Chapter 2 – Examination of Intellect

WE have, I hope, disentangled the special function of the intellect in Religion; it is to explore Reality and make its home in it.  The object of this book is to suggest the way for those whose intellects have not till now done any serious exploring that the matters treated in this book cannot just be glanced over; they must be worked through.

The first thing necessary is to consider the intellect's equipment for an expedition so arduous. An intellect is not the property only of exceptionally gifted people, it is a piece of standard human equipment like a nose.  But the plain truth about most of us is that we have let our intellects sink into a condition in which they have neither the muscles nor the energy nor the right habits for the job, nor any effective inclination towards it.  

The first difficulty is that the intellect hates to function at all, at any rate beyond the point where functioning begins to require effort.  The result is that when any matter arises which is properly the job of the intellect, then either nothing gets done at all, or else the imagination leaps in and does it instead.  Nothing can be done with the intellect until imagination has been put firmly in its place, which is extraordinarily difficult.  One of the results of the Fall of Man is that imagination has got completely out of hand.

Consider what imagination is.  It is the power we have of making mental pictures of the material universe.  What our senses have experienced, can be reproduced by the imagination either as they originally came through our senses, or in any variety of new combinations.  A moment's reflection upon what life would be like if we lacked this power will show how valuable a part the imagination has to play; but it is a subordinate part and entirely limited to the world of matter.  What the senses cannot experience, the imagination cannot make pictures of.

But in the state in which we now are, this picture making power seems able to out shout almost every other power we have. It is a commonplace that it can storm the will with material temptations.  But our concern is not with the ill effect of imagination upon the will, but upon the intellect.

Often, we engage in abstract thought and at the end of an hour realize that for the last fifty-nine minutes we have been watching imagination's pictures flash across the mind.  Yet, there are much worse ways in which imagination hinders the functioning of intellect. There are two other ways of interference, because we do not suspect their danger or even their existence, and because they operate most powerfully in the field of religion.

The first of these is that the imagination acts as a censor upon what the intellect shall accept.  Tell a man, for instance, that his soul has no shape or size or color or weight, and the chances are that he will retort that such a thing is inconceivable.  If we reply that it is not inconceivable but only unimaginable, he will consider that we have conceded his case - and will proceed to use the word unimaginable with the same happy finality as the word inconceivable.  For indeed in the usage of our day, the two words have become interchangeable.  That they are thus interchangeable is a measure of the decay of thinking, and to sort them out and see them as distinct is an essential first step in the mind's movement towards health.

First, we must distinguish spirit from matter, and this distinction is vital at every point of our inquiry. SPIRIT, we say, IS THE BEING THAT KNOWS & LOVES; and this is a positive statement of its activity, what it does.  But we can say something also of its nature, what it is.  Briefly, spirit is the being which has its own nature so firmly in its grasp that it can never become some other thing. Any material thing is in the constant peril of becoming something else: wood is burnt and becomes ash, oxygen meets hydrogen and becomes water, hay is eaten and becomes cow.  In short, any material thing is what it is at any given moment, but precariously.  A spiritual thing is what it is, but tenaciously. The reason is bound up with a truth we have already mentioned, that material things have constituent parts, and spiritual things have not.  Because material things have parts, molecules and such, these parts can be separated from one another and made to enter into new alliances. But a spirit has no parts: therefore, it cannot be taken apart.  It can exist only as a whole.  God might annihilate it, but while it exists, it can only be what it is: it can never be anything else.  

Another is that parts can occupy space - space indeed may be thought of as the arrangement matter makes to spread its parts in.  It is from the occupation of space that those properties flow which affect the senses.  That is why matter does affect them.  That is why spirit does not.

We may now return to the distinction between UNIMAGINABLE and INCONCEIVABLE.  To say that something is unimaginable is merely to say that the imagination cannot make a picture of it.  Pictures are only of the material world, and to that imagination is limited.  Naturally imagination cannot form mental pictures of spiritual realities, because none of our senses could experience them. Spirit is beyond the reach of all the senses (and so of imagination) because it lacks all material qualities. You can see a just man or an unjust man, but justice itself you cannot see with your eyes.

Thus, the reality of any spiritual statement must be tested by the INTELLECT, not by the imagination.  The intellect's word of rejection is "INCONCEIVABLE".  This means that the statement proffered to the intellect contains a contradiction within itself, so that no concept can be formed embodying the statement.  A four-sided triangle, for instance, is in this sense inconceivable. The less instructed atheist will ask whether God can make a weight so heavy that He cannot lift it, in the happy belief that, whichever answer we give, we shall admit that there is something God cannot do.  But the question is literally meaningless: a weight that an omnipotent Being cannot lift is as complete a contradiction in terms as a four-sided triangle. They are inconceivable, they are nothing; and nothing - to give a slightly different emphasis to Scripture - is impossible to God.

