The Necessity of Christian Scholarship

“If you make your enemy look a fool, you lose the justification for engaging him.” Oliver Lacon, in John Le Carré’s Smiley’s People.

St Jerome in his Study, Albrecht Dürer

Years ago I became acquainted with the work of the Presbyterian scholar Robert Dick Wilson. A student of the Old Testament, he had taken up the study, one time or another, of some 25+ languages (Hebrew–and Samaritan, Amorite, the Akkadian languages, Sumerian, Hurrian, along with French, German, etc) and used them in his defense of the Old Testament’s reliability. I had a professor at Rutgers, Stephen Reinert, who knew 16. For him obtaining a reading knowledge of cognate languages helped in expanding one’s grasp of all languages, and as an historian of late  Byzantine history, knowledge of these languages (Turkish, Serbian, Russian, Romanian, Bulgarian, as well as Greek, Latin, German, and French) were de rigueur for working in that field. Both of these scholars knew a very basic point, that you cannot know a culture without first knowing its language, and second, that you are a child walking into a conversation you can’t take part in if you don’t know the vocabulary of those speaking about the topic. Here, for my professor, it wasn’t a matter simply of knowing Greek, and only Greek, so that he could read late Byzantine sources, but knowing all the others so that he could both read the literature of the past century to understand the current state of the conversation, and to engage as well with Byzantines’ neighbors during the empire’s decadence. However smart you are, whatever content you can garner in English, if this is the limit of your language skills, you are always a stranger dependent on someone else for your knowledge, and never really a full part of the conversation that scholars engage in. 

My own life in the academy has brought this home for me numerous times. Too often authors obviously did not know the languages they appealed to, and badly mangled not just the language, but then the very sense and meaning of the author they had commented on. This happens often in attempts to make polemical points, and invariably the points are wildly amiss, given how utterly miserably the languages have been bollixed. 

Ultimately, however, their abortive arguments are sadly followed by those of their readers who, having no facility in the language, are the slaughtered intellectual lambs sacrificed on the hubris and laziness of our putative experts.

I bring up this sad reality for two points. First, most Christians only know the faith in their own language. Am I expecting them to take up Latin, Greek, German, French, etc., so that they can enter into the conversations that scholars are having? No, not at all. So then, are they doomed ever and always to be children wandering into adult conversations? To a certain degree, yes, but this attenuated sense comes with the proviso that there are enough teachers and thinkers who have been putting in the work to make the conversation far more accessible to everyone. After all, St. James has warned us that not many of us should be teachers, but we certainly should have enough to make sure that everyone is a learner. This is one of the things that elicits the need for Christian scholarship, but it is hardly the only reason.

The second reason we need to address flabby thinking and teaching is the current, ubiquitous mania of meme theologians. Oversimplification besets us on all sides, a world wherein some too easily caricature their supposed intellectual interlocutors as paltry intellects, frequently reducing them to an exaggeration of their most obvious flaws. Yet this nullifying one’s adversary’s value and worth as intellectual opponents actually betrays an impoverishment of thought, marking those guilty of it as people void of any real sustained inquiry and reflection. In essence, no scholar at all. They’ve walked headlong into the warning of John Le Carré’s Oliver Lacon, for having attempted to show their opponent a fool, they can then claim they have no need to answer their arguments.

Almost the whole of our modern culture, in short, has bid adieu to disputation, dialogue, debate, or just plain, simple conversation of any sustained nature. Consequently, our dismissive attitudes of others’ arguments actually shows that we are either unequal to answering them, or too lazy to.

The current plague of Pecksniffian midwittery, wherein people repeat a  platitude that reveals they have mastered some team’s talking point, supposedly proves the gravity of their moral seriousness by the mere repetition of it. These people aren’t dolts, nor what we would have called nitwits, but instead simply people who neglect the work necessary to master the subjects on which they pontificate. How often, sadly, we can become these people.

This is all to say that we need real scholarship, and that indeed on some level, every Christian is obligated to study and master to the best of their ability the truths of the Faith. To do this, first, we need humility. Humility would have us go ask others for their opinions, and demand we exercise the virtue of patience in quietly listening. If I am humble, I should be willing to sit at someone else’s feet to learn all they can teach me, and engage with them that together we may learn more. 

In short, this is the presupposition of scholarship. I need humility to have other people look at what I have thought, said, and written so that I can learn where I am wrong. If I don’t have eyes on my work, I am always in serious trouble. And thus the first thing we need is really two, humility joined with the  patience to sit and listen.

