Spirituality and Intelligence Are Not Opposites

It’s not my fault that I often end up saying, “The whole system is broken.” It takes a cracked man to know a cracked time, and I was born in the correct season.

One such fissure in what, at some time in the distant past when dinosaurs weren’t sexist and the President was literally just dead, was once a seamlessly beautiful reality, is the dumb spiritualism dominant in some aspects of society.

First, they say, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” which gets my teeth grinding. Then they may start on crystals, or speaking about “the universe,” and I really must step outside for air. Then they salt their soggy philosophical egg with a dash of Judaism, and speak of their prophecies from G-d, their run-ins with Him every time they pray, the angels hiding under every rock, beneath every sandal, in the folds of every tichel.

I’m not saying any of this is false, of course. I’m not in a position to do so. What I am saying is that it’s not necessary. The need for our rainbow-festooned contemporary spirituality derives from the same dualism that has probably taken many lives, the bifurcation between the material and the immaterial in modern thought.

It goes like this: Matter is real; it fits into the equations; I can even find equations that describe the matter of a human brain and what it does when it prays; perhaps a human being is just matter; perhaps understanding matter and its motions is all there is, “at the bottom of things,” to understand. This is one perspective, and even if it is not often stated nor technically pervasive, it draws a certain type of mind toward it, and colors many a thought among the masses.

The reaction to this abhorrent thought is to correctly note it is abhorrent. A human being is merely matter? Everything, all wisdom, is merely the wisdom of things? How low a view of the universe is it possible to have? And yet, this is taken for true wisdom. “Skeptics” sound smart on YouTube, denounce anyone who disagrees as an irrational anti-science wisp of hookah smoke.

What should the opponents of this lie do? They should fight it at an existential level. They should cry, “It’s not true! It is cruel reductionism, a morally bereft void of intellectual austerity, a pathetic clinging to a single method of understanding because it makes us feel powerful. It is a scientistic delusion; I am not merely matter; I am a human being!”

What they do instead is give up, because they have been given very poor philosophical tools in general and do not have to the time or the patience or the obsession to find the right words to counter the materialist hegemony (although if they stick around they might discover the wonderful (and strangely powerful) word, “hegemony”). They cede the ground of objective reality, the rational realm to which we all have access, and retreat into the only place left with any room for a human being – the irrational, the mysterious, the inexplicable.

The irony in this is that it’s only relatively recently that spiritual people and intellectual people have parted ways. Once upon a time, as is clear from any number of famous Jewish works such as the Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed, the spiritual and the intellectual were seen as identical.

After all, the entire way that a soul can know something outside of itself is utterly unlike anything else in nature; a soul can apprehend a blue whale, fit its form and its nature within an apparently miniscule space enclosed in bone and flesh. Then, we can look at multiple blue whales and test hypotheses about them in a process called inductive logic, which somehow veers away from the particular samples of our observation to grasp at broader principles. How there can be broader principles, that the whales are organized in some fashion beyond what we find in any individual creature, is certainly indicative of a spirit that tends away from particular corporeal limitations. The very process of making science itself is an immaterial, spiritual process, and an intellectual one.

Spirituality must be rescued from its modern guardians, and its guardians rescued from spirituality. Spirituality is the possession of every functioning human being on the planet, just like thinking. And it need not be exercised only in retreat from the unforgiving scientism popular among so many self-defined intellectuals.

The intellect, being immaterial, is spiritual, and the spiritual is a generalized or extended form of the intellectual. There is a reason, after all, why not only the philosophical works but even Chassidic discourses refer to angels as “abstract intellects.” The mind, and its apprehension of physical reality, is the foot of a mountain that extends to the heights of holiness. The mind grasps a whale, and then the unity between all whales, and then the concept of justice, and then a mathematical abstraction, and then a human soul, and then–

Someone might object that as one climbs this peak, one moves further away from the physical. To which the response must be: It is time to stop pretending the foothills are all that exist merely because the peak is sheathed in cloud. It is time to take a risk. The tablets are at the summit, and spirituality is not a retreat from objective. Spirituality is a necessary part of the objective. The sooner we insist on it and break down the false division between mind and spirit, the better.

Once we understand the unity of intellect and spirit, we can then move on to combining intellect with faith. Faith and intellect are, after all, merely two different soul faculties, pointed at the truth, and ultimately we may be expected to show that they are one.