I was thinking today how uninterested I am in reading a lot of theology at the moment and what a huge shift this is in my intellectual appetite. I used to LOVE theology and used to read it almost exclusively. When I was in college, I wanted to be a modern, female C.S. Lewis (until my mom said that was a dumb idea). Now, however, even if my intellectual time weren’t so consumed with earning an MA in Philosophy, I don’t know that my reading selections would be that far off from what they are now. I’d surely gravitate towards more “Barnes and Noble philosophy section” books rather than academic articles, simply because they are, let’s be honest, easier (easier to understand, absorb, and access). But I don’t think I’d be reading much theology.
I think this is due to several fairly significance changes in my mental life. One is a change in my overall belief system about what I believe and understand about what we can know and, by extension, what is worth reading about. I grew up believing that we could know, not just believe, things about God (the God as defined by evangelical Christianity) and that we could even know God Himself (always a He! Sigh…). It took a while, but eventually I realized just how foolish an idea that is. There is no way to know God, whether or not a God exists. By definition, God is beyond this world and we do not have any tools or ways of measuring Her “there.” We can believe She exists, believe She has certain characteristics, but knowing is not relevant.
I recently had a really hard time getting through a book on the end times because I had just started graduate school and was drowning in reading. All non-degree related reading fell to the wayside. However, even after classes ended, when I had time to devote to reading whatever I wanted, I couldn’t get back into it. I realized that I just… didn’t see the point? It didn’t feel relevant anymore. We have no way of knowing even biblically what the “end times” are going to be. I had a hard time settling on a purpose or point to trying to ferret out what the book of Revelations “really” means about future events and what it “will” look like. To be fair, I’ve never really understood why people plant their flag firmly in one eschatological camp over another because there is no way to know either way what will happen, and that something is supposed to happen regardless of what we do or say or believe about it. So this is a spiritual topic that has never seemed all that relevant to me, nor has it ever been of much intellectual interest. In that sense, the book didn’t stand much of a chance, grad school or no. But nevertheless, the sense that “there are more important things to read about” was strong in me that summer.
A second change was in the focus of my ethical and moral values. What I really care about now is reducing suffering. I think that is the best that our relationships can do, and I think there are so many ways to help alleviate suffering that that aim encompasses all kinds of social relationships and can be normative for all kinds of relational actions. Educating. Listening. Comforting. Pursuing justice. Voting the GOP out. Exhorting. Advising. Even punishing, if done right. The reduction of suffering is not only, in my mind, the thing people benefit from most, but is something that can be measured, tested, acted upon, voted for, and realized. I care about what is real. People are real, and they are right in front of me. Suffering is real, and that suffering is all around me. If there is anything holy, it is the reality of other people with all their unknowable depth and potential and our responsibility to treat them well. And I care about what we can know about what is real, about what it means to flourish as humans, physically and mentally, individually and collectively. To focus too much on spiritual, unknowable things threatens to disregard the very flesh and blood and bones that we inhabit and that could, very possibly, constitute the entirety of our lives. Refusing to take that very seriously is odd to me.
As a result of these two changes, my reading tastes have morphed into what we can do or know or use in what is available to us. Meta-ethics and applied ethics are still my favorite topics of philosophy, and I am enjoying reading more in the philosophy of mind, as well. And despite what I said above, I still enjoy reading some theology. Some theology is fascinating and an intellectual puzzle, even if there’s not way to test or know its veracity. (I imagine eschatology would fall into this camp if I were more inclined!) Some theological exploration aren’t so overladen with assumptions that they are, to be blunt, worthless. In addition, I’m always looking for a spirituality that fits with and takes seriously what we know about our physical reality and what it means to flourish — for all life, not just human. I’m sure I’ll continue to read theology on some level.
But for the most part, at the moment I’m more inclined to spend my mental energy engaging with the world we have, with learning about other people, learning about the brain and how it gives rise to and even defines our humanity, learning about the cognitive biases and logical fallacies in our thinking that lead to us inflicting so much suffering on others, and the potential and powers we have for creating more just, compassionate, loving worlds for those around us. The core of what I have always loved is still there (truth and love), but I have learned to define it differently and that has guided my intellectual appetite more so than anything. As those appetites continue to shift over the years (though perhaps not as significantly as they shifted over the previous decade), I look forward to looking back at my life and seeing what the books I read tell about who I was and what I thought or believed at that particular time.
I would love to hear how your intellectual appetites have changed, and what they are now. What do you find yourself reading lately, and why?