I have always been curious. I love going to museums, libraries, and historical sites. Hours spent in conversation, sharing ideas, testing concepts, and delighting in growing just a bit more in the company of a friend – these are treasures in my life.
As I move through the years, I find that my interests in one topic lead me to others. It is like watching a tree grow. The roots and branches spread out as the initial seed of curiosity grows deeper and higher.
When I was younger, I used to fear that I was unfocused; that my curiosity drove me forward to grow my base of knowledge with cancerous design. Was my curiosity disordered and a waste of time and energy? Was I merely following after phantoms that would prove to have no substance? Did my mind lack discipline – chasing after leaves like a child at play? When was I too old to run hither and thither?
As a graduate student, I began looking for an understanding of the spirituality of scholarship. I had very little idea of what that meant. I guessed it meant having some driving purpose to motivate my studies and my researches. I imagined it as a kind of filter that would keep me from wasting time and energy; a filter that would make me a good steward of this life and intellect I’ve been given.
I kept asking the question? . . . What is the spiritual worth of this study? What good can come from this? How do others benefit from what I am doing?
In many ways, the life of a scholar is one of tremendous privilege. Spending hours each day in focused reading, thinking through questions, sifting information – these are things that take a tremendous amount of energy and time. There were many years when I worked hard at various jobs that left me too tired to marshall much thought during off hours. To have seasons of life in which one can develop ideas is a kind of wealth. It is a kind of wealth that needs to be held in a moral frame of responsible relationship with others.
This sort of personal self-reflection is important. It is also important to have others with whom to consider efforts at good stewardship. It helps move a person towards a clarifying of that which makes the pursuit of knowledge virtuous and not simply self-indulgent: wisdom.
If knowledge is the tree that is planted within us – then it is wisdom that is the spirit that animates that tree and gives it a virtuous shape. As we cultivate it through careful reflection and meditation it gains strength within us and inspires the shape of our curiosity. It is the guiding spirit that makes each new branch or root build up the tree of knowledge and strengthen us in our own moral character.
Wisdom and knowledge need to be watered with humility. As the saying goes – The more we know, the more we know how much we don’t know. Our knowledge is most helpful to ourselves and to others when we (and others) are aware that it is partial. Indeed, as one grows as a scholar, the mark of maturity is that the greatest counsel that can be shared with other people is to ask useful questions and offer nuanced assessments of our provisional answers to the questions asked. A boastful scholar is self-deluded. A person who must have a definitive answer that ends all questions has not yet learned that conclusions are the end – and life has no end.
It is a privilege to learn and to teach. It is a sacred relationship that aids in perfecting the soul of individuals and of societies. I personally hope that we will all cultivate the tree of knowledge by means of purifying a spirit of wisdom as well.