The Glory of Useless Knowledge: Part Two

If ever there was a champion of useless knowledge, it was G. K. Chesterton. In the introduction to his book Tremendous Trifles, he urges us to see the wonders around us:

None of us think enough of these things on which the eye rests. Why should the eye be so lazy? Let us exercise the eye until it learns to see the startling facts that run across the landscape as plain as a painted fence. Let us be ocular athletes. Let us learn to write essays on a stray cat or a coloured cloud.

As we read through Tremendous Trifles, we discover that in his essays Chesterton practiced what he preached, especially in “What I Found in My Pocket.” He also asserts that such ocular athleticism may be the key to adventure:

In other words, we may, by fixing our attention almost fiercely on the facts before us, force them to turn into adventures; force them to give up their meaning and fulfill their mysterious purpose.

As Chesterton suggests, simply seeing the world around us is the first step to discovering its secrets.

I learned this in a powerful way when my wife and I moved from the Pacific Northwest to Olathe, Kansas. Compared to the mountains and beaches of the southern coast of Oregon, Kansas was a chigger-filled wasteland. But year after year, with the help of a stack of field guides, I taught myself the names of trees, wildflowers, birds, and mammals. With my ankles bathed in bug spray, I tramped through woods and grasslands learning where I might spot a blue grosbeak or a jack-in-the-pulpit. I learned the seasons when edible greens and hickory nuts could be gathered. My contempt for the land turned to love. That strange place became home. Frequented meadows and streams became friends. I truly learned to see the place. But as Chesterton suggests with his phrase “ocular athletes”, learning to see Kansas was not easy—it was an “ocular marathon”.

In all my endeavors to become an ocular athlete, I have remained steadfastly and proudly amateur. Unlike dedicated or competitive birds, I have even failed to keep a list of the birds I have seen. The word amateur comes from the Latin root for lover, so the expansion of amateur interests and curiosity requires the enlarging of our hearts to love and marvel at the world around us. Today professions often demand a high degree of specialization, but Christians are called to be generalists at heart because all truth is God’s truth and this truly is our Father’s world.

We should also recognize that in some ways the intense study of anything opens door to everything. Someone’s stamp collection can become a commentary on world history and geography. In a very literal way, the study of the smallest subatomic particles may unlock cosmic mysteries. Tolkien captures this truth in the story of “Leaf by Niggle”. Niggle paints a leaf that becomes a tree, and the tree becomes a forest, and it eventually becomes the land in which he and his neighbor live and work together. One of the best examples of the triumph of amateurism may be Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. These stories began when Tolkien came across the names of some elves and dwarfs in Icelandic literature. He then wondered what kind of language elves might speak and, after teaching himself Finnish, began inventing several dialects of elvish. Tolkien then began thinking about what kind stories elves might tell in this language. One curiosity led to another and resulted in the creation of hobbits, Middle Earth, The Lord of the Rings, and in his The Silmarillion a narrative of creation. As suggested by his semi-allegorical story “Leaf by Niggle”, Tolkien was conscious that his elvish hobby had kept him from accomplishing much professional scholarship during his tenure at Oxford, but it is his love of elves and hobbits that has secured him enduring fame. We should also note that although Tolkien seemed to retreat into an imagined world of his own creation, in this world he could comment freely upon all the things more important to this life: perseverance, loyalty, duty, humility, hope, pity, and the battle against evil.

The line between the amateur and the pure scientist is often as thin as a paycheck. If we define pure research as a search for knowledge apart from possible applications, we see that there is little difference between the pure scientist and the amateur. I recently attended a talk on sandy beach ecology that posed several questions about why the population of blood worms fell off dramatically within the wetland tidal zone. One hypothesis was that the predatory sand worm (looking like something from Herbert’s Dune) kept the blood worms in the higher zone. Of course, practical applications of all this wormy scholarship are not immediately obvious. But what was obvious is that the speaker loved this stuff—just like the most passionate amateur. His scholarship was play. And in many ways his Ph. D. was simply a license to play in the area he loved. Even in scholarship, love never fails.

It is significant that as the modern age rejected Christian faith, writers began to describe ennui (or boredom) as part of the misery of the human condition. In fact, at the end of the 19th century a cultivated boredom with life became a common characteristic of aesthetes and the intelligentsia. When the perceived absence of God became a philosophical dogma in existentialism, boredom became a major philosophical concern. Curiosity, wonder, and adventure are rooted in the conviction that the world is endlessly interesting because the God that created us (and our capacity to know the world) also created all that surrounds us. Our minds and imaginations fit this world and this world yields it secrets to our minds. Therefore everything connects; everything fits. When we consider the lilies of the fields, we really do see something about God’s care for what he loves. The metaphor of rebirth that encompasses us each spring is not just a human fantasy or sentiment; it is a genuine truth about life and about God.

The Christian faith should create in us a joyful curiosity about the world around. Christians should be a tribe of amateurs who find God’s truth in all truth and therefore love all things. We should be intrigued by facts, not afraid of them. Pure science should be, and often has been, great fields of play for Christians. God still invites us to see what he has made, give it a name, and say it is good.

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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