“I Wish You To Despair”: Burrows on Gerson’s Vision Of Theology As Paideia

De consolatione theologiae represents no dramatic shift of theme regarding the high purpose of mystical theology, but this treatise does reflect Gerson’s altered strategy in conceptualizing the audience for this knowledge. Here his overriding concern is to present theology as a useful vehicle for assisting every viator on the journey toward God, as as such theologia already anticipates in functional terms what theologia msytica manifests: namely, a concern for the upbuilding of the entire church as it sojourns toward its identity as the heavenly city, the “new Jerusalem.” The treatise functions, to return to a theme explored in an earlier chapter, as an enchiridion for all wayfarers, such that its very comprehensiveness requires Gerson to introduce theologia and theologia mystica not in contrast in in continuity with one another, as steps on an ascending ladder in Deum. In so doing Gerson consolidates the diverse spectrum of themes and problems which had earlier engaged his thought in a single treatise, introducing theology in a “de-professionliaized” form accessible to all seekers of God. Mark Burrows, Jean Gerson and De consolatione theologia: The Consolation Of A Biblical And Reforming Theology For A Disordered Age. p. 148.

University of Paris classroom, mid-15th century. Courtesy of Manchester University

University of Paris classroom, mid-15th century. Courtesy of Manchester University

In his enormous, exhaustive, focused study of late-medieval sermons, confessional guides, and occasional writings Sin and Fear: The Emergence Of The Western Guilt Culture, 13th-18th Century, historian Jean Delumeau traces the path various ideas meant originally for a restricted and often rarefied and particular audience (usually monks in cloister) expanded beyond their original bounds without changing their often harsh – even violent – tone. Thus it was that by the time of the emergence of nominalism, a theological method that should certainly have tempered some of the harshness of much of High Medieval theology and pastoral practice, there was nevertheless the growth and expansion of all sorts of guides, usually for the lower clergy, to be used to remonstrate those who come to confession; as guides for sermons on particular texts and subjects; and on what is entailed in the personal journey that later generations would call “holiness”.

A good nominalist himself, although a peculiar one as Burrows points out, Gerson was a critic of the widespread use of these texts, particularly in regard to the matter of scruples, i.e. a spiritual inventory that led to a kind of spiral of despair in which the one searching his or her heart and mind finds a never-ending fountain of sin and evil within oneself. In De consolatione theologiae, however, Gerson offers no solace to a believer seeking rescue from the bottomless depths of his or her depravity. Thus the quote that serves as the title for this post: it is only when one truly despairs of one’s sufficiency in attaining salvation that the true viator is reborn as the follower of Lady Theology on the journey toward the final beatific vision. Until and unless one is convinced of one’s worthlessness, there is no chance for Divine Grace to rescue such a one from the pit of despair and give birth to the theological virtues: faith, hope, and (works of) charity.

In this post we shall be looking at what Burrows calls “the paideutic” function of theology, i.e., theology as the teacher and guide for Christians on their journey to God. In the previous post I looked at Burrows understanding of Gerson’s vision of theology. Now it is possible to look at how this theology functions for Gerson in this particular text. Already mentioned was Gerson’s “democratization” of “theology” as such; here we shall look at how such view of theology works for all Christians, lay and clergy. Of particular interest is Gerson’s eschatological (but anti-apocalyptic) and mystical understanding of the telos of such a journey.

In the first instance, however, it is important to note again that Gerson’s insistence that this journey of the Christian life is open to all is surprising coming from a scholar and administrator of Gerson’s standing. Yet, Burrows points out, already prior to the Council of Constance, in the first decade of the 15th century, Gerson had written polemically and fiercely as Rector of The University of Paris against what he viewed as idle theological speculation, insisting that scholars and students alike limit themselves to issues of practical importance to the clergy. As such, the pastoral nature of De consolatione theologiae is in keeping with a long history of Gerson’s primary concern that theological education, and theology itself, be the servant of the Church’s ministry.

An aside is in order, one Burrows notes as both odd and, coming from a late-medieval church theologian, surprising. Nowhere in the treatise does Gerson write of the role the sacramental system does or should play in the life of the venturing Christian.

