An amazingly bookish "anti-intellectual"

BernardPriya Jain has published a fascinating essay in Salon, which holds up the 12th-century lovers Abelard and Heloise as icons for religious progressives in the 21st century. Jain bases her essay on a biography of the couple published by British journalist James Burge earlier this year.

Here’s a good summary of where Jain takes the argument:

While the era’s worldview was dramatically different from our own, its political battles were strikingly similar. The reform movement, which you might call the religious right of its day, believed that not only sex but also sexual fantasies were inherently evil, and enforced chastity was high on its agenda. It saw the prostitution, fornication and even the women’s fashion of pointy shoes as evidence of a corrupt society. Burge, a documentary filmmaker for the BBC and Discovery Channel, puts the controversial love story of Abelard and Heloise squarely in the middle of this movement, and the result is a riveting study of faith and sex, set against a conservative uprising so familiar it will make you gasp with recognition.

Pointy shoes aside, this paragraph is what made me gasp, though not with recognition:

In his second trial, Abelard faced his archenemy, Bernard of Clairvaux, the head of the Cistercians. They were a reformist monastic order that would become the most influential in Christendom, and Bernard was the George W. Bush of their movement. He “was accustomed to having people listen to him and then eventually agree,” Burge writes. Bernard was deeply anti-intellectual, casting Abelard as elitist, overeducated and anti-religious.

Here is a sample of what the Biographical Dictionary of Christian Theologians (Hendrickson, 2002) has to say about Bernard of Clairvaux:

Bernard published numerous treatises on the spiritual life. Between 1124 and 1125, he published his first treatise, The Steps of Humility and Pride, which expands on the discussion of humility in Benedict’s Rule. During this time he also published Four Homilies in Praise of the Blessed Virgin. In 1125, he addressed the conflict between the Cistercians and the Cluniacs concernng the Cistercian interpretation of the Rule. In this work, he rebuked the Cistercians for complacency, satirized Cluniac customs, and encouraged simplicity in ecclesiastical art and architecture.

 . . . Bernard’s writings evidence a thorough education in Scripture, the classics, and the Fathers, which permeates his vision of the Christian life. While Bernard adapted his style to his audience, he constantly emphasized the theme that God is love and that this love alone can satisfy the longings of the human soul. Bernard’s soteriology centers on the grace-full capacity for restoration of the human soul to the likeness of God.

I’ll leave it to others to debate Jain’s repeated complaint that Burge “pulls back” from the nitty-gritty details of Abelard and Heloise’s lovemaking, including what Jain takes as Heloise’s enthusiasm for S&M-level submission.

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  • Dan Crawford

    Casting Abelard and Heloise as 12th century “progressives” and role models for “revisionists” in the church betrays a stunning ignorance of Heloise and Abelard, to say nothing of Bernard. Bernard went after Abelard for what he saw as a dangerous heresy is Abelard’s theology. Heloise wasn’t pining to have sex with Abelard after they both entered religious life – she wanted some personal recognition for her own spiritual struggles. Instead of reading Burge, anyone really interested in the story of Heloise and Abelard would do well to read Etienne Gilson’s book, or the novel by Helen Waddell. They were scholars who knew what they wrote about – unlike “journalists”.

  • Robert Bove

    Strongly implying, as she does, that she understands both the “worldview” of the Middle Ages and our times, Jain gets in trouble in her first sentence. “Worldview,” itself, as she uses it, is an anachronism, one used often, as it is here, to divide the world into us and them, the former being the smugly enlightened author and his/her like-minded readers, the latter being, well, the great ignorant majority, both living and dead. Blessedly, Bernard took great pains to express his ideas clearly and defend himself assiduouly. Jain – who clearly hasn’t read the work – tells us more about Jain than about Bernard, the mark of a bad writer, just another useful journalist rewriting history to suit a politically correct line.

  • Kendall Harmon

    “Bernard was the George W. Bush of their movement.” Well, I almost rose out of my chair upon reading this it was so inaccurate.

    May I recommend she read Jean Leclerc’s fine work — — and then Bernard’s Sermons on the Song of Songs, and ask herself how she could possibly square her statement with the monastic tradition in which Bernard arose, and his own mystical theology as it emerged within it?

  • Fr. Brian Stanley

    “Bernard was deeply anti-intellectual, casting Abelard as elitist, overeducated and anti-religious.”

    Anti-intellectual? Let me follow up Kendall Harmon’s perceptive comment with the observation that Bernard of Clairvaux is one of the Doctors of the Church, a poet, lyricist and prolific author. Anti-intellectual? Not. Read Bernard on “The Four Loves.”

  • Antonio

    Saint Bernard, the “Bush” of his times?

    Get away…

  • Darrell Grizzle

    Bernard was not anti-intellectual, but he did see Abelard as being overly-intellectual. It sounds like this new book by Burge is being overly simplistic, if not revisionist. Thank you to Dan Crawford for suggesting some alternatives, which I will check out (I just reserved the Waddell novel from my public library).

    Bernard as “Bush”? On the one hand, Bernard stirred up bloodlust for the Crusades (just as Bush did for his own crusade in Iraq), but on the other hand he preached deeply spiritual and beautiful sermons (something Bush has never done) — writings that were obviously based on his own intimate experience with God.