Cultivating Virtue in Pursuit of Knowledge
Scripture calls us to give our whole selves as living sacrifices to God (Rom. 12:1–2). Unfortunately, we are often tempted to go about that work such that our lives resemble groups of silos. We envision our lives divided neatly into aspects that have little or no bearing on one another. One such division that is particularly common is the perceived divide between moral and intellectual development. We too frequently view the cultivation of virtue and the pursuit of knowledge as separate tasks—at worst, at odds with one another; at best, simply unrelated to one another; but certainly not interconnected and mutually supportive.
In fact, the cultivation of virtue is essential to healthy intellectual life. The virtues make us better learners and better thinkers. Beyond the historic cardinal virtues—and one can easily envision how the practice of prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice would aid one in the pursuit of knowledge—there are other Christian virtues that not only contribute to one’s sanctification but also are essential to the pursuit of knowledge.
The Virtue of Humility
Paul instructs us to adopt the humility modeled by Jesus Christ in His incarnation and crucifixion (Phil. 2:5–8). As Christians, we know the reality of God’s sovereignty, and we recognize that we cannot take credit for whatever intellectual gifts we have been given. In addition, we should not assume that we have all of the answers—except, of course, for those provided explicitly in Scripture. We should not jump to conclusions. We ought to humble ourselves and listen, even to those with whom we disagree. This attitude of humility is a surefire antidote for intellectual laziness and apathy. In light of it, we are obligated to work diligently to uncover insights in the views of others. We ought to assume that those whom we read or study have something of value to say—that they might possess some common-grace insight into the nature of reality. We ought not to dismiss others out of hand. We are ourselves, after all, finite and fallen people. Humbly acknowledging our limitations and allowing that others might have something to teach us ought to be natural for us as Christians. And doing so will make us more effective in our pursuit of God’s truth.
The Virtue of Self-denial
We begin our Christian walks by denying our self-righteousness, and this practice of self-denial should continue throughout our lives (Luke 9:23–24). As believers, we ought to be willing to risk something of ourselves—our desires, our ambitions, our comforts—and maybe even give up something of ourselves for the sake of truth. We should be prepared to abandon our own (perhaps cherished) beliefs in light of God’s truth revealed, either in special revelation or in general revelation. At times, the virtue of self-denial will require that we be willing to change our minds, which may even mean changing how we live. Sometimes we may have to deny ourselves in profound ways, but many times our practice of self-denial in pursuit of knowledge will be much more mundane. We may have to forgo something we really enjoy for the sake of pursuing the intellectual work to which God has called us. That sort of self-denial becomes much easier when the virtue of self-denial has become an integral aspect of our lives as followers of Christ.
The Virtue of Charity
The virtue of charity is a defining characteristic of those who serve a God who describes Himself as love (John 13:34–35; 1 John 4:7–12). The traditional Christian understanding of the term charity derives from the Latin caritas, which in turn derives from the Greek agapē. Our intellectual endeavors as Christians ought to be marked by selfless, other-focused, God-glorifying love. As Bernard of Clairvaux famously observed:
There are many who seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge: that is curiosity. There are others who desire to know in order that they may themselves be known: that is vanity. Others seek knowledge in order to sell it: that is dishonorable. But there are some who seek knowledge in order to edify others: that is caritas.
Our pursuit of knowledge ought to be motivated by love for those whom it might benefit, whether inside or outside of the church, living or not yet born. It ought also to be marked by love. The manner in which we treat those with whom we engage in our intellectual work—our classmates, our colleagues, those whom we study, those with whom we debate—ought to reflect the selfless love of the triune God.
It is critical that we not fall into the trap of dividing our lives into silos. We were created by God as integrated persons, and we are to give our whole selves to Him. The divorce of virtue and intellect has been a prominent feature of modernity, and it is one we should resist—not only because it is unnatural, but also because cultivating Christian virtues makes us better thinkers. As we apply biblical virtues such as humility, self-denial, and charity in our pursuit of knowledge, our ability to apprehend truth increases. Not only is cultivating virtue good for our souls, but it is good for our minds, because both are integral parts of the one self that we are giving to God.