“Faith consists in believing when it is beyond the power of reason to believe.”
M. de Voltaire (1694-1778)
French Writer, Historian and Philosopher
In my mind, this quote is widely misunderstood and often used to portray reason as limiting, something we should abandon on our faith journey. As I read it, however, the quote is consistent with my belief that reason should be exhausted before we resort to faith.
Intellect and the Spiritual Search
In the mid-nineties, I started frequenting antique bookstores in search of intellectual texts on spirituality. It wasn’t hard. During the early part of the twentieth century and well into the sixties, well-educated people showed great interest in Eastern mysticism and approached the topic from an intellectual standpoint. Writers like Paul Brunton, Madame Blavatsky, Swami Vivekananda, Aldous Huxley, Krishnamurti and Christopher Isherwood used their higher-than-usual IQs to peer into the unknown.
Reaching Their Limits
Naturally, all of these writers reached their limits in one way or another, but the intellectual struggle with spiritual concepts seemed vital to their journey.
My problem was that the New Age was rampant in the 90s. Most of the people around me had fallen in love with the less rigorous chant of “let go of your mind and come to your senses,” but I saw great value in the intellectual pursuit, even though I was aware of its limits.
The Yoga of Intellect
In Gnana Yoga, I found refuge. Using the mind to transcend the mind was an appealing concept. I pictured the mind like a ladder, knowing I had to be willing to let go of the ladder when I reached my destination.
As I have documented well in this publication, my intellectual spiritual search—which I do not consider an oxymoron—led me to Ken Wilber’s integral model in the early 2000s. In Wilbers approach, the intellect is celebrated while also being put in its place. His concept of transcending and including allowed me to embrace a transrational approach to spirituality where the intellect is transcended and included.
Strong Anti-Intellectual Sentiments
Sadly, I find strong anti-intellectual sentiments in both religious and spiritual-but-not-religious circles. It seems like leaders in both have embraced either emotional or sensual approaches to spirituality (sometimes both) and left the intellect out in the cold.
From studying human psychology and yogic classifications, I understand that human beings have different tendencies when it comes to spirituality. I have no problem with emotional and sensual approaches. My problem is the anti-intellectual stance. Instead of saying that the intellectual approach is one of many, some have demonized the intellect to such a degree that those with intellectual tendencies either have to keep their mouth shut or leave the group they belong to.
There Are Also Anti-Spiritual Sentiments
Granted, many of the intellectual people I know also have anti-spiritual sentiments, and they think that I am a little crazy for being intellectual and spiritual at the same time. Some even say that I am fooling myself. But, as Voltaire’s quote surmises, the intellect has limits. What people do when they reach their limits is up to them. I have chosen to stay open to possibilities.
Going Beyond Reason
Exhausting the resources of reason is a difficult task. It is not for everyone. I have probably probed and examined more spiritual concepts in my lifetime than most. And I’ll admit, sometimes I’ve been frustrated with the intellect and wished to believe in the same way as those who have abandoned reason in the spiritual realm. But I cannot go against my instincts. I am prone to thinking deeply about things, asking difficult questions, and investigating before investing my time and energy in any spiritual endeavor. Before I can go beyond it, I must use reason.
That is what I think Voltaire meant when he wrote those words.
Faith is beyond reason, not without reason.
Author, Coach, and Mindfulness Teacher
- Monk of All Faiths: Inspired by The Prophet (fiction)
- Spiritual in My Own Way (memoir)
- Co-Human Harmony: Using Our Shared Humanity to Bridge Divides (nonfiction)
- Experifaith: At the Heart of Every Religion (nonfiction)
- Premature Holiness: Five Weeks at the Ashram (novel)
- The Meditating Psychiatrist Who Tried to Kill Himself (novel)
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