A Poem of Saint Bonaventure

Week of Monday, July 9, 2001

At a meeting in Atlanta, Bob Fryling, director of InterVarsity Press, shared with us a poem by Saint Bonaventure (1221–1274) that I found especially powerful for those of us who care deeply about both the life of the mind and the heart. Bonaventure was a professor who studied and taught at the University of Paris, a pastor and later general of the Franciscan Order, but perhaps most of all he is remembered as a mystic. In 1273 he was elected as the Cardinal Archbishop of Albano.

Bonaventure's poem is found in one of his most famous works, The Journey of the Mind toward God:

Do not assume that mere reading will suffice without fervor,
Speculation without devotion,
Investigation without admiration,
Observation without exaltation,
Industry without piety,
Knowledge without love,
Understanding without humility,
And study without divine grace.
For people committed to the life of the mind in the context of the university, and to the growth of the soul in the community of the church, I find his advice salutary, for Bonaventure cautions us against two extremes. Instead, he points us to a holistic life that combines rather than separates intellectual endeavor and spiritual fervor.

On the one hand, Christians who are scholars often struggle against the deep impulses of anti-intellectualism that disregard, disparage and generally fail to appreciate the calling to intellectual contemplation and abstract thought. As Richard Hofstadter showed in his Pulitzer prize-winning book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1964), our overall culture is biased toward pragmatic concerns and an egalitarian spirit that often exhibit outright disdain for intellectual work. Hofstadter also identified “the evangelical spirit” as a third cause of our culture's anti-intellectualism.

Anti-intellectualism can be especially acute within the church. Despite numerous advances of evangelicalism within American culture—in politics, social status, increased wealth and the like (remember, Time magazine characterized 1976 as The Year of the Evangelical)— overall, Mark Noll has shown how and why our fundamentalist-evangelical heritage has been a disaster when it comes to first-order intellectual work. There are a number of reasons for this, as he documents in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994), but the result can often be that the Christian who is an intellectual often feels disenfranchised by our evangelical church culture.1

Bonaventure's own life is a reminder how the scholarly life of the mind can be a sacred calling. In his work he emphasized that the created world is a rational world open to intellectual inquiry by people created in God's image. Reason and knowledge are divine gifts. He reminds us that one of the ways we fulfill the greatest commandment to love God is by loving Him “with all of your mind” (Mark 12:30).

On the other hand, within the university context Christian scholars often face the opposite extreme, a sort of rationalistic reductionism that allows no place for religious devotion or cultivation of the soul. If Huston Smith is correct in his book Why Religion Matters (2001), “the modern university is not agnostic toward religion; it is actively hostile to it.” Bonaventure's poem draws special attention to this hazard. For Bonaventure, human reason is a divine gift to be celebrated, but the health of the soul is a human necessity that must be cultivated.

Recently I reread Henri Nouwen's book Finding My Way Home (2001). He speaks to this second danger. After teaching at Yale and Harvard, for the last ten years of his life Nouwen lived and ministered at Daybreak near Toronto, a home for people with severe mental and physical disabilities. There, he says, he learned that the life of the heart is, ultimately, more fundamental to being human than the life of the mind:

Somehow during the centuries we have come to believe that what makes us human is our mind. Even those unfamiliar with Latin know Seneca's definition of a human being as a reasoning animal: rationale animal est homo....(But) what makes us human is not primarily our minds but our hearts; it is not first of all our ability to think which gives us our particular identity in all creation, but it is our ability to love...I am speaking here about something very, very real. It is about the hidden mystery of the primacy of the heart in our true identity as human beings.
In Bonaventure's vision, the ultimate journey we are on is to union with God and not merely rational inquiry or intellectual achievement.

Human knowledge and academic inquiry are precious gifts that help us toward our ultimate goal. We must never disparage them, but instead honor and enjoy them. Nor should we ever separate faith and reason or play one off of the other. But to reach our final goal, says Bonaventure, to our speculation, investigation and observation we must add devotion, admiration, and exaltation. To our industry, knowledge and understanding we need to include piety, love and humility. Undergirding it all, in our study we seek divine grace.

  1. See also Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale, 1989) and two of the many works by George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (NY: Oxford, 1980), and The Soul of the American University: (NY: Oxford, 1994).

The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2001 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.