Intellectual Light
by Catherine Madsen

The relation between religion and intellectual life in this country is, outside the academy, tenuous at best. Religion cannot seem to manage to communicate itself through its own educational channels with any depth before the college level; we get it, if we get it at all, from the people close to us and from our own reading. Intellectual life before the college level must try to develop its roots in an educational system that isolates children from public responsibility and adult friendships, abandons them to a peer class system so rigidly self-enforcing that the only way out may seem to be death, and shames the bookish for their presumption even as it rewards them for their achievement. The only connection between religion and education that occurs to most people is prayer in the schools, or moral exhortation against drug use and sexual activity.

But religion and intellect are birthrights: we grow them like limbs. "Thinking, analyzing, inventing are not anomalous acts," said Jorge Luis Borges, "they are the normal respiration of the intelligence." There would be no academies if we had not, to begin with, had minds -- if Socrates had had no group of curious disciples, if people were not only educable but capable of generating new knowledge, if children did not invent for themselves in secrecy and in all seriousness the philosophical questions and mathematical principles and artistic methods on which adults spend their lives. There would be far less for the academy to do if there were not a category of intellectual life that exists primarily outside it -- in the normal respiration of the builder's, the poet's, the inventor's, the mother's intelligence, which works for its own understanding and to save lives. Respiration, of course, is spiritual -- kol haneshamah tehallel Yah, let all that has breath praise the Lord -- and nothing we do with full energy is unconnected to religion. In one sense, our first religion is simply being alive and not dead; the rest is commentary (politics, music, medicine, theology, art). In that sense intellect and religion are like our two legs, our two lungs, the two hemispheres of our brain: cooperative, mutually necessary, each drastically affected by the loss or wounding of the other.

Among my recent adventures on the margins of the academy, I taught freshman English for seven years at two community colleges. I encountered a hidden intellectual life of astonishing intensity among some of the students -- not, as a rule, shared among them, because each one had discovered it in secrecy and often in extreme emotional pain, but genuine and profound. There was the ex-Marine and ex-alcoholic, pegged as stupid in his early years because he could not learn to spell, who wrote a prose as spare and elegant as Yeats's and had no idea that he was doing anything admirable; the Vietnam veteran -- and ex-alcoholic -- who had been running with a gang by the age of thirteen, and at the same time reading Malory; the impatient, businesslike receptionist who only wanted to know how to write reports but after reading Canetti's aphorisms began writing with a sinewy lyricism; the flawless-complected blonde of twenty-four who had been a model since she was twelve, had lived in a series of bad relationships with men, wanted (when her modeling career was washed up, as it soon would be) to become a psychologist and not a dancer in a strip joint, and whose thoughts were barely coherent yet urgent and thick on the page. These people were unlikely ever to become academics; all of them had seen too much to take entirely seriously the careful dispassionate search for evidence and cautious application of theory that constitutes graduate study, and all of them would have been happy simply to earn a good living (which graduate study in any case can no longer guarantee). They also had little use for anything they recognized as religion, the "spirituality" of twelve-step groups having shown them more clearly and generously than their experience of churches the relation between cause and effect. But their normal respiration -- which had persisted against the suffocating negligence of our culture and against their own shame -- would not let them waste themselves.

These students were absorbed in what Dorothea Brooke, in George Eliot's Middlemarch, calls "finding out their religion." It is an operation more delicate than the academy, with its disciplinary boundaries and focus on critical method, is well equipped to teach. "Please not to call it by any name," says the self-effacing Dorothea when praised for her philosophy of life. "You will say it is Persian, or something else geographical. It is my life." She would never have survived the academy, in which slowly precipitating philosophies of life are kicked apart by warring schools of thought, and the normal respiration of the intelligence is schooled in a laborious pranayama of intellectual method. The academic can quite easily believe (as many do today) that all value is assigned by a calculating elite: she lives in a world where canons are made and broken by the tenured generation, for reasons that combine weighty moral considerations with fashion and petulance. The young scholar with a career to make knows perfectly well that value is a purely political question. But one who is "finding out her religion" -- whether in or out of the academy -- knows something else, something both more isolating and more exhilarating: that she and everyone, no matter where on the spectrum of class and privilege, is already in a position to assign value. She is not a subordinate. She is a mind in search of other minds, and proceeds by a kind of radar that senses -- sometimes in the very midst of polemic -- another mind searching. Her work is not the reproduction but the recognition of knowledge. She learns to tease out, with a subtlety often impossible to the methodologically trained, what can and cannot be trusted in a writer's voice. Where the academic is trained to sniff out ulterior motives, she waits for the break in the voice where ulterior motives fail -- where the polemicist becomes an awed child or the scholar a mourner: that is the point of contact. Academics will say it is insufficiently suspicious, or something else hermeneutical. It is her life.

