Resisting the Vice of Curiosity: Reflections on a PhD Quest for Knowledge

Over on the Baylor Graduate School blog, I reflect on my experience as a grad student, and the perennial temptation of the vice of curiositas:

Early in my graduate student career I had the misfortune of reading Paul Griffiths’ essay, “The Vice of Curiosity.” The essay outlines a distinction in the Christian tradition between the vice of curiosity and the virtue of studiousness. Curiositas, in the classical sense, means something different from our use of the word today. The curious person, Griffiths explains, aims at possessing knowledge to use for his own benefit; the studious one recognizes that “anything that can be known by any one of us is already known to God and has been given to us as unmerited gift.”

After reading this essay, I realized how frequently I was tempted to do my work not for it’s own sake, but for what it could get me: the grade, the publication, the job. I realized how my work was driven by the desire to “be known as one who knows.” As the job market loomed, the temptation toward curiosity only grew. To grasp for control, to seek mastery, was a way of managing the anxiety and uncertainty of being a young academic.

Faced with this temptation, what can be done? I go on to reflect on four practices, “small acts of resistance,” learned from mentors and colleagues which pushed back on curiositas. Read more about these practices of studiousness here.

“All Shall Be Well”: Lessons on Suffering from a Martyr King and an Anchorite

Today the church celebrates King Edmund—not the clever lad who becomes king in Narnia—but St. Edmund, ninth-century King of East Anglia. St. Edmund’s story does have a rather Narnian feel, what with its wintery battles, wolves, and pirates, and it’s a story worth remembering.

Edmund lived in a time when the status of Christianity in England was still very much unsure. After Roman occupation of Britain ended in 419, the island was plagued by ethnic, political, and religious conflict. The pagan Anglo-Saxons invaded, pushed Celtic Christians to the west, and virtually destroyed the church. 

The church in England was revived under Pope Gregory the Great, whose missionaries evangelized the pagan Anglo-Saxon rulers and drew them into alliance with the church. Roman missionaries were necessary because of the ongoing ethnic rivalry in England. Embittered Celtic Christians refused to evangelize the Anglos, so Gregory had to send missionaries like the Benedictine monk St. Augustine of Canterbury, who in the year 597 converted King Ethelbert in Kent. The once-pagan conquerors began to become Christian.

Two and a half centuries later, by the time of Edmund, the Anglo-Saxons had been thoroughly Christianized. Edmund was raised a Christian, and through the support of the Christian clergy became King of East Anglia. He strove to be a model Christian monarch, devoting his time and resources to proper worship, Christian learning, the administration of justice, and care for the poor. 

But not all was well. Britons during this time lived in great fear of raiders from Scandinavia. These Danish and Norwegian pirates, also known as the Vikings, regularly raided the British Isles, especially targeting churches and monasteries. In 865 the Vikings mounted a full-scale invasion, sending a massive force described by the Anglo-Saxons as “the Great Heathen Army.” Within a decade, nearly all of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had fallen to the pagan invaders: Northumbria in 867 and nearly all of Mercia in the 870s. As these kingdoms fell, so did churches, libraries and archives, and centers of learning.

In the winter of 869, this army of Vikings, led by Ingwar, or Ivar, invaded East Anglia. Edmund led his army into battle. After a bold and courageous defense, he was defeated and captured by the Danes. They demanded he renounce the Christian faith and rule as a vassal of the pagan king.

This sort of alliance was an eminently reasonable option. It would preserve Edmund’s life, and indeed a rule of some kind. Perhaps, with his limited powers, he could protect his people from a too-harsh rule by the Danes. Perhaps he could use this power for good—to maintain justice and charity, to keep the nation from slipping into complete paganism. Maybe he could even secretly preserve a vestige of Christian learning and worship. Maybe this was not only a practical choice, but a necessary one: the church needed him to compromise in order that it might survive. A desperate situation called for a desperate measure.

Woe to you, destroyer,
    who yourself have not been destroyed;
you treacherous one,
    with whom none has dealt treacherously!
When you have ceased to destroy,
    you will be destroyed;
and when you have made an end of dealing treacherously,
    you will be dealt with treacherously.

O Lord, be gracious to us; we wait for thee.
    Be our arm every morning,
    our salvation in the time of trouble
– Isaiah 33:1-2

Continue reading ““All Shall Be Well”: Lessons on Suffering from a Martyr King and an Anchorite”

5 in 10: Fr. Jonathan Kanary

Last week, the Brazos Fellows read from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, a classic collection of spiritual wisdom, and a perennial favorite in our Course of Study. (Be sure to check out Brazos Fellow alum Jess Schurz’s reflection on the desert fathers, “Learning to Be Lonely.”) We were joined by Fr. Jonathan Kanary, who wrote his masters thesis on the tradition of desert monasticism, and had a great time discussing stories and sayings that are at the same time challenging, inspiring, and often bizarre.

I also had the chance to sit down with Fr. Jonathan for “Five Questions in Ten Minutes.” We talked about two spiritually significant practices, spiritual direction and confession,

Here are the various items we talked about:

5 in 10: Brittany McComb

Last week, Brittany McComb, this year’s Brazos Fellows Scholar in Residence, led our Course of Study discussion of Cyril of Alexandria. Against the Nestorian heresy, the fifth-century patriarch Cyril defended the unity of Christ as one person in two natures. We had a lively discussion of the Christological controversies and Cyril’s theological account of how, in the Incarnation, Christ joins our nature to the divine.

Brittany holds the MA in Theology from Regent College (Vancouver, BC), and is a PhD candidate studying systematic theology at The Catholic University of America. She and I sat down for “Five Questions in Ten Minutes,” and talked about Augustine, Aquinas, Scotus and Anne Carson, why systematic theology gets a bad rap (and why it actually can open up creativity), the mystic-influenced poet she’s reading, and much more. Listen here:

Here are links to the various items Brittany mentioned: