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Why Bother to Learn Anything At All, Anyway?

January 17, AD 2014 4 Comments

There are way more things to know in this Universe than you have the brain cells to record, and any one field of human study has probably by this point generated more data than a human mind, with a lifetime of study, could internalize.

We should feel small standing up against the ocean of numbers, names, dates, vocabulary words, genealogies, and scientific observations that human minds have recorded and passed down from the beginning of history. And that is just the bare facts. We should feel even smaller standing before the Frankensteinian behemoth of secondary sources, of analyses, theses, syntheses,  hypotheses, of theories and theora, of postulates and conjectures, the half-living, half-dead piecemeal that makes up all of our sciences. Enter the meta-philosophers, the cross-disciplinary geniuses, the historiographers, and the historians of ideas, and we have an even more imposing edifice before which the deflated individual mind may shrink.

But all of the above comprises merely those facts that humans have been able to accumulate over our few thousand years of history and our rational response to them. More than by all of this knowledge, we are dwarfed by our ignorance, by all of the facts that are still beyond our reach, and by all of the theories that would be necessary for us to make sense of them.

If we were supposed to come to know and understand all of reality in our 80 years, if knowledge as such was the purpose for which we were born, we would be utterly doomed to failure. The scientist, the philosopher, the mathematician, the literary critic, the historian, for all of their efforts, can only ever end their inquiries with yet more questions.

It is right, then, to suppose that the man who thinks himself bright has little to offer. There won’t be an intelligentsia in heaven, but the dimmest light in the Kingdom will know more than all the snobs of this age put together. Stephen Hawking knows very little in comparison to the knowledge a baptized, drooling, screaming infant would receive at the moment of death.

If such knowledge is to be ours, then why the search for mere facts here and now? Why the itching, burning desire to discover more and more? It’s a reasonable question for a Christian to ask.

There is, after all, a kind of gnawing doubt that is characteristic of this age, a prurient interest in all things contrary to our position, an addiction to polemic, the never-ending need for the rush of dialectical victory, the sweet sensation of a belief successfully defended, of re-affirmation. Do we claw after knowledge so as to cling to a faith whose substance is constant doubt deferred?

Do we learn merely so as to be of use, to learn new ways to suppress the vices and encourage the virtues, more effective ways to practice charity?

Rather, reality is of a piece, and everything is interesting. Everything we learn, at a minimum, gives us new ways to glorify God in the here and now, more opportunities to respond to His grace with thanksgiving, and so to remain on the path that will take us to full knowledge of and with Him in heaven. As long as we retain the hunger to learn, the yearning to know–and in large part we retain this by continuing to learn–we retain the hunger for the fullness of knowledge, for the Beatific Vision, and this hunger helps bend our recalcitrant wills heavenward.

Beyond this, knowledge is a good in itself, something whose full value we cannot appreciate until we possess it, and perhaps not even for some time after we have come into possession of it.┬áSomeday we, like Stargate’s┬áDaniel Jackson, may find such arcane and apparently useless knowledge as fluency in Egyptian hieroglyphics critical to a matter of life and death, of national security. Or, indeed, in our case, critical to the salvation of souls.

About the Author:

Sean is a teacher of History, Latin, and Choir at the high school level and parish music director. He keeps his domestic church in ordered disarray with an equally beleaguered and altogether lovely lady and his little daughter.