The Other I

April 8, 2011

Intellectualizing isn’t all that intelligent

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 4:19 pm

I have in my life more than once been accused of being too cerebral, of intellectualizing everything.  I would like to say that it was meant as a compliment to my intellectual capacity, but it wasn’t and I knew it.

But I could never understand what people meant, let alone have any idea of how to live any other way.  Doesn’t every body think?  And isn’t what we think about something a significant determinant of how we evaluate it and how we behave?

Well, yes.  But at last, I think I have finally discovered what people were saying to me.

It goes back to this difference between faith and belief.  I always thought they were the same thing.  A good person, therefore, believed what the Catholic Church taught.  That was the first essential step without which one could not embark on the path of holiness.

I was a relatively bright child and eager to please, and so  I got a lot of praise for being a good girl.  I liked school and got good grades, I took care of my younger brothers and sisters, I did jobs around the house efficiently.  I had a high proportion of the “right” answers that pleased the adults in my life.

But I lost contact with myself.  In some ways, I always felt as if I were living my life not looking directly at life but through a mirror.  Instead of asking myself what I thought or felt about anything, I asked only what I was supposed to feel about something.

Unlike so many of my friends, I didn’t think forbidding newborn babies entrance into heaven because they didn’t get baptized before they died reflected a pretty unlikeable God.  I didn’t wonder what kind of divine vindictiveness insisted on cursing totally innocent babies with the blot of original sin.  I worked out a rationalization instead.   I didn’t wonder why we had to forgive those who might have hurt us, but why a supposedly all-loving God could send somebody to hell forever for something as menial as eating meat on a Friday.

When the nuns at Maryknoll asked me if I were happy there I said yes.  But I remember quite clearly saying “of course, the right answer is yes.  If I say no, I won’t be allowed to stay, and I have a vocation, so I must be happy.”  But I didn’t ever ask myself if I were actually happy.   I believed I was happy because I was supposed to be.

I rejected most Catholic doctrine by the time I’d reached my late twenties.

But what I didn’t change nearly as radically was using theory to tell me how to evaluate my experience, rather than using experience to evaluate theory.  I used to think music appreciation was understanding the technicalities of music, or that to really appreciate art I had to know what school it belonged to.

In other words, I didn’t listen to myself.  I listened to the damn theory.  And stopped.  That’s the point.  Not that theory isn’t ever helpful or enlightening.

But I so often simply dismissed experience as a flawed distortion of what was “really” right.

I do not think all Catholics are the kind intellectualizer I have so often been.  But Catholics who are intellectuals, I suspect, are more apt to be intellectualizers – to be separated from their gut reactions, to trust the theory more than they trust themselves.  Because Roman Catholicism says that those who do not accept Catholic dogma are heretics who will go to hell.  So if we accept Catholic theology, we are very apt to put it before our own assessments based on something as fallible as personal experience.

Several friends with whom I grew up have recently said things like “Well, we never took that nonsense in religion class seriously, did we?”  Yes, I did.  And I envy them for their uncomplicated ability to reject it and simply stay rooted in themselves.

My husband who was a sociologist of religion laughed when we first met and I said I wasn’t a Catholic anymore.  “It takes a lot more than changing your beliefs not to be a Catholic.”  And for almost 40 years, I have felt there was some essential characteristic of being a Catholic that I did not understand about myself.

I think I have finally put my finger on it.

And I am loving it.  I go out and feel the sun on my face and just let myself enjoy it.  I listen to music without trying to figure it out, I am moved by poetry without needing to be able to explain it.

There are those who say that trusting ones experience is the real basis of faith.  I trust my own experience that being kind is better than hatred, that truth is better than lies, that I like to be helpful rather than spiteful.  I have faith that to be alive is wonderful even when it’s painful and impossible to understand.

I don’t particularly like the word – the associations are too constraining.  But by this definition, I’ll agree to having faith.



  1. I really enjoy reading your posts, and today is no different. I think the similarities of our backgrounds is interesting.

