As the old saying goes, “when it rains, it pours.” And somehow, the world has been pouring spirituality down on me as of late! I have to admit, I’ve rather enjoyed it. Currently, I’m reading a book by a Benedictine Sister named Joann Chittister called The Rule of Benedict, and it reinterprets the Benedictine Rule for contemporary living. Furthermore, my church will be offering itself up to Stillpoint, a wonderful organization that offer spiritual formation courses for those who want to enter more deeply and lovingly into a relationship with the divine. I will even meet with, and learn from, a spiritual advisor in the coming weeks (a position that I must honestly confess I didn’t know existed until I joined the Episcopal Church).
Despite this pouring out of spirituality in my life, I’ve noticed a theme emerge in these spiritual formation courses and opportunities that need not be there. Often times, spiritual organizations “market” (for honest lack of a better term) themselves in such a way that they will help you to get “deeper” into the divine than any silly dogmatic, doctrinal, or intellectual statement could ever bring you; they’ll help you to enter into God more personally. While the latter clause certainly presents a good goal, I simply wonder whether the former method—getting beyond doctrinal statements and properly reflective thinking—is necessary to it.
The unfortunate view that we moderns and “post-moderns” have adopted with regard to intellectuality is that we tend to think of it as somehow “neutral,” “unaffected by the world around it,” “objective,” and after truths for which we have no feeling. (“Postmoderns,” if this word means anything in particular, would generally deny that we are neutral but tend to uphold neutrality as something like an ideal for perfected reason). So we conceive of the height of intellect in terms of calculative procedures: hypothesizing, experimenting, verifying, and tabulating. We’ve defined thinking, in other words, by the empirical method that emerges from the Enlightenment and its focus on the natural sciences. I actually don’t think this is such a bad view of intellect in certain situations, but I do think it constitutes a reduction of the intellect and its ideality such that, with this notion in mind, it is no wonder that talk of getting beyond intellect for getting deeper into the divine emerges in this context.
Yet, intellectualism has not always been thought of in this way. Take Plato. For Plato, the intellect is something like another desire. That is, in the same way that a hungry stomach desires food, the intellect desires truth. Indeed, for Plato, the intellect is given over to an erotic drive to reach the Truth, the entirety of which I need not get into. The point being thus: the intellect is far from a neutral observer of things that merely convey s ideas through words to a detached mind. The intellect is passionate, directed, and “in love.” The intellect is our movement through the real to God in God’s self, at least for Plato.
We can see this Platonic principle at work, too, in a myriad of Christian mystics and thinkers, namely, the idea that the intellect does not merely hinder our relationship with the divine, but is a properly spiritual avenue for expressing that relationship. Such an understanding has been generally called “faith seeking understanding.” One need not go any further than Anselm, the founder of this saying, to understand the true context of this saying. His Monologion especially is an intellectual appropriation of a prior faith given to him by the spirit and expressed in words. It is a prayer, or an intellectual reflection on his prayers, that grasps at doctrines such as the nature of God’s Trinitarian being and Goodness, among other things.
This isn’t to say that Anselm believes himself to understood or thought through his faith fully, which is why there is a sense in which “going beyond intellect” holds some sway in spirituality. Rather than “getting beyond” intellect, I think the better way to think through the issue is in the following ways. On the one hand, one cannot properly think through the being of God without being centered in God’s being pre-cognitively; on the other hand, if one is brought into the being of God pre-cognitively, then thinking is a perfect expression of one’s spirituality and one of the major means through which we come to, worship, and exist in relationship to God.
In other words, thinking through doctrine such as the nature of the being of the God-man, the Trinity, the idea of salvation, etc., is anything but a hindrance to entering into a deeper spiritual relationship with God. I would at least claim that, as a Christian, thoughtful reflection on precisely these doctrines allow us to draw ever nearer to the divine and the divine’s love for us, found for us on all sides of the cross. The key, then, is to simply not accept the statements dogmatically—as calculative beliefs that, should we ascent to them, allow us entrance into heaven or, should we reject them, send us straight to hell. Nor should we accept such doctrines as somehow objectively and empirically verifiable, able to be found without God bringing us specifically into God’s own being such that these become meaningful doctrines in the first place. Rather, these latter two types of thinking are the ones that today’s spirituality promises to get us beyond—and rightly so!
But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Doctrinal statement is already a part of spirituality, for one can only write it and utter it with any form of seriousness by already being within the spirit.
All this said, I’m working through these spiritual disciplines and books, and I will definitely continue to do so. I’ve benefitted greatly from them. However, I would also like the chance to more deeply engage in a spirituality of the Cross, a spirituality of the Resurrection, a spirituality of Trinitarian relations or of the Spirit intimately involved with all these movements and events, even known only as such in and through them. Obviously, such spiritualities are out there, and it would probably, at most, take some light googling to find spiritual exercises focused in such doctrines. But it is worth noting that, however such spiritualities and spiritual formation courses would be put together with such an emphasis, they would need to retain a deep intellectual content to them—a content that neither takes one away from doctrinal formulation nor from spiritual depth but pushes one deeper into both.
Such spiritualities would require that we change our manner of thinking about what thinking is and is supposed to do. Rather, we would need to take seriously the statement found in the picture at the beginning of this post—a saying of Heidegger’s posted at the beginning of a trail in the Black Forest dedicated to him. The sign says something like, “in thinking is each thing long and slow.” That’s probably good spiritual advice.