The Glory of Useless Knowledge: Part Three

So how should we proceed once we have fully embraced wonder and joy as the foundation of knowledge? Our first duty is to identify and avoid whatever kills wonder. Chesterton said, “The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.” We must never forsake studying what we love because others think it isn’t cool. Nor should we feign interest in something just because it is trendy. We should treasure the kind of study in which we can lose ourselves, for “losing ourselves” is inherently good and spiritually cleansing. We must balance the need for career training with genuine education for the joy of knowing. This will often mean taking more responsibility for our education and recognizing that what happens apart from classrooms and curriculum is often most important. Chasing after grades, as important as they are, should not crowd out education and should not be allowed to kill our curiosity.

Someone once wrote a book on things he learned while looking up the answer to a completely different question. The joy in learning gives room for digressions, detours, and bunny trails. In his Leaves of Grass, the great American poet Walt Whitman speaks of allowing his soul to loaf. Many English writers like Wordsworth made afternoon walks and conversation a habit.  Sometimes it means standing still. Notice the strangeness of the word “understand”; it suggests we must stand under (not over) something to truly know it. Once while I was walking in the woods with the renowned naturalist Robert Pyle, he instructed our little group to stand perfectly still. Soon we could hear the tapping of a woodpecker, the chirr of a squirrel, and the dripping of dew from the branches. In our stillness we also saw beetles scurrying across the path and the shadow of a hawk soaring overhead. As we stood still under the forest canopy, we began to understand it. Wandering, loafing, and standing under can keep the joy of learning alive.

In other words, we should seek elf magic and not orc magic. Tolkien explained that the magic of elves was based on understanding and nourishing the world around them. They loved trees and studied them until they could wake them. Orcs on the other hand sought knowledge that gave them power over—they refused to “stand under”. One kind of knowledge was motivated by love, the other by the desire to exploit. One approach required patient and humble observation, the other rushed to cut the trees to fire the engines of destruction.

But sometimes God may put it in our heart to go on learning expeditions. For me this often takes the form of a reading binge where I will power through ten or twelve books on a specific topic or by a specific author. I have done this on sustainable agriculture, holocaust rescuers, early church history, fairy tales, William Faulkner, Dostoevsky, C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, George MacDonald, and Shakespeare. The fun of an expedition is that you get to penetrate to the heart of something. After reading C. S. Lewis intensely, I feel like my brain has been tuned up and my imagination cleaned up. And in all our wanderings and more deliberate expeditions, we often achieve the holy grail of education: synthesis. That is where a truth in Shakespeare connects to something said by C. S. Lewis and is then echoed by Wendell Berry in The Gift of Good Land.

We must also reject the false dichotomy between sacred and secular learning. Although we need not approach every book as Scripture, we should expect the Holy Spirit to actively guide all of our studies. We should be inviting and expecting the Holy Spirit’s commentary on all that we read. Christ promised that the Holy Spirit would lead us into all truth, so we can trust God not only to help us discern what is true and false, but to connect one truth with another. As the Holy Spirit guides believers into the wonder of synthesis, they discover that deep calls unto deep—that the truths in one area echo the truths in another. We can discover that no knowledge is useless.

Lastly, we must nourish the spirit of play and recognize play as one of the highest and holiest ways of engaging the world around us. Celebrating, delighting, and basking in the goodness of God’s creation should be the defining character of Christian education. The kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of true knowledge belong to those who enter as children ready to play.

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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