Scholarship and Devotion: Can They Co-Exist?

Prof. Keith Ward

Can a scholar be a true believer? Can a believer be a good scholar? Two parts of a problem that has exercised many in the West since at least the Enlightenment. Prof. Keith Ward, Regius Professor Emeritus of Divinity at the University of Oxford, takes a fresh look at the conundrum by examining some of the main problems and outlining a few principles that may help modern-day devotee-scholars.

Religion calls for total commitment and faith. Scholarship calls for critical reasoning and a questioning of all presuppositions. How then can religious devotion and academic scholarship live together, even in the same person?

It may seem impossible. There are those who say that simple faith is enough, and scholarship is a distraction from a life of devotion. There are others who say that the study of religions requires a lack of commitment, so that you can be dispassionate and detached about whatever findings you come up with. Are devotees who become scholars thus doomed to religious schizophrenia, with two halves of their minds, the committed and the sceptical, condemned never to meet?

Must critical reasoning lead to scepticism?

I have taught philosophy in British and American universities for forty years, and I have been a Christian devotee for thirty of them, and I have to say that it has sometimes felt that way. It is easy to be sceptical about other people’s faiths, but it is quite hard to be sceptical about your own. Anyway, why should you be sceptical? Can you not have a form of education that is purely affirming, and supports your faith?

In tackling questions like this, it must first be asked whether the use of critical reason is bound to lead to scepticism. It does not do so in physics, and that might be a good place to start thinking about the problem.

Learning the fundamentals

In physics, it would be totally false to say that everyone is encouraged from the start to criticise everything they hear. No, Newton’s laws are just true, and if any first year student tried to criticise them they would be thrown out of the class. The laws have been confirmed by thousands of observations and experiments and never disconfirmed (at least at speeds much less than the speed of light, and at magnitudes much greater than that of atoms). They are the basis of modern science, and students just have to learn them.

That is perhaps the first important point to make. Before you can criticise anything, you must have a great deal of correct information. If you are looking at physics, you need to learn the laws and equations of the great physicists, to know how to apply them and what they do and do not say. So, if you are looking at religion, you need to know what devotees believe, what significance those beliefs have for their lives, and what they do and do not imply about the world.

At this stage there is no threat to religious belief. Unfortunately, teachers of religion are sometimes so ill-informed that misleading information is given, and a great deal of prejudice can be conveyed. It is possible but quite difficult for someone who does not believe in rebirth to give a sensitive account of that doctrine. All too often over-simple accounts are given, and the teacher does not have the information or experience to know when the doctrine is much more sophisticated than the simple versions that are often found.

Skilful means’

This suggests a second point, that the information given must be suited to the intelligence or insight of the student, it must be at an appropriate level of sophistication, and the teacher must be able to identify the points at which it is being simplified to suit its audience, and at which more subtle doctrines exist that cannot as yet be meaningfully conveyed.

Again there is a parallel in physics, where quantum theory would never be taught to schoolchildren, yet teachers should be able to convey that it does exist, so that things are not as simple as the way they are forced to put them in primary school. Buddhists often apply the principle of ‘skilful means’, which says that you teach in a way that is best calculated to give an appropriate level of insight to the pupils. It is not that something is being concealed. It is just that some things can be beyond the understanding of pupils, and it is important to know just where simplifications are being made, even though what is being said is appropriate at a certain level of knowledge. As a matter of fact, when I just remarked that Newton’s laws were true, I was doing just that!

One of the main problems with religious education is that this principle of skilful means is not properly conveyed, so people with very simple understandings of religious doctrines wrongly think that what they believe is the absolute truth. This is where one problem between scholars and devotees can arise. Many devotees have no inclination or ability to engage in abstract thought about religious doctrines. They want to be wholly devoted to their Lord, without understanding abstruse points about rebirth or the nature of the self.

Of course they are absolutely right in saying that there is no IQ test for the attainment of liberation. For most faiths, liberation is by faith and moral commitment, not by the ability to pass an examination in theology. Yet it would be quite wrong to say that there are no intellectual truths in religion, or that it does not matter if nobody understands them.

