When knowing comes in last


It’s an unusual parent who is not alarmed when a daughter calls home from her college dorm to announce that she’s decided to major in unemployment. “Religious studies, Dad. This class I’m taking on Judaism, Christianity and Islam–I can’t get enough of it.”

Quietly I was elated. Talk about religion in our household is routinely inversely proportional to church attendance. Now and then my wife Monica and I would take the kids to the neighborhood church, sometimes a few Sundays in a row, but at the dinner table the big questions–about God and the gods, faith and works, free will and predestination, right and wrong, justice and grace–were normally part of the meal. Religion was a worldwide bone of contention that had to be chewed over. It wasn’t enough to just nip at it. It was something to think deeply about.

Much of religion, naturally, is difficult, even impossible, to swallow. I was especially proud of my children–only six and ten years-old at the time–when Dante, the youngest, paused on our walk home from church one Sunday to ask, “Dad, do you believe what he said?” The preacher, in his earnest desire to convert mythology into history, had made superstition the basis of belief. Stories about Noah’s ark, about Jesus walking on water, the end of the world, and Jonah snoozing three days in the belly of a whale before being spit out didn’t go down well with the kids. Did they have to believe stuff like that to be grown-up? Or would they have to learn to zip their lips and swallow their honest thoughts?

“Well, Dad?” asked my daughter Leah. “Do you believe what he said?”

“No, not really.”

I saw the relief in Dante’s wide-eyed face. “I didn’t either, Dad.”

From the mouths of babes, we’re told, honesty springs forth in its most innocent purity. As six and ten year-olds my children were testing my intellectual honesty, and their own. And on that Sunday morning on the way home from church everyone passed the test.

Leah lost interest in church after that. Aside from the music it was, she said, boring–a code word for uncool and spiritually unsatisfying. Her reluctance–refusal–to attend church spoke for what we, as parents, were feeling too. As Huck Finn unfamously said, “You can’t pray a lie.”

But I was elated by her decision to pursue religious studies at the University of Iowa. All subjects of importance attach themselves to religion–the languages, history, literature, mythology, politics, economics, psychology, science. More than anything I wanted her to major in “unemployment” on her way to getting a well-rounded liberal arts education that would best prepare her to negotiate her way both effectively and meaningfully in the world. She might become a waitress, real estate agent, or office clerk, but she also would know how to work her way toward the profession she loved. Meanwhile, she would not have to live in a boring mental environment that might be cool but sure to leave her spiritually unsatisfied.

Her frustration over the standing of religious studies in the real world surfaced soon after her commitment to the discipline. “Dad,” she complained to me, “they’re everywhere. They believe everything they hear. They believe everything the Bible says–literally. And most of them have never read any of it. They can’t be reasoned with. They don’t want dates and facts. They don’t want to know. They just want to believe.”

Welcome to the world, several regions of which are going up in smoke in part because of the bombshell power of belief. Welcome to present-day U.S.A., where polarized hate wears the masks of the Prince of Peace.

I detect the frustration and disillusion in her voice: “They won’t carry on a reasonable conversation with me. What can I do?” she asks.

You’re unemployable, I say to myself, in a world that desperately needs your services right now.

To console her I quote myself, from an essay titled “Intellectual Honesty” I’d written for my children in the hope they’d heed my words after I’m dead:

In his novel Light in August, that profound exploration of how one man, Joe Christmas, is violently victimized by his lack of knowledge and his murderer’s perverted knowledge, William Faulkner begins Christmas’ narrative with these enigmatic words: “Memory believes before knowing remembers, longer than knowing even wonders. Knows remembers believes a corridor in a big long garbled building of dark red brick.” These suggestive words take us into the psychic corridor of the school where the conspiracy of circumstances that doom Christmas as an adult are set in motion. The passage at once distinguishes the mental powers–belief, knowledge, memory, and wonder–we so ineptly confuse as we try to find our way in our own schools and life journeys. More importantly, Faulkner prioritizes the mental powers and suggests how they work in combination as driving forces. “Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.” What we call the human mind works in complex but predictable ways. Belief, for better or worse, is the main force driving us, and memory (or recollection) follows belief, is prejudiced by it. Knowing comes in last.**

Knowing comes in last.

And here she is, a life-long student (I hope) trying–above all–to know. How can all the hard-earned knowledge she achieves–the result of research, experiment, skeptical analysis, careful scholarship, creative intuition, and honest reasoning–compete with innocent belief?

It can’t.

It takes no genius to suspect that in this revolutionary new information age knowledge is losing out. The concept of “knowledge” itself seems to be shrinking, overwhelmed by zillions of information bits, reduced to vocation-promising residencies in merely technical and momentarily profitable fields, and divorced from “wisdom,” its ancient godfather, and “Sophia,” its great-grandmother. The de-institutionalization of knowledge from schools and colleges seems imminent, and perhaps deserved, even as superstitious belief, like a jackal, lurks to feed on its remains.

What do I say to my knowledge-hungry daughter? That it’s merely cool, and also spiritually unsatisfying, to subscribe to blind belief. That blind belief has trouble turning blindly away from passionate belief, one grounded on generosity, fairness, toleration, solid knowledge, and beauty too.


**The full text of DeGrazia’s essay “Intellectual Honesty” can be found at his Twin Cities Daily Planet blogsite “Downstream” for June 6, 2009.