When the life of the mind is impacted by a heartfelt love for God, knowledge becomes a spiritual path.
Learning stimulates the imagination towards God and is an undisputed necessity for the spiritual journey because much of what we think eventually goes below the surface of analysis and into our heart–the place where “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” If the first stage of spiritual development is life as magic, the next level is the Knowledge stage. Here we try to refine and mature what we know. No one travels the spiritual road alone–even if they belong to no identifiable spiritual group. Intellectual studies help to bring about an understanding of our solitary and group experiences. It helps us to know what’s possible.
In religious studies, scholars seek to understand scripture from the study of original languages, historical contexts as well as a text’s place in a larger narrative scheme. In this stage, text is assumed to be inspired and true and attempts are made to understand it more deeply via exegesis and contextual-scholarly word studies. A groups worldview and accepted practices becomes standardized as it works in concert with accepted scholarly groups.
In the earlier chapter we discussed how one might interpret Jesus turning water into wine. For those who are seeking a deeper intellectual understanding of this story we might point out some contextual facts. For instance, the wedding feast was important because it was bridegrooms legal and contractual obligation as a part of the price of a bride. We might explore the Greek word “gunai” and its use when Jesus called his mother “woman” instead of mother. We might discuss whether or not the word used for wine really describes an intoxicating wine or a milder form of grape juice. This story raises all kinds of interesting questions that can cause us to appreciate the text.
But as important as developing the intellect may be–it is even more important to remember that smart people–even religiously smart people–are not necessarily spiritual people. In a very real sense, the mind cannot not find God. It, like the body, is only a tool to learn about God. The mind studies God, creates a vocabulary about Him, learns and analyzes what others have said, and may even come up with its own ideas–but unless the mental effort is driven by the heart’s love for God, it is of limited spiritual value. This is not to say that it is worthless, it is not. The study of holy texts, religions, saints and the like have an intrinsic value if for no other reason than the fact that most of our world is greatly impacted by religious thought. When the life of the mind is impacted by a heartfelt love for God, knowledge becomes a spiritual path.
There is a great possibility of confusing spiritual growth with religious knowledge. The mind is strong and powerful and develops schools of theological thought, doctrines, arguments, apologetics and many other approaches to understanding religious text and traditions. The mind can be a tool for growing personal reputation and for gaining respect within a hierarchy–and therein lies the rub. More often than not, knowledge becomes a means for boosting the authority of a religious tradition through claims of evidence and scholarship. It is used to validate points of view held by an in-group and refute others. When text alone becomes the supreme authority, interpreters of the text become de facto arbiters of all things spiritual.
In the faith tradition to which I belong, knowledge is a two-edged sword. On the one hand we greatly respect the powers of the mind and have created any number of universities that have bestowed hundreds of thousands of degrees over the years. On the other hand, there is a deep abiding mistrust among the rank and file that education will, “lead you astray.” The mission of these institutions stress the unification of faith and learning–and that’s not a bad thing in and of itself. I have made my living as a college professor at these institutions and know this process well. At the same time there is an embedded fear among the faithful of any knowledge that challenges the literal-magical understanding of scripture.
This fear is manifest in many ways from the study of biology and evolution, the presentation of the human body in art history, the reading of post-modern and deconstructive literature, the study of comparative religions, the study of humanistic philosophy and psychology, and of course any religious teaching that does not fully support the present views of the sponsoring faith tradition. These are but a few illustrations because almost any subject at some point or another has the potential of running afoul of the conserved point of view.
The point is this, instead of using religious knowledge to stimulate spiritual growth via the heart and intellect–it is, more often than not, is used to bolster the authority and claims of an existing religious group. It seeks to normalize experience within the group rather than grow and expand individual spiritual development.
I am grateful for those who promote the life of the mind. Used properly it not only gives us a common vocabulary and means of expression but also stimulates the imagination by pointing us towards the possible. As we compile the things we learn into a larger body of understanding and experience, we make it possible to help others grow as well. At the same time, one must be careful not to confuse the common beliefs of a body of people–no matter how devoted or well-meaning they are–with spirituality or spiritual growth. The mind is a tool–not the thing itself. Combine it with the heart and it becomes powerful indeed.