    I grew up in a large, Catholic family, surrounded by intelligent and articulate people. My dad is a lawyer, too (although now in early stages of Alzheimer’s). But the Catholicism I grew up with seems different than yours — more based in the incarnate world (experience), maybe, more forgiving and less likely to presume upon God’s mercy one way or another, for certain. Arguments about what the Church teaches, the implications of those teachings, and what it requires of us are still part of large family gatherings. These were and are happy occasions in my life. This Catholicism holds up to intellectual scrutiny.

    We were also taught that feelings are not right or wrong — they just are what they are. So it was ok if something didn’t make you feel they way someone else thought you should feel. (And sometimes it didn’t matter if you didn’t want to do something – “You don’t have to like it,” my dad would say. Or, this family favorite, “You can do it because you love me or you can do it because you are afraid of me. I don’t care,” Dad would respond to whining, “But you are going to do it.” We all still laugh about that.)

    Ok, maybe we are a strange family.


    Comment by Noreen — April 8, 2011 @ 5:27 pm | Reply

    • Thank you for your comment and stories about your family compared to mine. Maybe for the same reasons you do, I find Catholic families really interesting. Yours does not sound strange to me at all. And I recognize some of the things you describe in my own family. If nothing else, we haven’t finished our interminable discussions, most especially about theological and political issues, either. I think the in-laws sometimes roll their eyes in disbelief.


      Comment by theotheri — April 8, 2011 @ 7:08 pm | Reply

  2. I’ve always had the impression that you are deeply in love with your husband. Did you try intellectualizing love. I don’t think so. Why this struggle now with Religion that was taught that way 50 years ago. Or is it not so much Religion but more how as a woman we were taught to be pleasers. Interesting post…:)


    Comment by djc1 — April 8, 2011 @ 7:05 pm | Reply

    • You are right, Donna. I am deeply in love with my husband. And I didn’t go through any of the “am I supposed to love this man” struggle. I walked into his office and was electrified the first time I met him.

      The issue I was trying to describe is not about religion. Insofar as it’s about religion at all, it’s about the culture of religion, not its content. (Not really so much about women, though your suggestion that we were taught to be pleasers is relevant.) What I was trying to describe about myself hasn’t anything to do with specific religious or non-religious beliefs, but it is rather to do with a style of thinking. I probably made the issue more black & white than it really is in my own life too. I am not an emotional refrigerator and do have many close relationships.

      But I am a cognitive psychologist which means that I find the way people think extremely interesting. And that includes trying to understand the way I think, too. One of the things that has fascinated me most during my professional career was the realization of how very differently quite healthy and intelligent people think. We don’t process the same information the same way and so what may seem utterly obvious to one person is completely oblique to someone else.

      Having said that, I suspect my original post was pretty fuzzy. I’m not sure I’ve made it any clearer, but I very much appreciate your comment. Your are absolutely right: I am crazy about my husband!


      Comment by theotheri — April 8, 2011 @ 7:26 pm | Reply

  3. What you say about following the theory instead of your own thinking and feeling sure hits home! I agree with Donna that some of it (in my case, at least) comes from wanting to please those around me, to be a “good girl.” It certainly seems that religious training can play perfectly into that rule-following behavior. And I agree with Noreen that that needn’t necessarily be the case. I wonder if we women tend to outgrow that stuff around midlife, the wanting to please, the wanting to do what’s expected of us. I feel like I’m (slowly, slowly) outgrowing it — looks like you did too. I’m glad you’re finding a faith that feels authentic. Thanks for another thoughtful post!


    Comment by Chris — April 8, 2011 @ 9:05 pm | Reply

    • A very large mega-thanks for your comment. I’m quite relieved that you understand. It’s a pretty critical insight for me into how I have so often lived but I haven’t found it easy to explain to anyone who doesn’t recognize the syndrome in themselves.

      It isn’t that the Catholicism in which I was socialized was intellectually inferior. On the contrary. So I find that although I am better than the average person at evaluating theories or at suggesting alternative interpretations, my own feelings have, on occasion, terrified me. It took me a long time to learn to trust them. I knew something was missing but I didn’t fully understand what my problem was.