Gerson was aware of but at at the same time sought to transcend what Huizinga has identified as the melancholy and despair of this period. And, more importantly perhaps, Gerson’s theological strategy in this treatise stands as a critical voice over against Tentler’s controversial interpretation of the church’s sacramental system as the basis for a “culture of guilt”. It appears that Gerson’s pastoral convictions after Constance prompt him to articulate a soteriological view of theologia which bears no reference to the sacramental system. Theology itself stands as the interior guide to leading vioatores on their pilgrimage toward God, and this is a path which offers consolation in the midst of desperatio facing all viatores. (p.64)

At this juncture it is also important to note the various ways “experience” enters as a central category for Gerson. First, Burrows writes of the role of temptation in the life of the Christian on pp. 65-66:

Gerson . . . grounds his discussion of consolatio not with a theoretical analysis of the human predicament, nor with a scholastic definition of the Fall or of original sin; rather, he identifies the experience common to all viatores, the sense of human abandonment in the tentationes of life and the utter despair to which this leads, not as the problem confronting theologians but as what he terms the very mouds and ars of theology. Viatores, according to Gerson, are to expect nothing more nor less than that life itself will become a “spiral” of despair, “warfare” (militia) leading them into an ever greater desolation. And here already we find the basis for his caution against an overly ambitious quest for mystical experience: he warns against presuming that one might escape from “the struggles of human being” or “the scourge of tribulation”, deciding not to live in hope but “in beatitude itself.” But this is only Gerson’s first word on the subject of tentationes, since these experiences which indeed lead viatores to a sense of desolation become at the same time the matrix in which we are to seek consolation. And, as he goes on to argue, these are the experiences through which theology is to lead us, guiding us beyond the limits of our innate knowledge, abilities, or experiences toward a “firmer” consolation.

It is only through the experience of temptation and the practice of a severe scrupulosity that the Christian can hear the consoling word of Theology that faith and hope and works of love that are the fruits of the journey to God.

There is also the matter of the shape of theology as Gerson here presents it. Using a phrase that many evangelicals will recognize, Burrows writes on p. 78, speaking of the intersection of theology and its formative impact upon the viator:

In the case of the theologian, this [the need for theology to be conducted by “good persons”] requires viatores to integrate theology in life, to “form” theology through exercising the theological virtues. This is, of course, a characteristic Gersonian claim by which he often insisted theologia is a matter one must grasp not only per intellectum, but much more in affectrum cordis. This theme appears at first glance strangely out of character since with it Gerson seems to embrace the “neo-Donatist” position as expressed in the Hussite critique of the “unworthy” priest. Upon closer scrutiny of the context, however, one detects that Gerson’s intention steers in another direction altogether: he intends to draw out in didactic rather than polemical terms the integrated nature of theology in human life, and the implications this carried for the tasks confronting not only professional theologians (magistri, theologi) bu the common people (idiotae) as well. All peregrini are to have a “formed” faith, though the “simple” will necessarily have a fides simplex alongside suavis charitas; at issue in not the quantity of knowledge, since this varies according to the person, but its quality. Gerson demands of clergy and laity an erudition of the “heart” by which faith was formed in the virtues.

Theology leads the wayfarer through the experience of despair resulting from the constant assaults of temptations outside and the understanding of sin within, both forming and reforming the person not just through an intellectual grasp of various doctrines, but in a changed “heart”, such internal change resulting in a change in the life of viator on his or her way. This is a chicken-and-egg matter, with the formation and reformation occurring along with a growing understanding of one’s dependence upon theology as the guide through life’s vicissitudes.

Emphasizing the role of experience, Burrows writes on p.91:

Just as the proper function of the biblical text depends upon the manner of approach, such that the way of living informs the prospect of a faithful reading which in turn reforms the way of living, so also Gerson assumes that human experience and the scriptural texts for a cohesive whole. This is not simply to repeat what we have already observed about the prescriptive role of the biblical text as paideutic, as shaping life through instruction and counsel, but rather to suggest that Gerson also presupposes a reciprocity between scripture and experience in this paideutic dimension. This conviction allows him to identify the language of experience and that of scripture from another vantage point within the hermeneutical circle, in this case by informing how the text is to be read through experience – scriptura cum experientia – by moving between biblical and experiential narratives.

