Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Sic et non

Legend has it that Peter Abelard's last words were "I don't know."

We know Abelard, of course, for his ill-fated love affair with the brilliant and strong-willed Heloise. Even today their purported burial place in Paris is a place of pilgrimage for lovers. But it is as a charismatic teacher and provocative thinker that Abelard was best known in his own time. He was not adverse to challenging the smug certainties of the ecclesiastical establishment, and his rambunctious young students cheered him on. Systematically applied doubt was his "master key to wisdom," clearly a challenge to those who felt they held the exclusive keys to truth. Eventually Abelard stirred the wrath of that other great charismatic of his time, Bernard of Clairvaux. Their epic confrontation in 1121 can be taken as a classic expression of a dichotomy that still resonates in our culture, and sometimes in the comments on this blog: "God did it" versus "I don't know.

Where did the primal seed of the big bang come from? How did life begin? How did monarch butterflies evolve the ability to navigate to their winter home? God did it, says the believer. I don't know, says the agnostic. The two statements have exactly the same explanatory value. Zero.

Why then opt for one rather than the other? The first provides an illusion of understanding, and reinforces the ancient belief in a personal divinity who attends to our individual lives. The second is a goad to curiosity, and leaves open the possibility of greater future understanding. Which path we pick may reflect an innate preference for security or risk.

Bernard and Abelard both understood God as mystery. Bernard believed God has revealed himself once and for all in the deposit of faith. Abelard believed the goal of life is to seek a God who is and remains hidden. The controversy, for all of its theological nitpicking, came down to a matter of temperament. Bernard liked answers. Abelard liked questions.