Skip to main content

Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar

Paul J. Griffiths
Published by Catholic University of America Press in 2009

As a measure of unmistakable gratitude for Paul Griffiths’ book on intellectual appetite, I want to speak carefully and precisely in honoring his accomplishment. Many terms of approbation, suitable as I once thought them for favored books, simply will not do. For if Intellectual Appetite accomplishes what its author intends, we Christian scholars must learn—through more theologically attuned grammar, by deeper delight in God’s good gifts, within the capacious ken of studiousness and well away from the exhaustibility of curiosity, and not least of all by efficacious liturgical formation—to speak of one another, the world, and the intellectual life in counter-cultural ways. To wit, extending congratulations to Griffiths for mastering a complex, demanding subject would be no compliment. No apt praise would begiven to call his book a spectacular treatment, rendered with novel insight, of the ways in which our intellectual desires are ordered properly. If we are well-catechized Christians, then we must regard perfect mastery, splendid spectacle, unprecedented novelty, beautiful loquacity, exhaustive grasp, and all such staples of high academic praise as self-contradictory. Far worse, to the extent that we order our lives and thought according to a desire for the likes of mastery, spectacle, novelty, and loquacity, we valorize, to our own and others’ detriment, the damage wrought in us by sin. In what follows, let me say, then, of Griffiths’ book at least some of what I gather he would wish to be said.

In a general way, Intellectual Appetite is prompted by an interest in showing what “the conceptual conditions of the possibility of reform in our institutions of higher education really are, and what changes in thought and practice would have to occur were any genuine reforms to be possible” (5). Yet because meaningful reform is unlikely, Griffiths’ “first interest is in encouraging Christians with an intellectual vocation to be wary” (5). He counsels redoubled, self-critical awareness about the formation of our intellectual appetites; what the academy values, nurtures, and rewards; and the means by which the Church may reorient our intellectual desires according to the wisdom that is in Christ Jesus the Lord. To do this well, we need to embrace the “grammar” and the practices that are part and parcel to studiousness, not curiosity. It is not lost on Griffiths that the traditional Christian distinction between well-catechized intellectual appetite (studiositas) and its vicious alternative (curiositas) has fallen out of favor. Nonetheless, he sees rightly that recovering and acting in light of the distinction stands at the heart of any prospect of genuine academic renewal.

Much of the initial work done in Intellectual Appetite is undertaken at the level of distinguishing concepts, especially by unpacking the patterns of speech that we use and the assumptions that underlie them as we make sense of the world’s varied sensibilia and intelligibilia. Here as elsewhere, Griffiths’ claims are straightforward, argued lucidly, and evidenced beautifully. That human experience is shot through with a universal “grammar” of appetite—the structure of which at a general level is alike for persons of different and no religion—provides Griffiths with a point of departure. Yet Christians’ construal of the grammar of appetite is unique. For example, “world” is a part of the universal grammar he delineates. But what we Christians mean by the “world” is not the same as what a metaphysical naturalist means by the same term, for the latter does not, as we do, regard the world as created, non-self-subsisting, and a divine gift, marred by damage but sustained by God.

In comparable fashion, “appetite” represents another element of the universal grammar of human desire. However, what we Christians appreciate as at stake in the phenomenon of wanting, wishing, desiring, and delighting in the objects of intellectual “appetite” is different from what non-Christians might envision. The pagan alternatives to Christianity emphasize the need for catechizing intellectual appetite, but they do so having in mind other purposes for knowing, different forms of knowledge, and alternate objects of knowledge. The purposes for knowing are different because the curious pagan wants to possess, while the studious Christian seeks participation. The curious pagan seeks a different form of knowledge (namely, novelty), and all the more so when newness makes knowledge something that maybe mastered, owned, and turned to profit. By contrast, studious Christians do not prize novelty per se, even if it is sometimes the result of our investigations, because we acknowledge humbly that anything we know “is already known to God and has been given to us as unmerited gift” (22). Most of all, the things known by the curious and the studious differ, if not in the order of being then at least in the order of knowing. This is because the “curious inhabit a world of objects, which can be sequestered and possessed; the studious inhabit a world of gifts, given things, which can be known by participation, but which, because of their very natures can never be possessed” (22).

It turns out, concomitantly, that a Christian grammar of intellectual appetite cannot do without a profound awareness of “gift,” the defining currency of the divine economy, as well as of “damage.” God’s gift of the world is “complete and unparalleled in its generosity” (43). And while the world created graciously by God is “radiantly translucent,” it is “also shot through with darkness” and damage (41). Here Griffiths follows Augustine’s Christian Platonism in writing: “The divine light does not shine everywhere, but the places of shade and shadow exist only as its absence, its lack, its privation” (41). And in one of many flights of beautifully written exhortation, Griffiths tells us that “the places of darkness are also places of chaos and disorder” (41). We must lament:

the place of dissimilarity, anguish, famine, and destitution in which the praise-shout becomes the wail of anguish, trailing gradually off into the peevish murmur of the self-wounding seeker of darkness….To seek them is to seek nothing; to live in them is to live nowhere; to offer them is to offer the empty gift; and so to seek to live and to offer is to diminish, to hack at the body of one’s being with the sharp sword of a disordered will until that body is limbless, bleeding, incapable of motion, approaching the second birth from which there is no rebirth. (41-42)

In Intellectual Appetite, as in his other books, Griffiths’ artful writing and exemplary tableaus call for appreciation no less than the sagacity of his arguments.