All devotees depend on the insight of the primary gurus and teachers of their paths. They do not discover all spiritual truths for themselves, or ever attain to complete wisdom and understanding. Gurus have not obtained their qualifications by passing examinations in theology. But then they do not need to. They have immediate insight and transcendent wisdom, and know things by personal apprehension that devotees can only learn from them and dimly understand.

In physics, truths are discovered by observation and experiment. The physicist learns to observe closely and with discrimination, and to set up experiments that will disclose aspects of nature that are not always apparent in everyday life. In religion, truths are discovered by experience and practical experiments in living. Spiritual teachers have the ability to experience spiritual reality and to discriminate between reality and illusion. They live in ways that explore deep and intense relationships to the Spirit, ways of meditation and prayer, and in that way they apprehend aspects of spiritual life that are not apparent in everyday life.

Pointing to the real purpose of religion

There are similarities between ways of discovering truths in physics and in religion, but there is one major difference. Physicists are not inwardly changed by their discoveries, and they deal with objects in a publicly observable world. Religious teachers, however, are transformed by their experiences of Spirit, and they are raised to higher levels of existence by their relation to a reality that is most real but difficult to find.

Scholarship will not raise anyone to such levels of wisdom and sanctity. But what it can do is to raise our understanding of spiritual truths, which will always be inadequate, slightly higher. So a third principle of religious scholarship, in addition to receiving correct information about religious beliefs, and realising the points at which such information is inadequate to full understanding, is that it should point to the source of such information in the authoritative teaching of the founders of the tradition, and be concerned to understand that teaching as a source of personal insight and development. There should, in other words, be sensitivity to the real purpose of religion, which is the transformation of individual life by growth in knowledge of the Supreme Lord, or of that which is of ultimate reality and value. Any religious education that lacks that element is like a course in music that fails to get anyone to appreciate the beauty of music. Perhaps some courses in the study of religion are like that. But there is no reason why scholarship should lead to indifference. Scholars of music should love and appreciate music even more than other people, and if they do not, something has gone wrong.

So religious scholarship should teach us more about our religious beliefs; it should teach us humility as we see the inadequacy of our intellects before the mysteries of the spiritual realm, and it should increase our love and appreciation for the teachings we embrace and for the teacher from whom they come. Religious scholarship is only for those who have the inclination and ability to pursue it. But for them it can be a religious duty.

Three challenges

It sounds as if the problem of being a scholar and a devotee has faded away. But things are not that easy! The sixteenth century in Europe saw the birth of three major cultural forces that raised the problem in a very pointed way. First, the rise of the natural sciences introduced new standards of precision in the observation of the natural world, and aimed to bring all phenomena under absolute and apparently inflexible laws of nature. Second, the rise of critical history introduced a stress on careful scrutiny of the evidence for all assertions about the past, and scepticism about the accuracy of ancient historical records. Third, an insistence that all traditional moral rules should stand before the bar of reason, and justify themselves in terms of human flourishing, threw doubt on many traditional moral attitudes that were often associated with religious traditions.

I will consider each of these in turn, and examine the problems they raise for religious believers. In each case, those problems threaten any easy relationship between critical scholarship and religious commitment, and it is not easy to find a way of enabling scholarship and devotion to live together.

The whole truth?

Over the past three hundred years or so, scientific knowledge has transformed our world. Modern medicine, computers, aircraft and electricity have all changed the world to an immense extent. Science works. It has given rise to a view of the universe that is often presented something like this: the universe originated with a Big Bang about fourteen thousand million years ago. By a long process of cosmic evolution, organic life, in the form of bacteria, formed on earth about four thousand million years ago, and human beings evolved from them a few million years ago. In about five thousand million years the sun will expand as it dies, and the earth will be swallowed up in fire. Eventually the whole physical universe will die, as the second law of thermodynamics inexorably takes effect. Between the birth and death of the universe, all things proceed in accordance with a few simple and elegant laws of nature, and human beings are complex physical organisms that are, like everything else, products of these laws, and not separate spiritual souls. All that we are and love—beauty, morality, thought, and friendship—is part of a long impersonal and purposeless interplay of blind unconscious atoms, and will eventually subside into the chaos from which it originated, leaving no physical trace.