Thus, the first test of any statement concerning spiritual reality is not can imagination form a mental picture of it, but does it stand up to the examination of the intellect, do the terms of it contradict each other, is it conceivable or inconceivable?  Imagination can say nothing about it either way.

It must leave it alone, which the imagination hates to do. The other way in which imagination hinders intellect without our perceiving it, is if concepts are beyond its reach, imagination acts as censor and simply throws them out: while the intellect, concurs in a rejection as it saves so much trouble.  Faith binds the Catholic to accept many truths altogether beyond imagination's reach, and will not allow imagination to reject them.  While imagination cannot forbid intellect to accept them: it offers to help intellect to accept them.  It comes along with all sorts of mental pictures, comparisons from the material world.  Thus, for the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity imagination offers the picture of a shamrock, or a triangle, or three drops of water poured together to form one drop.

Now there is in fact a definite role for such analogies as these in religion.  God's dealings with men may often be seen more clearly by some comparison drawn from the material universe because both men and the material universe are creatures of the same God. But useful as such comparisons may be as illustrations of God's dealings with men, they shed no light whatever upon the innermost being of God in Himself. They prevent the doctrine from being a difficulty; but they do it by substituting something else for the doctrine. Certainly, it prevents the truth about God from being a danger to our faith; but in the same act, it prevents the truth about God from being a light to our minds.

If we are to get anywhere in that grasp of reality, which is the purpose of this book, the intellect must learn to do its own job.  It will be rigorous and exacting work for the intellect, but there is no advance in theology without it, nor indeed any real mental maturity (and mental maturity is worth having).  Thinking is very hard and imagining is very easy and we are very lazy, using imagination as a crutch, and our intellects have almost lost the habit of walking.  They must learn to walk, and this must mean great pain for muscles so long unused.  It is worth all the pain: not only for the intellect but for the imagination too.  Once the intellect is doing its own work properly, it can use the imagination most fruitfully; and the imagination will find new joy in the service of a vital intellect.


So far, we have been considering the limitation of the mind's power that results from bad habits.  But there is a vastly more important limitation, which arises from the nature of the mind itself.  Bad habits or good habits, our minds remain finite, and so can never wholly contain the Infinite.  This is the fact about us, which accounts for the existence of what we call Mysteries in religion. But a Mystery is not something that we can know nothing about: it is only something that the mind cannot WHOLLY know. A Mystery in short is an invitation to the mind.  For it means that there is an inexhaustible well of Truth from which the mind may drink and drink again in the certainty that the well will never run dry, that there will always be water for the mind's thirst.

As we examine the Mysteries of religion, we discover that the practical result of this effort of the finite to know the Infinite is that any given Mystery resolves itself (for our minds, of course, not in its own reality) into two truths which we cannot see how to reconcile. Thus, in the Mystery of the Blessed Trinity, we cannot see how God can be Three if He is infinitely One; in the Doctrine of the Incarnation, we cannot see how Christ can be wholly God and at the same time wholly man; in the mystery of our own will, we do not see how its freedom can be reconciled with God's omniscience; and so with all the other Mysteries of religion.

Left to ourselves, we should almost certainly say that there is a conflict, and therefore that both cannot be true; and even if under pressure we reluctantly admit that we cannot absolutely prove that there is contradiction, or exclude the possibility that there might be reconciliation at some point beyond our gaze, yet the point of reconciliation is beyond our gaze; and what lies within our gaze seems forever irreconcilable. But when God reveals such doctrines, the Christian will not reject them: yet he still has to decide what to do about them in his own mind. One possibility for him is to make a large act of Faith, accept them, and think no more about them.  Thus, he is not troubled by any apparent contradiction, nor illumined by the doctrine's truth.  It simply lies in the mind, and he is no worse for it and no better for it.  He has a shadowy feeling that if he looked at the doctrine very closely, it might be something of a trial to his faith.  But he does not look at it very closely or really look at it at all.  This degree of intellectual unconcern makes for a quiet life, but not for any growth in the knowledge of God.

If the mind does do something with the mysterious truths God has revealed, it usually deals with the two elements whose reconciliation it cannot see in one of three ways.  The first way is to select one of the component truths, make that the vital one, and simply accept the other half, but without adverting to it very much.  Thus, for example, in the doctrine of the Trinity one might devote the whole force of the mind to the Three Persons, and leave the question of how Three Persons can be one God in the back of the mind; or one might concentrate upon the oneness of God and leave the threefold personality largely as a form of words whose meaning we shall discover in the next life. Although, as the mind tries to master a doctrine, it distinguishes the doctrine into two elements, in the living reality they are not two elements but one; and the light received from that element is not as bright as it might be, for want of the other.