For students of a particularly Wesleyan grasp of the theological task, all this should sound familiar. Yet in just the past year or so, there has been a growing attempt to remove “experience” as a legitimate theological category. The reasons vary, usually relying upon a kind of “Wesleyan fundamentalism” in which specific texts from Wesley (rather than his theological output in sermons, pamphlets, and other occasional writings) are cited to demonstrate that our contemporary understanding of “experience” has veered from Wesley’s “original intent” (as if this is some kind of shock were it true at all), thus delegitimizing “experience” as a proper locus of theological reflection. Thus it is odd indeed to find a 15th century Conciliar Theologian insisting upon the necessary relationship between theology and experience in the life of the believer, a view far more in keeping with the spirit of the vast bulk of Wesley’s actual theological output than the often ridiculous and ahistorical insistence that because the contemporary view of “experience” isn’t what Wesley intended (it isn’t; even if it were, that would matter not a whit).

The goal of this journey upon which theology guides the believer is identified, again and again, as God. Gerson, however, is not at all arguing for a kind of mystical union with or in God. Thus it is that Gerson avoids the twin pitfalls of an enthusiastic mysticism on the one hand or an apocalyptic eschatology (prevalent at the time) on the other. While this view is certainly eschatological in the traditional sense, it is one vouchsafed for the next life. In this life, Gerson is at pains to explain again and again using St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 as his source, we always and only see through a glass darkly. It is only “later” (in what Moltmann might perhaps call the eschatological time of God) that we shall see “face to face”.

On mysticism in particular and its place within this journey upon which theology guides us, Burrows writes on p. 146:

The point Gerson’s democratization of theology accentuates is that this journey is itself the matrix of theology, and theology is consequently to be understood as consolatory for all persons by leading them beyond despair toward the “highest hope” in God. Theology leads not toward the academy but toward God. And, although Gerson does not project the goal of the human pilgrimage ad Deum as a present reality, nor does he conclude that viatores are all to attain the summit of mystical experience, he insist that theology is to persuade all viatore to “aspire” to this state. . . . As a “democratized” instrument for the edification of the entire church, theology has a broader pastoral mission than the goal attained or even sought by the mystics, one which is comprehensive and useful in terms of its scope: it is present as “companion” to assist in the formation of each viator en route ad Deum, the refugium humanae peregrinationis. But it does not lead viatores beyond the life of this human journey.

This is a hearty antidote to so much that ails the church should we but be wise enough to hear what Gerson has to say: Theology as a guide for the Christian life, a guide that leads the believer through despair brought about by the experience of life as well as the heart upon a journey that leads to God. Yet it is God not yet fully before us, because that is only to come. We are not rescued from this life by immersion in the Divine Life this side of the parousia.

Gerson insists . . . that theology may lead to mystical knowledge and the experience of “the sweetness of God”, but never in a manner which obliterates its social responsibilities, a requirement which sustains Gerson’s conviction that the vita ambidextra itself and not the mystical experience is the means by which viatores finally attain perfection in this life. In this sense if theologia leads mystical theologians to God and “persuades” others that they ought to aspire to the vita contemplativa, it never eclipses its “useful” character which required assisting others on that journey. (p.147)

A balanced life, lived in the light of the Divine Countenance while still engaged faithfully, hopefully, and lovingly with the world – what Burrows has called “the matrix” of theology, viz., the journey of the believer toward this goal – is, again, an oddly Wesleyan notion indeed. For Wesley, it was about “perfection in love in this life”, an understanding that, in the end, is indistinguishable from Gerson’s understanding of the paideutic function of theology as a whole. Both the means and ends are the same: We are guided, formed, and reformed by a Biblical theology that leads us to aspire not to a life marked only by contemplation, but rather one in which such contemplation leads us back to the world to serve others “on the way”.

It pains me that there are currently those who seem far too willing to write out of Wesleyan fellowship those who would disagree with their far too narrow understanding of Wesley’s thought. One of the reasons tradition is a necessary theological category is it guides the viator precisely to those such as Gerson in whom one can find so much resonance. Despite time and physical distance, theology exposes inspired kinship across centuries, languages, and even confessional boundaries. This is just one of the many blessings of theology as paideia: within the text of De consolatione theologiae we can hear a distant echo of the ever-present need for theology to be an active part of the life of the believer, a guide not only through the thickets of life, but toward that love that becomes the sole source of all our actions.


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