The Intellectual Life as a Calling

I will begin posting some write-ups on books I am reading as part of my program. While a bit time consuming, I find this exercise allows me to get a better grasp of what I’ve read. Critical reflection is a valuable part of the process of learning and growing as a person. It’s an investment that a student can’t afford to pass up. And that’s your free lesson for the day!


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I just finished reading The Intellectual Life by the Dominican priest A. G. Sertillanges (translated from the original French). I love this book. And why wouldn’t I? I’m Just starting off in a PhD program and I have to admit that I’ve been a little overwhelmed. I have had my doubts. Should I be doing this? Can I do this? What was I thinking? Sertillanges speaks directly to these questions. In fact, I truly believe that God was using his words to speak directly to me. At times it feels like the author specifically has in mind graduate students who are preparing to write a thesis or dissertation. That’s me! There is no doubt that the book is targeting those who are called to pursue intellectual study. However, his audience is much wider. The majority of the work is addressing the intellectual life in general, especially as a lifelong calling. As someone who has wrestled with this calling for many, many years, Sertillanges’ words have helped give me the reassurance and confidence to follow God’s call and press on. This is what God has called me to do.

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A. G. Sertillanges

If you find yourself wrestling with that same call, or just starting off on the journey toward an advanced degree, this book should be required reading. There are two things about this book that might be potentially off putting. First, it’s structure is based largely off of a letter attributed to Thomas Aquinas (The Sixteen Precepts for Acquiring the Treasure of Knowledge). It definitely has a Thomistic bent. Sertillanges is unmistakably Catholic. But trust me – if a “dyed in the wool” Baptist like me can love this book, then so can you. The audience is all Christians, regardless of denominational affiliation. The other thing that might turn off readers is that it is quite dated. Sertillanges was not only writing well before the age of the personal computer, he was also apparently writing long before the advent of the index card (in an unintentionally droll manner, he walks students through the process of making their own). But while first published in 1921, the advice provided is timeless and imminently practical for today’s student. While the archaisms can be humorous, Sertillanges’ passion for intellectual study is quite refreshing. Put aside the chronological snobbery and don’t allow preconceptions to prevent you from discovering this treasure. You will not be disappointed.

What I love most about this book is how he characterizes the intellectual life as a calling. What a concept! As I just mentioned, I have struggled with my own calling to the intellectual life. Over twenty-five years ago I graduated from the University at Buffalo and headed off to grad school to study Christian philosophy. I wanted to be the next great apologist. Having studied under Paul Kurtz, his debate with Christian philosopher Norm Geisler was an inspiration to me. I wanted to be just like Norm. He was THE MAN! You can still see snippets of the debate on YouTube, and find the entire audio recording on the Apologetics 315 website. Unfortunately, the reality of graduate school was more than I expected.  After just one year of work I was burned out. I ended up leaving seminary study to pursue full time ministry with Campus Crusade for Christ (now simply called Cru). My reasons were rooted in my own personal struggle with God’s call on my life. I wanted to be on the “frontlines” of what God was doing in the world. I wanted to lead people to Christ, giving back to a ministry that was instrumental in my own conversion and growth as a Christian. I was convinced that evangelism had to be more important than wrestling with the great philosophical and theological problems of our day. Reading books, doing research, and writing papers certainly wasn’t as important as sharing Christ with young college students. Or so I had convinced myself.