Institutions are burdened by the need to perpetuate themselves, and cannot perhaps take note of these subtleties as they should. They are inclined to look at every potential recruit as first of all a warm body, and only then as a conscience. Joseph Wright, the Yorkshire millworker who taught himself to read at fifteen, at twenty sent himself to Heidelberg University for a term on his savings, became interested there in old European languages and managed to take a doctorate, and finally became an Oxford philologist, once said to a pupil, "What do you take Oxford for, lad?" "A university, a place of learning," the pupil replied. "Nay, lad, it's a factory! And what's it making? I'll tell you. It's making fees." Religion, at worst, is a factory that makes memberships: pays its clergy, maintains its buildings, juggles its definitions to ensure the greatest number of congregants. Certainly institutions are useful: just as the academy may be the only place to find other people who are interested in old languages (till it replaces the retiring philologist with five freshman English instructors), the church or the synagogue may be the only place to find other people who will sing to God along with you. But institutions are ancillary. They may become mere attempts to professionalize and reproduce what cannot even be satisfactorily regulated. At best they provide a green place where the air is good for our respiration; at worst they try to meter the air supply.

This effort to function as intellectual or spiritual utilities is the very thing that can render institutions less and less useful. They transmit knowledge in controlled increments, carefully checking to see that nothing more gets in by accident, a process that only works with students (or laity) who are not fundamentally interested enough to notice that there is air all around them and it cannot be metered. The method is finally inhibiting: the learner may acquire a good grasp of the increments but will never acquire her own authority unless she breaks with the instructional process. She always needs permission to think the next thought. People who think without permission may appear to academics -- as mystics do to clergy -- as intolerably sure of themselves: their self-trust is still intact. They have nothing to trust but themselves, but they do trust themselves: like a mother compared to a social worker, they are in possession of intimate knowledge. Knowledge at its best is not transmitted in increments, but comes whole into the mind, and must then be filled in, thickened in density, to achieve its potential: it is not like a wall built of separate stones but like a child's body, feeding. Knowledge is carnal. It is metabolized, not acquired; perhaps at that level it is not even "constructed."

There was another community college student -- this one from a middle-class family, a sort of latter-day hippie in his thirties who had wandered among social activists, lived on a Catholic Worker farm (he was Jewish), read everything he could get his hands on, and was taking my course because it was part of a learning community in ecology and writing. He was gentle and uncertain and an original thinker, with a cheerful animus against what he called "literalist bastards"; he was quite a good poet. One day in class I quoted Dante, ascending in paradise beyond matter into pure light: luce intellettual piena d'amore, intellectual light full of love. This student -- the most securely intellectual in the class -- put his head to one side and said with creaking incredulity, "Intellectual?" As if intellect were only the brittle up-to-dateness of those who speak the newest postmodernese, the glib posturing of overworked graduate students. As if it could have nothing to do with love.

An alliance between religion and intellectual life can mean any number of things, many of them unsavory: religion seeking a spurious respectability in the academy for matters of dogma; religion constraining the thoughts of the faculty at its own universities in the interest of orthodoxy; religion departments making war on their students' imaginations in the name of scholarly rigor -- or feeding on the agonies of Kafka or Simone Weil as matter for dissertations. What it means when it abandons ulterior motives is the bond between intellect and love: the recognition that mind and spirit are common human capacities, that they arise everywhere, and that they obligate us. Whatever far-reaching effects that alliance may have in public life, it begins in secret and at the point of absolute tenderness: not at the point where faith meets study, but at the point where the air meets the blood.

Copyright of Cross Currents is the property of Association for Religion & Intellectual Life and its content may not be copied without the copyright holder's express written permission except for the print or download capabilities of the retrieval software used for access. This content is intended solely for the use of the individual user. Source: Cross Currents, Fall 1999, Vol. 49 Issue 3.