Spiritual Know-How: A Reflection on Jeremy Taylor's Intelligentiae
Taylor, one of the Caroline Divines writing in the 17th Century, offers in his sermon, Intelligentiae, a deconstruction of the ills that often face the church when we ask the wrong questions. “Many of our controversies and peevish wrangling,” writes Taylor, “are kept up by the ill stating of the question.” Nevertheless, when we do eventually get the question right and everyone agrees that we’re addressing the same matter, Taylor reminds that it is then that the real war begins, as we assemble the troops and begin forging any necessary alliances to alienate the other.
Prescient of our modern “cancel culture,” Taylor, who is infinitely quotable—known as the Shakespeare of the Caroline Divines, says of those who preach tolerance of beliefs and call for an end to persecution that, “they preach toleration when themselves are under the rod, who when they got the rod into their own hands thought toleration itself to be intolerable. Thus do the papist, and thus the Calvinists: and for the cruelty they pretend charity…” They pull your arm out of joint, writes Taylor, presuming to help draw you out of the river.
Tolerance, says Taylor, is a better idea than it is a practice. There is a need at once for better disagreements and the humility that enables each party to gain understanding. What Taylor continually draws attention to is that the peace within and living at peace with others are inseparable. If we are not at peace within ourselves, as we work toward peace with others we will find ourselves seeking it by force. Likewise, if we seek peace within without living at peace with others we will only grow anxious. This is why Taylor suggests that theology is a divine life more than a divine knowledge. It is a know-how—a way of knowing. “In heaven indeed, we shall first see, and then love; but here on earth we must first love, and love will open our eyes as well as our hearts, and we shall then see and perceive and understand... Holiness,” says Taylor, “is the only way of truth and understanding.”
What we know is inseparable from how we learn it and why we are learning it. How I learn anything, in this regard, is expanded or limited by how my habits of life and purposes of learning pre-dispose me to relate to what I learn, as well as from whom or where I receive this knowledge. As St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1). Without love, knowledge, like everything else, becomes yet another weapon of war fueled by desires oriented to our own ends.
This is also why we should not be so surprised that those who daily seek to acquire the things of this world—those who, says Jesus, work for the food that perishes (John 6:27)—are averse to the common good. It doesn’t even mean that they are bad people. Most people are well-meaning. However, says Taylor, “A covetous man understands nothing to be good that is not profitable; and a voluptuous man likes your reasoning well enough if you discourse… of the pleasures of sense… the mirth and songs of merry company,” but do not speak of the cross, the content of resignation, the peace of meekness or of rest in God. “He knows not what you mean: either you must fit his humour, or change your discourse.” It is by such measures, writes Taylor, that many hear yet cannot understand.
So how are we to have conversations that matter without them degenerating into malicious disputes or our continually speaking past one another?
“Every man understands by his affections more than by his reason.” I suspect if Taylor were writing today, he would add that the affections are their own form of reasoning. By way of analogy, Taylor states that you cannot teach someone who is hungry without first giving them something to eat. Similarly, until our desires are aligned with the desire of God for us, our reasoning will remain governed by the affections.
“Whatever you put into a man it will smell of the vessel.” It is not enough to learn or acquire knowledge. It is, as Jesus says, akin to putting new wine into old wine skins (Matthew 9:17). The knowledge and the person are destroyed in the process. The goodness of virtue will wreak in a vessel of vice. A person must become fit for understanding before acquiring knowledge. Otherwise, the knowledge acquired will not lead to wisdom. It will only lead to division.
Cured of the affections of the world, however—having our desires oriented toward God in Christ, we are transformed by wisdom and grace, as what we learn becomes nourishment for others. The way of incarnate love—the practice of the virtues—is the form of reason that leads to wisdom—that leads to union with God. The virtues and practices of faith do not merely open us to see and hear God, or to see and hear others. The virtues and practices of faith are, in a manner, God speaking in the depths of the soul. The practice is the perceiving. Practices of love are not merely causal to the effect of right reason and understanding; they are right reason, they are the reasoning of wisdom.
What we understand is relative to how we understand. It is the form and pattern of our lives that opens or closes us to the reasoning of God. God speaks in the discipline of the heart—in the practice of the virtues. Or, rather, God speaks us into being through the virtues, as the Logos of God—Reason Incarnate—becomes the form and practice of our thinking. That is when our heart grows faster than our minds, so that what we learn fosters wisdom and not division; it nurtures life and becomes nourishment for the soul, and not just our own.