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Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar

By Paul J. Griffiths,
William K. Warren Foundation Professor of Catholic Theology
Catholic University of America Press, 2009
Paperback, 248 pages, $24.95

Reviewed by David Burrell

Paul Griffiths, who was named to the Warren chair of Catholic theology at Duke Divinity School in 2008, is an accomplished philosopher, theologian, author, and editor. Yet he has been liberated enough from all that to offer these reflections as a father, a spouse, and a fellow seeker of the contours of a human life lived in gratitude to the One who creates us. Framed, to be sure, by an astute intelligence, the structure of these reflections is effectively internalized, so as not to distract the reader. So what results?

Try the image of a series of finger exercises to improve our skills of improvising our way through life’s obstacle course, or of a scalpel deftly used to lay bare the sinews we exercise in our daily activity. The first image focuses on practice, to which a plethora of examples constantly recalls us; the second alerts us to the fine-grained analysis we will often encounter as well. Both images make it sound grammatical, as the title announces. We seldom welcome grammatical corrections until we have come to be grateful for the way they have saved us from gaffes we can observe others make. Appeals to grammar are meant to be liberating rather than dominating, however, and this guidebook into ways of knowing and loving uses careful analysis to liberate us from sentimentality to realize a healthy relationship to what is good and true in God’s creation.

Offering a “properly Christian account of what it is to want to know” (52), it depicts “the way in which you ought to see the world if you are a Christian” (30). His skillful analysis proceeds by way of examples to alert us to healthy or to damaging ways we attempt to engage our world, focusing on creation as an unmerited gift in which creatures are called to participate through an appetite for wonder, yet always ready to be subverted by our tendency to kidnap beautiful things which face us so as to own them and turn them into titillating spectacles to feed our need for novelty, stoking our loquacity rather than nourishing our gratitude. (Bold signals the table of contents.)

Griffiths explores these promising topics by calling on refined discussions that have shaped the Christian tradition over the centuries—beginning each chapter with a pithy quote from Augustine. Yet his treatment of these pregnant issues is also shaped by current debate in philosophical or theological circles, though readers are spared the usual footnotes. While that strategy is explicitly defended in the final chapter, readers by that time will have come to realize that it displays the principal point of this illuminating journey: contrasting curiosity with studiousness, or better, mathesis with a mode of inquiry that attends to creatures as creatures.

“Advocates of mathesis seek, and often take themselves to have found, the perfect method for complete knowledge of an ensemble of spatialized, discrete objects;” (149) the “magical key is method” (148) and the goal mastery if not ownership, like the skilled seducer who views victims as replaceable objects for his insatiable appetite. Yet “the studious Christian, seeking participatory intimacy driven by wonder and riven by lament, cannot coherently seek ownership” (154), since what is brought into being and sustained by God can only be shared. Lament affects these seekers not because they cannot attain what they are after, but because their own propensity to grasp and to possess brings their original desire to naught.

So we are presented with a searing critique, not just of the “entertainment industry” diverting our natural zest for wonder into a feeding frenzy for novelty, but of any form of schooling that hones our skills for knowing in order to satisfy a yearning for power. We are constantly faced with “if the shoe fits, wear it” by an unabashed “Christian advocate of gift, participation, and wonder” (151) toward a universe freely created by a loving God. We are presented with a guidebook inviting mature and searching human beings into attitudes corresponding with a universe said to be good by its gracious author. Yet our possessive propensities ever seek to own and exploit it for our own ends, leaving us to face what we have come to call “the ecological crisis,” yet now painfully aware of its source.

David Burrell, C.S.C., is Hesburgh professor emeritus of philosophy and theology at the University of Notre Dame. A scholar of comparative issues in philosophical theology in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, he is the author of many books, including Freedom and Creation in Three Traditions, (Notre Dame, 1993). He currently serves as professor of ethics and development studies at Uganda Martyrs University, Nkozi, Uganda.