Today’s find: Abelard

One of my favorite preachers and spiritualists—Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr—made me a offer I couldn’t refuse today: a free download of his recent webcast on ‘Yes, and…’ spirituality.

Now, anyone who knows me knows that ‘free’ is a price-point that’ll always grab my attention. And although I haven’t had a chance yet to listen to the entire 1:15:00 recording, I’ve already found that his presentation provides a wealth of thought-provoking insight.

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Abelard and Heloise, from a 14th century manuscript

Early on, Fr. Rohr mentions a name I hadn’t heard since my college years—Peter Abelard, a medieval scholar and theologian who was bigger than the Beatles in his day. One of Abelard’s most famous works was entitled ‘Sic et Non’—Latin for ‘Yes and No’. In it, Abelard explored a series of 158 theological and philosophical questions over which there were divided opinions.

Abelard didn’t take a position on any of the questions. His point, apparently, was to encourage people to think…and to help them recognize that holy people have wrestled with theological questions throughout the centuries. Questions like:

  • Must human faith be completed by reason, or not?
  • Is God a single unitary being, or not?
  • Did God have to become a human being, or not?

The answers weren’t easy then…and they aren’t necessarily easy today.

I was intrigued to learn about Abelard—and the history of theological inquiry in the church—because it helped to explain my unease with a homily I heard recently, the gist of which was to explain (or more accurately, assert) that Catholics are ‘right’ and Protestants are ‘wrong’.

The homily made me uneasy not so much because of its content, but because of its tone: What mattered most, we were told, was that we—as Catholics—could be assured of winning the argument. The truth was on our side.

It made me deeply sad to consider how much energy Catholics and Protestants both have poured into this sort of dialectic over the past 500 years – how both camps have sinned, by lining up…as if in a circular firing squad…to take theological pot-shots at each other again and again across the centuries.

Are the questions that divide us important? Probably so.

Are they more important than putting energy toward the command—‘Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations…’ (Mt 28:19)— given to us by our common Savior? I think not.

But the fact is, the more time and energy we devote toward gazing inwardly at ourselves…the less time and energy we’ll have available for spreading the Good News.

So do we really need to resolve, once and for all, every fine-point of theological dispute? Do we really need to settle on a ‘yes or no’, ‘black or white’ explanation for every subject that separates us?

Or could we perhaps, like Abelard, come to understand the profound beauty and mystery in answers that elude us?

As he writes in the introduction to Sic et Non’:

‘To entertain doubts on particular points will not be unprofitable.’ For by doubting we come to inquiry; through inquiring we perceive the truth, according to the Truth Himself. ‘Seek and you shall find,’ He says, ‘Knock and it shall be opened to you.’ In order to teach us by His example He chose to be found when He was about twelve years old sitting in the midst of the doctors and questioning them, presenting the appearance of a disciple by questioning rather than of a master by teaching, although there was in Him the complete and perfect wisdom of God.

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One thought on “Today’s find: Abelard

  1. Mike Seyle

    Well put, John. Agree. We need to tend to the work at hand.

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