While I was teaching history to my second and fourth grade boys last year, I ran into the story of Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153 AD). Bernard was a Cistercian monk who lived in France, and his life is a mix of complicated and interesting history and theology. Perhaps the best effort of his life was the work to establish the importance of contemplating on Scripture with the focus of developing deep communion with God.
But this is where the story gets really strange. He also was the main person in charge of preaching the Second Crusade. The Second Crusade led to widespread massacres of innocent civilians.
Yes, you read that correctly. Bernard was a militant man, and wrote this:
Jesus, the very thought of thee
with sweetness fills the breast;
but sweeter far thy face to see,
and in thy presence rest.
O hope of every contrite heart,
O joy of all the meek,
to those who fall, how kind thou art!
How good to those who seek!
But what to those who find? Ah, this
nor tongue nor pen can show;
the love of Jesus, what it is,
none but his loved ones know.
Jesus, our only joy be thou,
as thou our prize wilt be;
Jesus, be thou our glory now,
and through eternity.
-Bernard of Clairvaux
Historically, the church has been surprisingly willing to listen to the wisdom of highly imperfect people, which is why we have Bernard of Clairvaux in our church hymnal.
The story stuck in my head, because I often hear or read tirades against popular speakers or writers or even church groups. Their lives are dissected by well-meaning religious people, and if something is deemed inordinate, they are chucked onto the compost pile.
No doubt, I do need to be discerning, but I see a difference between being discerning and being reactionary and unwilling to learn from anyone who is different from me.
For me, looking at exactly what I don’t like (instead of making a sweeping and vague judgment) helps clarify the issues. The point of disagreement might not be a core doctrine, but a difference of interpretation or a personal preference.
For instance, I can think of a popular author that I don’t care for simply because her writing is too wordy for my taste. But if I can winnow the chaff out of her heap of words, I find much that is nourishing there.
Sometimes I do have a legitimate doctrinal disagreement, but still can find much to learn from a speaker/writer’s work. I am repulsed by Bernard’s involvement with the Crusades, but find his hymns deeply touching.
Is it possible to keep Jesus foremost in my heart, to depend on the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures to guide me, while still learning from others who aren’t perfect? Can I trust God and the believers gathered around me to give insight, or must fear be my master?
If I can learn from broken people, how imperfect should someone be before I reject the message? Or perhaps the passing of time heals over imperfections, and the church is better able to accept wisdom after its givers are long gone?
What do you think?