The Intersection of Faith and Intellectualism

Since returning to Miami and seeing many of the folks back home, I started to think about the relationship between God, religion, and intellectualism.

I have been wondering about the fact that the majority of those who claim a faith (e.g. Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Sikhs, and so on) are mostly lay followers. By lay, I mean that many people of faith have not learned about God and their religion through books, but rather through word of mouth (i.e. families, school, friends). Oral knowledge falls under “conventional (or folk) wisdom” and is often undervalued. The reality, however, is that the majority of believers are not religious intellectuals*.  In this post, I refer to bookish scholars of any faith as “religious intellectuals” and the rest as “lay believers”.

I wonder how much we gain and lose spiritually with intellectualism. By intellectualism, I am referring to what we call “intellectual masturbation” in the academia (I think this phrase gets my point across the best). That is, an illogical and unhealthy obsession with arbitrary details and categories.

What I am noticing is that people (regardless of faith) who learn through oral tradition tend to show more wisdom and tolerance, while intellectuals tend to display arrogance and a sense of righteousness and entitlement.

This brings me to a concern about my generation and those of the future. Many of us today are doing things that previous generations could not do. Regular ol’ folks are reading information online, accessing scholarly books, and using technology to share knowledge about their individual faiths. Regular ol’ folks have access to a lot of information available through the internet and participating in the larger conversations (i.e. religious debates).

What are the benefits to quick and feasible accessibility to information in religion? Are there consequence in virtualizing the most personal part of our lives: our faith?  On the one hand, the access to and distribution of information widen our minds. On the other hand, getting lost in intellectualism can give us the false sense that the “smarter” we are, the better we are. When does theory take over practice and debilitate our connection with ourselves and God?

I have begun to believe that categories destroy most things; one of these things being human relationships. Categories forces us to focus on differences. I wonder about this a lot. How does my visibility (or invisibility) as a believing Muslim translate? How do I categorize myself as belonging to a particular faith without becoming part of the masses? Does this category (visibility) debilitate my ability to be seen as a Person? Does it define me in ways that I do not wish to be defined by others?

Two days ago, I was in the waiting room of a hospital. A middle-aged Cuban women sat next to me and began talking about her husband who was critically ill. Then, she began to talk about God. She was Catholic and assumed I was too. She talked about God in a natural and unpretentious way. I had begun to forget how simple it is to believe in God (regardless of religion). I had also begun to forget that God is simple despite the fact that we always try to attach human weaknesses to God (e.g. jealously, anger, fickleness, and so on). I feel that God is greater than our minds can imagine. I am wondering if intellectualism is what prevents so many people to continually bicker about “who” God is as if it is something at which we can arrive.

Can we arrive at our own sense of God through our particular faiths without discrediting valuable knowledge of other faiths? Can we work towards a common goal for humanity through categorizations? Do knowledge and faith depend on one another? Does religious intellectualism trap us in theory and make us impractical?

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