Many people write about the spiritual life, ascesis and such. I’ve noticed lots of people seem to live off a regular diet of books and other media on such topics. I am not one of them. People across traditions seem to have a genuine desire to advance in morality and character development. I am certainly not opposed to doing so. Though, very often the role of books and by extension, the role of the intellect is rarely discussed or rarely framed in a positive way. What I offer below though is largely my own experience on the matter.
For people who know me personally, it will not come as a shock to them to hear me say that I am not a very “spiritual” person. Saccharine devotional material is a big turn off. Partly because I can’t take it seriously. My philosophical disposition is to try to see things as they are, rather than as I want them to be and then, work from that point. People often use saccharine language to project emotion rather than reflect the way things are, usually for less than beneficial ends. They do so, because like music, rhetoric simply bypasses the mind and hence evaluation. It is one reason why grifters and confidence men utilize saccharine language and smile inordinately. If your favorite teacher gal or guy smiles a lot, that is probably a bad sign. On top that, my life experience teaches me that the world just isn’t that sweet. There are many good things on this planet, but there is no shortage of evil. To cite Captain Billy Cutshaw, “I believe in the Devil because the prick keeps doing commercials!”
I also have a low tolerance for nonsense. If it is stupid, it probably isn’t holy or conducive to holiness. Usually a way to get people to engage their minds and evaluate statements and claims made is to attach a monetary figure to the claim. Would you pay for that? Would you invest in that? How much? I hate to be Debbie Downer, but usually at that point people see that clichés and rhetoric used to move people to devotion or to endorse someone or something are just nonsense. If grace doesn’t obliterate nature, then it would be wise not to neglect the good sense God gave you and exercise some discernment.
As to what usually gets chalked up to being “spiritual” I don’t measure up very well. I don’t pray as often as I should or as well as I should. I don’t attend every single weekday liturgy and even if I do or did, I am not always disposed as I should be. I pray with my family on a regular basis. If I am lucky and some priest is unlucky, I go to confession a couple of times a year. In this, I am an ordinary person. I do not do as I ought, but as I am able, and even then. So, if you are looking for a life fulfillment guru, sorry, I am not your guy.
But on to books and such. Very often I hear the statement that you can’t learn Orthodoxy from books and by extension acquire the spiritual life through books. There is a sense in which this is true. You can’t know in terms of knowledge by acquaintance what a tomato tastes like from reading about it. You might learn some things from reading about it based on your experiential knowledge of other terms, but that just moves the question back to knowing by acquaintance what those other terms pick out experientially. To put the matter in terms of Philosophy of Mind, you can’t know the qualia or what it is like-ness of Orthodoxy and the spiritual life from reading books.
To add another layer, experience of persons transcends experience of things or “stuffs.” Experiencing the tangy acidic flavor of a tomato is one thing, but an encounter with a persons is quite another. And this is because persons are not “stuffs” or objects or at least not in the way that other things are. To wax (anti-)Hellenistic, persons are not substances and so are not reducible to explanation via substantial existence. This is perhaps why there are no laws in the discipline of Psychology by which one can in principle predict and explain without remainder how a person will behave. The existential is not the essential. Encountering divine persons doesn’t fit into comic book boxes pre-drawn for them.
In this way Orthodoxy and the spiritual life has an apophatic element to them. They are not analyzable in terms of other things or more rightly said, God and the experience of God is not analyzable in terms of anything else. And this is as it should be given that God is sui generis. All of that said, Orthodoxy and the spiritual life have a robust cataphatic element to them. And this means there is a great deal about Orthodoxy and the spiritual life that you can learn from books. In fact, you can acquire a fair number of virtues from the reading of books, if you do it well.
Unfortunately, it seems quite popular for people to look on social media for answers to complicated theological, philosophical and historical matters, including the spiritual life. While some of what I write below is in part due to a generational difference, I think the point still sticks. The first is the matter of reliability. In intellectual matters, if the person lacks the proper training, you aren’t likely to receive a good answer. This does not imply that a lack of education implies that the answer will not be good, but all other things being equal, it does imply that the source is most likely not going to be reliable, where reliability means, correct more often than not or somewhere significantly above fifty percent of the time. The same is true in matters spiritual. If you are reading a text by someone without the proper training and experience, in addition to not having been tested and then recognized by the Church as such, then the chances you are going to receive something truly beneficial goes down quite a bit.
