Blogging as Dedication to the Search

I miss the lively conversations I and my friends had on my Gardnerians All Yahoo group a few years back. For that matter, I miss lively conversations via email in general. There seems to have been a shift in American communication styles over the last few years. I’m seeing far more use of social media like Facebook and Twitter, and much less personal communication.  Facebook has reconnected me with dear friends I thought I’d never be able to find again, and I can get messages to many people when I need to. But for the most part, a post on Facebook is about as personal as putting up a sign on a local telephone pole.

When I write a blog relevant for Gardnerian Craft, I should copy it to that Yahoo group. The kind of writing I did on that group is now getting done for this blog. I think maybe more people get to see it this way, and I get to explore and speculate about many issues that would not be relevant for that group. The name that Star Foster and I thought up for this blog, “Including Paganism,” indicates that I intend to look at lots of religions, including Paganism, in terms of what they have in common, of what each uniquely offers, and of what the theological invariants are that underlie all human need for religion.

So who am I to be offering profound insights into religion in general? I’ve been investigating religion ever since I was set in 1955 on the task of doing so. I have some objective evidence for thinking I’ve made some progress. For example, in December 1978, working on my dissertation, I sent out a bunch of resumes, hoping to find some teaching work. One landed on the desk of Fr. Theodore Taheny, SJ, then the Dean of the Evening College of the University of San Francisco. An elderly Jesuits had become ill; Taheny needed to cover his course on the Pauline corpus. Taheny knew David Johnson, SJ, one of my references—David, cousin of my office mate, the late Dick Johnson, at Scientific American Books, was the guy from whom I had taken several courses in Coptic, the Gnostics, and various ancient religions—and called him to ask if Kelly was okay. He told me that David had assured him I was okay (I was busy trying to be a practicing Catholic again during that period) and that I always knew more about religion in general than any of the other students. “Really?” I wondered. Mind you, the GTU was by then considered the fourth-best graduate school for religious studies in the country, right after Harvard, Yale, and Princeton; so David’s opinion carried a lot of weight. Going there was one of my better life decisions. So that’s how I was hired to teach my first college course.

Studying with David had been a pleasure. Our seminar usually consisted of about five of us, meeting in David’s office. After an hour or two, David would get hungry and often invite us to come have lunch with him at the Jesuits’ generous steam table. So, chowing down, we would continue our conversation long into the afternoon.  One day David commented to us that on any subject, but especially religion, there will be a thousand books in the libraries. Of those, only a hundred are still worth reading at all, ten are the best of them, and one is the best of all. In it there is one chapter that summarizes almost everything you need to know in order to have a truly well-informed professional opinion on that subject. The job of a graduate mentor, he said, is to tell you where that chapter is, because you have limited research time in which to accomplish anything new.

An amateur scholar may read 500 of those books, miss most of the important ones, never find any of the ten, think he is well-informed, and be highly indignant if someone who gets paid for being a scholar points out that he actually knows so little that the experts on the subject can only pat him on the head and advise him to take some courses in order to find out where the ballpark is. Sometimes I try to explain to such a person what the well-informed opinion actually is and then get an argument about why he is right, to which I can respond only with some form of, “No, you’re not.” Often said person will say something like, “If you think you know so much, explain to me why I’m wrong.” I then explain something I’ve learned over the years: trying to educate people for free, especially people who want only to argue, is futile. Human learning circuits turn on only when we are paying tuition, or at least exchanging some sort of energy, in order to acquire information. A person who is not in any way paying tuition rarely knows that he is supposed to be learning anything new. I have too little time left to waste it in that way.

But what if one (like most of my readers) is not in a doctoral program? What could one do? Try to find a truly well-informed person and make a deal in order to learn from him or her. The deal here is that I am trying to tell you where that one chapter is on quite a few topics—for free. Such a deal. If you don’t take advantage of it, because you are unteachable, I feel a little sorry for you—but only a little, because unteachability, like alcoholism, is caused by one’s failure to make a necessary decision.

I know my opinions are well-informed—but not infallible. I understand how Newton felt when he described himself as being like a child playing in the sand, with the ocean of knowledge lying undiscovered before him. I don’t want you or anyone to just believe what I say. I want you to think for yourself. I have a peculiar memory. I can remember copious details of events that happened millennia ago, but I cannot remember what I had for dinner two nights ago. In contrast, my wife, Melinda, has a photographic memory; she can remember dinner from every day of her life, as well as every word she has ever read or heard. I don’t dare lie to her. I always know whether I know something or not, and I never lie about that.

There are days when, wondering how we will survive through the next month (lots of months these days), I think I should be spending all my time looking for and doing more tutoring and writing and editing. My sponsor says no; if I’m not writing, my morale will collapse. There are colleagues whose opinions I have to respect who tell me what I’m writing is highly unusual and very important. Such opinions are comforting and encouraging on those bad days. I wish I were actually earning money by writing these blogs. They would feel more justified. But one of my few virtues, aside from always trying to tell the truth, is being able to keep on keeping on. As Mark Twain (or somebody) said, the great advantage of always telling the truth is that one need not remember whom one told which story to.

 

 


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