Saint Augustine opens his Confessions by asking whether we pray in order to know God or whether we must know God in order to pray. How could we pray to a God we don’t know? But how could we know God unless we’ve prayed?i
It’s a paradox.
The head and heart are mysteriously united—a hypostatic union that’s unclear where one begins and the other ends. Does your heart shape your thinking? Or, does your thinking shape your heart? Somehow they must work together. For example, I know that this pork sandwich isn’t doing my cholesterol any favors, but I have no heart to change this dirty habit. Neither gets the job done alone. Unfortunately, even if I had the knowledge and the will to change, I’d also need a pork eaters anonymous support group.
There’s a wedding between our heads and our hearts throughout Scripture. “What’s the greatest commandment?” the Pharisees asked Jesus. “Love God,” Jesus said. That’s not an original thought. Moses said this when he gave the word of God to the people: “Love God with all of your heart, soul, and strength.” Jesus quotes this verse to the Pharisees, but adds a fourth component to make sure we don’t constrain love: “Love God with all of your heart, soul, strength, and mind.” In other words, love with your whole person because otherwise love isn't possible.
Lent is notorious as the season where Christians try to redirect our hearts to God by not eating chocolate and drinking booze. The theory is that if you can find a way to fix the heart, then the rest will take care of itself. And most Lenten disciplines get there through the stomach. Sometimes this works. But faith isn’t just practiced; it’s also learned. It sounds obvious, but we meditate on Jesus to become more like Jesus. Turns out that we should also get to the heart by going through the head.
Historically, Lent was a time of catechesis to teach new converts the faith, which included spiritual discipline and theological formation. The early Christians fasted, but they also gathered under the instruction of their bishops and dwelled on the mystery of Christ’s two-natures, divine and human. Finally, these new Christians woke up as the sun rose on Easter morning and took off their clothes (how much more liberated can you get?) and their old lives to be drowned and raised with Christ--a death and resurrection of heads and hearts.
I should mention, by the way, that this is repentance. Repentance is a buzz word during Lent, as it should be, both slightly embarrassing and crucial to our faith. But if we reclaim the Greek ‘metanoia,’ we remember that repentance is a simple and practical word that means to ‘change your mind.’ Repentance means that we’ve been walking in the wrong direction, but then something changed our minds and we’ve decided to walk a new path. I’ve already repented of this essay a number of times—changed the direction, deleted great sentences, and started a new trail by putting one word in front of the other. We're all better for it.
How will you change your mind this Lent?
Today’s church has done a great job shaping hearts during Lent, but we’d do well to set aside time to love God with our minds. Most of us come to faith through words, many of them written down. My hunch is that many Christians are spiritual, but illiterate. Or, if we’re not illiterate, then we’re stuck in the same theologies we learned in Vacation Bible School. This is about as unhealthy as believing that food hasn’t progressed since the birth of McDonalds. We should always question our theological inheritance. I often hear parishioners boast that they’ve not read a book in thirty years and I learn something about our discipleship. In the Land of Oz, we'd be the scarecrows with hearts, but no brains.
Maybe we’re still retreating from the Enlightenment—afraid to ask difficult questions because they might destroy our finely sculpted piety. You mean to tell me that the earth is four and a half billion years old? Then again, maybe we’ve wrongly assumed that Christianity is absorbed via oxygen in our country. Conversely, it’s possible that the administration of good catechesis has declined because of the pitiful number of adult baptisms. There’s an even better chance that we’re just lazy followers of Jesus. And we’re failing to love God with our whole selves.
There’s a case to be made that we're all called to be life-long theologians, because we love God by thinking about God. Now, that doesn’t mean we’ll be paid for it, but that’s no excuse not tinker with new ideas (after all, most of us are not dentists and we still brush our teeth). Don't you long to know more about your beloved? I love my wife and kids with all my heart and so I hope to learn something new about them every day—still, the mystery has not been fully plumbed. When Socrates said, ‘The more I know, the more I realize I know nothing,’ he could have been talking about women. Or, children. And also, God.
God is greater than that which can be conceived. Whenever we say ‘God,’ we’ve already misspoken. And so we speak of God with great care, admitting that we’re just children scrambling for words and looking for better ones. It doesn’t matter how great our intelligence or I.Q, because we can love God with our minds and still not graduate from pre-k. After all, we have the hardest curriculum. Class is never dismissed. You have permission to monitor my continuing education allowance—if I’m not buying and reading new books, tell my bishop that I’m not following Jesus.
For example, the doctrine of the Trinity reminds us that we’d have a better chance of reaching the end of the universe than arriving at God. God is not like us. Rather, God is a mystery to be savored, not a question that can be answered. Those of us who worship God with the mind rise eternally ‘through ever higher regions towards the Transcendent.’ii
That’s beautiful. Wait, now my heart is kicking into gear.
Here’s the point: loving with our minds is not a means to an end. Nor, is it an academic pursuit or about getting the right definition of God. Rather, it’s about being pulled into God’s arms. Dwelling on what’s beautiful. Loving words because they deliver us to the feet of the eternal Word and then, unite us with God. Many days I learn something new and I don’t even have the opportunity to use it! That's ok. Loving with the mind is an end in itself—worship.
One last thing: the word Lent is partly derived from the Anglo Saxon word Lenten, which means ‘Spring,” but also forms the root for our word ‘lengthen.’ Lent begins when the days begin to lengthen and the darkness wanes. Coincidentally, Christians lengthen their spiritual lives by stretching their brains and stomachs. The sun casts light on a people who dwell in night—the darkness of the heart and mind.
I wonder how you will lengthen your mind. How would you describe the Apostle’s Creed? What makes a Methodist different than a Baptist (other than the amount of water used)? Here’s a list of great Lenten disciplines: read Scripture and tradition, listen to someone who believes differently, have lunch with a Muslim. These practices will challenge and deepen your own convictions. It will help to shape your heart—dreams, goals, purposes, and being. And in turn, you will have worshiped.
This Lent, I made a commitment to study Scripture and challenge myself with new thinkers. It’s an alternate means of repentance—an acknowledgement that I don’t have all the truth. I'm not God. By the end of the season, I hope I’ll have changed my mind. Walked a new path. I still won’t understand resurrection on Easter morning, but I’ll relish in the mystery with my head and heart.
Even better, I’ll have spent forty days loving God.
i. Augustine Confessions Book I.I
ii.Gregory of Nyssa Sermon 8; On the Song of Songs