Welcome: An Introduction

Sharing the insights I discover as I explore and experience the mystery that is our reality. Join me in my journey and share yours.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Faith and Intellectualism's Precarious Tango

"Is there a theological fault in these desires, this interior activity which I cannot help, these continual ideas for books and writing, this continual grasping for intellectual satisfactions and aesthetic joys-the avidity which is my crucifixion?

That is not the question. It is all disordered. It chokes grace, dries it up. Stifles prayer. It wounds, darkens, dirties, lacerates my soul. "

                     ~ Thomas Merton, Entering the Silence, p. 70-71

                                                             Courtesy of google images

Merton was both fascinated by the lure of intellectualism theology has to offer but also consciously aware of the oftentimes bitter fruit it bore. He realized the burden of such pursuits that frequently attaches itself to one's consciousness, the dryness that tends to soak up one's spirituality like a sponge soaking up remnants of living water from the soul. 

Intellectualism can  be the death of spirituality if one pursues its many inquiries before firmly grounding themselves with a base of experiential faith through interaction and awareness of the Spirit and a clear understanding of the basic doctrine of Christianity. These variables provide an anchor that can allow the seeking mind and spirit to dive into theological questions without getting pulled free from the foundation of faith and the security a close walk with God provides.

When I think of the concept of building a sturdy foundation before entering into the realm of intellectualism I am reminded of the parable of the sower in Matthew 13:4-8:

As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.

In the past many have questioned my  pursuits in entering in some intellectual areas of theology, sometimes criticizing them, telling me that a life of pure devotion is the only thing necessary for the walk of a Christian and to consider matters of theology a waste of one's time. Well, I agree to some extent. An interest in theology is not a requirement for the Christian, and in fact, can indeed be a hindrance to one's faith. God calls us to have a simple faith, like that of a child.  But there are some of us that do like to explore some questions being discussed in theology circles today and find religion and spirituality a fascinating area of study. What then? For people like us? How are we to balance are love of debating and intellectual inquiry with a living and active, tangible walk with God?

I have personally discovered both the bitter and the faith-enhancing attributes of intellectualism. About a year ago I was at a crossroads in my faith where I started to voraciously pursue the many intellectual arguments that are discussed among those interested in theology today. Like the age-old discussion of whether or not the Bible is purely infallible, evolution v. creationism, or the pondering of God's sense of judgement and justice in the OT and whether or not we had a Father with some anger management issues.

I have to say that it was a very painful time spiritually for me as I felt very distant from God.  God was starting to feel more like a concept than a reality and a concept that I was starting to wonder if I really truly believed. At that point, where I was at a spiritual crossroads, my meanderings in the realm of theology were not helpful to my journey. I was most likely trying to fill a void but with not the things I needed at the time. Intellectualism was proving to be the source that, at that time, was aiding in dimming my soul's mirror more in which I was so desperately trying to see truth.

I didn't need answers to theological questions, I needed a direct and divine relationship with God. I needed to repent of my pride and cling close to the cross. What managed to get me unstuck from my spiritual stagnation and into the refreshing and living waters of our King was to return back at the foot of His throne and repent, simply offering my soul to Him, empty and willing, to fill with His presence. I was broken and needed a healer and, what is more, I was spiritually dry and didn't need theology to quench that dryness but the living water that only God provides.

I discovered contemplative prayer through the writings of Thomas Merton and others, like Richard Foster, Thomas Keating and James Finley.  When I started the practice of entering into the presence of God by shedding my attachments to self and world and clinging entirely onto the awareness of God's Divine presence within me, I found my faith completely transformed.

Since the moment I felt God's presence deep within me in a tangibly spiritual way and began recognizing vivid and poignant manifestations of His glory through Creation, my soul has been helplessly in love with God. I am truly smitten as I consider His great love, mercy, compassion. I have made daily a practice to feast upon His Word, meditate as well as experience His presence and blessings in the ordinary moments of the present moment and share my thoughts, prayers and self with Him through prayer. I'm not sure if that qualifies as practicing simple devotion but that's my version of it!