This view clearly conflicts with most religious beliefs and their account of the history of the universe and the place of humans within it. Particular points of conflict lie in the question of whether human life has developed by random mutation from purely physical causes, whether human souls are more than physical entities, whether miracles or spiritual causes for physical events exist, and whether human life in the universe has any significance.

There is one basic conflict underlying all of these questions, and that is whether science allows any reality other than the physical to exist and to play a causal role in the way things happen. As a matter of fact the natural sciences do not have much, if anything, to say on this issue. It is important to distinguish what is established in the sciences by observation and experiment from philosophical views that may be suggested by the sciences, but are not themselves scientific—like the one just presented.

Some religious views deny that the evolution of life on earth happened at all. That is a major conflict, and such believers will have to hold that many of the conclusions of modern science are mistaken. This, however, is not such a major problem as it may at first seem. All scientific theories are provisional. They are based on the best evidence available, but they do not claim absolute finality. Newton’s laws came to be supplemented by Einstein’s theory of relativity, and modern quantum theory may yet be replaced by some theory that manages to unite relativity and quantum theories more coherently. The theory of evolution is accepted by the vast majority of scientists as the best available explanation of the diversity of life on earth, and as a very satisfactory way of accounting for all sorts of observed data (like the existence of fossils). But it could be wrong. What those who disagree with it can do is just what Isaac Newton did, and say ‘I frame no hypotheses’. In his case, he discovered the inverse square law of gravity, but could not accept what gravity seemed to imply, that there was action at a distance. His law worked, but he just had no theory about how it worked. So a biologist could accept all testable predictions and repeatable observations in biology, but simply frame no hypotheses about how organisms developed long before any observations could be made and tested. Such a biologist could simply remain agnostic about that, preferring to wait for further evidence to come in, and proceed quite happily with observable and testable facts in biology.

Despite this fact, most religious believers, like people in general, feel that though the theory of evolution is provisional, there is enough cumulative evidence for it to be accepted as a well established scientific theory. In that case, some amendments will have to be made to some traditional religious views. In the Christian case, the Biblical account of creation in six days will have to be interpreted as metaphorical and poetic, not as literally true. And some Christian doctrines will need to be reformulated in this new scientific context. Indian religious traditions can do much the same thing. This is not too big a step, for everyone agrees that there is a great deal of poetry and metaphor in ancient religious traditions anyway. All that is needed is to distinguish accounts of the origin and nature of the physical world, which now becomes the province of natural science, from accounts of spiritual truth, which is the real business of religion. It is sometimes quite difficult to say exactly where this line should be drawn. But many religious believers (the Roman Catholic Church, for example) agree that religion has to accept the best findings of science on matters of physical fact.

At the same time, religion has the right to insist on the reality of the spiritual and its influence on the physical world. So believers should reject any claims that there is no purpose in the universe, that everything happens by blind chance, or that physical laws of nature explain absolutely everything that happens. These claims do not properly belong to science. They are forms of a highly dubious philosophy, the philosophy of materialism.

Since science deals only with the material, it is not surprising that it does not mention any spiritual factors—they lie outside the province of science. But it does not follow that the spiritual does not exist, and it may seem very improbable that only science can give the truth about the universe. If there are spiritual truths about the universe, they will not be discovered by science, but by spiritual insight. So there is much room for debate about just what the relation between the spiritual and the physical is. Science cannot dogmatically discount the spiritual, but there are many problems about how science and the spiritual relate to one another. Where is the spirit at work in evolution? And how does the spiritual influence the physical?

These problems, like the problem of how exactly the physical brain relates to human consciousness, may not be solvable with our present knowledge. They may not be solvable by humans at all. So, while the devotee who studies science will come across many materialist viewpoints, those viewpoints can be readily distinguished from the actual experimental findings of science. There is no necessity for the believer to be able to resolve all the puzzles of spirit-matter relationships in order to continue believing. But it is a good thing to admit that they are puzzles. Believers do not have all the answers, any more than scientists do. Both religious believers and scientists need to cultivate humility, try to see the limits of their expertise, and accept that many intellectual problems have no solution in the present state of knowledge.

