Christian Theologian 101: Intellectual Lust
Earlier this year I began a series of posts for those engaged in theological studies, particularly students. The first post argued that the goal of any theological pursuit must always be Christian character. In the second I identified humility as a fundamental Christian virtue, defining it and then exploring its expression within theological studies. Finally, I highlighted the perils of theological thinking “without inner necessity, without a deep personal choice, without joy” (Nietzsche). In this post I want to turn to the pervasive problem of lust among theologians: intellectual lust.
Our Disordered Desires Extend to Learning
Every Christian can echo Paul’s frustration in Romans 7:19, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” For our desires and longings are disordered. However, when it comes to passages such as this one, we usually apply it narrowly, leaving ourselves vulnerable to—possibly even excusing—the vast arrays of sinful behaviour, expression, and thought.
I’m referring to the way we almost exclusively associate warped desires with sexual misconduct. Thus in Romans 1:18-31 we focus on God giving mankind over to “the lusts of their hearts…impurity…dishonouring their bodies” (Romans 1:24, 28). In doing so we overlook Paul’s emphasis on the mind. Yet he writes, “They became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools” (Romans 1:21-22). So disordered desires are not limited to bodily expression; they encompass our hearts and minds. This means we can sin as much in our intellectual pursuits as we do in sexual ones.
Coming back to Romans 7, Paul says: “I do not understand my own actions” (Romans 7:15). Four centuries later, Augustine would say that sin is profoundly irrational. Therefore the solution to indwelling sin is not greater learning. Nor does possessing an impressive intellect preclude sin. In fact, one of the gravest dangers for the theologian is an insatiable appetite for greater learning without loving God.
Intellectual Lust: Sterile and Selfish
Listen to William, from Umberto Eco’s The Name Of The Rose. After describing one of the monks as a “victim of a great lust,” he says: “Like many scholars, he has a lust for knowledge. Knowledge for its own sake.” This lust, similar to its more commonly recognised cousin, lead the monk Benno to theft and deceit. He was compelled not by the love of God but knowledge. “Barred from a part of this knowledge, he wanted to seize it.” His desire was uncontrollable and misdirected. Though he aspired towards greater theological knowledge and learning, his ambitions weren’t to love God or neighbour—this showed in his actions.
William goes on, “Roger Bacon’s thirst for knowledge was not lust: he wanted to employ his learning to make God’s people happier, and so he did not seek knowledge for its own sake. Benno’s is merely insatiable curiosity, intellectual pride, another way for a monk to transform and allay the desires of his loins, or the ardour that makes another man a warrior of the faith or of heresy. There is lust not only of the flesh…Benno’s lust is for books. Like all lusts, including that of Onan, who spilled his seed on the ground, it is sterile and has nothing to do with love, not even carnal love.”
Benno, the monk from Eco’s novel, embodied many characteristics essential for those engaged in theological study. He was curios, eager to learn, and widely read. He saw the value of the intellectual rigour and thoughtful study. Yet William says these desires were “insatiable,” resulting in “intellectual pride” rather than making God’s people happier. Benno sought knowledge for its own sake, demonstrating a lust for books. Such an approach to theology is “sterile and has nothing to do with love.”
Study to Love, Don’t Merely Love to Study
I can see a lot of myself in Benno. Since becoming a Christian in 2004 I’ve read innumerable theological works, both technical and seminal. I’ve also recently completed a Masters degree in theology. So I must ask myself what it is that I desire? You must too. Can my ongoing learning and increasing knowledge appropriately be described as love, or is it simply intellectual lust? As Calvin exhorted his readers, let us study to love and serve him with all our hearts (1.14.22).