By Christian Bergmann
Saint Bonaventure of Bagnoregio is, in my estimation, one of the most exciting and interesting theologians of the thirteenth century. Part of the reason for this, I think, is that Bonaventure’s most famous texts don’t have the intimidating and rigorous academic quality that was the hallmark of medieval scholasticism (think here of figures such as Thomas Aquinas, Peter Lombard, Duns Scotus, or William of Ockham). Many of these figures are unapproachable for people because reading them involves entering into the fineries of medieval debate and philosophical jargon. Bonaventure stands out, on the other hand, precisely because the very structure of his texts present theology as a mystical journey into union with God and not merely something academic. For Bonaventure, there is no theology without prayer. It is prayer that begins theology. This isn’t to say that Bonaventure is an easy read, or that he wasn’t an academic, but I would put him forth as an entry point into medieval theology from a uniquely Franciscan perspective, if anyone was interested.
Born in 1217, he was originally named Giovanni Di Fidanza. He joined the Franciscan order in 1244, where he became ‘Bonaventure’, and rose through the ranks to become the Minister General at the height of some of the Order’s most disruptive controversies. Later he was appointed a cardinal by Pope Gregory X. He composed some of the most interesting and unique texts of theology in the medieval period and taught at the University of Paris for many years. In fact, a young German theologian named Joseph Ratzinger – who would later become Pope Benedict XVI – did his doctoral research on Bonaventure, and the medieval theologian proved to be a formative influence throughout the pope’s life.
The text that is widely considered to be Bonaventure’s masterpiece is the Itinerarium mentis in Deum, otherwise known as The Journey of the Mind into God. This is one of my favourite medieval texts. If I can briefly comment on only one aspect of it, I would say that it is still of tremendous importance for the life of the Church today.
An unfortunate tendency of the modern world is to see “faith” and “reason” as somehow mutually exclusive. Either faith involves the abandonment of our rational powers, or reason has unequivocally proven that faith is sheer nonsense. From the earliest days of the Church, however, this has not been the case. In fact, one of the things that made Christianity credible to its surrounding pagan cultures was precisely an appeal to reason, but in a very specific sense. The Greek and Roman world that Christianity inhabited upheld, in many respects, the primacy of reason. The cosmos was not fundamentally chaotic, but there was a principle of reason to it, a coherency, a fundamental rationality or logos (to use the Greek word) that meant we could understand creation at all. Some of the earliest Christian figures, following from the Gospel of John, said: yes, this is the case, but this logos became flesh; this principle you speak of is not something abstract and remote, but something that has now become incarnate. Thus, reason became a matter of conforming oneself to Christ, who was the incarnation of the reason that lay at the heart of the created universe. (For more on this, read Hans urs von Balthasar’s Love Alone is Credible).
I would argue that Bonaventure took up this motif with great vigour. To read Bonaventure’s Journey of the Mind to God, I would propose, is also to see this appeal to reason take on profound spiritual significance. Bonaventure took up this radical and bold move of identifying Jesus of Nazareth as “the First and Supreme Principle” of creation (7:1), but, he also put a Franciscan spin on it. The most famous part of Saint Francis of Assisi’s life was his encounter with the crucified Christ in the church of San Damiano and his hearing of the words: ‘rebuild my church’. Like Francis before him, it was a vision of the crucified Christ that inspired Bonaventure to write this text. Thus, for Bonaventure, it is not only Christ that stands at the centre, but in a strange way the crucified Christ. He is the beginning of the soul’s journey towards God and the means by which we achieve union with God. This path into God, he said, “is nothing but a burning love for the Crucified” (Prologue:3). In fact, even contemplation – widely considered to be the natural purpose of human existence, especially contemplation of the divine – was not possible without first entering “through the blood of the Lamb as through a gate” (Prologue:3).
Reading Bonaventure, I was struck by some profound implications. The logic, perhaps, at the heart of creation is a crucified logic. This draws us into union with God when nothing else can. And maybe “reason” is a call to follow this crucified Christ as the only spiritual path.
This is a far cry from our very boring approach to faith and reason these days.