Buddhists see presently insoluble problems of a theoretical sort as ‘unprofitable questions’. It does not matter to your spiritual life whether the universe began or did not begin, whether human life evolved or did not evolve. Profitable questions are questions that have consequences for the attainment of the spiritual goal—a goal of inner peace, equanimity, non-attachment, freedom from hatred, greed and delusion, and devotion to a supreme Lord or a supreme good. If you thought that science showed there was no supreme Lord (because everything is physical), or that you could never achieve liberation from illusion (because there are no spiritual states), then there would be a major conflict between science and spiritual life. But these are just the things science cannot show. Therefore the very real problems of mind-matter interaction and of purpose in evolution are ‘unprofitable’ from a spiritual point of view.

That does not mean you should not try to tackle them. If you have the inclination and ability, you should try to tackle them. The attempt to do so may bring new insights and help others who are troubled by these sorts of problems. But it does mean that not everybody need concern themselves with such problems, that we should not be discouraged if we cannot solve them, and that it is reasonable to have faith that there is a solution, even if it is not known to us.

The reason why at least some devotees should study science is that it increases human understanding of the world. Truth is indivisible, and any study that leads to a greater understanding of truth is a proper spiritual pursuit for those whose vocation it is. There is no conflict between the findings of natural science and spiritual truth, as long as you approach both with a certain humility, and bear in mind the proper subject matter of science—understanding the nature of the physical world and its laws—and of spirituality—seeking a transforming relationship with a supreme spiritual reality. Devotees who are scientific scholars will have a keener eye than most for what is really established by scientific evidence, for the point at which supposedly neutral theories are sometimes affected by assumptions, religious or anti-religious, that are not strictly scientific, and for the limitations of human rationality and knowledge. They will also see the scientific exploration of the universe as part of seeing more clearly the glory and wisdom of the Supreme Source of all reality. The believer will often need patience, humility, and faith—patience to put up with unsolved, yet spiritually unprofitable, puzzles; humility to accept the provisionality of human knowledge; and faith to trust, on non-scientific grounds, in the supreme spiritual ground of all being.

History or mythology?

The problems involved in being a devotee and a scientist do not seem too severe after all. Things get more difficult, however, when devotees get involved in the critical study of history. This is the area where sacred texts are viewed with the same critical questions about authorship, accuracy, and reliability as any other historical document. And it is where the wide range of human beliefs throughout history and throughout the whole planet becomes vividly apparent. If your own sacred texts are treated by a historian just like any one else’s sacred texts, you are liable to find much of them regarded as myth or legend, as exaggeration or fabrication. And if your present beliefs are shown to be just a small part of a whole range of the constantly changing religious beliefs of humanity, most of which make the same claims to revealed status as yours, you may have difficulty in maintaining the unique and absolute truth of your beliefs. This is the area in which Christians have encountered most difficulties in the last one hundred and fifty years or so. Those difficulties exist for all religious traditions, but it just happens that, since many Europeans were Christians, that is where the problems were most sharply focussed.

One place to begin confronting this difficulty is to remember that no one speaks from a position of religious neutrality. Everybody begins by thinking that some claims about spiritual reality are true and some are false. So the devotee is in just the same position as, say, the atheist. They both begin from assumptions about the truth or falsity of many religious beliefs.

Devotees affirm as part of their experience an apprehension of a supreme spiritual reality that has real and beneficial effects on their lives and on the lives of those around them. This is not a historical assertion. It is an assertion about present experience, about the way you see the world, and about the supreme reality and value of the spiritual. Atheists will not share this view, and that means that their interpretation of the past, like their interpretation of the present, will exclude the spiritual from consideration. All allegedly spiritual presences in the past will be re-interpreted by atheists as illusions, having purely social or psychological causes. In other words, devotees are right to be suspicious of atheistic interpretations of the past.

