The Glory of Useless Knowledge: Part One

In Genesis we are told that after each act of creation God looked at what he had made and saw that it was good. At the conclusion of the creation narrative, we are told, “God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31 NASB). We should note that God did not say what it was good for. Nor did God look over all creation and pronounce it, “Useful.” Just as God “saw” and then delighted in what He had made, we are called to see the world and then delight in its goodness. God saw and declared the goodness of creation even before He had created Adam and Eve, so its goodness is not tied to the benefits it offers humans. It is simply good.

God invites Adam to enjoy this goodness by bringing him each of the animals to name. If we imaginatively reconstruct this scene, we see that this is the first example of science. Adam carefully observed each animal and then named it. Today we would call this taxonomy. Of course, we have no idea whether Adam recognized families or any of our present systems of classification, but observing, describing, and naming are still the essence of science.

On a relational level, observing and naming the animals was an invitation to share in God’s own delight of what He made. We can almost imagine God turning to Adam and saying, “Wait until you see this next one; you will really like it!” God must have delighted in Adam’s surprise and joy at each new creature.

All this delight in creation has very little to do with its usefulness. All Adam and Eve needed for food was supplied by the fruit trees God had planted in the garden. We are never told that God intended Adam and Eve to put any of the animals to work. When Adam was looking at the animals, he wasn’t seeing a way to pull a plow, or steaks and pork chops. God and Adam, perhaps sitting together on a hill while animals trotted by, were engaging in a kind of play.

When a child delights in the smoothness of a rock, the coolness of a stream on a hot summer day, or delights in the happy bounce of a dog let off the leash, he or she is replaying Eden. Our first response to the world should be, “It is good, it is very good.” Our celebration of the goodness of what God has made often takes the form of play, which in many ways is the most godly (God-like) and highest expression of education.

This learning and knowing simply for the joy of knowing is godly in several ways. First, it is not egocentric. Often when we ask what something is good for, we are really asking what good can it do me—how can I use it. Too often our eye and attention skips over that which offers no obvious benefit. There’s something holy about delighting in something simply for the wonder of what it is. Second, simple delight in the goodness of things frees us from the control of what others think. It is sad to watch a child give up building sandcastles because some friend says, “That’s dumb.” Education founded on joy and wonder frees us from the corrupting quest for status and acclaim. Delight is usually a more trustworthy guide to what we should learn.

The paradox here is that the more childlike our pursuit of knowledge is, the more like God we are. The maturity pragmatism offers is false because it invites us to view all we learn in terms of its personal benefit to us. And despite the title of this piece, the real point is that no knowledge is useless because God has created all things. But like many biblical paradoxes, the usefulness of knowledge is often found only if it is not sought. All delight in creation are expressions of worship and communion with God—the creator. Worship and communion, however, are not usually high on our list of pragmatic values even though it is that for which we were created.

Lest anyone think I am making too much of these passages from Genesis, let me point out that Solomon “spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon even the hyssop that grows on the wall; he spoke of animals and birds and creeping things and fish.” The cedar trees were certainly a useful building material, but hyssop was essentially a weed that sprung up everywhere even in walls. In Genesis, God pronounced creeping things good, and here they are included in Solomon’s discourses. Today we would say Solomon was a botanist, ornithologist, zoologist, and entomologist. Many of the Proverbs are presented as wise observations on the nature of life, man, and even the natural world. Christ urged his disciples to “consider the lilies of field” and entrust themselves to God’s care. The foundation of education—especially Christian education should be observation and delight.

About Mark

I live in Myrtle Point, Oregon with my wife Teckla and am the father of four boys. Currently I teach writing and literature at Southwest Oregon Community College. I am a graduate of Myrtle Point High School, Northwest Nazarene College, and have a Masters in English from Washington State University.
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