Now when I enter into some kind of theological discussion, whether it is with a friend, on a blog or in some other forum, I don't feel troubled by certain criticisms made towards the Bible, God (generally towards His character),  or ideas towards the nature of salvation that I hold important. I am able to stand on the foundation God has laid out for me that I have received through my practices and time with Him and am able to pursue intellectual inquiries with a more holistic and detached perspective, not being threatened spiritually by arrows that might be thrown my way. Arrows that might have once caused the wounds of conflict and doubt now fall beside me, harmless and ineffective. Yet, I am secure enough to explore possibilities and paths that don't contradict scripture and that can lead me into deeper depths of exploration and revelation into His Divine nature.

When I feel myself too wrapped up in a theological inquiry that interests me (or really any other pursuit in life that has my eyes focused more on myself and the world than God) I have managed to learn to discipline myself to drop that inquiry for the moment and rest in God, knowing that all peace, all answers and all true understanding come from Him and Him alone. I'm not saying I'm always effective at recognizing when my gaze is lifted from my Lord to another, it's a process, but it's one I've managed to begin cultivating and would highly recommend.

It's fun to dance the dance of debate but to truly gain new levels of understanding I feel we need to dance precariously when it comes to injecting both faith and intellectualism into our journey, allowing both to enrich the other, producing a more deep and holistic perspective to one's worldview and that of others but not allowing intellectualism to infect our faiths, producing the disease of doubt or compromise of doctrine. Intellectualism was a burden to Merton, causing his faith to be wounded at times. Let's not think ourselves any less susceptible to its trappings and  take seriously the angst in which his soul found itself in, making sure not to find ourselves in a similar situation.

Years later a more seasoned Merton would be finding himself writing a letter to the Pope, as was requested of him, for him to share his contemplative perspective with the world. He wrote:

"The message of hope the contemplative offers you, then, brother, is not that you need to find your way through the jungle of language and problems that today surround God: but that whether you understand or not, God loves you, is present in you, lives in you, dwells in you, calls you, saves you, and offers you an understanding and light which are like nothing you ever found in books or heard in sermons."
~ Thomas Merton, A Life in Letters, p. 121

Thoughts? I'd love to hear them! Please leave them in the comments section!


  1. This is a heartfelt and extremely well thought out post. I appreciated reading it very much and am signing up for your blog, there's just too much I love on here!

  2. Excellent! You've written some amazing thoughts here and ones we should all take to heart. You've certainly taken the right steps to regain God's full presence in your life.
    The Episcopal Church used to have an ad with Jesus on the poster and the words: "He came to take away your sins, not your mind." So true, but there needs to be that balance of intellect with child-like faith and trust as we read and meditate upon God's word and go to Him in prayer.

  3. Thank you fof a beautiful post. "Smitten"--I desire that.

  4. U give me hope,love,and the wisdom...which helps me carry on..

  5. This is very interesting Jessica :)We meet ourselves in the study of Theology in as much as we allow 'creative tension' to arise within us. I wrote this in a paper years ago while studying theology. It serves to help us in our formation. Sadly, we tend to form the intellect (the mind) more than the heart (reiterated by my spiritual director). And that is when spirituality dies.

    I'd go back to the reforms we had in the Church, sects and new religions that arose from misunderstandings within it, ideals that led to radical choices. And I also ask where has debates led us? Into dialogue or division?

    Our spiritual journey is one that unites the heart and mind to bring harmony within and allows more space for other people.

    In the end I ask have I truly found God in my pursuit? Because my studies should lead me to God's truth. Or have I found myself drowned by questions that make me doubt God's love?

    I truly love this post... you've shared much of your journey within...

    May God lead us back to our heart ;)Thanks for sharing your reflections (and Merton's) ;)

  6. Hi Jessica:
    God calls us to have a simple faith, like that of a child.

    The above line from your entry struck me only because children certainly do see things in a simplistic way, which is NOT NECESSARILY a bad thing.

    I'm sure you've seen and read in many places that children can sense things that as adults we cannot. Children are more susceptible to the spiritual. They can sometimes sense a spiritual experience that adults can't.

    I think that's what God is telling us as adults to do, to remove our blinders and become childlike in our curiosity again.