Even if someone finds a good answer on some social media platform, this I think is the wrong approach. It supports an orientation that sees learning as a matter of information acquisition rather than understanding. Learning through books has a substantial advantage over such an orientation. Books are slow going. They require you to patiently assemble a picture or framework for understanding. At the end of a good book that seeks to explain something and to teach, you derive from it not only a wider picture, but an understanding of a given matter relative to all its working parts, so to speak. And you acquire other skills along the way from a good teacher. You just can’t get that from a social media comment or even a ten-minute video. Even longer social media presentations tend to lack this feature because books are usually a synthesis of dozens of streams of information that require not only a slow building of a case or model but likewise require a slow acquisition of the material that fosters understanding and an understanding that is therefore more stable and fixed. By repeating this process a person becomes more fixed and settled over time.
To show my generational cards for a moment, neither before or after the advent of social media did I or do I look for answers to questions or problems on them. I would go and spend some time in the university stacks, hours on end, sometimes over a number of days. You never know what you will find. Unexpected gems and jewels await discovery. Electronic resources such as journal databases are fine to use, but they are simply a means to an end. This does not imply that doing so is full proof in terms of receiving correct answers, but it is more reliable than throwing out a question in some forum on social media. If you want to learn and grow, then don’t use social media to find answers to theological and spiritual matters.
You should make an effort to read books that are difficult for you to understand. If you do not understand every word or argument in the book, that is a good sign. It means you have room to grow, not just in expanding vocabulary, reading comprehension but also understanding. But there are also other reasons. Forcing yourself to read books difficult for you forces you to learn new terms as well as how to reason better. It also improves precision and clarity of thought. Here learning a little bit of logic goes a long way, both in clearing your mind of nonsense, but also in learning to figure out what are good books and what are bad books, and why they are so. If you are going to find the good and the true, you are going to need a way to ferret out bad reasoning from good. So in addition, I’d spend some time and money learning some basic propositional logic and informal fallacies. A week or two of reading in this area will pay dividends your whole life long.
As the cliché goes about giving a man a fish and teaching a man to fish, much the same is true with books and the spiritual life. Much of the literature on the market is introductory or at an introductory level. There is nothing wrong with introductory texts. They are supposed to be a bridge to something better. But what introductory means at least is that the text is written at a 6th to 9th grade reading level. If you restrict yourself to a 6th to 9th grade reading level, I am pretty sure you are not going to mature much. I am also quite sure that you will never be in a position to understand serious matters or understand them clearly. What this means is that popular figures continually write books at that level in part to maximize their audience and sales. So, if you are enamored with Pastor Radio Guy or Fr. Flapadoodle Podcasts it’s a pretty safe bet that you are consuming material constructed to keep you at that same level indefinitely. That is the main way to ensure consistent cashflow and brand loyalty. This is why in apologetics, few and far between are the figures that point you to more sophisticated and difficult works or teach you how to find answers for yourself. The products are designed to keep you dependent. If you never learn to fish, you are always dependent on the fish market. And as far as the few of the elect who have ever been fishing with me know, I’ll teach you to fish, but after that, you’re on your own. I’m not here to babysit you.
A good teacher by contrast works to make himself obsolete. When I taught philosophy, my goal was not to get my students to agree with my take on this or that issue, argument or figure. It was one reason why I never told my students what I believed. My goal was to get students to a point where they knew how to find the truth out about something. If I did my job, then if they want the truth, then they will know how to find it. The same is true with writing here and elsewhere. I try to point the way or sometimes to point to critical issues. What I am not going to do is dumb everything down for someone and write a thirty-page paper for them, precisely because they are too lazy to look for the truth themselves. This is especially true in western societies where they have subsidized education, libraries and other resources at their disposal. Often people who hit me up want a yes or no type answer. They really don’t want to know but rather to make themselves feel better or rather have the sense of stability without doing any of the work to really have it. That kind of disposition is a sign of immaturity usually and such persons usually subsist off intellectual and spiritual junk food. Besides, I would not be really helping them if I did. This is why I often simply point people to books, which is my way of saying, “Go learn!” In the end, no one can tell you about the Matrix, you have to see it for yourself.
