Participation in the World as a Gift
Christians have a long tradition of discussing human appetites—for corporeal things like food, sex, and comfort, as well as for incorporeal things like status and knowledge. Our embodied appetites have probably gotten the most attention (as noisy and inevitable as they are). The proper fulfillment of our physical appetites is fostered by asceticism (fasting) and celebration (feasting), in communion with others in the church and in accordance with biblical instruction.
While husbandry of the human appetite for knowledge has a robust tradition of being discussed by Christian thinkers (especially Augustine), it hasn’t trickled down into modern conversations to quite the same degree. It is our inordinate and possessive appetite for knowledge that generates our current existential risks. The desire to know isn’t neutral, as Dr. Ian Malcom’s censure in Jurassic Park reminds us: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Hunger for knowledge—unmoored from relationship and virtue—inflicts damage.
In Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar, Paul Griffiths distinguishes between two kinds of intellectual appetite: studiousness and curiosity. Studiousness is kindled by awe. It sees the world and all forms of knowledge as a gift of intimacy from the Creator to be received with wonder, celebrated where good and beautiful, carefully discerned where damaged, and known through loving participation (not possession). The studious person knows he will never reach the end of the “inexhaustible more-ness of reality,” for every part of creation participates in the God who keeps it in being. Every “knowable” is essentially constituted by its relationship to “the triune God around which no one’s arms can reach,” Griffiths writes. Mystery and relationality are an indelible feature of the world, and this ought to beget reverence and humility in us. Just as we can never wrap our minds completely about God, neither can we so encompass the world and know it without remainder.
How Curiosity Conquers the World
If we could know the world conclusively, we would be as God to it. Put another way, if we no longer believed that the world was a creation of and participant in the inexhaustible mystery of the Trinity, then we might start to think that we could indeed get our minds and our arms completely around the world and bring the category of “the unknown” to an end. This is the corruption of our intellectual appetite: the desire to master the world as a god—not by creation but by conquest. Curiosity seeks new knowledge as an object to be controlled, consumed, and owned.
While the studious seek knowledge out of a desire for intimacy with reality (because they love what they know, they seek to know it more fully), the curious regard the unknown with anxious hatred, and seek knowledge out of a desire for dominion. Griffiths says this deformed appetite is “central to what Christians have meant by concupiscentia (in Greek, epithumia), which is a disordered yearning for mastery.”
The objectifying and hungry gaze of the curious is at odds with a construal of the world as a gift in which we (as subjects) participate with other subjects. The curious act as though they are not embedded in the world and of-a-piece with it: their world is fundamentally other and over there, pinned to the wall, labeled, and ripe for the taking.
The world as the curious imagine it to be is a closed system of causes and effects which is theoretically controllable (if only we knew enough). This world is a warehouse of passive and transparent objects—manipulable and pluckable parts—ready to yield their secrets and become our possessions if approached by the perfect method. To the curious, says Griffiths, the world is “like a vast collection of discrete potential sexual partners whose compliance with your desire to bed them is assured if only you learn what rightly to say to them. There is a magical key to knowledge, a perfectly efficacious pickup line that will bring anyone to your arms and your bed.” Our culture is in love with this magical key to knowledge—this method and its many expressions.
The magical key of the scientific method enables us to extract knowledge from nature and utilize it for our needs and wants. The magical key of technological innovation enables us to extract resources from nature at ever greater scales and speed for our consumption. The magical key of the algorithm enables us to extract attention from other human beings and manipulate their beliefs and behavior to desired ends. With the right method at your fingertips, both world and neighbor are your oyster.
The World’s Mine Oyster
It’s naïve to assume that science and technology are obvious, unalloyed goods inhabiting some “neutral zone” of the efficient tool, outside the realm of ethics. We cannot just blindly “follow the science” because the methods that generate our exponential technology have an alienating vision of the world and deformed appetites baked into them. According to Owen Barfield, “the whole outlook brought about by the scientific revolution should have been—must be—a phase, only, of the evolution of consciousness. An absolutely indispensable phase, but a passing one.” To grasp nature’s orderliness (rather than being grasped by the gods as playthings of fate), we learned to hold the world at arm’s length. We acted as if nature were a soulless mechanism just so that we could “get to work on it” and figure it out without committing sacrilege.
Once we started playing the part of a coroner performing an autopsy, an engineer peering into a machine, or (in Griffiths’ chilling image) a lady-killer looking to score, we passed from wonder and reciprocity to conquest. There is a trade-off to such a method of acquiring knowledge without love and limits, just as there was for Eve: the loss of communion with the cosmos and with God, and damage to ourselves and to the earth.
“Every form of mental despair and terror and incapacity in modern life seems to be related in some way to this complete alienation from everything else alive,” the author Richard Powers says. “We’re deeply, existentially lonely.” Until we are thrilled at the thought that “everything else has agency and is reciprocally connected we’re going to be terrified and afraid of death, and it’s mastery or nothing.” As long as nature is the mistress of our pleasures, the source of our industrial products, and the receptacle of our waste—the mother lode instead of our Mother—then the future we birth will be suicidal, for “exponential growth inside a finite system leads to collapse”. There’s a reason greed is one of the seven deadly sins.
Can entering into loving participation with nature and neighbor—with the world as gift and God as Giver—enable us to withdraw from the brink of disaster? Is there anything stronger than our appetite for control? How can we learn to see nature and humanity with wide-eyed wonder instead of that narrow, calculating gaze of extraction and possession?
To be continued…