Notes on St. Bonaventure

5 09 2020
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As a Christian, my mind was Augustinian, though I am by no means a scholar of St. Augustine. As I have written elsewhere, I have always had a problem with Thomistic Scholasticism. This is not for lack of engagement, as I like reading Thomistic authors, and have even tackled the Angelic Doctor himself on occasion. Much of it still didn’t sit well with me. As stated previously, one of my difficulties was trying to reconcile faith and reason. Though my problematic dives into modern philosophy led me down disastrous paths, I think I have purged enough of their influence to soberly realize that the narrative of making sense of faith through purely rational premises still doesn’t appeal to me. In my opinion, trying to marry faith and reason too closely can only be done through “cooking the books,” or begging the question. If you value the “reasonableness” of faith that much, you are already beginning the inquiry with a foregone conclusion.

In that spirit, I took another trip into the past with Etienne Gilson in his book, The Philosophy of St. Bonaventure. I have wanted to read a deeper treatment of the thought of St. Bonaventure and “pre-scholastics” for some time, though after having done so, I found that I have already imbibed a lot of their thought from my youth. The first point of interest that Gilson makes is that, far from being uninformed, St. Bonaventure’s rejection of Aristotle was a deliberate decision to uphold tradition in the face of innovation. Bonaventure was well-aware of Aristotle and peppered his writings with Peripatetic themes. The difference is that he did not use Aristotle and his Arab commentators as scaffolding for a philosophical and theological system as Aquinas did. I believe this was also the approach of Byzantine scholars who had never “lost” Aristotle as there was no language barrier to reading him. It’s not that their philosophy was “undeveloped”, it’s that they had concluded that Aristotle’s premises could not be a starting point for Christian thinking.

Gilson confirms my previous reading into these topics concerning the nature of Creation in Augustinian / pre-Scholastic thought. In ancient Christian thinking, the world is primarily symbol: the temporary and material could only be appreciated insofar as they could represent the unchanging and spiritual. In Aquinas, by contrast, the created thing in itself had intrinsic value, and its individual existence and natural essence could be appreciated as being the handiwork of an omnipotent Creator. St. Bonaventure had little appreciation for a purely natural order in the universe. Gilson writes a description of the world that could well be ascribed to a 20th century existentialist: “natural philosophy is the science of the universe precisely in so far as the universe is stripped of its true meaning.”

For Bonaventure, the external world serves as a web of symbols that help one “unlock” the divine truths within oneself. I cannot help but see similarities to the Neoplatonic exitus-reditus model or the Vedic contemplation of the virat-rupa, or Universal Form of the Supreme Lord. In itself, the material world has no value, and can even lead one further into delusion and madness when trying to make sense of it. For Bonaventure, what is important is to perceive the “clues” in material things that lead one back into oneself, to find the inner illumination that God has placed there directly.

Bonaventure’s first principle, in contrast to Aquinas, was a radical dependence on God for every operation. This was behind his view of illumination in the intellect, it was behind his idea of the impossibility of separating philosophy and theology, and it was behind his conviction of the absolute need for holiness to understand even the “natural” principles behind the universe. When given the choice of either extolling the natural powers of the creature (even if these were ultimately given to it by the Creator) or of extolling the Creator directly, St. Bonaventure chose the latter. Truth is found directly in God, not in things that, though created by God, can lead one further astray into illusion and pride.

It would be easy here to fall into counterfactuals and try to envision a world in which Bonaventure’s traditionalism won out over Aquinas’ more open acceptance of a world autonomous from the Creator. In some ways, Augustine and Bonaventure did help birth modern thought via Duns Scotus and, ultimately, Rene Descartes and the rest of modern philosophy. Bonaventure’s Augustinianism also could be seen as influencing the Protestant Reformation and Jansenism. As a whole, however, the modern world rejected Bonaventure’s faith-centered philosophy. Within the Christian Church itself, this thinking was replaced either by outright rationalism, or an absurdist view of the world in which a soul makes a perilous leap of faith within a cold and unfeeling cosmos. The world as symbol of God only has a faint sway over the heart of modern man.