Suppose that Griffiths’ readers follow the theological vision of the world and our place in it that he offers in the first half of the book. If one delights in and wonders at a world that participates in God insofar as its creaturely state allows, and if one returns gratitude to Godin the midst of such delight and wonder, what else follows? Here, Griffiths offers an impressive challenge to the academic status quo that orders, successfully or not, most of our professorial priorities.

For one thing, claims of ownership of words, ideas, knowledge, and even books become vastly thornier matters for well-catechized Christians. Conquest, ownership, and expropriation of fields of knowledge is the way of the curious, while for the studious emphasis is laid upon “stewardship both of their intimacies and of what they are intimate with because they have been trained to recognize both as gifts, gifts that do not explain themselves and cannot be exhausted” (162). In general, because the truth is inexhaustible and undiminished no matter how many persons share it, prising it away from others, sequestering it under claims of ownership, and tightly controlling access to it risks deforming a good given graciously by God for shared delectation. What Griffiths writes about the related topic of plagiarism is insightful, telling, and troubling. In light of his arguments, many institutional policies on plagiarism will be in need of reconsideration.

For another thing, Griffiths argues that formation in and through Christian liturgy can orient us toward greater appreciation for the iconicity of the world. At the same time, liturgical formation can cultivate our aversion to clutching at the true icon’s seductive simulacra, the spectacle. Things—conspicuously sensibilia but also intelligbilia—participate in God in so-far as they exist at all, and when they participate as much in God as their being allows, they are exactly as they should be—icons and not spectacles. When human knowers see things as they truly are, insofar as creatures made in the image of God can do so, then those things become iconic not only in the order of being but also in the order of knowing. Then, the iconis doubly open: “open, that is, to God and to the gaze of the creaturely knower, showing its participation in the former and beckoning the contemplative conformity of the latter to itself” (191). Because the body of Christ is the “unsurpassable” icon, and because in the liturgy one encounters the body of Christ repeatedly and truly, Christian liturgy is indispensable for catechizing our intellectual appetites.

Last, but hardly least importantly, he insists in abundantly convincing fashion that studious Christians must rethink still other stock desiderata of the academy. For instance, “Progress and novelty are of no particular interest to the studious; truth and beauty are” (202). Repeated and deepening intimacy with things that point beyond themselves to God is the preferable form of knowledge for the studious Christian. Moreover, the loquacious displays of the curious, which tend to “present their spectacular masteries in a form that shows no doubt,” for the well-formed Christian will be left behind in favor of “the studious stammer”(220). On Griffiths’ argument here again the liturgy helpfully sets the pattern for the right ordering of our intellectual appetites. Both in its complex, nonidentical repetition and in its halting, holy approach to culmination in the Eucharist, the liturgy offers us analogues in the practice of Christian intellectual life: heightened intimacy through repeated encounter of the iconic and studious stammering, in which “the beauty of a public depiction of knowledge’s creaturely intimacy [is] shaded by an acknowledgement of the failure of exactly that intimacy” (220). I admire and commend Griffiths’ book for grounding Christian intellectual life so strongly in liturgy specifically, and in the life of the church more generally. The Christian academy has no future apart from the Church, notwithstanding all of the challenges that the relationship inevitably poses.

Griffiths notes early on that “the idea that there are vicious forms of intellectual appetite sounds at first puzzling,” for modernity regards curiosity as a “shining virtue for which we pat children on the head” (10). By the end of the book, when Griffiths has unpacked the implications of a Christian mind formed by studiousness, he acknowledges that he has said enough for “many among the curious, and certainly for almost all academics, to reject the depiction of the intellectual life offered here as obscurantist and backward looking” (202).

Intellectual Appetite is neither obscurantist nor backward looking. Indeed, seldom haveI read a book of such clarity of vision. And the book is forward looking in the way that inveterately, well-formed Christians regard God’s created order. For Intellectual Appetite is predicated upon that most forward-looking of all visions, the one embodied in the Christian hope that enjoins us to humility rather than presumption, magnanimity rather than despair, and a certain expectation of a future glory that is not of our own making, but by the gracious gift of God.

Cite this article
Douglas V. Henry, “Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 39:4 , 483-486

Douglas V. Henry

Baylor University
Douglas V. Henry is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Baylor University.