“Learned men”

“You are thinking too much!” -I have heard that occasionally. As the saying goes: “I think, therefore I am… single”.  ^_^ And I believe it is possible to think too much, and read to much, and learn to much. But mainly if it is about the wrong things. If ignorance was bliss, we’d live in Utopia.

If I am allowed, I will write some reflections that put together what I wrote yesterday with something I have noticed while reading the amazing St Teresa of Avila, herself a genius as well as a saint.

I have found myself unable to complete reading her autobiography Life and her famous Interior Castle, because of their structure that reveals ever greater depths of holiness and purity, and I just cannot bear looking too far into what I have (so far, at least) failed to enter myself. I get to a certain point (about a third of her autobiography, actually) and then, well, it feels kind of like peeping. Looking at something that is not for me, at least at the present.  Even so, I have gotten my hands on her Way of Perfection. It seems to have a different structure from the others, with no clear progression that catches up with me and passes me by.

One thing that shows up repeatedly in her writing, and again here, is her respect and admiration for “learned men”. In this context is meant theologians, people who have learned much about the Bible and the Church. I find this interesting: There is a tendency among Christians to praise the simple faith and, if not in those words, the simple mind. This tradition goes back to Jesus Christ himself, who praised the children and those who became like children. But from this admiration of the simple has grown a more thorny stem, of disregard and even mockery of learning and thinking. Catholicism has maintained a balance between the childlike devotion and the learned philosophy, seeking to find a place for each in the life of the Church. But in the Protestant tradition, anti-intellectualism has grown to great heights in some places.

In modern society, this anti-intellectualism has played right into the hands of the left (as if this movement has any particular claim to intellect!) trying to portray religion as a remnant from the Dark Ages. There are indeed Christians (particularly in America, it seems to me) who seem eager to support this view.

Now the “learned men” that St Teresa – and modern Catholic philosophers such as James V. Schall – talk about, these are not people who just randomly latch on to whatever zeitgeist (spirit of the times) is prevalent on college campus at their time. Rather they are such as seek out works of timeless wisdom, Holy Scriptures first and then the words of the great thinkers through the ages, whose thoughts have expanded the minds of the generations that followed them.

C. S. Lewis, another “learned man” of sorts, wrote an obvious truth that deserves recognition no matter what you think about Lewis himself and his religion. He wrote that it is necessary to read old books not because they are truer than new books, but because the fallacies of their age were different from ours. We are easily able to see in old books the mistakes that were commonly accepted and not even debated in their age, but which are glaring to our eyes. But what we do not easily understand is that in our own age, we also have a particular zeitgeist (spirit of the times) which makes us agree on many things without a serious debate, things that from another age (past or future) would look like pure madness.

If there was no other reason – if all holy scripture was just pious fantasy, if all philosophers of the past were simply ignorant barbarians – it would still be a pressing need for some to read the works of the past. If for nothing else, then at the very least in order to return to our own time and see it for the first time.

But I for one do not think the benefit is as limited as that. As I have said before, there is in true genius an expansion not first and foremost of knowledge itself, but of the capacity for knowledge and understanding. It is not that reading them fills our cup, but it makes our cup larger! It is not knowledge itself as much as our ability to look at knowledge in new ways. And if this is true for the great thinkers, then far more for religion properly so called. If the human genius makes our “container” of the mind wider, religion should make it deeper. (This, as I mentioned above, certainly does not happen with all people, more’s the pity.)

The best description I have heard of the fruit of this process is this, that we come to look at ourselves and the world from a much higher place. From this height, patterns become obvious that were hidden close up. And things that loomed so large, are seen as the molehills they are, and the people whose opinions weighed so heavily upon us, seem like ants, going about their own things rather than (as we thought) being preoccupied with us. It is rare indeed (except for the lover and the stalker) that anyone in this world is concentrated on us and our small things. When seen from a very great height, we can breathe a sigh of relief, or even laugh at our former delusions.

If this is the fruit of becoming a “learned man”, then I see no harm in it. But there are many petty minds carrying books they have not fully digested. From these I expect little help. But Light send that they have no hand in supporting the spiritual life of the earnest, for they need the other kind, who can watch over them from on high, so to speak.


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