More on Peter Abelard, Famous UU
I've lately been intrigued with the figure of Peter Abelard. He's most often remembered for his scandalous affair with his teenage student Heloise and its extreme consequences, and next most often for being a haughty, arrogant SOB whose hubris made many unnecessary enemies and destroyed his credibility and effectiveness. It's sometimes remembered that he was a brilliant theologian, but the substance of his theology is usually forgotten amidst the saucier parts of the story.
His great contribution to the Christian discussion was in soteriology, which is a big word meaning the theory of salvation. Essentially, he opposed St. Anselm's full development of the "satisfaction" doctrine of substitutionary sacrificial atonement (the premise that God required a blood sacrifice, the death of His perfect and only son, to cleanse us all of the guilt we inherit from Adam), and proposed instead a "moral influence" theory of exemplary atonement, in which our separation from God is reconciled not by Christ's sacrifice, but by his teaching and example. He regularly won debates on this point against the Anselm faction, and if it had not been for his other failings, the main thread of Christian thought today might have looked very different, and more affirming of the worth of the human condition and human endeavour, than it does.
I haven't researched it, but I suspect it was Abelard's "exemplary" soteriology that was later adopted by the 19th-century Unitarians, with their concern for "self-culture" and "self-reliance" and "salvation by character". Showing UUs how their present-day affirmation of human worth and moral responsibility traces back not just to the Clarkes and Emersons and Channings of a century or two ago, but all the way back to pre-Reformation Catholic scholasticism, might be an eye-opener for many of us. And all of us could use a little reminder from time to time that being right on the theology won't get us very far if we make it hard for others to relate to us, or if we're hypocritical in other areas of our lives, as he did and was.
Here's an Anglican collect I discovered, emphasizing especially that last point, but also hinting at Abelard's view of atonement and the hope for universal reconciliation. The bracketed part might be omitted for us non-Trinitarians.
Lord God of truth and love, who called Peter Abelard to your service, and endowed him with many excellent gifts: grant that we may seek diligently for the truth in our several callings, and may learn to love the truth more than our own cleverness. When we are wrong, grant that we may accept correction from others gladly and without resentment. When others are wrong and will hear us, grant us the grace to guide them gently, without gloating or patronizing or officiousness. When they are wrong and will not hear us, grant us the most precious gift of silence. Grant us fairness and honesty, justice and respect, in our dealings with all persons, and especially with those whom we love, and those who love us. Preserve us from using them as means rather than respecting them as ends. We are taught by Our Lord Jesus Christ that he, being lifted up, will draw all men unto himself. Grant that we, beholding his torn and bleeding hands stretched out to us in love, may find our hard hearts softened, and our stubborn pride brought low, and our rebellious wills tamed, by his gracious invitation; and that his love for us may call forth in us an answering love for him, [who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God,] now and for ever. Amen.