I will make a confession: I hate libraries. Yes, I am a master’s student who has worked in libraries for 6 years; yet I hate them. I don’t hate them for their tranquil silence; for the inconsistent temperature the John Richard Allison library always seems to have; or even for the heretical, destructive, damaging, horrible, and disgusting books that are destroying Christ’s churches. I hate them because of the epistemological skepticism that surges to the surface of my conscious, that threatens to submerse me in despair, every time I behold the thousands of volumes related to each topic of study I am presently considering. I am confronted not only with my own inadequacies but with the impossible situation that the present model of academic study presses upon me, my peers, and the future generations that will learn from us. Let me try to explain.

The Perpetual motion machine, subject of science fiction and fraud, is perhaps a fitting image of the present trajectory in academic studies. Such a machine is, after all, the source of boundless hope and triumph yet ultimately a failure and even disaster. The principle behind a perpetual motion machine is to have greater energy output than input, allowing such a machine to continue forever without stopping. Problems emerge immediately, though, because perfect efficiency is impossible in this world: every operation loses energy when performed. Such a machine is thus impossible and an endless source of energy is required to maintain functionality. In the short term, for a regular machine, this is all well and good—unless the energy source runs dry. Despite its impossibility, perpetual motion machines appear here and there in legend and on the internet, but are shown to be hoaxes when their energy source fails.

Academia, in the modern and the post-modern era has, I reckon, set itself up as a perpetual motion machine and, like every other hoax, will sooner or later face the consequences of the second law of thermodynamics. This is what I mean. Academia paints a rather utopian vision: as knowledge increases, the bounds of human potential will be explored and surpassed. We will meet some hiccups along the way, of course, but we will perpetually grow in understanding. But this ignores, like every perpetual motion machine, the input necessary to continue operations. Contemporary academia presents a situation where the growth in necessary input (individual man hours) for the required output (knowledge) is growing exponentially so that the available stock for input (the sum total of individual and corporately considered man hours) will soon be insufficient, grinding output to a halt. To use a different picture: the bill keeps increasing and the bank account will soon run dry.

To show this, we must first consider what I mean by “academia.” By “academia” I mean institutionalized western scholarship—its theory and practice. By institutionalized I mean that scholarship practiced in the school system (of all levels) and its affiliated societies and associations; by western, I limit the scope to the common vision shared by western society (though it spreads abroad); and by scholarship I mean rigorous study in pursuit of knowledge according to institutionalized standards. Academic study is practiced in every possible field, so it is comprehensive in scope, and sets itself to attain either objective (Modernism) or relatively concrete understanding (Post-modernism). The canons of academia demand—even where the possibility of knowledge is denied—rigorous study for the attainment of knowledge. We can summarize a few principles that will help illustrate the inherent dangers in the model:

  1. Ad fontes: knowledge claims must be rooted in the original sources.
  2. Contextual interpretation: right understanding involves not just knowledge of something, but the contemporary milieu, significance, and historical genesis of the thing known. All together, all knowledge claims based on others research and claims must honor ad fontes to be credible and exhaustive contextual interpretation must be practiced to understand these sources.
  3. Interdisciplinary study: it is not sufficient to exhaust a narrow band of research, but one must factor in the ways in which other fields of study impinge upon the present endeavor.
  4. Contemporaneity: ad fontes alone is not sufficient; to say that one knows an original source, one must be in dialogue with its contemporary and historical interpretation.

This does not exhaust “academia” and its standards, but gives enough of a picture to realize the epistemic dilemma. We all need to know something: knowledge lays at the root of our decisions and actions. We cannot practically live without knowledge, and for Christians, knowledge of God and His ways is a vital necessity. The existence and success of the Church depends on knowledge and its availability; in the secular world, the legal system relies on accessible, useable knowledge. We need knowledge, yet we are subtly cutting ourselves off from the possibility of knowledge: our proliferation in understanding is leading us ever closer to the edge of skepticism.

We need knowledge, yet knowledge requires the input of finite man hours. At its worst, the above principles lead to academic individualism—I can only work with someone once I have vetted their work on the above principles. Yet even if we allow corporate work (the ability to trust someone’s expertise in an area (though here we have subverted ad fontes)), the required input is growing exponentially to the point where it will soon be greater than available input—making access to knowledge impossible. That is, though there is theoretically a finite amount of historical knowledge, archaeology reveals more every day. Thus, the amount of sources necessary in a field grows yearly. Furthermore, the secondary literature, which the principle of contemporaneity requires us to use, likewise grows every year on the new and old primary sources. To compound this, the secondary literature on this secondary literature grows every year as well. Lastly, the principle of interdisciplinary study means that at every stage, one is also facing the same proliferation in every other field that is necessarily related to one’s own. Thus, a scholar up-to-date in his own field is quickly beyond his capacity. A new scholar has no hope to catch up. This situation is often acknowledged, but the epistemic ramifications are rarely considered.

One popular response is to go hyper-disciplinary—so restrict the field of study that a scholar is not at risk of this exponential explosion in material. Yet doing so violates all the principles of academics that got us in trouble in the first place: one may be a Statue-of-David-scholar, but if he does not avail himself of historical, biblical, art philosophical, and history of statue making scholarship, then his observations are hardly worth anything.

