So what?

I first encountered this question in 2007 at Campbell Divinity School. I hadn’t been taking graduate classes for very long, and in many ways my mind was still making the transition from undergraduate to graduate school. As an undergraduate this question, “So what?” had never occurred to me. I still assumed that any information, in and of itself, was inherently valuable. The question as to the application of knowledge was foreign to me. So I was a little caught off guard when one of my professors posed this question following every lecture. Never before had this question crossed my mind. What do we do with knowledge? How do we apply what we learn?

In a cultural age of endless information, on seemingly everything, we never lack the means to satisfy our intellectual curiosities. There appears to be no end to information, and our access to such information as grown exponentially. What is there to do with all of this information? In a time where everyone knows a little something about everything, the question becomes less about the acquisition of knowledge and more about its dissemination.

Of course this is not the case for everyone everywhere, but there does seems to be a worldwide fundamental shift in the accessibility of information. Our access to more varied sources of information is unparalleled in our history. Whether digital or print, the march of information into our homes and lives seems to show little sign of stopping.

I want to believe that everything we learn is valuable and useful. I hold to the belief that all information, like pieces of a puzzle, fits somewhere in our lives. Information should make our lives better, yet some information seems more difficult to apply than others. I don’t want to suggest that too much information is a bad thing, but it does create interesting challenges. It makes it especially difficult to filter and apply information that is valuable and useful. The bombardment of information can overwhelm us, hindering the usefulness of that information. Everything we learn requires interpretation and evaluation. We are our own judges when it comes the metadata of life.

Perhaps the most important lesson I learned from my doctoral studies is that knowledge requires application. Theology, in and of itself, doesn’t do much good if information is not translatable. Thus, theology is supposed to do something, fulfill some need, or serve the community. It needs an outward focus, otherwise it suffers under the pressure of it’s own weight. Theology needs to be doing something, it needs to be useful.

I credit my doctoral studies in practical theology for ingraining in me this mentality of usefulness and relevance. Practical theology is founded on the question of “So what?” Therefore it brought what I first experienced at Campbell Divinity full circle. More importantly, beyond theology, “So what?” changed the way I viewed knowledge in general. What we learn must influence what we do. Information needs to do something.

Valuable information needs application. Information is acquired, knowledge is applied. Acquisition and application are two sides of the same coin, we cannot (or at least should not) have one without the other. Thus the question, “So what?” becomes the driving force of both acquisition and application. Yet the answer to this question requires dialogue. Application requires dialogue, a continual expression of the self. I’ve often thought that the dialogue of knowledge was the fulfillment of “So what?”

The dialogue of knowledge is tied to both language and event. First, to express what we learn means that it must be in a language we can understand. Second, the act of understanding is the event of language. Paul Ricoeur, the mid-twentieth French philosopher, describes dialogue as an overcoming of distance. Ricoeur writes,

To speak is the act by which the speaker overcomes the closure of the universe of    signs…to speak is the act by which language moves beyond itself as sign towards its reference and toward its opposite. Language seeks to disappear; it seeks to die as an object. – Ricoeur, “Structure, Word, Event” in The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur, 112

Knowledge, unexpressed and isolated, remains an object. Knowledge must be shared and discussed otherwise it’s just a thing, without life or purpose. It lacks the event of understanding, connection, and meaning. Information finds its purpose as knowledge in the life of the other through discussion and dialogue. We connect to one another through speaking and reaching by way of a continual closure of the distance that separates us. We express who we are, our own knowledge and experience, through dialogue. In this way we find our own life in the life of the other. Ricoeur reminds us that discourse expresses the world. He writes:

Discourse is opposed to language that has no relationship with reality. Words refer to other words in the round without end of the dictionary. Only discourse, we say, intends things, is applied to reality, expresses the world. – Ricoeur, “Philosophy and Religious Language” in Figuring the Sacred, 42

Our knowledge needs a relationship with reality. Who we are goes beyond the things we know. Moreover, who we are is tied to how we live and expressing what we know in the lives of others. Each day, our own personal discourse works to overcome the personal distance that separates us all. Therefore “So what?” has less to do with the value of knowledge and more to do with how knowledge makes meaning in the lives of others.

I’ve always felt that dialogue was a theological imperative, and that theology and dialogue share the same task. Both theology and dialogue share the conscious effort to reach out beyond the self and toward the other. Ultimately, theology stands or falls on this question of “So what?” and the effort theologians bring toward answering this question. Yet answering this question cannot be done in an esoteric way. Theology needs to reach out into the lives of people.

The best theological information is that which makes a difference in the lives of others. For theologians, our most difficult job is turning information into knowledge we can share. Doing this requires a continual glance towards the present situation. Paul Tillich, the famous mid-twentieth century German theologian writes:

[Theology] is not an historical discipline…it is a constructive task. It does not tell us what people thought the Christian message to be in the past; rather it tries to give us an interpretation of the Christian message which is relevant to the present situation. – Tillich, Systematic Theology Volume I, 53

My own reason for starting this blog is to tackle the question of “So what?” It’s a personal journey for me, my own effort at reaching out and searching for understanding of life and culture through the lens of practical theology. I can’t say where this journey will take me, but I hope you’ll continue to join me in the future!

Jonathan

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