      And yes, the more I think about it, the more I see that being a “good girl” and pleasing everybody fed right into it.

      One of the things, by the way, that I find so liberating about writing a blog is that I don’t have to please anybody. I don’t have to entertain them, or be interesting, or make everybody happy.

      Again, thank you, Chris.


      Comment by theotheri — April 10, 2011 @ 3:27 pm | Reply

      • I don’t think that only women have this problem of wanting to please everyone. In my case, I think a lot of my motivation has been like that, or maybe a need to prove how “good” I was/am.

        I come from an unusual Catholic family, in which my Mother had four brothers who were Dominican priests, and three sisters who were Dominican nuns. I have heard that on her wedding day, my grandmother (who died before I was born) expressed to God that it would be ok if all her children entered the religious life. Today I think of this as a strange attitude, in a way, considering other ways of living as somehow not as valuable or holy. This attitude was reflected when one of my uncles (who did not become a priest and later married) told his father that he did not want to be a priest. My grandfather’s response was “but what will you do?”.

        In my case, growing up in the Catholic school, I was exposed to suggestions by nuns that I should be a priest. I did not get any direct pressure from my uncles, aunts, father or from my mother, who at one time considered the convent, and agonized about not wanting to go.

        Well, I did go off to the seminary as a Junior in high school and stayed until mid-junior year of college. I think that some of my motivation was to prove that I was a “good boy”. Maybe it was an expression of wanting to do what was expected of me, although there was not direct pressure to please everyone.

        Another factor may be that I was the second of 6 (older brother and 4 younger sisters) and always felt in the shadow of my older brother. Maybe my need to please, or prove myself was a response to that

        I don’t think we every totally grow out of such attitudes, nor do I think that wanting to please others is all bad. What may be bad is to lack the self-awareness that we have that “problem”, and hence never consider more healthy ways to please others or develop better motivations for being a “good boy”.

        Note: my website (which pleases about 700 Maryknollers) has many pictures of my (and others) seminary days, in addition to family and hobby stuff (


        Comment by Ray Voith — February 4, 2015 @ 7:48 pm

      • If sounds, Ray, as if we might be able to exchange a lot of parallel stories about the large Catholic families in which we grew up. I rather think my father would have been proud to have parented 5 children who became nuns and 5 boys who became priests. As it was, four of us tried it out. None of us stayed the course, save one who left the seminary but is still an ardent believer. I also think that in big families, some children are more apt to feel over-shadowed, as you say you did. Well, who can beat God for giving one a place of importance? I think wanting to feel important is one of more than one reason a child might consider religious life.

        Although I am no longer either a practicing nor believing Catholic, and although this post is about exploring some of the particular challenges of being socialized as I was within a particular Catholic culture, I certainly do not see it as all negative. There is much that I learned that has been hugely important in my happiness – and I hope in my bringing a small modicum of happiness to others. I would not be surprised if you have reached a similar conclusion?


        Comment by theotheri — February 4, 2015 @ 8:48 pm

  4. I think I’m going to bookmark this post.

    I found this by searching for “intellectualizing love” which I see that djc1 had mentioned. My conflict is that when I see people, even (especially?) people I don’t know, I become infatuated. And god help me if he’s online because that means I get to see him over and over again. And I mistake it for love. And it makes me think of what love actually is. Not only biologically but socially. What are the benefits of love? Will I be more productive to society by just disregarding it and focusing on my work? When can I say I’m truly in love? Are love and lust really separate things? And I go on and on until I hate love and just want to go to bed.

    However, and correct me if I’m wrong, your post suggests that while these questions can be useful and enlightening, our experience of something trumps the theory of it. So in my example, when I feel a loving infatuation in reality (meaning not on the internet! (or maybe that counts, too?)), that is love, plainly and simply. There are questions to be asked, I’m sure, but none of that can take away that unique feeling of loving someone. We don’t need theories of love or art to tell us how we must feel about them.