Likewise the second thing we need is also twofold, namely ardor wedded to imagination. The former gives to the latter the materials needed to construct coherent thoughts, and the latter keeps the first from becoming mere pedantry. It should be noted that imagination here does not mean flight of fancy, the construction of the fantastic, nor the contriving of ideas not based upon reality, but is instead one of the chief aspects of rhetoric, the use of invention that will make our arguments persuasive. For Aristotle, as set out in his Rhetoric, invention is itself a logical exercise, and indeed one of the crowning acts of dialectic while still distinct from it.

Now, with these four items, these two pairs in hand, we are actually armed to begin the long and demanding road of learning, the prerequisite of scholarship. This all requires much further elaboration, how these four items will aid us in our quest, but the rest of this essay will simply build on these, as its main concern involves why we need Christian scholarship to begin with, and why, in a real sense, all Christians should be concerned with this topic. There are three points.

St. Anastasius in his Monastery. Rembrandt, 1631.

First, we need to know and understand our Faith in order to defend the weak in Faith. You may think that this is your priest’s duty, or that of our bishops and the faculties of seminaries, and in truth this is so, but none of these are about when your children come home from school, or spend time with their friends, or have just had two to three uninterrupted hours in front of one screen or another (TV, the computer, the phone, the tablet), and start asking questions that you feel uncomfortable answering, but which they feel uncomfortable talking to your priest about: were dinosaurs around in the garden of Eden? Can God create a rock too big for him to pick up?

Over 60% of our young people, once out of high school, stop attending a parish. Certainly not all of this can be laid at the feet of not knowing well the faith, but in a real sense it can: it can be laid out our feet for not knowing and consequently practicing the faith well enough to pass on. 

Have we integrated the demands of our Creed into every area of our lives so that our children know what it is, and see that it is important to us, and more critically, we can tell them WHY it is important to us? Further, do they see this in our friends? Do they see us discussing the most important aspects of life with them, or is it pleasantries about sports or politics? I’m not deprecating these as things sinful to pay attention to, but are they the most important things? Too many of us think that politics is the most crucial part of life (and indeed, political people all seem bent on telling us what to do with our lives, and that they are supremely important), but are we ready to show our children what truly is most fundamental: “but seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these things (food, shelter, etc) shall be added to you.”

Second, we need to study our Faith because we live in a world filled with people seeking the truth, and are hearing all sorts of things, but seldom the truth, or even an approximation of it. Quite simply, this is part of our duty to let people know we are Christians (not hiding our light under a basket) and to be ready to give an account for our hope in Christ. Often we skirt conversations because it becomes uncomfortable when people ask us things that we really haven’t investigated, but seem so integral to our Christian life (How can you say you believe in one God, but worship three of them? If sex is so important to our species, why do we need to confine it to marriage? Isn’t there lots of God-approved violence in the Bible?). Being ready to answer these questions, and a great many others, is important. Opportunities arise at the most unlikely of times, and are we ready to interact, or do we clam up in the face of an uncomfortable inability to engage on a deep level?

I used to stay awake at night, after prepping for a class, thinking I need to know X, Y, and Z, as doubtless some student will ask about it. Ironically, these questions almost never happened, but they certainly did ask me lots of things on other subjects, and if I didn’t have an answer, I knew where I could obtain it. How many of us know where we can quickly find the answers to the questions our co-workers or neighbors may ask us? Do we know the teachers who can give us the answers?

Third, and last, and working off of both of these, we need to study because it keeps our own faith focused on what is important, and makes handling the first two needs that much easier. Curiosity makes or breaks students, as students without curiosity will treat subjects in the most cursory way possible in order to pass a test. The truly curious however, will go beyond the demands of an exam to find out the implications of a subject, and what is more, integrate it into their mental makeup. This is true of the Faith as well. Is our thinking about the Faith the default settings of our brain, or is it wondering what our sports team or the president is up to?

Our Faith is that Pearl of great price that our Lord talks about. Have we sold all so that we can obtain it? If we extend our Lord’s metaphor just a bit, don’t we need to understand pearls to begin with, find out if it is truly a pearl or a cheap knock-off, and don’t we also need to count the cost (to borrow from another parable) so that we can obtain it?

Finally, being a student of anything, whether of doctrine or of music or of math, demands time and effort. I have to sacrifice other things to obtain mastery of my discipline. I have to be disciplined about my discipline. I need to spend my nights reading or practicing, not consuming the latest tripe that Distraction Inc. puts out for us. 

To be a Christian is to be a learner, a student. All scholars begin there. All Christians need to begin there. 

In the next essay I will discuss the duties of the Christian Scholar, and the things necessary of people who make the claim to be teachers.