If you want to be a scholar, you have to know your field. The seminal works, the major contributions, the game-changing periods, the ebb and flow of dialogue throughout the decades or centuries or millennia. You have to join the conversation.
There’s one potential problem with this (well, more than one, but only one I’m going to talk about here). Embed yourself too deeply in the field and saturate yourself too exclusively in the literature and you’ll find that your questions, categories, and curiosity are controlled.
Now, I’m not trumpeting naïveté and bombasting knowledge. The benefits of being well-read and well-informed far outweigh the alternatives.
But what if the accepted categories are one too many or two too few? What if the tightly drawn lines should actually be blurred? What if the common antitheses, or the four major views, or the six accepted premises are distorted?
Might the two antitheses have points of harmony and reconciliation?
Could it be that none of the four major views best accounts for the evidence or best answers the problems?
Might we find, upon further and deeper and out-of-the-box inspection, that most of the six accepted premises hold little water?
What if we’re getting diluted answers because we’re polluting the questions?
This isn’t a spirit-of-the-age, question-everything rant. I want to read well and widely, know my chosen fields, and engage in the great dialogues of the ages. But I want to be careful, and part of being careful means pulling back the curtains, poking at the premises, and questioning the questions.
There’s nothing new under the sun, but there are plenty of scholarly field-stones hiding gems of insight from generations of young explorers. We’re told, whether by rank-and-file scholarship or the unspoken rules of the guild or our own fear-bound intuition, to step on these proven stones to reach knowledge. But every so often — quite often, actually — we should tip them up and dig around a bit before continuing to trod dutifully down the well-trodden path. It might just be that the treasure’s been trampled by the footpath and drowned out by the footnotes.
I don’t want to be original, if originality means insatiable inventiveness or intellectual independence or chronological snobbery. But if truth and life are as dazzlingly deep and as dancingly complex as the Bible and my soul are telling me, then this whole shebang should be one great adventure.
I want to drive the open road of inquiry and the scenic route of exploration, not just circle the cul-de-sac of concrete categories and controlled questions.
And ultimately, against all postmodern sensibilities, I want the aerial view. Seeking it, with perpetual humility and relentless effort, is the long path that rises toward wisdom.
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Revised from “Controlling the Questions: Circular Scholarship and the Cul-de-Sac of Inquiry,” originally posted on March 22, 2012.