- Knowing God by Experience: The Spiritual Senses in the Theology of William of Auxerre by Boyd Taylor Coolman (review)
- The Thomist: A Speculative Quarterly Review
- The Catholic University of America Press
- Volume 70, Number 1, January 2006
- pp. 137-139
- View Citation
- Additional Information
BOOK REVIEWS 137 Knowing God by Experience: The Spiritual Senses in the Theology ofWilliam of Auxerre. BY BOYD TAYLOR COOLMAN. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2004. Pp. 267. $54.95 (cloth). ISBN 0-81321368 -1. William of Auxerre (d. 1231) was a secular master of theology at the University of Paris at a crucial moment in the history of Western theology. The university itself was still rather new, and the hallmark of the early university, Scholastic inquiry, was beginning to flower. It is in William that we can see the first bloom on the Scholastic rose, which would come to full blossom in the next Parisian generation, the age of Thomas and Bonaventure. Or so the story goes. While Boyd Taylor Coolman does not dispute the broad strokes of this traditional position, his excellent, close reading ofWilliam's Summa aurea augments our sense of this early Scholastic era in connection to its past as well as its future. This book is an essential contribution to the medieval studies and theology section of any research library. Its felicitous style makes it accessible to students, but its subject matter presumes a body of knowledge possessed by advanced graduate students. The presentation is clean and, to my eyes, free of error. Most fundamentally, Coolman's study illustrates the conjunction in William's work of the practical, lived reality of the knowledge of God in prayer, liturgy, and sacrament and the precise, rational consideration of the knowledge of God in theological science. In this reading, William weds the concerns too often relegated respectively to "monastic" and "Scholastic" theology. The nexus of this union is William's understanding of the "spiritual senses." The advantage of Coolman's focus upon the spiritual senses is that it permits him to introduce the reader to all the major topics in William's Summa from a unifying perspective. Modern readers are sometimes unaccustomed to, or even boggled by, the coincidence of unity and complexity in medieval writers. Coolman has done us a service by providing (or, perhaps better, discovering) a thread that we can follow through the labyrinth. Indeed, to shift to his more felicitous metaphor, the doctrine of the spiritual senses is "capillary-pervasive, yet easily overlooked due to its subtle dispersion throughout" (3). Under the magnifying lens of this book, the Summa aurea emerges as a complex organic whole. The book begins with a brief but thorough treatment of the lens, the doctrine of the spiritual senses in William's thought, specifically in relation to his understanding of the beatific vision. Coolman walks us through William's grappling with central questions that arise in considering the spiritual senses: Are the senses a dimension of desire or of intellect? Are they multiple or singular? What is their proper object? And so on. Here we see William himself crafting his own understanding of this "capillary" doctrine in relation both to the tradition that precedes him and to newer readings ofAristotelian thought in the thirteenth century. Coolman's own interpretive voice emerges only obliquely, as the voice of organization and summation; his virtues as a close reader of texts allow 138 BOOK REVIEWS William's voice to emerge. We as readers get the experience of a good mind wrestling with difficult questions. The subsequent chapters take this initial account forward into the consideration of major topics in William's thought. First, in relation to the objects of spiritual apprehension, we find chapters on William's understanding of the metaphysical good (chap. 3), of the Trinity (chap. 4), and of creation (chap. 5). Next, we read of the virtues of spiritual apprehension, namely faith (chap. 6) and charity (chap. 7). Lastly, we read of the forms of spiritual apprehension: symbolic theology (chap. 8), mystical theology (chap. 9), and sacramental (chap. 10, on Eucharist). All of these chapters share the virtues of that first programmatic chapter. They present very close textual readings with clarity and grace, allowing the reader to follow the lines of William's thought inductively. Though Scholastic writing itself will seldom keep us on the edge of our chairs (and here, William is no exception), Coolman's inductive approach keeps the questions alive for us...