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Reading the medievals as philosophers

February 8, 2010 3 comments

One of my consistent frustrations with secondary sources on medieval thinkers is how extraordinarily pietistic most of them are, and I’ve discovered recently that this is especially true of Bonaventure. There is a positive side to this phenomenon: it’s an expression of the enormous contextual difference between medieval and modern theology. With Bonaventure this contextual difference is exacerbated, since he’s obviously sympathetic with older monastic ways of thinking, and over the course of his career—especially after he leaves the University of Paris to become Minister General of the Franciscans—increasingly interested in Francis’s contemplative life. It makes sense that the spiritual orientation of medieval theology is one of the things that jumps out at people first in reading it, and that it would be one of the key aspects of that age that people might want to revive.

But it obscures so much! I don’t want to deny the importance of that orientation for a proper understanding of what they’re doing—that would actually be impossible for Bonaventure, who makes it part of his definition of theology as a “sapiential science.” What I want to deny is that everything that was written in that period is best understood as an extension of the medievals’ “spiritual theology.” Most treatments of Bonaventure’s commitment to voluntary poverty, for example, explicitly lay aside philosophical or political-economic considerations to get to the real, spiritual poverty that Bonaventure’s concerned with. And this despite the fact that Bonaventure’s commitment to voluntary poverty actually does have substantive philosophical ramifications (more than that through this semester), which is massively interesting.

One genuinely philosophical treatment of Bonaventure I’m looking forward to getting around to is a book called Saint Bonaventure et l’entrée de Dieu en théologie by Emmanuel Falque (1, 2). In its earlier draft, this was the dissertation he wrote under J.-L. Marion, taking Heidegger up on a little research program he noted in his dissertation on Scotus to read the medievals as phenomenologists. He’s since continued the project through phenomenological analyses of birth and resurrection, finitude, suffering, etc., all in close conversation with the patristics and the medievals. From what I remember from a lecture he gave at Notre Dame a few years ago, he could make an interesting addition to Andrew’s list in his own right, and I have high hopes that he’ll make a useful model for constructive philosophical engagement with these thinkers.

Posted by Brian Hamilton