Five reasons I like Bell’s Many Mansions, and you should too

In a previous post, I introduced David Bell’s wonderful account of Western and Eastern medieval theology: Many Mansions. Now, with an eye (frankly) to trying to get as many of you as possible to buy it, I present my five favorite things about the book:

1. At regular intervals, Bell’s wit as well as his wisdom shines through. In introducing scholasticism he says, “Good scholasticism can be an extremely useful and revealing tool: a razor-sharp scalpel to open up the mysteries of salvation. Bad scholasticism—and there was a great deal of it—serves only as an antidote to insomnia.” “[Gilbert of Poitiers] bears the distinction of being the only person attacked by Bernard of Clairvaux whom Bernard failed to have condemned.” And in explaining Gregory Palamas’s distinction between God’s unknowable essence and his knowable energies: “My students in my classes may know ten percent of me; my friends may know seventy percent of me; my cat may know ninety percent of me—but it is only I, I alone, who can know all of me.”

2. Bell is unabashedly churchly in his own approach. He does not care what “the guild” might think of such a statement as this, which begins his description of the net effect of the medieval monastic movement: “Apart from the indeterminable effects of prayer (and we must not forget that prayer was the primary vocation for most monks and nuns) . . .”

Throughout the book Bell is also willing to make, and stick by, theological judgments based on traditional understandings of orthodoxy. So, on Abelard’s use of reason: “It did look as if [Abelard] were equating faith with opinions, and William [of St.-Thierry] and Bernard [of Clairvaux] were quite right to take him to task.” On Bernard’s resistance to the notion of an immaculate conception of Mary, which was intended to protect her son Jesus from the effects of being born from ma sinful mother: “If we were to celebrate her conception, should we not also celebrate the conception of her parents? And of her grand-parents and great-grand-parents? Ridiculous!”

This trait of Bell’s means that in unfolding for us each novel theological idea and every impassioned defense of orthodoxy, Bell retains a sure grasp of what is at stake for the church. So, in summarizing Gregory Palamas’s impassioned battle with the ideas of Barlaam the anti-hesychast, Bell concludes: “We may now perhaps see the reason for the intensity of the hesychast controversy. It was not merely a matter of defending the mystical techniques of a handful of monks on Mount Athos. In actual fact, Palamas was not particularly interested in the techniques themselves and considered them suitable mainly for beginners. His deepest concern was with the very survival of Orthodox Christianity. Barlaam had misunderstood the nature of creation, he had failed to realize the significance of the Incarnation, he had diminished the importance of grace, and he had denied the possibility of deification. According to Athanasius the Great, ‘God became human that in him human beings might become God.’ It was in defense of this principle that Gregory Palamas spent twenty years of his life.”

3.  His brief sketches of thinkers are strong with the seasoned judgment of the scholar, and at the same time they ring with the verisimilitude that comes from an attention to personal (and personality) details. Here, for instance, is his summing-up of Abelard:“He was devout, arrogant, chaste, passionate, intolerant, kind, a superb logician, and wonderful with words. He loved to criticize, but hated criticism. His students adored him, but students tend to love flashy and iconoclastic lecturers. Much of his trouble he brought upon himself, and although he may have been guiltless of the heretical views of which he was accused, one cannot blame his opponents for accusing him. His language and terminology were sometimes dangerous, sometimes foolhardy, and if he was misunderstood, he was misunderstood with good reason.”

Also, did you know that out of Abelard’s youthful affair with his student Heloise (whose love letters still exist) came a son? Did you know what that son was named? “In due course she gave birth to a son to whom Abelard gave the extraordinary name of Astrolabe.” Such wonderful details one does not usually find in an introductory historical theology text.

4.  He provides many sharp, deep one-sentence definitions and explanations, and we sense that he has mastered the scholarship to back them up: “The purpose of asceticism is to reduce our love of self and increase our love of God.” “Since pleasure that transgresses the bounds of reason is lust, it follows that in Eden there would have been fruitfulness without lust.” “Benedict’s version of the Rule was a noticeable improvement [over the Master’s Rule, from which he took much of the raw material for his own rule]. It is better written, better organized, more humane, more democratic, and more compassionate towards human frailty.”

5.  Finally, Bell is, as was my teacher at Duke David Steinmetz, a master of the clear explanation given with the aid of apt images. For example, in describing why Abelard’s contemporaries became nervous at his way of explaining the Trinity—it was next-door to modalism!—Bell explains:

“To understand [modalism], we need only consider the actions of any human being: a woman may act as a mother (when she is with her daughter), as a daughter (when she is with her mother), and as a doctor (when she is at work). But there are not three distinct persons here, nor are the modes of activity limited to three. The same woman may also act as a grand-daughter, as a teacher, as a customer in a shop, and so on. But if we apply this idea to the Trinity, we are obviously in trouble: just as the one woman is not three distinct persons, neither is the one God.”

Or take his explanation of why the homo habitus theory of how Christ’s divine and human natures relate to each other. This was a view “intended to do away with any idea that God was actually transformed or changed into a human being . . . and it removes any concept of Christ being made up of various independent bits.” The homo habitus theory held that, “after Mary had conceived Jesus, the Divine Word took over the manhood like a garment; clothing itself in humanity so that Christ could appear on earth in an appropriate form.” The problem? “To think of Christ’s humanity as no more than a pair of trousers is clearly dangerous. Trousers come off and go on at a moment’s notice, and there is really no unity between my trousers and me. It is true that I rarely appear in public without them, but trousers do not make the man. If the connection between Christ’s humanity and his divinity is no more than the connection between me and my clothes, then it is a very loose sort of connection, and it is better described as conjunction rather than union. In other words, the homo habitus theory undoubtedly leans in the direction of Nestorianism.”

I can’t resist continuing this passage. In the following, we see several of Bell’s winsome traits come together: here are the apt use of imagery, the conviction of the high stakes involved in theological debates, and the humor that spices up his narrative throughout: “Furthermore, it is a perilously short step from saying that Christ’s humanity is no more than a garment to saying that it has no proper reality, that it is really nothing. If I am summoned to appear in court for some misdemeanor and send my trousers in my place, it does me no good. The real me has not appeared. . . . So if the humanity of Christ is no more than a garment, is the garment really Christ? This is no trivial question, for it bears directly on our redemption. . . .”

Do yourself a favor. “Take up and read” Bell’s book.

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