    While some may find my spirituality contrasts w/theirs, I feel truly connected to my GOD, the God I believe in, the God I worship. He is the SAME God everyone else worships, but I believe as Rob Bell does that God loves everyone. There is no eternal damnation. How could a loving God create us in his reflection then welcome ONLY a select few into his arms?

    I think the ending to this passage sums up my belief nicely:
    "The message of hope the contemplative offers you, then, brother, is not that you need to find your way through the jungle of language and problems that today surround God: but that whether you understand or not, God loves you, is present in you, lives in you, dwells in you, calls you, saves you, and offers you an understanding and light which are like nothing you ever found in books or heard in sermons."

    I know! I know! Wrote a novel here. Sorry, you just seem to bring lot's of emotion up in me. This comment may NOT seem to relate entirely to the entry, but if you read between the lines I think you'll see that there is a common thread.

  7. Our journeys will always involve a bit of both. One has to experience both sides and then slowly begin to put the puzzle together. How will we know anger if we have not experienced it? Like wise how will we know faith if we have not tested or argued or felt it...
    That energy to some it is god.... to others it is universe is within each one of us.It is up to us individuals to find it...

  8. Thank you Elizabeth! I am blessed to know you enjoyed it...please keep coming and leaving your thoughts, they are always appreciated! Thank you for following :)

  9. Martha, thank you so much for stopping by. An interesting quote courtesy of the Episcopalians! I like it...it's so true, God has given us beautiful minds he does want us to use them. A definitely agree-a balance is essential. Thanks for your thoughts :)

  10. Steve, I will pray that someday you will feel smitten by Him as you desire :) It's a wonderful feeling and way of encountering God! Thank you so much for stopping by. Blessings to you and your wife :)

  11. Alpana, my prayers are always with you. May God's light always shine on your path and in your heart.Thank you for stopping by :)

  12. Melissa...what a great question to ask.."where have debates left us? dialogue, or division?". It's so true that God wants union and harmony above the body and we should always look at our motives and potential fruit before engaging in some acts and discussions. Thank you for your thoughts and reflections...I always value them :)

  13. Christopher,

    Thank you so much for your thoughts! I love when I'm challenged to dig a little deeper. I think children are so susceptible to the spiritual because they have that simple faith, simple trust. They don't question or try to dissect phenemena and experiences and just see things as they are and don't have the blinders or filters that we develop as we grow and are inundated with the illusions that culture, family and our society start impressing on our subconsciouses as to what's normal, what's real, what's expected, etc.

    Amen to the notion you share with Rob Bell that God loves everyone! I share that as well. God is love, so in my view, He has nothing but compassion for all of us :) I'm still looking forward to reading Love Wins and discussing it with you ;)

    ~blessings and peace

  14. Savira..thank you so much for stopping by...I always appreciate your reflecitons. I do believe we should not take faith as it is handed down to us but ask ourselves what and why we believe what we believe. Our journey is ours alone to take and to have it be genuinely ours we shouldn't be afraid to probe and question. God loves the seeker :)

  15. Jessica, I love the Thomas Merton quote! That sums it up perfect! I don´t know if you have read my blog post about a visit to the Gruta in Alta Gracia last week. I had such an incredible experience there. What I have felt cannot be put into words, text books or sermons. I believe it is the work of God and His hand that touches the soul.

    Beautiful post! I always enjoy coming here :)


  16. Thank you for stopping by Nelieta and I look forward to reading your post and hearing about your experiences there. I always enjoy your blog! Thanks for leaving your link and I encourage all to take a visit, they won't be dissapointed!

  17. Excellent post, Jessica. Very deep and opening. Thanks for sharing!

    People think intellectualism is dangerous? Faith is far more dangerous than intellectualism because humans will always come to judgements about their surroundings, and if done only on faith they open themselves up to nonsense. At least with intellectualism the nonsense can be fact based.

    Faith is also lazy. "I don't have to try to know, I can just assume I do."

    Intellectualism as the death of spirituality? I guess I'm an exception to that if true. My spirituality is based on the best evidence I have yet discovered in studying science, nature, and spiritual disciplines. I do not take any of it in faith, and know full well that tomorrow my current stance may be proven wrong and I'll have to adjust my theories. But my spiritual beliefs are very fulfilling for me, and very peaceful/calming. Why just "believe" in something? I'd prefer a spirituality that can actually benefit my daily life, and faith won't lead me to that. Intellectualism has, though. With faith, I am relegated to believing what works best for someone else, but if I use my mind a little I can figure out what works best for me.

