Mental Gluttony

I’m reading through Thomas a Kempis’ Of the Imitation of Christ, which is both illuminating and profoundly convicting. Thomas was a monk, and his writings reflect a love for monastic simplicity and self-mortification that at times goes beyond biblical warrant. That said, his words actually set shoulder against our age of hyperconnectivity and hyperactivity – they crack their knuckles, so to speak, as they eye the 21st-century creed of “More, and faster!”

The introduction to the book describes Thomas as a man of “books and quiet corners,” a sentiment with which I can readily identify; but I just read a devotion that counters one trajectory of the bookish soul: an overindulgent love for learning.

Every man naturally desires to know (Eccl. 1:13), but what does knowledge avail without the fear of God? Better, surely, is a humble laborer who serves God than a proud philosopher who, neglecting himself, studies the course of the heavens. … Cease from an inordinate desire of knowing, for therein is found much distraction and deceit. (13)

I had to reread this. Cease from an inordinate desire of knowing? Aren’t we designed to know, designed to seek and question and hopefully find?

I think so, yes; but Thomas identifies the desire for knowledge as an appetite that should be treated as all others. What he’s identifying, I think, are two dangers.

The first danger is that of confusing knowledge with godliness. We know this one – we know that “knowledge puffs up, but love fills up.” It’s possible, very possible, to trick ourselves into thinking that reading theology equals knowing God, or studying wisdom makes us good men and women. Knowledge can give life; but it can also create turgid windbags whose contribution to the world is only so much mental flatulence.

The second danger is that of mental gluttony. An ordinate desire for knowledge is one thing; an inordinate desire makes us addicted to information. It might be book-larnin’; it might be news, or blogs, or social trends, but I think it’s possible to consume information to the neglect of developing character. I actually find myself doing this more often than I’m comfortable with – I have my blogroll, my scenic Wikipedia hikes, my newsfeeds and articles I’d never known existed, and I’ll read until my brain is mush and I can’t remember a thing I’ve looked over. I shovel it in without digesting, without making anything meaningful of what I’ve read.

Learning does not necessarily lead to virtue; learning applied in godly character does. I’ll give Thomas the last word: “Many words do not satisfy the soul; but a good life comforts the mind, and a pure conscience gives great confidence toward God.” (13)

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