Today we welcome a guest writer to the Bear Tracks blog. Paul Gutacker received his Ph.D. in History from Baylor University in 2019, and now serves as a full-time lecturer in the History Department. He and his wife Paige co-direct Brazos Fellows, a nine-month fellowship for college graduates in Waco, TX.
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.”
Drawing on St. Augustine, Griffiths carefully parses the difference between these modes of learning: curiosity seeks to possess, to master; study seeks with humility and gratitude. Curiosity is insatiable; study is attentive, even contemplative. Curiosity pursues knowledge to gain control; studiousness means learning out of delight. Curiosity seeks to self-aggrandize; study “is a form of lovemaking, of work proper to amateurs rather than professionals.”
Griffiths observes that the modern academy treats this vice as if it were a virtue. We define knowledge as proprietary, we aim at innovation above all else, we leverage all our work toward creating a marketable “personal brand.” And studying at a religious institution does not necessarily make us immune. In fact, as theologian Hans Boersma recently writes, even theological study can fall into curiosity.
Reading Griffiths wrecked me. And it did so because I knew that the real problem was not institutional but rather located in my own heart—the issue was my own propensity toward curiositas. 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.
So what can be done? For those who desire to be studious, not curious, how might we pursue the virtue and resist the vice?
When I reflect back on my graduate student years, I realize how much I learned from mentors and colleagues who resisted curiositas. Against the pull of institutions and the stress of job markets, and against their own bent, these women and men modeled studiousness. I could wax eloquent about how their scholarship itself reflected this virtue, but, instead, let me highlight several practices that shaped their work. Let me pass along a few things that I observed them do:
Light a candle. We can’t think our way out of habits—we need tangible things. My mentor at Regent College, Bruce Hindmarsh, encourages his students to light a candle on our desk. The lit candle serves as a visual reminder that we work in the presence of the Lord. It helps us see our work as prayer, to bring our questions, anxieties, and doubts to the One who knows everything. It teaches us that our work is done for the Lord, not for anything we can get out of it. So light a candle! (Depending on where you work, setting things on fire may be illegal or dangerous—proceed with caution?)
Be an amateur. Give some of your time to reading and talking about things you couldn’t possibly master. Read outside your field. Join an interdisciplinary group (be a Conyers Scholar!) or discuss a thoughtful book with folks who aren’t in academia. Cultivate your capacity for wonder by paying attention to things you don’t understand.
Give away your work. If studiousness means being open-handed with what you’ve received, then a simple way to practice this virtue is to be generous. This means occasionally doing work that doesn’t “count.” (How can you tell if it’s not “counting”? It won’t end up on your C.V.) Teach a church class; write for an outlet that won’t pay or bring prestige; proofread a colleague’s work with care. Ideally, find a way to teach children. Kids couldn’t care less about your credentials and usually ask the hardest questions.
Practice Sabbath. Ceasing from work for a day undermines an essential trait of the curious one: restlessness. To rest, even or perhaps especially during our busiest times, is to remember that our hope does not depend on us. Sabbath invites us to embrace our finitude, to remember that God is God and we are just creatures, and to realize that the world goes on without us. It helps us to remember that all of our life, including our work, is gift.
These four practices may seem rather mundane. They may appear insignificant compared to the allure of curiosity and ineffectual against the pressures of the modern research university. But I’ve seen, in friends and mentors, the fruit that can grow from these small seeds. As Wendell Berry puts it, “every day do something / that won’t compute. Love the Lord. / Love the world. Work for nothing.” Perhaps it is in small acts of resistance, in daily and weekly habits, that we cultivate a good field. Perhaps the work of resisting curiositas, like keeping a garden, is the sort of mundane work that only appears fruitful over time—a lifetime, even—when, finally, the harvest will be gathered.