I think it was Leo Strauss who quipped, “what has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” It’s not a sentiment that I agree with philosophically, but as a description of modern academia it feels quite apt. For it is a landscape roughly equivalent to that of 1000-500 B.C., and we all live in our own city states, viewing the nations around us as quaint at best. The notion of the scholar who can be expected to accumulate a general knowledge of things has given away to the specialist. And so you have theology students who have never studied logic, historians without a shred of poetry in them, English profs who can’t understand bible references, etc. Occasionally someone like Jacques Derrida will found a small empire over several disciplines, seeding them with his cultic practices.
Or perhaps things only look this way because I find myself increasingly centered in the ancient near east. I, as you know, have fallen into academic orbit around the Old Testament, and in particular the Wisdom literature, which in the Hebrew bible comprises Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job, but which for us Catholics also includes the Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach.
Wisdom literature, Hebraic or not, rests on the assumption that the world makes sense, and that, by paying attention to the order behind it you can figure out at least some principles for a good life. It is a practical, inductive genre, neither particularly interested in the covenantal theology detailed in the rest of the Old Testament, nor in the speculative theories of the Greek philosophers.* That makes it good for exploring the apparent breakdown of order on the level of the individual – as in the case of Job, in a way that zooming out to examine the historico-eschatological significance of catastrophe (as in the case of the Prophets) cannot. It is slightly Socratic in its suggestion that Lady Wisdom is always more elusive than she seems.
The Chestertonian in me observes that I, whittling away the prime of my life in higher ed, have chosen to study sanity in an insane milieu. Oh well.
*Matters become a bit blurrier in the case of Wisdom of Solomon, which is arguably the exception that proves the rule.