, and what truth is. Again, their answers are close enough as to seem complementary, but neither man could see the bridge that joined the two. There was, however, a woman who could see that bridge: Hildegard von Bingen, a mystic of the same era. Sweeney teasingly concludes his book by drawing upon some of her wisdom to help settle the score between faith and reason. I wish he had elaborated this point. Perhaps he can pen a sequel in which he expands on how Hildegard offers a "third way" that unites faith and reason, in an equally accessible format. His explanation of the problem we face today is sorely needed — so too is an offer of a solution.
From an editorial point of view, there are some typos that, if corrected, would make the book a distraction-free read. (There are some errant commas, a duplicated phrase here or there, and some inconsistent tenses; nothing major, just enough for a first-time meticulous reader to note.)
I enjoyed this book, for both its biographical and theological content. I think I know these men better, and this book establishes both of them — whether saint or scholar — as mortals, as men subject to fallen human nature. In that way it makes them more approachable, and makes the lesson to be learned from them all the more important.
The topic of this book is fascinating, and Sweeny presented the information in an interesting way. It wasn't just a record of events; Sweeny explored motivations behind the events and built a story from facts. The context Sweeny provides to the events illuminates the topic. I was really impressed by the connections he drew between the two seemingly different men.
Though there was some good content, there were also several issues I had with the book.
The book seemed incredibly biased towards Abelard at the beginning. Though the book eventually became more balanced, it was frustrating to read the first few chapters that had that very obvious slant. To me, it felt like Sweeny had an underlying distrust of the hierarchy of the Church. Though some distrust is natural, especially considering the Church's involvement with political aspects during the time this book is highlighting, it still felt off to me.
I suspect that this book was written for a wider audience than just Catholics, but as a Catholic reader, there were a few minor things that rubbed me the wrong way. One example is the way he described canonization. He phrased it in such a way that made it seem like the Church chose who the saints were rather than the reality that it is the Church recognizing that someone already is a saint.
Something that bothered me about this book was the frequent references to Abelard's physical appearance. I don't care about Abelard's full lips or long curls; I care about the philosophy and theology he was using. It went beyond providing background - he was an attractive man and that made him popular - and entered into an uncomfortable zone.
Lastly, it struck me as odd that Sweeny included the following quote.
"Reason and faith were split wide open, forever separated".
This is a weird thing to include not only because it is wrong, but also because Sweeny seems to contradict it with other aspects of his book.
All things considered, I think this was an interesting, albeit flawed, book. I imagine that many people would find it interesting, but there are certainly opportunities for improvement.
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own.
Now, after reading the book, I am intrigued and may search out more information on these two medieval giants. Bernard was a Pope maker, a one man Conclave. Peter was an innovator, the Steve Jobs of his era, and similar in personality as well.
Both men played large in the doings of their times and despite, or should I say because of, their zeal for God, were bound to have a clash of wills.
The Saint vs. The Scholar brings to light the reality of the life and culture of the twelfth century, and in doing so it reflects much that a twenty-first reader can recognize. In fact, Peter and Bernard’s story would make for great reality television.