On intellectual faiths


I’m about to write a sentence that might offend some of you. I know it may do so because when I realized what I believed I became offended. I spent a long time trying to find another way to express myself but couldn’t think of something better. So here it goes: Hinduism is not an intellectual religion.

Note that I didn’t say Hindus aren’t intellectual. That statement would be nonsense. Rather Hinduism, at least how I practiced it, does not involve much intellectual understanding and analysis.

Consider topics in Bible studies I’ve attended: How can we trust the Gospel accounts? Which parts of the Bible should be read as poetry and which parts as history? How should we consider Paul’s audiences when we read his letters? How do you effectively translate from Greek and Hebrew to English?

These studies were not at theology schools or seminary, but at ordinary, run-of-the-mill churches with ordinary, run-of-the-mill parishioners. They were not PhD students. And yet, almost every week we used academic tools like textual and documentary analysis, historical evidence, and linguistics. Serious Christians routinely engage in such intellectual tasks. They believe that Christians must study the Bible, and not only try to live out its message.

Growing up I don’t remember ever studying the Mahabharata in that way. In my various youth groups we spent time learning the stories. But I don’t remember anyone asking how we knew they were true or even if they were true. We definitely did not try to understand their historical context. We rarely engaged in intellectual tasks.

Two weeks ago I visited my family outside Philadelphia and went to the local Hindu temple with my mom. While there we participated in a Hindu prayer ritual known as a pooja. The picture above is not a bad representation. There’s a priest sitting with the participants around some ceremonial objects. During the pooja, the priest will instruct: put flowers onto the idol, throw rice into the fire, repeat these Sanskrit words, and so on.

As I think about all the poojas I’ve done, I realize that not once did I ever understand why I was doing those things. I knew the ultimate purpose of the pooja: to bless our new house, to bid me good luck before college, to ensure success on my new job. But I didn’t know how the specifics of the pooja helped achieve those goals. I’m fairly certain no one in attendance did either. We all just listened to the priest, and it didn’t occur to me to think about it too much. Understanding simply wasn’t that important. Following the rituals is what mattered.

In this way, Hinduism reminds me of the Jewish ceremonial laws outlined in Numbers, Leviticus and Deuteronomy in the Old Testament. These detailed laws described every aspect of religious offerings, and the ancient Jews had to follow them. The difference, however, is that Hindu rituals aren’t neatly captured in one place. And I at least don’t know of any experts who have analyzed these traditions and placed them in their historical context, as some have for Christianity.

As I said, I initially felt a bit guilty when I realized that Hinduism is not an intellectual religion. But I no longer do so. The notion that intellectual understanding should underlie our faith is merely a Judeo-Christian bias. Sometimes ritual is good enough.


  1. I think it might be appropriate to consider whether you are really describing differences in how the average practitioner of each religious faith practices it rather than differences in how you practice each religious faith.

    And it’s possible that an implication of your post – that Christians must intellectually analyze the Bible in order to be serious about their faith – has greater potential for offense.

  2. Yeah, let me help. I am not a member of the Hindu faith and cannot speak for any practitioner. As an amateur studier of religion, I can say that just as most religions have forms of fundamentalism (Christianity and Islam and Judaism receiving the most media coverage but it also exists in Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.), most have scholarship and scholars. So there are groups, university centres, temples, NGO institutions that practice scholarship in Christian studies and others that practice scholarship in Hindu studies. It exists in both.

    What you describe seems to be a question of whether that scholarship expands to the level of the practitioner. In Christianity, a few of the major forces contributing to lay scholarship are mass literacy (compared to literacy before the printing press), the passage of time (the further we are from certain events, the more we need to understand what was happening in such a different context), the rise of the Enlightenment (now we have a very different dominant understanding of Truth that did not exist in dominant form before the scientific era), and secularization which I believe is a natural outpouring or growth or related phenomenon to the Enlightenment.

