Wonder and Love: Fuel for the Engine of Intellect

“The purpose of the humanities is not knowledge but to humanize–it is the indispensable prerequisite to science because the love of the subject is the motive and purpose of science.”  –John Senior

Being a science, theology would seem to require the humanities as a prerequisite. What to do, then, when “non-humanized” students park themselves in a theology class? Can a student who does not already love theology even be taught? I think the answer is “yes,” and not just because my job depends on it.

The student who already loves explicitly the “object” of theological study (God, truth about God) is the one who comes to your office two hours before class with the following question: “You had us look at the Belgian bishops’ catechesis on the ten commandments, but I think they missed a couple of things. Look here in Exodus…”  This student wants to dissect the decalogue, understand how each tradition numbers it and why, what virtues and actions relate to each commandment, etc.? All because the student deeply loves the God toward whom these commandments tend.

On the other hand is the student who can’t believe we would be forced to memorize the ten commandments, let alone their different organizations and explanations. That’s what google is for! Certainly a love of some kind has motivated such a statement, but not the love for God and the truth about God.

Should professors simply “teach to” the first student, blossoming in the front row, while allowing the second to all the more wilt away in the back? I think John Senior would answer, “no way.” But how can this be? Didn’t Senior say that love for the subject was the motive for the science? He did, but he also adds that “love of the subject is the motive and purpose of science.” The statement suggests that, even if I enter the science from a foul motive, I might just end up loving its object and the science itself despite myself. But how does this happen?

I see it like this: Imagine the student is a vehicle. The engine of each student’s intellect requires fuel. The engine’s work is to acquire, understand, and systematize knowledge. The gears only turn, however, as a result of the small explosions that push the pistons. The combustion of the fuel drives the engine. So it is with students learning a science. The task of learning requires mental discipline, that is, work. The work, though, is fueled by wonder and love. When wonder and love encounters the spark of truth, it combusts and drives the intellect toward the acquisition, understanding, and systematization of knowledge in the science. The greater my love for the subject, the longer I can concentrate on the work of learning. In other words, I can drive farther on the road of understanding the greater is my tank full of Wonder and Love related to the science at hand.

What am I saying? What I am trying to articulate is the fact students need a full tank of wonder if they are going to apply the intellectual discipline of memorizing, comparing, contrasting, analyzing, etc., but sadly many pull up to the classroom running on fumes. They park in their seats asking whether this course will help them get a better job, or graduate early, etc. What do you do with that? That empty tank is a recipe for apathy.

I don’t have all the answers, but I’ve got a few ideas. I attempt to load every class with at least one or two “refueling stations” for wonder and love. For example, we’d been talking about two theologians arguing over how to interpret question 91 of the Summa theologiae I-II. I could tell the tanks were running low. I stopped the class session and said, “Get up, we’re going on a field trip!” I could tell by the drool one student was wiping from his face that we’d make the right move. Where did we go? Where else but the rare books room of the library. We pull in, jaws drop. They didn’t even know the place existed. I disappear for ten seconds and come back with an early 17th century manuscript of Aquinas’ Summa. Cracking it open to question 91, I begin reading out loud. No longer “studying” the Summa, we are doing the Summa. Of course, we bring along an English translation, and spend the rest of the class session taking a walk through question 91, the students reading and interpreting on the fly. After what seemed like a short while, I ask what time it is. We’ve gone well over time. No one cares. Students stay after for an hour roaming around. “When can we come back?” the ask.

For some of the theology majors in the class, the experience was a kind of lighter fluid to reignite the coals of their Latin studies. So this is why I’m struggling through the dative case! For non-majors, the experience played the chord in them that harmonizes to the beauty of “things old.” For a student in the digital culture of now now now, what better experience than to hold in one’s hands a 400 year old book that took years and years to write. Of course it’s a hyperbole, but some students unfailingly say, “I’m never using a kindle again!”

These are the experiences that energize the student for the discipline of study, of the science of theology. At the same time, however, they are the fruit of the good practice of teaching a science itself. The more we know about a subject, the more we encounter what is beautiful and lovable in it. Here’s to wonder!