Monday, February 18, 2013

How Important is Secular Knowledge?

This is a question I am grappling with more and more. Should Christians strive to be well-rounded people with a broad and deep knowledge of life? Or should we interpret Christ's words that "one thing alone is needful" to mean that we should concentrate on Heavenly things to the exclusion of worldly things?

The first letter of John tells us "Love not the world, nor the things that are in this world. If any man love the world, the charity of his Father is not in him". How are we to interpret this?

Does Christ's announcement that "I am come that they may have life, and have it to the full" mean that we should live full, active, varied lives? Or is the fullness of life to be found on the narrow path of salvation, rather than in any worldly plenitude?

St. Paul wrote, "Because of the supreme advantage of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, I count everything else as loss. For him I have accepted the loss of all other things, and look on them all as filth if only I can gain Christ". Is that a pattern for Christians?

Should we watch television? Visit the cinema? Read novels? Paint? Play chess? Support sports teams? Collect postcards? Should we engage in the million other hobbies and pursuits that may interest us and (as we believe) enrich our lives?

And if we should do these things, should we do them for their own sake, or should we do them as a means to some other end-- for instance, going to the movies as a part of courtship or friendship or family life? Or should we simply do them as a form of recreation, not for their own sake, but to refresh ourselves and so better equip ourselves for our Christian duties?

If we study history and literature and folklore and philosophy, may we do this for its own sake, or are all these things to be studied from a Christian perspective-- to make us better apologists, better defenders of the Faith, and to help us better trace the workings of the Holy Spirit?

I find this question especially compelling, because (like Robert Frost's traveller) both of the paths that open from this fork in the road seem attractive to me.

What Christian-- indeed, what agnostic who is not devoid of religious yearnings-- has not felt the desire to renounce his interest in the world and to spend all his or her attention (insofar as duty allowed) upon sacred subjects? Who cannot sympathize with the words of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque: "I desire but this one grace, and long to be consumed like a burning candle in His holy Presence every moment of the life that remains to me"? Whose heart does not jump at the words of St. John the Baptist: "He must increase, but I must decrease?"

Who has never knelt before the Blessed Sacrament in some quiet church and felt a surge of longing to be there always-- physically as far as possible, and when not physically, mentally? Who has not felt that the stillness of that holy place makes a mockery of the whirling, giddy, distracted world outside? Does not the world outside seem unreal and phantasmal, at such a moment?

Who has never felt that spiritual reading is the only sort of reading that is really worthwhile-- that all the libraries of fiction, philosophy, history, criticism, memoirs, and so forth, are merely shadows and opinion, while Scripture, approved spiritual classics, sound theology, and other dependable religious works, are "solid food"? How can we justify time spent reading novels when many lifetimes would not suffice to master the Bible, the Fathers, the lives of the saints, the history of the Church, and so on?

I myself often feel this desire to abandon all worldly reading and learning and focus my mind entirely on religion. Of course, I am well aware how much of it is merely imagination and whim. I imagine, at moments of religious excitement, that I could wish nothing more than to devote all my mental energies to the worship and knowledge of God, to the study of Godly things. But I am well aware of my own inconstancy, my own fickleness, of how quickly and easily I would be drawn to worldly matters. And yet, if I was capable of such a concentration on spiritual things, would it be desirable? It is the ideal for Christians?

And then there is the other road that forks from this crossroad-- not the one that leads to the lonely church, but the one that leads to the lights of the city and habitations of men and all of the boundless, numberless activities of mankind. (To be sure, there are churches and cathedrals there, too.)

I have always loved the giddy diversity of human life. One of my favourite poems of all time is "Snow" by Louis MacNeice, with its celebrated lines:

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

I even had a t-shirt printed with those lines on it, not so long ago. (Unfortunately, it didn't stand up to many washes.)

My love of the world's plurality is so intense that even looking at a Trivial Pursuit board, or flicking through the pages of an enyclopedia, or taking a book at random from a shelf and opening a random page, fills me with an intense and awe-filled delight.

And this delight is (and always has been, on looking back, though I didn't always realize it) a religious delight. Life, when I look at it with an appreciation for its tropical variety, seems so obviously the handiwork of a benevolent and insanely generous Creator. And taking delight in His creation itself seems like an act of worship, when done with reverence.

So I have no answer to my question. In fact, I would be very grateful for any guidance and advice and answers that others might have. I am left standing at the fork in the road.


  1. My suggestion is to read Aquinas, both as a general suggestion as in the particular case.

    For Aquinas (who has more than a little centrality for Catholics) creation has been teleologically ordered by God; the purpose of man is illustrated by our nature, and in particular our nature is to be a rational creature...a creature with the ability to use reason to explore and learn about the world. It follows, within this school of thought, that if God has given us that ability to learn he gave it to use for a purpose.

  2. Thanks for that. I have read some Thomist works but not Aquinas himself. I am sure he has plenty to say about the proper use of our faculties.

  3. I'm not sure why you feel it's a question of choosing between the two rather than striking a balance between them. Is it a fear of doing neither well? Or of choosing the inferior way? And somehow suffering because of this?

    Sorry for responding to a question with more questions...

  4. Well, I think every possible action brings with it the question of whether it is worth doing or not. Our lives are so short and everything you do precudes a near-infinity of other things you could be doing. Even with no reference to religion, I find the question of what books we should read (for instance) fascinating. If you do strike a balance, you still have to decide what balance, what proportion, and on what principle.