    Of the many factors, literacy is a huge one. Before it, reading the Bible was only in the hands of a few. Once that spread to masses, people could read on their own. This naturally opened the door to increased interpretations and the need to learn how to understand what I am reading (especially when it is from a context about which I know very little).

    Additionally, I can say that some of the questions lay people ask about the Bible were never really asked before the Enlightenment in a large way. One reason is that literary or narrative understandings dominated much more in the history of humanity leading up to Enlightenment. Today, with scientific contradictions to certain interpretations of certain passages and rising secularism, there are so many attacks on the religion from both inside and outside it, that scholarship (both for and against various aspects of Christianity) have had to keep up.

    The tough part about what you are saying is that it MIGHT presume other types of Christian practice disappeared or have gone away since then. This is not true. I’m in a book study about emerging trends in Christianity. Emergent Christianity doesn’t only include social justice and contextual reinterpretations which the book focuses on, but they also include reversions back to ancient practices like “new” monasticism. There are huge experiential parts of Christianity, and to be honest, this is the BIGGEST part of the faith for me (not the intellectual part, though I still enjoy having that nourished and appreciate not having to leave my brain behind). I am part of many experiential practice groups and take part in practices like compline services, taize prayer, meditative prayer, contemplative prayer, centering prayer, body prayer, writing/journaling prayer, drumming prayer (will do for the first time next month), musical prayer, silent prayer, lectio divina, imago divina, etc.

    Added to that, there are parts of mainstream Christianity, such as charismatic and pentecostal churches that are highly experiential. In many evangelical Christian churches, the musical worship part is highly experiential.

    Lastly, beyond experiential and intellectual practices of Christianity, you have the mystical practice of Christianity. All religions I have studied have some mystical forms or mystics whether Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. There is a long tradition of Christian mystics, in general. And there is a thought that Christianity is a mystical religion. Donald Miller, a Christian author, considers Christianity so, and so do I. There are mystical elements to it and sometimes if you grow up in it, that mysticism becomes passe or banal. You become accustomed to it. But when you talk about it with someone who is not a part of that religion, you are confronted with some of its weirder or mystical elements.

    Not everyone has mystical practices in some sense. You can find some in pentecostal and charismatic churches that focus on the Holy Spirit and some in Catholicism. And many of the monastic practices are considered mystical by some, depending on your experience in them. Some of the tenants (like resurrection) are considered mystical by many. Some of the promises are mystical. Some consider practices like the eucharist (communion) mystical especially if you do it as more than a memorial (i.e., consubstantiation or transubstantiation).

    All of that to say, there are experiential and mystical elements to Christianity as well as intellectual elements. In fact I would say when reading Jesus in the gospels it is primarily an experiential religion. However, our culture, today is vastly different, and Bible studies reveal little of the experiential part, if any at all.

    1. Wow. Thanks for this great comment. Left me a lot to think about. I hear what you’re saying….that the experiential part of Christianity may have become minimized over the years. Let me reflect on this some more.

  3. Your post rings true to me. But I must admit, as Victor touched on, that the main reason I am able to engage my faith on an intellectual level is because I live in a rich, fully developed modern democracy. In most past centuries I probably would not have learned enough or had access to enough sources to do so. And so for most Christians in past centuries, Christianity may not have been any more of an intellectual religion than any other.

    Of course there has always been high-level scholarship in the Church, it just didn’t start filtering down to the masses until relatively recently in its history.

    I can’t say whether Hinduism has had as much of an intellectual tradition, that is, a theological and philosophical scholarly tradition, as Christianity over the past couple millennia, notwithstanding that it may not have been accessible to the masses. Has it?

  4. Let me respond with some ideas and understandings of my own. What I write here may also be offensive to some people: Christianity is not an intellectual religion. Let me justify what I wrote by defining what Christianity is at its core. Foundational to Christianity are three relationships. Christians are children of God the Father, brothers and sisters of God the Son (Jesus Christ), and live in a close relationship with the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit.

