EducationTheology & Spirituality

Go to the Ant, Thou…Curious

Writing in the mid-twentieth century, Dorothy Sayers observed that the church in her part of the world weighed triflingly little in the estimation of its cultured despisers. This was not, however, because its archaic teachings had been finally unmasked as ‘irrelevant’ to progressed, Modern society. No, she insisted, the problem was precisely the opposite: its ancient truths had been hidden from Modern society’s sight:

Let us, in heaven’s name, drag out the divine drama from under the dreadful accumulation of slipshod thinking and trashy sentiment heaped upon it, and set it on an open stage to startle the world into some sort of vigorous reaction…

What is the ‘divine drama’ to which she refers? “The dogma is the drama,” she famously responded. Much to the church’s woe, it had put that great light under a bushel.

The problem that Sayers identified in her own time—the church’s ‘slipshod thinking’ and its resultant clumsy theology—has not gone away in ours. One thinks, for example, of the work of David F. Wells. His aptly titled, No Place for Truth: or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology, meticulously traces the loss of theology in American evangelicalism. Biblical illiteracy and theological ignorance are, indeed, major problems in the church today. For that reason, I am very grateful that organizations like The Gospel Coalition and Word on Fire (among many others) are leading the way in attempting to harness various social media platforms to reach a wide swath of people with the Dogma of the Christian faith.

I do wish to register one caution, however. This caution is meant not so much for the Gospel Coalition and Word on Fire organization types. It is rather meant for all of us who make use of their (mostly) helpful stuff. The caution is basically this: be careful not to trade ignorance for curiosity. In other words, ‘go to the ant, thou…curious.’

The Ethics of Human Knowing

In order to understand this caution against curiosity, one first needs to understand human nature—and human rational nature, in particular. Humans may be categorized very basically among living creatures, as opposed to inanimate things. Basic to living creatures are certain kinds of movement.

For living human creatures, this movement not simply physical locomotion, but certain kinds of internal movements as well. Humans are ‘moved’ to action, for example, by some very basic drives: the need for food and water, for shelter, for the propagation of the species. These are fundamental, natural drives; or, in the classical lingo, basic appetites.

Among those internal movements are a category of rational, or intellective, appetites. Just as with food and water, humans need to know. And this need to know is not only for the purposes of serving those more ‘fundamental’ appetites (what the classical tradition referred to rather as ‘lower’ or ‘animal’ appetites). Sure, we desire to know various things so that we can attain food and water; so that we can procure a mate; so that we can secure ourselves against the threats of nature, etc.

But we are also compelled to know the origin of the universe (or universes), whether there is a TOE, that Pi will in fact turn out to be rational. These kinds of intellectual quests do not serve our animal instincts, even indirectly. Nevertheless, we pursue them with a kind of compulsory vigor.

Here is where virtues and vices fit in. Human creatures are the kind of living creatures that are moved, propelled, by these kinds of appetites. The question then is, how does one pursue the object of these appetites (food, sex, knowledge, etc.) well? Since we are moved by our nature toward certain things, how do we make sure that we are moving well and toward the right things?

“Virtues” are those habits we form that enable us to pursue the right objects in the right way for the right reasons. “Vices” are those habits we form that inhibit those pursuits. We pursue wrong objects, or pursue them in the wrong way, or not for the right reasons.

Curiosity as an Intellectual Vice

In Thomas Aquinas’s profound (and lengthy) analysis of virtues and vices in the second part of his Summa Theologiae, he places curiosity among the intellectual vices; the intellectual virtue standing over against curiosity, he calls—following the Christian tradition—studiosity. He notes that there are a couple of ways to go wrong when it comes to our desire to know.

In the first place, knowledge is difficult and laborious. Because of this, some cultivate the habit of the sluggard, burying their hand in the dish of potential knowledge, but not bothering to bring it back to their mouth. Others go wrong in the opposite direction (though with the same underlying issue: sloth). These are so driven by their desire to know, and yet so put off by the difficulty of coming to understand, that, rather than “diligently applying their minds to a thing” (IIaIIae, Q. 166, A.1, resp.), they flit and flutter from one data bit of information to the next.

I call this kind pupil the ‘tidbit learner.’ The studious, by contrast, will identify the proper objects of their study, and then attentively, constantly, perseveringly, and carefully fix their gaze upon that object. The one who restrains, directs, and trains her intellectual appetite in a studious way will be the one who ultimately finds the satisfaction of her very nature. Her pursuit, though difficult and wearisome, will not be in vain.

Beware of the Vlog

We are now in a position to appreciate the caution, I think. For those wishing to press beyond the shallow and unsophisticated vapidities that pass for so much of Christian theology these days, the danger is always in cultivating curiosity. This danger is particularly present in the five and ten minute “ask [pick your leader] what they think about [pick your topic]” clips that are the stock and trade of social media platforms.

Again, I do not wish to denigrate the good that these clips in fact do; much less to cast suspicion on the insights or wisdom of those who produce them. But the caution still stands. By moving from click to click, topic to disparate topic, we pick up a lot of new terms, become aware of a lot of different theological positions, and can rattle off the ‘big names’ who hold those various positions. And we gain all of this quickly. It’s fun; it feels sophisticated; we’re growing in knowledge, aren’t we?

I think we are rather growing in information; often not in understanding. If our pursuits end with the acquisition of information, though, we are simply feeding curiosity. “Curiosity terminates on surfaces,” says John Webster.[1] Studiosity presses beyond them.

In the Seventeenth Century the Reformed theologian Richard Baxter remarked:

But the greatest enemy to knowledge of all, is men’s studying of names and words, instead of things. Both in sciences and in divinity this hath debased men’s understandings. Men get all the terms of art and theological definitions, distinctions, Axioms, etc., at their finger’s end. But to study the nature of things themselves they are utterly clueless.[2]

 

So, to be sure, I’m not advocating that we close our minds. Indeed, I’m not saying that we should learn less. Quite the contrary! We need learn more. But not more data, not more information. We need to learn more deeply, and more connectedly.

Aristotle famously remarked that philosophy begins in wonder. That is to say, wonder is where philosophy begins. When done poorly, curiosity is where it ends; in a flittering and fluttering mind. Perhaps all the above could be boiled down to this, then: use the resources of social media to cultivate wonder, not curiosity.

[1] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2012), 196. For a great treatment of these themes see Paul J. Griffiths, Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar (The Catholic University of America Press, 2009).

[2] Richard Baxter, Aphorismes of Justification (London, 1649), “To the Reader,” no pagination.

Joshua Schendel

Joshua Schendel

Joshua Schendel grew up in Montana before going off to study classics, philosophy, and theology. He currently resides in St. Louis along with his wife, Bethanne, and three kids, where he is pursuing his PhD in theology.

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