After my recent polemic against adiaphora, a few clarifications suggested themselves to me. One Lutheran friend pointed out that adiaphora’s original intent was not to describe “things indifferent” as not pertaining to salvation; rather, things were indifferent in disciplinary or ecclesiastical terms. In other words, adiaphora could be one way of describing the principle of subsidiarity. An item may be “indifferent” in the formal terms of canon law and be at the same time deeply significant in terms of practical life in the parish church. This strikes me as sensible, though I remain wary of the ways that we rapidly translate the significance of such “indifference” across different categories.

Perhaps more interesting, though, I encountered in some comments a resonance with another thorny difficulty facing various parts of the academy: namely, the apparent irrelevance and even uselessness of obscure academic research projects.

Readers of Covenant may at times wonder why some of us seem to spend so much time wondering about obscure liturgical conundrums. At least here that suspicion can often be framed in terms of pastoral responsibilities. Surely it goes without saying that a parish priest who sits in the office writing treatises about ad orientem all day should consider once in a while stepping outside to spend time with his people.

Yet how often does this criticism, well-placed and necessary as it may be, take the form of suggesting that the minister in question needs to abandon her idle curiosities for the sake of “what really matters”?

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As I suggested my earlier post, I do not want to abandon the idea that some things are more important than others. What worries me is the suggestion that the things that matter more ought entirely to displace and obscure the things that matter less. What further worries me is the facile way that we dismiss serious intellectual or spiritual work simply because it does not pay immediate dividends in whatever category we happen to value.

There is nothing new about this in the humanities. Make fun of them all you will — and I am not above ridiculing the latest obscure attempt to find a politics of gay liberation in an unknown missing soliloquy from Shakespeare’s first version of Hamlet (try the Postmodernism Generator for other delightful examples) — but the humanities were never intended to be “useful” in the same sense that a “business” degree is meant to be useful. They were meant to be useful in the context of a university. And, as Terry Eagleton has said, an assault on the humanities is an assault on the university as such.

It’s easy to make fun of the humanities. But the sciences have their detractors as well. What right-minded person would want to study duck penises when we have people dying of cancer? But of course it’s a false question (see also here and here).

I have a certain sympathy for these scientists involved in obscure research questions. There will always be those who think that everything should proceed in a clear and intractable course of progress based on the readily acknowledged priority of obvious goals: curing cancer, feeding the hungry, reducing crime. But the problem is: that’s not how human knowledge works.

Scientific research shouldn’t be tied to practical political goals any more than humanities research should be tied to making money. Nor should theological or liturgical research and writing be slavishly tied to practical goals. To be sure, the supreme law of the Church is the salvation of souls (see the Roman Catholic Church’s Canon 1752); all the same, the salvation of souls is and always will be an ecclesial salvation.

In the one Body there are many parts, and one part should not exercise its gifts in such a way as to harm or inhibit the others; nor should its gifts be expected to directly serve each of the other parts individually, so long as those gifts find their place in the whole.

Neither studying microscopic sea creatures nor studying Shakespeare nor designing exquisite copes nor compiling medieval sequences will ever be practical in a direct, worldly sense. Yet these are the small (and large) disciplines of life in community that must be sustained if we are ever to be an integral whole.

Sure, we should feed the hungry and clothe the naked and comfort the afflicted. We must do those things, and woe to us if our peculiar competencies are merely a distraction from doing so.

But I submit that true vocation, true work, is not, when seriously done, a distraction from something more important. It is the important thing, the human thing, that remains when all the “practical” problems have been solved, that remains when new problems arise that will never be imagined by our methodologies of utility. The question should always be: when we satisfy our need for material progress and success, what will remain? Lord help us if it is a world with nothing interesting to learn.

About The Author

Sam Keyes serves as Professor of Theology at John Paul the Great Catholic University in Escondido, California.

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This reminded me of C. S. Lewis’s talk “Learning in Wartime” (http://www.calvin.edu/~pribeiro/DCM-Lewis-2009/Lewis/Learning%20in%20War.doc). The question of small details is analogous to the question of why study in time of war, and Lewis’ answer is excellent.