    These three relationships are generated in three different ways. Christians are children of God because it is the purpose of God that we be so. We come to our relationship with Jesus Christ through faith that he is the Son of God. This faith comes to us as a gift of God (“lest anyone should boast”) and is to be that of a little child according to one teaching of Jesus. The Holy Spirit is a “wind” that blows where it will. We don’t “know” it. It comes to us.

    So far I have described all that is necessary for a person to be a Christian. You have noted, no doubt, that I have not written anything about any kind of intellectual effort or qualifications or a whole lot of other things. How could it be otherwise if Christianity is to be available to all who will receive it—and Jesus said it would be.

    It sounds like that when you attended those Bible studies you were like a person coming into the middle of a movie. In other words, you did not have the background the others had and did not have an intense interest in the Bible as did the others. I am not surprised there are people who say Christians must study the Bible. After all there are Christians, many prominent, who tell Christians they must do all sorts of things. The list is too long for me to even start on it. However, the actual list of obligations is very short—and very difficult: love God and love everybody else.

    One reason Christianity tends toward being an intellectual religion among traditional believers, such as your Bible study groups, is that it has been under assault by secular intellectuals for a several centuries. It is not surprising that faithful Christians feel a need to study the basics of their beliefs.

    Contrary to your statement that “ritual is good enough,” there are many parts of life that require we act wisely and with accurate knowledge of what we are and how we function. The Bible is the best, although a very complex, presentation of that information.

    1. Walt:

      It has been under assault by intellectuals for a couple of millennia, which is why it became an intellectual religion from the outset. There was a need to defend it against intellectual assaults from the very beginning.

      That being said, I agree that it need not be an intellectual religion for every believer. The basics are sufficient for many people, but as you note, in modern times a lot of Christians feel called to learn to defend their faith intellectually against secular attacks.

      1. I stand corrected. I suppose we can say that apologetic-type defenses began with Paul. In fact, I was hoping to suggest to Praj that he go back to the “original sources,” the books of the New Testament, as all good researchers are supposed to do. We live in a world where opinions are as common as blades of grass and of about the same value. I am afraid that until he has the basics trying to sort through the various versions of Christianity on his own would not be helpful.

        1. Well, in fairness to Praj, he’s mainly trying to show us what he knows of his own religion, and doing that partly by contrasting it with what he has observed of others.

      1. Somewhere in this discussion I think I saw the expression “rituals/duties.” As you are probably aware there is a wide range of variation in Christian understandings of these things. Is it the same in Hinduism? The other thing I wanted to bring up about these variations is that their existence must show that they are not central to Christian belief. Although I have to admit there are some Christians that think unless you do them right you are not a true child of God. Is there a similar situation in Hinduism?

        1. Sorry: don’t know how I missed this. Yes, I am very aware that there is a wide variation in Christian understandings of these things. I think in Hinduism there are more geographic regional differences. As in southern India celebrates certain rituals more than Northern India. But in both cases, it seems ritual is very, very important.

  5. For what it’s worth, I came across the following and was reminded of this post:

    ‘Plato famously distinguished three parts of the soul — the rational part, the spirited part, and the appetitive part. You might say that Christianity, with its highly complex system of theological doctrine and otherworldly ethos, appeals most strongly to the rational part of the soul. [Secular] [l]iberalism, which promises material security and license, appeals most strongly to the appetitive part of the soul. And Islam most appeals to the middle part of the soul, the spirited part — the part moved by anger at perceived injustice, by honor and shame, by the martial virtues, by command and submission rather than endless talk and theological hair-splitting. It is best understood as a streamlined variation on Christianity, a kind of “Christianity lite,” and in particular a Christianity tailor-made for the man of action.’

    It’s from a post titled ‘Liberalism and Islam’ on Edward Feser’s blog.

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