Curiosity and the Duty of Reading

Once again, a question from a student got me thinking about books and reading. This stemmed from a bit of an ugly incident: one day in class I became completely exasperated with my students' lack of curiosity. We were reading fascinating texts (it was an essay by Milbank) that opened all kinds of doors into contemporary thought and the halls of the tradition. But my students seemed satisfy to scan the piece and not dig deeper. So, admittedly, I laid into them a bit, and I still don't entirely regret it. Afterward, one of my favorite students asked for some direction. I was actually a bit daunted by the scope of the question, so it took me a _long_ time to reply. Here's it is:

Dear B__,

Well, you must be thinking the apocalypse is near, as I'm finally answering your email! I would apologize for the delay, but it's been so long now, an apology might just embarrass both of us. So let's pretend you just asked!

I still recall the class that occasioned your email: I had become frustrated, perhaps unjustly, with what I perceived as a lack of initiative among your compatriots when it came to engaging serious ideas in difficult texts (we were reading a doozy from Milbank, as I recall). Looking back, I probably over-reacted, but if it was an occasion for you and I to have this exchange, then I don't regret a minute of it. At the time, my "outburst" came from a sense of both sadness and frustration. And in some ways, this stems from a kind of jealousy. As I think you know, I don't have anything that even resembles a "pedigree": I come from stock with dark blue collars and was the first person in my entire extended family to attend college and earn a degree. Even at that, I went to a little "hick" Bible college in Iowa! So when I see the riches of a liberal arts education that is on offer for you guys at Calvin, I am deeply envious, and often wish that I could dive into the wells that Calvin students are daily "required" to swim.

What I find so maddening is that despite this "embarrassment of riches," too many Calvin students--including our philosophy majors--tend to aim so low, try to figure the minimum that's needed to pass (or even worse, the minimum to secure the glorified commodity of the educational "market"--the "A"). They won't even complete the assigned reading, let alone dig around in the wealth of literature related to the "required" reading.

And what I find saddening, I guess, is that this seems to be such a flippant refusal of a wealth of gifts. Or, perhaps I should say that I just don't understand this attitude. I'm not trying to set myself as a model (and, of course, when someone says that, you know they're going to do exactly that! :-), but when I finally got to college, I wanted to devour everything I could get my hands on (I had been converted to Christian faith just 10 months before, and finally cared about reading). I spent hours upon hours in the library, diving into one book, seeing in it directions to another, tracking it down, and swimming into its waters. If my professors assigned some lame reading in Charles Ryrie or Lewis Sperry Chafer, I would follow up their critiques of "process theology" by getting ahold of Whitehead's Process and Reality. When one of my professor's bibliography's listed W.G.T. Shedd's Dogmatic Theology as a classic, I began to read it cover to cover as my own course in systematics. When, in his discussion of the Trinity, Shedd opened my eyes to the philosophers, I began to read Plato, Aquinas, and others. Every footnote I saw as an invitation into whole new worlds. If there is one thing that I love about my "job" (there are many things), it's the fact that I get to spend a lifetime exploring new worlds. And it's never stopped. Even just in the past 6 months, to give just a couple of examples, two vast new vistas have opened up for me, and I'm busying trying to acquaint myself with the terrain: (1) the fascinating nexus of John Ruskin, William Morris, and others who thought long about the relationship between architecture and Christian socialism; and (2) quite by chance, the writings of 19th-century novelist and playrwright Oscar Wilde.

Perhaps what I mean to say is that I think curiosity is one of the most important Christian virtues. Curiosity is the desire to explore every nook and cranny of the gift God has given us in the world of thought and culture (as well as the natural environment). Curiosity takes seriously God's gifts in the cultural unfoldings of those he has gifted. (I often pray with Coleson, who loves reading Tolkien, etc., thanking God for gifting authors who open up the world for us in ways we could never on our own.) The "world" of culture (theoretical culture such as philosophy and theology, but also literary culture) is like a river system. As Christians, especially Christian thinkers and theologians, we have an obligation to explore the depths of the Christian tradition and its literature (but as St. John says, this is the kind of obligation that is not a burden, but a gift) This tradition is like a wide, deep, river, which seems slow and plodding, but once you get close, and dip a foot in its current, you find it is powerful and rushing with energy. What an absolute privilege to be able to swim in these depths. But more than that, we should seek to explore every tributary back to its source, and take the time to hike the paths that lead off from the river's edge.

So what I would want to communicate is not so much a reading list as a reading program, or even better, a reading passion. A kind of disciplined curiosity--curiosity as a discipline. This is a discipline that requires never saying no to a footnote. Now, obviously, one can't read everything. But one should get in the habit of selectively following up leads beyond what is "required," letting curiosity set a program of exploration. In addition, one should make note of those paths that can't be explored now, but might come back again later. So, for instance, I've kept bumping into John Ruskin's name for the last several years. Finally, my curiosity reached a critical mass, and converged with certain fortuitous events that gave me the opportunity to finally explore the "Ruskin" tributary of the river of Christian thought more thoroughly. To be a good reader requires a good memory.

I'm not sure if this is what you were hoping for. Perhaps you were hoping for more of a "bibliography" of 'essential Christian reading.' I feel almost completely un-equipped to do something like that. In lieu of that, let me make just a few broad suggestions:

(1) As I think you've already been doing, let your formation in Christian tradition range across denominational and traditional boundaries. Any good Christian thinking will be "catholic" and should reflect an engagement with the streams of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant traditions. An important way to absorb this is by drinking deeply from the Church fathers. As you know, I think Augustine is a world to himself, and you could live a lifetime on his corpus. (Confessions would be my "desert island book.") But spend time in the Eastern fathers as well (Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianus, Basil the Great). There is a rich medieval canon: Bonaventure, Anselm, Aquinas, and more. I nice way to start is still Anton Pegis' selection of Aquinas' writings. Calvin's Institutes is a must-read for a good Presbyterian like yourself, but also consider some of Luther's works. [I'm going to break off the reference to specifics here because I won't be able to do justice to things. So many books, so little time! We could talk more about 20th-century classics, etc.]

(2) Never, ever, ever settle for second-hand accounts. Don't ever settle for somebody else's reading of Barth; read Barth for yourself. Etc.

(3) To determine the shape of a must-read list, listen carefully to those you respect. Who influenced them most? What books were most formative for them? What are they reading now? Spend time with people who are readers, and when you choose your friends, choose people who read books.

(4) Read some decent monthlies (like the Altantic, New York Review of Books, and Books & Culture) to get a sense of what's out there and what people are saying about it. This will require you to make some good habits and make an effort to do this. I do this when we take the kids to the public library each week.

Well, B__, much more remains to be said, but this is at least a start. Thanks for asking the question, for your patience, and just for being "B__." Your persistence in asking bodes well for a curious heart.

Blessings on your reading, with love,