    And yet intellectualism isn't for everyone. Faith benefits some people in a way I cannot understand because of the way I look at life. And if faith is better for some people, why attack them for it? Likewise, for all those who claim faith is better, why would they attack intellectuals?

  18. Sounds like we’ve traveled the same path Jessica. There was a time when I wanted to know all the theological answers. A time when I read and studied, debated and argued to prove the ‘truth’. But in the end it was a journey toward meeting the One who said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life…” It was about a living relationship with the living Christ. It turned out to be that simple. Knowing a real Person instead of just knowing intellectual facts about that person.

  19. I can tell you spent a lot of time and effort to think this through before you carefully wrote it. It makes a lot of sense on what you had to say.

    Bravo! Great post!

  20. I used to consider myself a baby Christian..and as I sought out answers I grew and finally had a connection with God I knew what I believed and why..and loved debate because I was confident in what I then believed...now I find myself in that dark place..and again I have the questions..again I am seeking...I envy you and your faith...love you Jessica....As always...XOXOXOXO

  21. I love it when you reveal your inner workings, the way your thoughts come through. I am not religious, yet events in my life make me know without doubt there is a god. In my mind, my own religion puts to many demands on me, and visiting 'my place of worship' is more like going to a business connvention. Yet your blog and beliefs do inspire me, and dare i say provide me with some form of faith. p.s. thank you for being my 1000th comment

  22. Thanks Jessica, interesting post and some good points. True theological inquiry should lead us into a deeper knowledge and love of God BUT as you say what often happens is that we grow to love theology rather than love God. First we must love God, then we are free to study and inquiry so long as we seek to use that knowledge as a spring board to loving God more!!

  23. Jessica - Awesome thoughts. This is a struggle that every intellectually honest Christian should deal with. If we truly believe that God is alive and that Christ was really God incarnate who was crucified and rose again, than we have to know that God's Word will always be vindicated in the world around us. Often times it's difficult to arrive at truth objectively (or as objectively as possible) in Christian circles because many of us have fallen into the bad habit of using faulty logic to explain things that are really true about God, the universe and Scripture. Then when someone finds our arguments to be inconsistent, we use the "childlike faith" argument as a shield to protect our own self imposed ignorance. The problem with that tactic is that when Jesus talked about having childlike faith, he was talking about faith in the context of relationship, not some supposed need for disciples of Christ to check our brains at the door. In Scripture, faith is always founded on reality. We shouldn't just believe things flippantly. Instead, what we are called to do is to seek truth in the context of relationship. It's like the example of Thomas's doubting in the Gospels. The issue wasn't that Thomas questioned that Jesus rose from the dead, with no prior input to demonstrate that fact to him. The issue was that he viewed himself as the ultimate judge of whether or not it was true, as if the word of the men who he had lived with and trusted for the past 3 years wasn't good enough and as if the fact that he knew full well who Jesus claimed to be and the power He obviously had wasn't a factor. We're not called to have blind faith, but rather faith that responds when the God of the universe reveals Himself to us. I personally think that it's so hard to balance true intellectual inquiry with faith because as human beings we so often find it so easy to just take the path of least resistance, whether that be embracing faith flippantly, with no real thought, or rejecting it outright, because a God who actually has expectations of us is too much of an inconvenience. That being said, I believe that there is a place for trusting in God when every fiber of your being tells you not to. That is true Biblical faith, but that can only happen when we arrive at and appropriate the simple fact that God is alive and has revealed Himself to mankind. Fortunately, it isn't us who find God. He seeks us out, in the midst of our good and bad intellectual and theological arguments, in the midst of our doubt and belief, good moments and bad moments. He invades our worlds personally and calls us to be in relationship with Him, and that's an experience that no one can quantify or explain. All we can do is stand in awe. Thank you so much for making me think! You did a great job of capturing the essence of a really powerful tension in the Christian journey. I look forward to reading more of your entries! BTW, check out www.seanmcdowell.org/ for some really solid intellectual and theological arguments from a Christian perspective.