Yet even at that, this first way is immeasurably better than the second - which consists in accepting both elements, but shading them down to look like each other, thus getting no light from either.  As applied to the Incarnation, this involves accepting both the divinity and the humanity of our Lord, but making the divinity too human and the humanity too divine.

The third way is to accept both elements, and accept them both at white heat without bothering too much about whether one can see the reconciliation.  The mind loses no integrity by this, since it is already certain on other grounds of the truth of each element separately.  Therefore, in accepting and devoting itself with all its power to each, it is acting rightly.  And the result justifies the method.  For although we still cannot actually see the reconciliation, yet some mysterious reconciliation is in fact effected within us.  We begin, as I have said, with a steady concentration upon each of the two elements, and a moment comes when we realize that we are living mentally in the presence not of two truths but of one.  We still could not say how both can be true at once, yet we truly experience them so.

There is a profound reason for this.  It is involved in the kind of beings that we are.  It is part of a larger truth about our whole experience of life.  All life is a tension of apparent opposites.  Life abides and life advances by a sort of counter pull - what I have called a tension - between forces that seem to be the negation of each other.  Thus, our life is conditioned by death: the animal dies and man eats it and lives; man dies to himself in order to live to God, and living to God finds himself too.  Again, our freedom is made perfect by obedience.  And no one of them is accidental or incidental.  Our life is truly seen as a tension of opposites because we ourselves are a tension of opposites.  We ourselves, like all created things, exist because omnipotence made something of nothing.  We are best expressed as nothingness worked upon by omnipotence, the two most ultimate of all opposites.  Because that is what we are, that is how we act.

That is why we tend to see the truths about God in the way I have described, as the union of two apparent opposites.  We cannot see the reconciliation because we cannot see the union of the two opposites within ourselves.  But although we cannot see it, we do experience it.  Consider one example.  There is a rule of life, attributed to St. Augustine and to almost all the reasonably articulate saints since his day. In its traditional form it runs: "Pray as if everything depended on God; work as if everything depended upon you."  Here, in action, is that wholehearted acceptance of two opposites which somehow fuses into one continuing act of successful living.


That there should be Mystery in our knowledge of God, and that this should show itself to us as truths about God, each of which we know to be true while yet we cannot see how to reconcile them, is plain common sense. Many Christians who are theoretically aware of all this are yet completely shattered in their faith the first time their attention is drawn to one of these apparent contradictions. He knows that there are truths about God that he cannot reconcile; he knows that if he could totally comprehend God, then God would have to be no larger than his own mind, and so not large at all; he knows that the very fact that there is a God requires that there should be elements we cannot reconcile; yet the moment he meets two such elements he is driven to wonder whether there can be a God after all.

But, this logical monstrosity apart, there is something marvelously inviting to the mind in an infinite being of whom we can know something, but whom we cannot wholly know. Thus, a Mystery is not to be thought of as simply darkness: it is a tiny circle of light surrounded by darkness.  It is for us so to use our own powers and God's grace that the circle of light will grow.  It means using the mind upon what reality may be made to tell us about God, and upon what God, through His Church, has told us about Himself; it means praying for more knowledge, and using the knowledge one gains to enrich one's prayer. Thus, the circle of light grows; but it is always ringed round with darkness: for however our capacity may increase, it remains finite, and God remains infinite.  Indeed, the more the light grows, the more we realize what His Infinity means, what His Immensity is.   

The circle of light grows as the mind acts upon God and is acted upon by God.  The mind sees certain problems, and advances in their solution.  Quite literally, it questions God, begging Him for more light.  Pushing back the darkness does of course increase the extent of our light.  But there is a question not only of the extent of light but of intensity. The way of life for the mind is to live in the light and revel in the light, and grow in the light in all tranquility.


In all tranquility, I say, but with immeasurable labor.  That is another of those opposites whose tension makes our life.  There is, as I have said earlier, real pain for the mind as it brings its almost atrophied muscles into action without the comforting crutch of imagination.  This gets a little easier as the habit grows.  Slowly the mind grows out of its reliance upon the images that had stultified it.  But this cleansing of the intellect is not a thing that can ever be done once and for all in this life.  Imagination is forever creeping up on us, betraying us without our knowing it. The mind can do that too and most of our minds have been doing it.  Even after they have been converted to better ways, they still long for their old sins, very much as Saint Augustine did.  Certainly, the battle gets easier as one goes on.  The intellect begins to develop its muscles, and begins even to enjoy using them.  But imagination is always lurking in the background: the intellect is still, unknown to itself, affected in its own proper processes by images it had rejected and even forgotten.  "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance."  That applies to all freedom, including the freedom of the intellect to do its own laborious housework.

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