Faithful Through the Ages - Friday, February 7, 2014

Peter Abelard - Scholar with Sex Appeal

Quote: "Our kisses far outnumbered our reasoned words."

Peter Abelard (1079 - 1142) was a freethinker by twelfth-century standards, not bound by the wisdom of archbishops or saints. He challenged philosophers and theologians, including Anselm and his theory of the atonement. Christ's death, he insisted, revealed his infinite love more than anything else. Abelard's views on the atonement are as controversial today as they were in his day.

Abelard combined philosophy and theology and turned Anselm's motto—"I believe in order to understand"—upside-down. In his volume Sic et Non (Yes and No), he set forth his guiding principle: "The first key to wisdom is the constant and frequent questioning. . . . For by doubting we are led to question, and by questioning we arrive at the truth."

From his youth, Abelard had been an inquisitive student. He debated the best teachers of the day, turning academic rivalry into a sport. From rhetoric and debate Abelard moved on to theology. Soon he was challenging and besting his theology professor, and his reputation soared even higher. The peak of his teaching career came in his late thirties, at the Cathedral School of Notre Dame. His future looked to be brilliant—but for Heloise.

Canon Fulbert, uncle and guardian of Heloise, was Abelard's superior at Notre Dame. He may have set aside his own better judgment when placing the sparkling teenager under the tutorship of the handsome teacher. Abelard conceded that he had more than dialectical discourses in mind. "I . . . decided she was the one to bring to my bed, confident that I should have an easy success."

Taking advantage of her eagerness to learn, he laid his snare. Heloise resisted, but Abelard was not easily dissuaded. "Under the pretext of study we spent our hours in the happiness of love," Abelard later confided. Heloise soon discovered she was pregnant. Fulbert was outraged not only by her pregnancy but also by Abelard's dismissive response of putting Heloise in a convent while he carried on with his successful academic career. Though both sides tried to resolve the situation, it eventually exploded, ending in Abelard's castration at the hands of Fulbert and his friends.

Abelard recovered from his terrible wounds, later reasoning that what happened was God's means of setting him aside as a monk at the Abbey of Saint Denis. For Heloise, God's mercy was not nearly so evident. Although she became a highly acclaimed abbess in her own convent, the Paraclete, she couldn't deny her love for Abelard and never fully came to terms with their separation.

Frustrated with his monastery's worldliness, Abelard tried to live as a hermit, but, constantly interrupted by eager students, he continued to teach, using philosophy as bait to interest students in theology—"true philosophy." His popularity exacerbated the fury of his enemies, who charged him with heresy and incarcerated him at a monastery in Soissons.

On release he retreated to a remote area, but again he was inundated with students. Fearing persecution from church authorities, he fled to another monastery. But he couldn't escape the clutches of critics—the most vitriolic being Bernard of Clairvaux, a leading reformer of Cistercian monasticism. Bernard was angered by Abelard's explanation of Christ's atonement and persuaded the pope to summon Abelard to appear at the Council of Sens in 1141, where his teachings were condemned. On his way to Rome to petition the pope, he was taken ill and died soon afterward. His body was interred on the grounds of the Paraclete abbey, where the grave was tenderly watched over by the abbess, Heloise. Some two decades later she was buried beside him.

The grave was not the end of Abelard, however. Although his writings had been condemned by the church, there was no going back on his "liberal" methodology. He, more than anyone else, introduced questioning and doubting of the sources—even the church fathers, who had been presumed authoritative.

Abelard's nemesis, Bernard of Clairvaux, desperately sought to hold the conservative line, ridiculing this new method as stultilogia (stupidology) but the current was too strong. Abelard's ideas would win the day in academia, while Bernard would go on to become a saint.

Today's reading is from Parade of Faith: A Biographical History of the Christian Church by Ruth Tucker. © 2010 by Zondervan. Used with permission. All rights reserved. The book's title must be included when sharing the above content on social media.

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