    One concern I have, though, is the threat of anti-intellectualism when it comes to just focusing on experience. I don’t bring this up to subtract from the point you’re making with which I totally agree and feel empowered when I read it, but I think it’s an important issue. For example, I’m currently an undergraduate in college, and I’m being exposed to ideas I’ve never heard of before. It’s all confusing, exciting, and inspiring at the same time, all the different political ideologies and all the literature and the sciences and philosophy. It’s crazy. But I could say that all of these ideas are useless to me personally because I can enjoy my life perfectly well just based on my experience. I could go further and say that no one need to study anything as long as they have their experience.

    I think my concern is with placing value on what things feel like while still keeping value with what things “actually are” according to the current theories of whatever it is we’re talking about. I’m not sure those two things are compatible. They certainly feel compatible in that, for example, when I’m feeling love intensely, I’m probably not intellectualizing it, even though I know I’ve thought about all of it before. But when I try and intellectualize it later, my feelings seem so stupid and not romantic at all. As you wrote, “But I so often simply dismissed experience as a flawed distortion of what was “really” right.”

    I wonder if separating these two ways of thinking is the practical thing to do as a human being or if it’s intellectually dishonest in some way as if you’re betraying the thoughts you had in a more intellectual state of mind. I wonder if the latter option is even bad at all in this case.

    Frankly, I want to go with it just being the practical thing to do because I’m tired of thinking about it!

    I hope it’s okay that I’ve written this. I had planned for a short response filled with gratitude and smileys, but it (d)evolved beyond that. Thank you for your wonderful post!


    Comment by cojalen — July 6, 2011 @ 10:09 am | Reply

  5. Thank you for taking so much time to write your comment. I found it extraordinarily interesting and thought-provoking. That doesn’t mean I have the slightest expectation that I could provide any ultimate answers to your explorations, but you did generate a lot of thinking on my part.

    I can say that I personally think love is much broader, deeper,potentially much longer-lasting and a lot more effort than lust. It’s also potentially more rewarding, but also potentially more painful and sometimes even more destructive. Yes, I too have experienced infatuation. And it’s hard to see through it in the moment, the light is so blinding. But infatuation and even sexual attraction does not survive the strong light, the drudgery of daily routine, the actual reality as it unfolds with time of our object of such fascinating allure.

    Having said that, you might be surprised to hear me say that in some ways I do believe in love at first sight. I was immediately attracted to the man who is now my husband and with whom I have been living for almost 40 years. But that attraction we both felt – and still feel – would never have gotten us through on its own. Sometimes I think it takes sheer grit, just blind determination to hang on.

    But to the essence of our discussion – the relationship between theory and experience.

    The point I was trying to make is that theory should not displace what we experience. Theory – whether we are conscious of it or not – gives our experience meaning. But by the same token, theory can distort our experience, can make us ignore strongly held needs or values because it doesn’t match our theory. That was what I often did as I was growing up. I denied feeling and thinking things, or decided they were “wrong,” because Catholic theology said they were wrong.

    In retrospect, my advice – to myself and to anyone else – is to learn theory. Drink it up, devour it! But don’t swallow it whole and undigested. Examine it. Ask if it does indeed match what you experience, what you are striving for, what you sense in yourself is valuable, is beautiful, is worth living for.

    There are thousands of theories and many of them contradict each other. It is up to you to decide which ones you think are most valid.

    In some ways, this is a life time’s work. But in a very special way, it is the work of young adulthood. It’s the special task for your time of life, when the world of ideas is exploding.

    Don’t be afraid of it. Don’t be afraid of the uncertainty it causes. It means you must risk making your own decisions. It means you might make the wrong decisions sometimes. But it does mean you will live your own life. Not the life someone else decides is best for you.

    I would be delighted to continue this dialogue, and you are more than welcome to continue it. Now or in the future. Whether you write again or not, I wish you the best in this great adventure we call life.


    Comment by theotheri — July 6, 2011 @ 7:27 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: