The Heart & the Mind in Reading


I have a confession to make. I am addicted to reading. There is no better way I like to spend my time, leisure or otherwise, than exploring the pages of a book. I’ll take a plunge into anything I can get my hands on that has to do with ideas, creativity, imagination, or critical inquiry. I devour books on a consistent basis, taking in poetry and prose fiction, as well as non-fiction essays, well-researched biographies, philosophy, science, theology and Christian thought. In a word, I love to read, research, and study the history of ideas. Most of all, I enjoy delving into the mind of various thinkers to explore how they used their creativity and imagination to derive their theories. What were the roads they traveled to reach certain conclusions? What were the experiences they encountered and barriers they faced in shaping their thought? What difficulties and nagging doubts did they have to work through to get to where they got? What fortuitous events played in contributing to their creativity and discovery? I could go on and on because since reading has become such a habit for me, I find myself at times in what Csikszentmihalyi Mihaly describes as flow, sitting with a book deep into midnight and the early morning hours without noticing how much time has passed.

For 25 plus years, I also have worked as a professor. Teaching at the university level was a goal I set for myself many years ago, and through sinuous paths eventually reached my target. I have discovered, however, that reaching one goal is only a starting point for many other ventures. I believe my paths will always take me into the history of thought, and the impact that ideas have had on people across history. From my perspective, being a good prof entails taking complex information and breaking it down into more simplified forms so that students can digest it. That does not mean over-simplifying information, but clarifying it in ways that students can take it in, process it, and hopefully be encouraged to explore it at deeper levels. Even apparent simple information may rest on a ton of unexplored premises. What is meaningful for me is getting at the ideas and thoughts that lie behind certain claims to truth. Such work I could not do if I didn’t thoroughly enjoy reading the way I do, or if I didn’t form the critical habits that go hand-in-hand with directed reading and analyzing information. I consider such a life of reading, studying, and teaching to be my calling. There is an exhilaration that goes with reading and studying that I believe emerges from both the heart and the mind. Much too often, these two ways of experiencing life are placed in conflict with one another. This blog article explores the heart and the mind and their relationship to reading and studying. How do these two aspects of our being human contribute to what goes into the effort after understanding, and how do they explain an individual’s passion for knowledge and wisdom?

Reading Directs Thinking versus Thinking Directs Reading

There’s reading. And then, there is reading – study, analysis, critical inquiry, determining whether or not what an author says holds together. Even if an author makes a good case, do I agree with his or her position or not? Why or why not? Does a theorist’s claims align with, alter, or expand on how I see and understand things? Although now and then I enjoy relaxing with my detective and other kinds of light fiction, the more critical type of reading is what I pursue most of my time. There are more books than one can imagine that delineate different ways, methods, and techniques of how to read and study. Method and techniques applied to reading, while important, are areas I want to explore in the near future. For now, on this blog, what I want to touch on is the notion of how both the heart and the mind hold a place in an effort after knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. Some might ask: are not the heart and the mind at odds in such pursuits? This discussion revolves around an approach to Biblical reading called Lectio Divina, a topic for another blog. At this point, suffice it to say that such an approach to reading was developed fully in the Middle Ages to get at the meaning of Biblical texts in the pursuit to know God. I first came across these ideas on reading through Christian writer James Sire’s, Habits of the Mind. Sire addresses the apparent conflict that has raged across the ages, the clash between reading with the heart versus reading with the mind. He designates these ways of reading respectively as Reading Directs Thinking versus Thinking Directs Reading. To pursue a life of reading and study in the manner that Sire discusses, one must develop what he calls a habit of mind. Much of what I discuss on this blog I take from Sire’s work.

Many who practice Lectio Divina will not accept much of what I’ll say in this article about this approach to reading. Historically, Lectio Divina has been approached as a mystical encounter with a Biblical text. Although I do not discount such experiences, I prefer Sire’s position that addresses the need to combine head with heart rather than pitting them against one another. As a Christian, I would rather approach Lectio Divina as both an encounter with Scripture (Reading Directs Thinking) and as an approach to studying the text (Thinking Directs Reading) to get at its meaning, what the author seeks to convey, and what implications the text has for living out one’s life. Both habits of reading, I believe, go hand-in-hand, rather than being antithetical to one another. Sire points out that in the Middle Ages, monastics and scholastics were at odds regarding Biblical reading and study. When the monastics emphasize the habit of Reading Directs Thinking at the expense of the other, the scholastics believed they unwittingly fell into a personal and radical subjective mysticism that could not be held in check regarding the truth of Scripture. When the scholastics exercised the habit of Thinking Directs Reading over the former, monastics believed they instituted a cold scholasticism, an intellectualized Christendom that lacked the Biblical emphasis of humility leading to understanding and wisdom. Note, however, that with either position both reading and thinking are involved. The scholastic scholars believed the monastics, however, handed thinking and rationality the short end of the stick. The monastic monks countered that the scholastic scholars viewed Biblical texts as just another object of study without any implications for one’s life. Such distinctions may mean little to those who do not profess Christianity. But for those of us who do, how do we combine head and heart in approaching Biblical texts?