There is no such thing as neutral history, since history consists in finding the most probable explanations of past events, and what you think is probable depends on your initial beliefs. So any accounts of miraculous events—events that are spiritually caused, that transcend the normal regularities of physical events, and that carry a spiritual meaning—are bound to be interpreted by atheists as legends. If, on the other hand, there is a spiritual reality, it is rather likely that some miracles will occur. Devotees are right to trust their sacred texts, if there is reason to think they have been given by a person with unique knowledge of spiritual reality. There is still much to learn from atheistic historians, for they may point out aspects of events that have been overlooked, and they may help you to distinguish interpretations of your tradition that are less spiritually profitable than others. But there is no reason to think that what they say is the one correct version of events.

It is important to realise, however, that there is not just one obvious version of historical events. Muslims and Christians, for example, differ about whether Jesus was crucified. Jews and Christians differ about whether Jesus ascended into heaven. Hindus and Christians differ about whether Jesus was the only divine incarnation, or sometimes about whether he was a divine incarnation at all. This seems sufficient to show that there is not just one account of religious history that every person of good will would, if rational and pious, accept.

It is not quite enough to say that I will just stick to my tradition and ignore all the others. I need to know why others do not accept my tradition, and why there are so many different traditions. The hard thing for a devotee is to remain committed to your tradition—to be loyal to the personal experience you have received, and the relationship to the Supreme that you enjoy—yet also to be open to learn from very different perspectives on human experience. We would all agree that, when we begin our spiritual journey, there is little that we understand about spiritual things. Can we increase our understanding by confining our knowledge to just the one tradition in which we began? Well, yes, of course we can increase it. But if we do that, and only do that, there is an immense amount of knowledge about the world we will never have. How do we know that we are not missing something of enormous value? It seems arrogant to think that only our tradition has the truth, that there is no truth anywhere else, and that we cannot benefit from other viewpoints. How could we even know that without knowing something about other traditions? Since there is no neutral view, it is right to start from where we stand, in our tradition. But it is reasonable to seek to extend our understanding as widely as possible, and that should help us to see what is importantly true in our tradition, and what may turn out to be due to historical accident or even prejudice, and might need amending.

This can give rise to tensions in personal life, if we really face up to the very different understandings of others, which can often challenge our own. But there is a huge difference between the deep and unchanging truth of a tradition and the cultural forms and conventional interpretations that we may have accepted unthinkingly. The distinctive truth of our tradition may not change, but often our understanding of it should change, and many things that we had thought a central part of our tradition may turn out to be temporary forms, suited to earlier understandings, but now in need of restatement.

Critical scholarship can thus serve devotion, by helping us to distinguish central truths from culturally conditioned forms, and by enabling us to see our tradition in a wider historical context. But for that to happen, if you are a devotee you must follow three principles. You must not be emotionally attached to every particular form and statement that has come to you in your tradition. You must identify with care the central experiences and beliefs to which you are fundamentally committed, and distinguish them from culturally influenced interpretations and practices. And you must be committed to extending your understanding of truth as widely as you can, whatever the consequences. Openness to the truth requires a preparedness to revise views that come to seem false, however attached to them we are. But this does not mean there are no absolute commitments. Devotion to truth is itself a sort of spiritual commitment, since what the devotee worships is the truth, usually in personal form. And if it is the truth, no honest examination can undermine it. We must remember the weakness of our intellects, however, and this means that we should not give up our spiritual commitment just because of some intellectual puzzle or perplexity.

This requires a degree of spiritual maturity, a resolution often to live with uncertainty and even doubt, but with a passionate commitment to the highest spiritual truth we have discerned, and a determination not to let complex and difficult theories undermine the most important spiritual experiences that shape our lives. In this way the devotee can embrace historical scholarship, however critical, as an aid to the discovery of truth, though not as the ultimate arbiter of spiritual truth.