The time it takes to digest a book is important and conducive to a good spiritual disposition. Because books take longer to work through and digest, this helps foster the disposition to be patient, not unlike fishing. The answers do not all come at once, quickly or easily. This is important in philosophy as well as in theology and the spiritual life. Sometimes it takes many years or decades to find the answers you are looking for or need. In my own experience many of the most important solutions to problems took decades and this includes solutions to personal problems as well. I recall one undergraduate student who told me that he had spent a “long time” thinking about the problem of evil and decided that God didn’t exist. I asked him how long is a “long time.” He replied that he thought about it very hard for about three days. I could not help from laughing. I told him that I had had gas last longer than that. In belief selection and evaluation, you need to learn to take your time. And you need to develop a degree of tenacity. To put the matter a different way, when academics give a paper at a colloquia, when they get nailed with objections, they do not simply give up their position. They go back and rework their argument, over and over again, over many years. It always amazes me that people change their worldview so easily and quickly. If you read good books on a regular basis, you gain the experience and the disposition of being tenacious. If you are giving up your entire worldview just because you can’t answer an objection right now, well, then you not only have probably made a serious mistake somewhere, but your belief acquisition procedures need some serious work. How you come to the beliefs you do matters as much as the beliefs you end up with.
Contrary to the popular cliché, I very often judge a book by its cover. I look at who published the work. Is it by a responsible publisher, that is one that has serious standards relative to the quality of work it publishes? For academics this means your shelf is filled with books by Oxford, MIT, Cambridge, Rowman and Littlefield, Blackwell, Brill, Klewer, Peters and so forth. This does not imply that sometimes smaller publishers can’t produce quality work, but more often than not, if the work is self-published or by some no-name type outfit, there is a reason for it and that reason should probably lead you to ignore it. Besides, you only have so much time and money. Better to use it on works that are more likely to help you learn and grow than not or worse.
Often the complaint is that such books cost more. I am acutely aware of this. But better books cost more and if you want to learn, you are going to have to pay for that labor and quality. Not always, but by and large, you get what you pay for. Besides, if you keep yourself at an introductory level, you can spend the same amount of money reading ten introductory works when you could have just read one advanced text, and learned more and acquired more virtues along the way.
Probably one of the first things I do when I acquire a new book is to take a highlighter and go through the bibliography. I learn how the author is going to build his case. I see the sources he is going to use to do so. It is also quite handy to see what is going on at a given point in time in the literature. The literature on any given issue is quite vast. For my masters thesis, I read 97 articles and 17 books and that was on just one problem over a thirty five year period. And the professional literature in given area is a growing heep. It never stops. So, what looking at the bibliography can do for you in terms of virtue is give you a sense of how vast the matter is and that should instill in you a sense of humility. It is very difficult to come up with something genuinely new so your thoughts on a given matter usually aren’t anywhere near as insightful as you’d like to think they are. Congratulations. You have figured out that you’re not the most clever or intelligent person in the world on this or any other topic. Not even close.
Moreover, it should also aid in the production of the virtue of prudence and restraint. Reading books, or at least good books should help produce in you a decent amount of restraint in terms of theological and ecclesial matters as well in the spiritual life, that is in terms of how you interact with others, choices you make on a daily basis and so on. You may not know all of the factors that are at play in a given issue or a given situation. Often it is best to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and dispel all doubt. Or if you are going to contribute to discussion or some situation, you do so with caveats. And that is after you have done your homework. Restraint can be acquired through books in terms of restricting fixed judgments to issues or matters where you have a considered judgement on the matter.
By considered judgment I mean to pick out the idea or perhaps disposition where one has read all of the primary sources on the matter and much of the secondary literature. Then you are in a position to weigh and assess the arguments, how best to interpret facts and such. Doing so gives you a more stable and fixed disposition. You are less likely to change your mind because it is less likely that some new piece of information will disturb or move you. Reading a good amount of good literature in an area helps to keep you from making rash decisions about your entire worldview. And that kind of stability is not only good for you, but good for those around you. Besides, if you are going to last as a Christian, stability is a good quality to possess.
Reading good books then can help bring about a state of apatheia from which the English term apathetic is derived. While the English term has a negative connotation, the Greek, at least philosophically among the Stoics and in many patristic figures, has a positive connotation. That is, apatheia is a desirable goal. To be in a state of apatheia is to be unmoved, principally by things beyond your control or rather to limit your reactions to things you can control. It is one reason I do not engage in debates about the latest ecclesial matters of what the bishop of Rumpteefoo has been doing. Such matters are not up to me to decide and there is really nothing I can do other than pray for the best in such matters. What is more, reading history teaches me that such matters are not new and will get resolved. Me fretting about it on social media isn’t going do a damned thing about it. Such things are usually a distraction from what you should be doing anyway.
From time to time I believe it is important to read books you do not agree with. In philosophy, you pretty much do this all the time. But for non-philosophers I believe the practice is important. Partly because it forces you to be fair minded. It should force you to evaluate a position offered on its own merits, that is the arguments put forward for it, rather than if you dislike it or if it agrees with what you already believe or not. The relevant virtue here is that in being fair-minded, if you still land on your Christian feet, then you can have more confidence that you believe because its true and there are good reasons for thinking so and not simply because you want it to be so. This practice helps to lessen confirmation bias.