Reading Directs Thinking. When Reading Directs Thinking, the reader encounters the text, takes it in, so to speak, and breathes in the text so as to live it outwardly. The meaning of the text addresses the core – the heart – of the reader who seeks to garner meaning from the text. Readers draw on their own experience as they engage the written words. Texts are read repetitively, slowly, thoughtfully, and reverently. This type of reading draws on our memory because the words we read we have read before. We have a previous understanding of what they mean based on our repetitive reading of the texts. The experience of reading is a personally contextualized one, and what we encounter  impacts us through an inner spirituality. Those who seek to let Reading Direct Thinking speak of a text as staying with them, haunting them, revitalizing them, or refreshing them. The monastics would have no part of the Scholastics’ efforts to analyze, critique, and systematize their understanding of various texts, particularly Biblical texts. The monastics viewed such endeavors as antithetical to spiritual formation. No doubt, however, mysticism led to a disparagement of the mind in the development of theology and Christian thought. An emphasis on rationality was suspect to these monks who set rationality against spirituality. The monastics valued what they regarded as the heart’s way of knowing.

Thinking Directs Reading. When Thinking Directs Reading, one engages serious study of a text. We study a text to mine it for information, to gain perspective, to obtain reflective insight, to see the text in its proper context, and to hopefully garner from the text what it sets for us to understand, and how it calls for us to live. The Scholastics were reading Biblical texts to learn the truth. Their take on understanding involved a highly rational approach to study. They did not care to track with the monastics and what the scholastic scholars viewed as an extreme mysticism. These scholastic scholars, such as Thomas Aquinas and those who came after him during the Reformation, used a variety of methods, tools, and historical contexts to study and exegete the text. Through the centuries, Biblical study methods have continued to develop through such efforts as the study of original languages, (Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, etc.), and the field of textual criticism. No doubt, excessive scholasticism contributed its share to an intellectualized theology that sought to reconcile Christian ideas with philosophical categories rather than seeking to answer philosophical questions via Christian thought. These scholars emphasized a form of rationalism that could lead to intellectual understanding without spiritual formation. The Scholastics valued what they regarded as the mind’s way of knowing.

There is a need to heal the tear between the heart and the mind. I think this is particularly true regarding Biblical texts. If we are to read so as to build knowledge, to gain understanding, to acquire wisdom, and to discover truth, we must study, analyze, and critique, using all the critical tools available to carry out our tasks. Additionally, we must also accept the fact that texts mysteriously engage and touch us on a deep level, passionately speaking to us regarding how we are presently living our lives, showing us how we should be living our lives day-to-day, and forcefully challenging and convicting us toward acting on what we understand to be true. The separation of these two approaches is tantamount to dissecting the mind from the heart, soul, or spirit. It is taking the human being, placing him under a microscope, dissecting his parts, and never putting him back together again.


Sire rightly, I believe, views the monastic-scholastic split, the heart versus the mind, as a false dichotomy. From a Biblical perspective he points to the greatest commandment, Matthew 22:37: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind. Sire speaks to the need to combine the heart and the mind. Whether it’s reading Biblical texts or poetry, prose, and non-fiction, Sire holds, and I agree with him, that we can approach various texts, encounter them, enter them, yet back away and critique and study them. Reading without study can lead us to miss important meanings in the text. Study without passionately confronting the text can lead to a cold intellectualism that can, in turn, lead to our overlooking the impact that a text has for our lives. For next month’s blog article, I will delve into the six-point technique that Sire describes in his approach to Lectio Divina, as well as his recommendations for how to combine heart and mind in reading, sharing his examples of various texts to approach and study.

Does Reading Direct Thinking, or does Thinking Direct Reading? There is a tension here that I think we must simply hold onto and embrace, seeking not to dichotomize the two approaches, and to avoid rending the heart from the mind. Perhaps Pascal’s quote holds this tension best: The heart has reasons that reason cannot understand. In Scripture we read constantly about the heart and the mind, as well as the soul and the spirit. What do the words, mind, heart, soul, and spirit really mean in describing the human being? What part do they play in our reasoning, gaining knowledge, and living wisely? Perhaps rationality alone will not answer such questions for us. But for those of you who love to read, reflect on how you approach texts that you enjoy reading.  Ponder how and why you find personal meaning in reading and studying certain texts. Choose some short passages over the next month and read them repetitively, attending to them closely. Become aware of how your understanding of them might develop as your read them slowly, attentively, and repetitively. Then think about those texts you have read and choose those into which you would more deeply like to delve so as to analyze them more closely. Utilize any tools you find necessary for your study – historical contexts, lexicons, word studies, commentaries, language tools, etc. Such an approach to texts is for those who love to read, study, analyze, and critique, so as to accrue a deeper understanding of what they read, to obtain meaning from what they read, and to garner something regarding the truth.

John V. Jones, Jr., PH.D., LPCS/May 14th, 2016


4 thoughts on “The Heart & the Mind in Reading

  1. John, I’ve read your blog and I find it very interesting. I have never really contemplated any of what you have written here. I have studied the Bible all my life. I have used many other authors with excellent Biblical understanding to further my study and understanding of the scriptures. This is one of the reasons I find it very interesting what you have written.

    • Thanks Sandie for checking out the blog. I think all of us probably do both. We use all the tools and other authors we can to aid our study, yet we also realize that our study goes beyond mere intellectual understanding and speaks to us in a personal way. I find it interesting that these two ways of approaching the Bible, historically, have been set at odds against one another. I think we need both. Without a proper understanding of what we’re reading, the personal application can turn too subjective. And our study should always have us question how the texts applies to our lives, and what the texts mean for our lives.

  2. I agree with the two other comments. Some books I had to read (school,etc) and there were times it opened new thoughts ,expanding into a “nook” in my intellectual brain.
    It seems there will always be a blend of reasons you read…..kind of a simplistic answer to what now seems like a much deeper subject.

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