"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:
~ Thomas Merton, A Life in Letters, p. 121"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."
Thoughts? I'd love to hear them! Please leave them in the comments section!