Another added benefit of doing so is that it forces you to be dispassionate in your evaluations of positions. If you learn to focus on the arguments for a position and to evaluate its merits, you learn to scrape away all the unnecessary rhetoric and to see a position for what it is, for good or for ill. Being dispassionate frees you from getting unnecessarily angry about someone disagreeing or for some similar reason because you learn to focus on the argument. Being dispassionate also helps you to communicate with other people more effectively. You can just focus on the argument for a given position and help them to focus on it too without being inflammatory or pejorative. After all, if your goal is to persuade them of the truth of your position, you certainly aren’t going to do that by utilizing inflammatory rhetoric. All that will accomplish is to make them angry.
You also learn to be critical in your reading and thinking about other issues. By critical I do not mean here critical in a Marxist sense or in the sense of being negative. Rather I mean it in the sense of evaluating the reasons for beliefs. For example, very often village atheists are emotionally disposed in such a way that they are so busy arguing against what they do not want to believe that they ignore evaluating the reasons and problems of their own view. Demonstrating the falsity of theism doesn’t get them out of the problem of evil, provide a justification for a realist view of science or a rational basis for thinking ethical value exists. In some ways people in such positions confuse being skeptical with being critical and the two are very different things.
It should be clear by now I hope that reading good books has an ascetical element to it. It forces you to reign in your own biases as well as emotional dispositions and so possess and exercise prudence and restraint. It forces you, if used properly, to be fair minded, which carries with it an element of self-denial. It helps habituate you in a disposition of being not easily moved from settled positions which benefits both you and those around you. It inculcates in you a sense of caution, particularly around major areas of ecclesial teaching. If you don’t know, then it is best not to say, lest you lead someone else astray and for that you will be responsible to the Judge. Since everyone learns, there is no shame in confessing ignorance. All of these and other benefits help foster a spiritual disposition of sobriety.
By sobriety I do not mean lacking in the effects of alcoholic beverages but rather a state of self-discipline with an orientation towards interior and exterior discernment. Sobriety is a substantial goal of the spiritual life. Like all virtues, it requires both actual practice and the engagement of our intellect. It cannot be attained any other way. This in part is what separates values from virtues. The former are nice but provide no real power to actually carry out the good act, which is in part why so many people are helpless when sin presents itself or difficult times come upon them. Virtues on the other hand are a kind of skill, guided by reason and attained by habit such that when you possess them, you have the power to do the good thing for the right reasons, on the right occasion and in the right way.
The life of the intellect is no less important to advancement in the spiritual life, that is, the life in Christ. That is for the simple reason that reason and the intellect are creations of God and proper to human nature and are necessary constituents of virtues. This does not, of course imply that reason is unfettered or doesn’t have a limit. It certainly does, which is in part the point of apophatic theology. But the fact that reason has a limit also does not imply that it is worthless and is to be dismissed. Rather like all human faculties, the individual person requires training in the proper use of their intellect.
This is why casual dismissals of the life of the intellect and reason that I sometimes hear are so disconcerting. Christ himself in his humanity had a human intellect and used the human power of reason. And the apostles themselves in scripture engaged in no shortage of logical argumentation if one has the eyes to see it. Salvation does not consist in becoming dumber or a metaphysical phlebotomy. To disdain the life of the mind under the guise of genuine spirituality is to lead people into a form of spiritual Apollinarianism and that will set people up for all manner of abuse. This is why when I sometimes hear people talk about “rationalism” I cringe. Rationalism is a specific thesis, and really isn’t applicable to, well, most positions, including the majority of the Latin scholastics (Aquinas for example is certainly not a rationalist.) If being spiritual means rejecting reason, then Christianity will obviously be false for reasons provided above. Being stupid isn’t deep or profound. And adding Orthodox terminology to evangelical fideism and anti-intellectualism is also stupid.
Along similar lines, sometimes I see people adopting a very rigid intellectual disposition where this means that everything is simple and carved out by the Fathers, which usually just cashes out to their malformed understanding of the matter. Then it comes down to a matter of personal loyalty where if you don’t agree with this person’s understanding, which is usually uninformed or not well formed, then off with your head. There are certainly times when it is important to be intransigent, but generally speaking this is indicative of other serious defects. Rigidity is not of itself a sign of fidelity to Christ and church. Usually it is a sign of someone who thinks they should be in charge but for whatever reason can’t be or isn’t.
I hope this proves beneficial for you and provides you a path on your way.