Monthly Book Review: The Saint vs. the Scholar by Jon M. Sweeney

(Note: I was given a copy of The Saint vs. the Scholar to review. I read it with pleasure and the review which follows is honest and uncoerced.)

Most years, I attend the International Conference on Medieval Studies held at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, MI, tagging along with my wife, a medieval historian. This year happened to have been one that I could not attend. But it would appear the conference noted my absence and found me anyway, through a new book published by Franciscan Media, The Saint vs. the Scholar (subtitled: The Fight Between Faith and Reason) by Jon M. Sweeney. This book gave me an introductory education into the personalities and philosophies of two or three of the people whose lives and writings I have learned about through my attendance at the annual conference. The primary two persons are Bernard of Clairvaux (the saint) and Peter Abelard (the scholar); the third person is Hildegard von Bingen (a saint to be named later).

The Saint vs. the ScholarThe 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.) The subject matter is presented in a truly accessible way; you don’t need to have attended a medieval conference five of the last six years to understand it.

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.

4 / 5

(Next month’s book: Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: Finding Authentic Faith in a Forgotten Age with C. S. Lewis by Chris R. Armstrong)