In reading such works as the Srimad Bhagavatam, the most difficult aspect of the text is all of fanciful imagery such as the Ocean of Milk, the giant Cosmic Tortoise, or the immense reclining Maha Vishnu sleeping on a bed of snakes. The temptation from my readings of Origen and modern Biblical scholars is to read these images as metaphors or fever dreams of people just like me who may have imbibed some hallucinogenic substances. However, my reading of Bonaventure’s thought assists my modern mind here. Even if in a vestigial and undeveloped form, Bonaventure’s reading of the Christian mystery shares a premise with the proper way to read the Bhagavata Purana and any similar sacred text. The question is: Do we have the proper tools to read them?

I speak here not of some hermeneutic method, but of something more primordial. My main issue with Aquinas, for instance, is that he tackles the mystery of the eternal and unchanging with tools from the temporary and the changeable. Gilson mentions how, when St. Francis was in the court of the Sultan, he refused to have recourse to reason to defend the Christian Faith before the Muslim scholars. For Francis, that would have been impossible, for how can one defend Eternal Revelation to puny minds trapped in their ignorance and base passions? Yet to me, this seems to have been the mission of High Scholasticism, as well as its revival in the late 19th century. It is the idea that man’s natural light by itself can lead to the transcendent, or at least make the transcendent seem perfectly reasonable. I would contest that this is a fool’s errand.

In the case of the cosmology of the Bhagavata, the puranas do not describe the world as we see it: what your and my eyes see in the period of degradation and hypocrisy (Kali Yuga). It is the universe from the perspective of the demi-gods and the rishis who saw it revealed to them. Yes, our world in itself seems cold and meaningless, but to think that what I have seen and can see with these eyes is all there is borders on thinking that Paris doesn’t exist because I have never been there. Gilson states a couple of times in his book that Sacred Scripture is a sort of “cheat sheet” to reality: we as mortal creatures cannot possibly know all the essential secrets of our world in the limited time that we have. Modern secular ideology pretends to give us such a “cheat sheet” via a politicized presentation of scientific discovery, but here again we are just basing the eternal in our myopic view of the temporary. It is just as sensible to try to base one’s worldview on the eternal and unchanging. But the transcendent is only manifest, it is not proven. There is the rub: perhaps modern people in general lack the humility to accept a source of truth outside of their immediate experience. And that is why any effort at apologetic is more often than not worthless, as St. Francis seems to have believed.

For me, this ties into a discussion I had recently as to whether divine truth could emerge from a flawed source. In contemporary Catholicism, borrowing from sacramental thinking, truth is handed down ex opere operato (by virtue of the work performed). It doesn’t matter the source, the moral virtue of the teacher, or the intention: truth is handed down detached from context in a pristine, cellophane package. Based on my reading of Gilson’s book, Bonaventure would have found this idea abhorrent. St. Francis as spiritual father was not only important to Bonaventure’s religious life (as Minister General of the order that St. Francis founded), but also to his theology and eschatology. St. Bonaventure had mystical visions of Francis which placed him in an exalted position within salvation history, and the Franciscan way of life was key to his understanding the whole nature of reality. This is quite similar to the idea of the guru in Vedic tradition. The guru is not simply a teacher, but he delivers his disciple from the cycle of birth and death. He is the most immediate venerable form of God in one’s life. To think of the guru as a mere man is the most grievous offense. In that sense, the only way to come to the Absolute Truth is through following the instructions of the guru, to serve him and in that way purify the heart. That is the highest form of philosophy: all others are useless word play.

Can Bonaventure’s thought speak to the modern person, encompassed in his passions and thinking himself a miniature sovereign of his own little universe? I am skeptical. If I came away with anything from Gilson’s portrait of Bonaventure’s thought, it was a reinforcement of my conviction concerning the complete helplessness of the human mind and the need to surrender to a personal God for any hope of salvation. For me, the modern Catholic Church seems completely compromised in this regard, and even many Vaishnava tendencies appear too concerned with impressing a contingent of brainwashed secular ideologues whose metaphysical foundations are constructed of straw. Perhaps with Bonaventure, I prefer to present the ancient truths as they are, and have absolute faith in their ability to transform even the hardest heart.


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