I had bought into a false dichotomy within Christian thinking that pits evangelistic efforts against intellectual study. One is considered spiritual, and the other worldly. These two pursuits are actually more closely related than one would think. They are both concerned with truth. Evangelism seeks to communicate truth to the world, truth about Christ, and the good news of salvation. Intellectual study, if properly focused, seeks to discover and clarify truth. Intellectual study grounded in God, must necessarily precede evangelism to ensure that truth remains uncontaminated. So just as God calls some to be evangelists, he also calls others to be intellectuals.  But aren’t we all called to utilize the intellectual gifts that God has bestowed? Yes. But the general call that we all have to use our rational faculties to the glory of God, does not preclude the need for some to pursue the intellectual life as their primary mission. We are all called to do the work of evangelism, but we are not all called (or gifted) to be evangelists. It was at my initial Cru training in Colorado that God made this abundantly clear to me. One of the speakers specifically addressed the need for Christian scholars, especially in a world inundated with bad philosophy. When error goes unchecked, when bad ideas are allowed to proliferate, the truth becomes ambiguous.  In such an environment, even the message of evangelists can become imbued with false notions and philosophical baggage. The Church needs the intellectual as much as she needs the evangelist. I was running from God’s call on my life. And while Sertillanges is right that the call to the intellectual life is not easy, failing to heed the call will only lead to misery. “All roads but one are bad roads for you, since they diverge from the direction in which your action is expected and required. Do not prove faithless to God, to your brethren and to yourself by rejecting a sacred call.” Who am I to argue with God? And so after a year with Cru, I returned to seminary.

So what does it take to be an intellectual? First and foremost is consecration to the task. The intellectual vocation is not one to be entered on a whim. It is a call from God to pursue truth, and those who are called are under a grave obligation. To be successful at it, Sertillanges stresses that one must become a slave to truth; truth comes only to those with the resolve to serve it. “We must give ourselves from the heart, if truth is to give itself to us.” It takes will, methodical effort, determination, studiousness, and disciplining the body. “The athletes of the mind, like those of the playing field, must be prepared for privations, long training, a sometimes superhuman tenacity.” Sertillanges does not limit his discussion to general exhortations; he delves into the very practical aspects of diet, sleep, prayer, rest, exercise, and hygiene. We will not have the ability to fulfill our calling if our body fails us. But even more than this, Sertillanges emphasizes the importance of good character. Since all truth comes from the divine, there is a close connection between the good and the true. Good character is necessary for truth to be manifested; and once it is made known it must be acted upon (put into practice).  “Truth visits those who love her, who surrender to her, and this love cannot be without virtue.” Sertillanges uses the imagery of botany to drive this point home. “The true springs up in the same soil as the good . . . By practicing the truth that we know, we merit the truth that we do not yet know.” Just as poor health affects sight, so also a sick soul and poor character affect our ability to perceive truth. Virtue is necessary for knowledge and a prerequisite for the intellectual life.

The remainder of the book focuses on the specifics of doing the work of an intellectual, from reading and research, to creating notes and writing a paper or book. Sertillanges is convinced that one can fulfill the obligations of the intellectual life by giving simply two hours a day to the task. Of course, this time must be focused and consistent. In regards to reading and research, the importance of comparative study is stressed, as well as the role of philosophy and theology (making sure we bring these disciplines to bear upon whatever topic we have chosen to study). In regard to taking notes, Sertillanges lays out a plan for utilizing index cards (what he calls slips) and a filing system to help organize one’s research. When it comes to the specific act of writing, Sertillanges admonishes the aspiring intellectual to write primarily to give clarity to his or her own thoughts and ideas. It can be frustrating dealing with mental blocks and the fear of criticism of others. If we keep in mind that we are first and foremost writing for the sake of truth, then we will find the strength and inspiration to make it through these times of struggle. Our reward is the work itself, and the personal growth that accompanies it. Over the next four years that I will be in this doctoral program, facing challenges that will undoubtedly test my resolve, it will be important to remember Sertillanges’ admonition.

If you have Sire’s Habits of the Mind on your reading list, read The Intellectual Life instead. Sire quotes heavily from Sertillanges and repeats much of his points. Likewise, if you are familiar with Moreland’s Love God with all Your Mind, I found Sertillanges to be less academic and more personable. Even if you have already read either of these works, adding this gem to your wish list will simply give you a more robust and inspiring picture of the call to intellectual study. The message needs to be heard. We need Christian intellectuals; Men and women of God who understand that their calling is no less important, no less spiritual than any other in the body of Christ. As Paul wrote to the Church at Corinth, “the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable (I Cor. 12:22, ESV).” Read it, share it, live it.

Sertillanges, A. G. The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods. Washington, D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1998.

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