John Sommerfeldt is a distinguished medievalist long associated with the international medieval congress at Kalamazoo, Michigan and currently a professor of history at the University of Dallas. In these two monographs he draws on his lifetime of studying the works of Bernard of Clairvaux, universally acknowledged to be one of the most influential Christian leaders of the twelfth century, to challenge two fairly standard portraits of Bernard. In the first volume, Sommerfeldt questions the picture of Bernard as an intellectual obscurantist, devoted to traditional forms of theological reflection and hostile to the newer "dialectical" methods championed by scholars such as Abelard. In the second volume, he deals with the assumption that Bernard upheld a hierarchical view of reality, in particular, a hierarchical understanding of societal structures which placed the monastic way as superior to the intermediate and inferior ways of the clergy and the laity. While Sommerfeldt's marshalling of the evidence from the Bernardine texts is impressive and goes a long way toward dispelling caricatures of Bernard's positions, the overall effect is less than satisfactory.
In the volume subtitled, On the Spirituality of Relationship, for example, Sommerfeldt exposes how Bernard understands the church as an organic unity and not merely a corporate or social institution. In this sense the church includes all those engaged on the path toward perfection, however haltingly. This journey, then, may be undertaken in three distinct ways: that of the monk or contemplative, that of the cleric, and finally that of the lay person. Although this appears to be a hierarchical arrangement, Sommerfeldt assures us that it is not by adducing a variety of intriguing quotations from Bernard's corpus that might suggest that Bernard in fact values all these "orders" as valid in their own right. While he rarely discusses the path of lay folk, as Sommerfeldt acknowledges, when he does Bernard has some exalted things to say about the body, particularly its role in the salvation of the married. In a sense, Sommerfeldt suggests, married love is the most complete form of human love for Bernard, since it engages all the faculties of the soul as well as the body. Such a high evaluation of the body in the context of married love leads Sommerfeldt to the conclusion that Bernard is not a neo-platonist, and therefore not likely to propound a hierarchical view of society. That may be so (although I found Sommerfeldt's treatment of Bernard's anthropology too cursory to be convincing), but it still does not account for the many passages where Bernard urges his readers to abandon or control the bodily senses and to flee the world with its enticements. Sommerfeldt's suggestion that these are directed to particular individuals, urging on them the monastic path, in order to promote their particular salvation provides a possible explanation. The suspicion that he offers this advice because he believes that this is a higher path, however, is not entirely removed for me.
Sommerfeldt's treatment of Bernard's "epistemology" in the volume subtitled, On the Life of the Mind, again provides a rich overview of Bernard's positions. He explores how Bernard's doctrine holds that faith and contemplation are both sources of knowledge. Even though its content is "obscure," the knowledge that comes with faith is certain for Bernard. Similarly, even though the insight that comes from contemplation goes beyond the powers of the mind, it is the most sublime and transforming kind of knowing. Simply exposing such teachings is instructive for modern readers. Had Sommerfeldt explored how they constitute sources of knowing for Bernard, his analysis would have been enriched considerably. Even more helpful is Sommerfeldt's treatment of Bernard's position on reason, particularly the application or use of "dialectics" in theological reflection. Sommerfeldt contends, rather convincingly, that Bernard upholds such reflection. Indeed, some of his works engage in dialectical speculation. Why then the many disparaging comments regarding philosophy in Bernard's works? Bernard believes that philosophical speculation must be guided by a virtuous life, particularly humility, so that the inquiry does not exceed its scope. This becomes the basis for Bernard's vehement critique of Abelard's theology. Sommerfeldt demonstrates that Bernard does not challenge Abelard because of the use of dialectics; rather his flaw, according to Bernard, is that Abelard does not have the humility needed to make his speculation fruitful. Instead, he pushes dialectics into areas and realms where it is not appropriate with the inevitable consequence that he falls into error. Sommerfeldt carefully adduces texts to demonstrate that this is what Bernard actually believes; he develops no treatment of the quality of the arguments, unfortunately.
What Sommerfeldt has provided in these volumes is a careful reading of the bernardine texts that support his contentions that Bernard taught a richly nuanced understanding of our knowledge of reality, including an appreciation of our rational abilities, and that he understood the process of salvation and societal structures not in an elitist manner but as complementary paths and orders leading toward a common goal. This focus on the texts is a helpful but limited hermeneutical strategy. Had he been able to include a discussion and interpretation of the larger medieval context as an element of his works his arguments would have been greatly strengthened.