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With a strong subtitle like “The Fight Between Faith and Reason,” “The Saint vs. The Scholar” by Jon Sweeny quickly captures readers’ attention. Though the exploration of a fight between two prominent men from Church history and the lingering impacts is an interesting topic, the book itself fell flat.
The topic of this book is fascinating, and Sweeny presented the information in an interesting way. It wasn’t just a record of events; Sweeny explored motivations behind the events and built a story from facts. The context Sweeny provides to the events illuminates the topic. I was really impressed by the connections he drew between the two seemingly different men.
Though there was some good content, there were also several issues I had with the book.
The book seemed incredibly biased towards Abelard at the beginning. Though the book eventually became more balanced, it was frustrating to read the first few chapters that had that very obvious slant. To me, it felt like Sweeny had an underlying distrust of the hierarchy of the Church. Though some distrust is natural, especially considering the Church’s involvement with political aspects during the time this book is highlighting, it still felt off to me.
I suspect that this book was written for a wider audience than just Catholics, but as a Catholic reader, there were a few minor things that rubbed me the wrong way. One example is the way he described canonization. He phrased it in such a way that made it seem like the Church chose who the saints were rather than the reality that it is the Church recognizing that someone already is a saint.
Something that bothered me about this book was the frequent references to Abelard’s physical appearance. I don’t care about Abelard’s full lips or long curls; I care about the philosophy and theology he was using. It went beyond providing background – he was an attractive man and that made him popular – and entered into an uncomfortable zone.
Lastly, it struck me as odd that Sweeny included the following quote.
Reason and faith were split wide open, forever separated.
This is a weird thing to include not only because it is wrong, but also because Sweeny seems to contradict it with other aspects of his book.
All things considered, I think this was an interesting, albeit flawed, book. I imagine that many people would find it interesting, but there are certainly opportunities for improvement.