The problem is, on current academic principles, that the input required has outgrown the available input; this is already the case, and it will only get worse. Therefore, “knowledge” produced cannot be knowledge according to the original standards: it is deficient, partial, near sighted knowledge. It is, therefore, impossible in this current epistemic milieu to know anything that is considered by academic study—which is literally everything (even self and personal existence). We live in denial of course, but this is a fundamental epistemic inconsistency.

Consider biblical studies: a pastor has maybe 20 hours a week to write a sermon in which he confidently proclaims a passage of Scripture as God’s word with an application. What is involved here? Theology, the study the God of whom he speaks and the Scriptures from which he reads, provides inexhaustible amounts of study; Hermeneutics, thousands of hours in essays and books; homiletical guides, hundreds of hours of study in preaching presentation and sermon formation; psychology, biology, sociology, and culture studies (necessary for application), provide near unto infinite hours of study. Then there are the Scriptures: languages and translation (near unto infinite); text criticism (a few thousand hours); commentaries, essays, and monographs (a few hundred hours). This is just a sampling, yet already a pastor’s 20 hours a week have been consumed. Two options are available, on this model of knowledge: preach what he has, knowing that he may very well be wrong (uncertainty which destroys his very task), or give up all together. Or is there another option? If this dilemma is real, then we need to seriously reconsider the epistemic situation presented by contemporary academia.

5 thoughts on “Why I Hate, Detest—Yes, Even Abhor—Libraries

    1. I hope you did not read this as a hopeless piece, I believe that there is an answer to this situation, and it is exactly in the Spirit and Scripture. But, I dont think our understanding of the Spirit’s role in repairing this situation would be the same. For example, what does it mean that the Spirit will teach you all things? It clearly does not mean all things without exception, because neither of us Spirit filled Christians know pie to an infinite space nor the true nature of quantum mechanics and its relation to everyday experience. Neither is it every spiritual thing, for I know I have much to learn and have been wrong in many circumstances. In fact, in the context of John 14, Jesus specifically links this illumination with bringing to rememberance what He has said to the apostles, thus this promise is probably specific to the apostles. 1 John says something similar, as does 1 Cor. 2, so we can day for sure that Spirit guides us in our knowing, but it is clear that this does not mean that us and the Spirit can figure out everything. Supporting this is the fact that we need Scripture, this is our guide, our certain and authoritative rule of faith. Yet, we are wrong in interpretation at times, and we disagree with others, so that cant be the whole picture. Even Peter concedes that Paul’s letters contain difficult and, if abused, destructive sayings. This is why, especially in Eph., Heb, 1-2 Timothy, and Titus, the teaching ministry of elders is so important. And the fact that we are called to submit to their teaching indicates that we are not a rule of faith by ourselves. Such passages could go on and on. I think there is an answer to the dilemma I raise here, and I think the Spirit and the Word are the key piece on the puzzle, but it is not so simplistic as to be reduced to “he teaches us all things”; we need to heed the whole counsel of God’s Word. I wrote this to try to draw to the attention of my peers the epistemic dilemma the current Christian and secular school system presets. Some of my answers on the education side are sketched in a paper I wrote on education, but there is far more to the picture. John Frame’s work is especially insightful in aiming towards answers to the epistemic dillemma I perceive.

  1. Hi, I think we are given to know what we need to know, but a lot of what you said is right. There is disagreement etc. Maybe that is a reflection on the need to know, in that we don’t need to know every doctrinal thing, but we do need to know that which is necessary for ongoing salvation at a personal level, and by stepping outside this we may not be following the Spirit as we should be. The Apostle thing is raised by such as Christadelphians but they flat out deny a supernatural spirit and say it is the word that “induces” spirit. I think we have to accept the Spirit as the guiding light, after all, “He became a LIFE-giving Spirit” which means to all not just some. I am currently having a to and fro with someone regarding Romans 7. I have used this chapter as a litmus test to some degree to gauge where people are at with their theology. What are your views, is Paul describing a Christian or non-Christian experience? 🙂 CHEEKY me. Long ago I received the promise that I would be “led into all truth” and have proceeded in that vein. Errors will of course be made, but we keep on trying. The complexity you described is exactly the trouble we can get into by trying to figure it out, when often if not always it requires spiritual insight rather than intellectual insight, but of course not being as bright as some I perhaps have to say that! The obviousness that, people are still caught up in the law, shows how deceptive the matter is, and error occurs right through the interpretation of the word no matter what the subject. The reality is that we need to understand love “and the power of his resurrection”, and our efforts to inform people about Him should always be garnished to that end. Thanks.

    1. I think it is clear from Scripture that Spiritual insight is not at the expense of intellectual effort. 1 Cor. 2 makes it clear that the Spirit is necessary, as do many other passages, yet 1 Timothy and other passages make it clear that understanding and the ability to teach Scripture takes great effort, great thought. All believers can read the Bible and the Spirit will illumine it to them, but this does not guarantee each of us will understand everything or that we will even get everything we need. This is why there is need for teachers, and teaching is such an esteemed task in the NT (e.g., 1 Tim. 5:17-25). We all search the Scriptures in submission to those God has placed in authority over us, going back to Scripture with what they say. As for Rom. 7, that is an intensely debated passage, so it should never be made a test for anything. At the moment I hold to what may be called a hypothetical view, I think Paul describes a Christian considered apart from the Spirit (cf. Ch 8), so something no one will every really experience. Yet, we do empathize with the language he uses and Gal. 5 is a better descriptor of the struggle many of us have with sin in our lives.

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