Authority, morality

The third main cultural force that derives from the European Enlightenment is the stress on moral autonomy, the principle that you should make your own moral decisions, and not accept them on authority. I suppose many of us would now say that the Enlightenment writers who espoused this principle, like Immanuel Kant, were much too optimistic about human nature. They thought that everyone would decide on the same set of moral principles. Experience has shown, however, that humans will make very different decisions about how to live. They may even decide that they do not care what other people think, but will maximise their own pleasure.

This is not at all what Kant had in mind. What he was really concerned about was that moral rules should be justifiable rationally. That is, they should be seen to be conducive to human well-being, as opposed to being just absolute commands that cannot be seen to have any rational point. Religious devotees, however (and Kant was not a devotee), see ultimate human well-being as lying in a relation of devotion, submission or loving obedience to a Supreme Lord. The rules of religion spell out the way in which that is best pursued in human life. Such rules may not be rational to an atheist, but they are supremely important to a believer.

It is true that such rules should not be repressive, and that they should not infringe the freedom of humans to choose their own course of action, as long as it does not harm others. So believers must ask themselves if the moral rules they subscribe to are harming others in subtle ways, or if they are sometimes relics of ancient cultural conventions that cannot be justified either on grounds of widening human freedom and responsibility or of pointing the way towards the ultimate religious goal.

So in matters of conduct and morality the devotee should not fear the most ruthless critical examination. Religion is concerned with the ultimate good for humans, and with the nature of that good. It therefore has an interest in examining as carefully as possible the principles that make for such good. It particularly needs to ask why its rules and practices are so often destructive, intolerant, and oppressive of others. Such investigation may sometimes be uncomfortable, since devotees tend to be rather conservative in their moral views. What needs to be discovered is how far such conservatism is rooted merely in traditionalism for its own sake, and how far it can be justified in the light of the real goal of human good that a religious tradition enjoins. Again, the devotee needs to balance a practical commitment to a spiritual journey with an intellectual openness that may challenge accepted practices and interpretations. But that is just what all great religious teachers have embodied—an unflinching commitment to the supreme good, with a very critical attitude to many current social norms and conventions. In the end the devotee will not completely agree with the slogan, ‘Decide for yourself what moral principles to follow’. Most humans do not have the wisdom and insight for that. But the devotee will agree that all moral principles accepted on authority continually need to be tested against their efficacy in promoting human well-being and the ultimate good for all sentient beings. For that is, after all, what enlightened religious teachers have always taught.

Concluding thoughts

Is it, after all, difficult to be a scholar and a devotee? It may seem so, if reason is seen as the enemy of faith, and if reason is seen as purely critical and destructive of belief. But reason also has a constructive role to play in showing the coherence and plausibility of beliefs. Its criticisms are necessary to distinguish superstition and mere convention from wisdom and truth.

It can feel difficult to face the criticisms of others, especially when we cannot think of arguments to defend our own position. We can be almost overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information the modern world offers, and that can shake our confidence.

But the spiritual approach is to let the arguments flow where they will, and to absorb as much information as we can, but to continue our spiritual practice with resolution. It is rather as if someone who is deeply in love is also a psychologist investigating the nature of love. That person will gather as much information as possible and will listen to as many views and arguments as possible. None of that will affect the fact of being in love, though some of it may affect the ways in which that love is expressed.

So it is with religious faith. It is part of spiritual practice that we should be non-attached to the arguments that flow around and through us, but should view them like the thoughts and feelings that pass in meditation. We should maintain a calm confidence that truth will never contradict that supreme Real who is Truth, even if we are not very good at getting access to the truth. Our task is to try to discover more of the truth, without attachment to our success or depression at our failure. Seek the truth but do not believe you have ever finally found it, exactly as it really is. Embrace all criticisms, but never despair if you cannot respond to them adequately. Always seek what is good and spiritually useful in all the knowledge you acquire. And always sustain your practical commitment to the highest good that you know—which, for any devotee, will be the Supreme Good and the Ultimately Real. If we can sustain such attitudes, scholarship will, for many of us, be part of devotion, and there will be no schizophrenia—though there will be many personal failures of coherence and rationality—between the scholar and the devotee.