Priya 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.