Why the church should be interested in learning

From a superb essay by Catholic theologian Paul Griffiths, “From Curiosity to Studiousness: Catechizing the Appetite for Learning” (Teaching and Christian Practices):

Christianity is not gnosticism: we Christians do not deal in distinctions between esoteric and exotic learning; we do not elevate learning to the status of a condition for salvation; as it evident by the fact that we are, for the most part, happy to baptize and communicate those with deep mental handicaps; we see clearly that the pursuit and attainment of learning has nothing, by itself, to do with the pursuit and attainment of virtue, and may often be negatively correlated with it [1]; and we acknowledge that becoming learned often comports well with and actively informs vices that stand in opposition to the Christian life. This last is especially true in a culture such as ours, where the proper telos of learning is not virtue or contemplation but, rather, material success and the attainment of power. For all these reasons, we are, or should be, reserved in our enthusiasm for the pursuit of learning. That we do not always manage such reserve but become instead cheerleaders for a kind of education (a bloodless word) that pressure-cooks the vices to a well-done turn shows the extent to which we have become subject to what a blood-soaked pagan world teaches us rather than maintaining the capacity to braid love for that world together with a clear-sighted critique of it. The pastoral office of love for a bleeding world cannot be maintained without the prophetical office of teaching that world what it should be about, and this is as true of our thinking about the practices of teaching and learning as of anything else. We too often forget it.

* * *

The first and fundamental assumption informing the Christian conviction that the intellectual life is important and beautiful, and that the church has a strong interest in fostering it, is that everything that is is good. All things other than God, the Triune Lord, are creatures, which is to say that they were brought into being by him out of nothing, and are sustained in being from moment to moment by him. This is an axiom of Christian thought, a claim central to its grammar and syntax. It means that every creature is good exactly to the extent that it exists: being and goodness are exchangeable or convertible. If this is right, then what follows from it is, among other things, that knowledge of almost any kind about any aspect at all of the created order is good and needed by the church. To know and think about anything – a theorem in mathematics, the features of a galaxy thousands of light years from here, the face of your beloved, the grammar of Sanskrit – is to know something of what the Lord has made, which is to say that it is to know a good. To know something is to become intimate with it; and since to become intimate with a good is itself a good, the conclusion is, unavoidable and delightful in itself, that all knowledge and all thinking are goods. That is why the church is interested in learning. It is not that every Christian, every member of Christ’s body should seek learning; neither is it that seeking learning is the church’s principal task (that is worship of the one who makes learning possible); but it is the case that in becoming learned, the Lord’s gesture of love in bringing what is knowable and thinkable into existence is returned in an intimate way.

[1] John Henry Newman puts this point lyrically: “Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then you may hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man.” See John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University.

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