September 27, 2020

Intellection and Volition

Study in itself is worthless and even dangerous.

Intellection and Volition

To those of us with an intellectual bent, there is a great appeal in the content of the Faith, the dogmas and doctrine of the Faith, its unplumbable depth and delightfully reliable coherence. This is, to be honest, what initially drew me to Catholicism, coming as I did from the highly enthusiastic yet unfortunately shallow and often inconsistent and contradictory evangelical Protestantism I was raised in. (And despite that criticism, I deeply value how I was raised and have great respect and affection for evangelicals who, on average, are diligently seeking God and care about the salvation of souls.)

The Holy Spirit's guiding me to Catholicism at that time was providentially what I needed at that time to retain my faith in God, but having now lived, studied, and prayed as a Catholic for twenty years as an adult (give or take a few months), the Holy Spirit has slowly, carefully, and patiently disabused me of my overweening value of the intellectual content of the Faith.

That is by no means to say that I no longer value it. Quite the contrary. I study as much now as ever. However, I have come to better appreciate the limits of that kind of knowledge and its relative importance in the life of faith for the believer. Perhaps my first memorable step in this journey was my first exposure to Eucharistic adoration. It was one of those things that made sense to me as valuable, intellectually, but until I experienced it first hand, I in no way appreciated the spiritual intimacy, the closeness to God, to which it can move the soul.

This was in the context of my formation as a lay Dominican, and while study is very much a pillar of our spiritual life, it is but one of three. Community, apostolate, and--especially--prayer are the other three. That formation has had a big impact on me. It was the cause of the first encounter with God in Eucharistic adoration I mention above. It also has, through our Rule, fostered for me a practice of daily prayer in the Divine Office and the Rosary, which prior to that I had little to no appreciation for (and even something of a distaste). In addition to that, my experience of community has greatly shaped me in very unexpected and decidedly non-intellectual ways. Last, but by no means least, the mission of the Order is the sanctification of our souls and the salvation of all. I have often been struck at how in that sense I have come full circle to my evangelical roots.

All of this, and also my study itself, in so many ways, has taught me that having a very learned, expansive, and even correct and meticulously orthodox understanding of the doctrine of the Church--considered in itself alone--is of shockingly little value. I have also learned (or re-learned, rather) just how limited we are in our intellectual capability vis-à-vis the mysteries of the Faith and how easily our fallen nature, along with a host of other factors outside of our control, can impair the individual's understanding of the objective truths of the Faith. Truly we do see darkly in this life, as The Apostle, noted! (1 Cor 13:12)

And it is not by accident that St. Paul made the observation regarding our limited grasp of the Truth in his chapter extolling the primacy and excellence of love. The contrast, and I dare say, primary point he was driving home is that if we try to exalt knowledge--even knowledge of holy things!--beyond measure, it is a recipe for disaster, one that could very well lead to the imperilment of our souls.

Subjective unity (that is, the realized, lived unity in this life in the Body of Christ) is not to be realized through attempting to discover a perfect understanding of the Faith, of God, and then attempting to insist that our brothers and sisters hold that precise same understanding. On the contrary, that recipe for unity has been shown to have failed spectacularly. Rather, unity is to be found in charity, in brotherly love. Once I came to began to understand that, I started seeing it everywhere in Scripture. I hope, God willing, that I can make a reasonably good study of it to highlight these. I suspect the scope of that would be a book length endeavor. We shall see.

In any event, while we surely must all strive to the very best of our ability to understand the Truth and then, once understanding it as best we can, adhere to it (Dignitatis Humanae, No. 2), we must also always and everywhere, in humility, acknowledge that we as individual persons have only a very partial grasp. Clothed in this humility, we are thus taught by humility to manifest the fruit of the Spirit towards each other in all sincere love--to be patient, to bear all things, to always believe the best of others, to be kind and gentle, to be slow to anger and abounding in mercy.

This surely accords with St. James' insistence that our faith must be enlivened by works (Jas 2:14ff). He goes so far as to observe, "You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!" I can think of no more concise way to say that excelling knowledge of God (of the truths of the Faith) will get us nowhere towards God in itself. St. Paul gives St. James a good run for his money on that, though: "This 'knowledge' puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God." (1 Cor 8:1-3)

Dearest brothers and sisters in Christ, particularly those of us whom God has endowed with a particular talent for the intellectual pursuits and an eager hunger for knowledge, we do well to put this in its place. If we have to choose between study and prayer, we ought to choose prayer. If we have to choose between study and a demand on our time to act with charity towards another that draws us away from study, we have to choose the latter. We can surely come to God with the very most basic understanding of the Faith and essentially no study, as long as we respond in faith to the promptings of the Spirit and act to seek and love God. But we cannot come to God through study alone.

And when we begin to engage with others in dialogue to evangelize and to build each other up, we have to keep knowledge in its proper place. We should never imagine that our duty is to impart this or that doctrine of the Faith. Our duty, rather, is to bring that other person closer to God. This may happen through direct instruction in a truth of the Faith. It may happen through our holy example of life. It may happen through a corporal act of mercy. It may happen, simply, by our being present, by our listening, by our compassion and by our consoling them in a time of difficulty.

We must ever be sensitive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and that sensitivity is cultivated from a fervent, regular, life of prayer, of seeking to come close to God for his own sake. At best, our study plays a supporting role in this. It can go before and clear the way, preparing our minds and hearts. Or sometimes, it can come after as a confirmation of what the Spirit has shown us. It is a helper towards greater union with God; it is not an end in itself.

If we lose sight of this, we can know by our falling into bitterness, defensiveness, and tit for tat point scoring in debates with others. We can know we are failing when we resent those who believe differently from us, or even when we resent those who attack us or lash out at God, the Church, or the Faith. We can know we are failing when we have anger and bitterness in our hearts towards those we feel misrepresent the Faith. We can know we are failing when we treat others in our minds, words, and actions as loathsome enemies rather than fellow sojourners who need our and God's help. We can know we are failing when we readily (and often angrily) dismiss them, when we eagerly denounce them and enjoy when others do so. We can know we are failing when we cannot patiently listen but rather stop our ears and angrily protest. Again, St. James makes things strikingly clear: "the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God." (Jas 1:20)

Our intellect, in itself, does not profit us. Without our volition--our choosing to love--and rooting our intellection in compassionate love, humility, mercy, patience, peace, gentleness, meekness, kindness, and joy, we are nothing but dry bones and a clanging gong. If our intellection does not lead to volition that produces the fruit of the Spirit, instead of our assiduous study leading us to God, it will lead us and others away from Him.