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Desire and Knowledge: The 2015-16 MacLaurinCSF Annual Theme

Knowledge and intellectual discovery are the hallmarks of the modern university. Its professors and researchers have become the gatekeepers for what counts as knowledge in today’s culture. The university, with its ideals of academic freedom and the unending pursuit of knowledge, is the place where knowledge is pursued for its own sake, simply because it’s good to know.

Desire seems disconnected from the pursuit of knowledge. In contrast to the objectivity that we associate with knowledge, it can seem that our desires are subjective. We may even view desire as suspect because it pertains to our private lives. Knowledge is open and verifiable to everyone, while our wants, our affections, and our loves are unique to our own lives and seem to be unrelated to the objectivity of knowledge.

But desiring and knowing may be more closely related than they seem, and not just because we desire knowledge itself. When we talk about knowing someone, for instance, we are talking about a kind of knowing that is clearly not disinterested. We often feel affection toward people we know, and upon meeting someone, we frequently “want to get to know” them. Often, the people we know best are those we desire most—to love, to spend time with, to know better and more deeply. The same is often true of our knowledge of things as well as people: Researchers often love their field of study or topic of inquiry. The ideal of disinterested knowledge may not only be misguided––it may be impossible.

Christians have always held that both desire and knowledge are part of what it means to be fully human. The Bible calls us both to know and to love God––to love God with our minds as well as our hearts and souls. Knowledge and love must go together, for if I have “all knowledge . . . but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2). The Apostle Paul goes further in enigmatically relating knowing and loving: “Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God” (1 Corinthians 8:2-3). St. Augustine held knowledge in high value, but nevertheless insisted on the primary importance of learning to “love things . . . in the right order.” For Augustine, loving was a key to knowing, for “no good may be known perfectly unless one loves perfectly.” To be human means to know and to love — and we cannot completely separate desire or love from how we understand knowledge.

What are desire and knowledge, and what role do they play in what it means to be human? Is desire somehow involved in all of our knowing? How should Christians understand the relationship between desire and knowledge? And what difference should that make in their lives? How is our love for God and neighbor enabled by the pursuit of knowledge?

We hope that you’ll join us this next year as we explore these questions together. We’ll host lectures on topics like:

  • What it means to be embodied knowers—not just minds, but minds in bodies
  • What Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio tells us about the nature of reason
  • How literature can help us know and love the world beyond ourselves
  • How scientific knowledge relates to the person doing scientific research

And we’ll explore this theme through reading groups on books like:

  • Dante’s Divine Comedy
  • Esther Meek’s Longing to Know
  • C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength
  • Michael Polanyi’s The Tacit Dimension
  • Karen Swallow Prior’s Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me
  • James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom

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