Curiosity may kill cats, but it breathes life into human beings.
One of the greatest virtues we can cultivate in our children is curiosity. Curiosity is key to being a great student. There are, of course, pragmatic learners, those who say, “I don’t really care to learn for the sake of learning. Just tell me what I need to know for (the job, the test, the task, etc.) and I’ll do it.” But, the great thinkers, inventors, leaders, and students are those who are curious, who always ask why, seeking new answers to questions.
Being curious is vital to learning. But, it’s also vital to loving. Do you remember when you first met the man or woman you ultimately married? How anxious were you to know everything you could about them? Not just facts about them–where they were from, the high school they graduated from, etc.–but their hopes, their dreams, their challenges? That curiosity to discover was borne from a desire to truly know them, and to be known by them. It was a curiosity motivated by burgeoning love.
It’s so important to be curious as a student, as a lover, and as a follower of Jesus. It’s important to ask the why, to seek to know the answers about someone or something. Part of the cause of anger, hostility, and prejudice in our world is birthed from a failure of curiosity. How often do we hear someone say about the Other (whether that Other is of a different political leaning, gender, ethnic background, economic strata, educational position, or whatever): “Why don’t they just …” followed by some overly-simplistic solution to the problems that group faces, often a solution rooted in thinking, acting, or becoming exactly like the speaker himself; in other words, becoming no longer an Other? The “why don’t they just…” question isn’t really a question at all. It’s actually a statement, a statement rooted in a lack of curiosity, a statement replaced by assumption, coupled with judgment based upon those assumptions, often divorced from any sort of reality. Another word for this phenomenon is “prejudice.”
It seems to me there are three primary reasons why people lose their curiosity, or are intentionally non-curious. The first is a form of intellectual laziness. Curiosity requires something of us. In the case of knowing the Other, it requires us to actually build relationships with people who aren’t like us, which takes effort. In understanding new ideas, it may take reading a book or an article, something different from what we’re used to reading, something that may challenge us. Satisfying our curiosity is often hard work, and we often don’t want to work hard.
Another reason for losing our curiosity is that we just don’t care about others enough to seek to understand, or we believe ourselves to be too busy to engage others (which is another way of saying we don’t care enough). Satisfying our curiosity, seeking to understand and be understood takes humility, and engagement, and vulnerability, and relational energy, and that’s too high a price for many of us to pay. We’re not relationally mature enough to engage at that level. So, we aren’t curious; we just assume…
The third reason for a lack of curiosity is fear. We are afraid that engaging with others, or wrestling with ideas that might be foreign to us, those that might either threaten our own thoughts and beliefs and require us to change. Or, we may fear that, in our cancel culture, the simple process of engaging in inquiry might invite scorn, criticism, social ostracism, or shame from others in our ingroup who matter to us.
Real and understandable though these reasons may be, we know none of them are God-breathed. Laziness, fear, and lack of love are all antithetical to the gospel. Love requires curiosity, the willingness to ask “why?”
Diana Pavlac Glyler, a professor at Azusa Pacific, speaks encouragingly of the virtue of what she calls “intellectual hospitality.” She notes that, “In the classroom, the concept of intellectual hospitality occurs when students engage with unfamiliar ideas, read books from unknown authors, and entertain new ways of looking at the world. Though they often resist it at first, I ask them to slow down, be patient, ask good questions, seek to understand. I want them to consider the possibility that even the most farfetched idea may contain something of significance. If nothing else, it may serve as a catalyst to help them clarify what it is that they truly believe…every idea…begins as a foreign one, and if we never allowed a new idea in, we would never learn anything.”
Intellectual hospitality requires cultivating curiosity. It requires us to seek to understand ideas, not to commit to them as true, but to ensure we follow what is actually being said. It is exploring new concepts, rather than merely contradicting, dismissing, disputing, rejecting, or ridiculing them. “When people react with skepticism and distrust,” Glyer says, “discussion often dissolves into a matter of winning and losing, a cycle of contradiction and strife.”
One of the greatest spiritual gifts I received during my master’s work at Covenant College was when my professor, Dr. Kaufmann, introduced me to the concept of “critical appreciation.” He explained that, by His common grace, God reveals truth to man through creation, including inventions, great works of literature, music, and other artifacts of culture. Truth is woven throughout creation, and all truth is God’s truth. God’s truth, by His grace, is revealed eve to people who are not His children; it’s why nonbelievers can write and develop truthful things. And, yet, because we live in a broken world, fallen through sin, truth gets distorted by things that are not true.
Critical appreciation is the concept of viewing an idea, a work of literature, and other artifacts of culture through the lens of God’s Word, His revealed truth, and determining what aspects of the idea or work being considered is common grace insight, and therefore true, and what part is broken, fallen and distorted through sin, and therefore, untrue. It is seeking out the “both/and”, rather than the “either/or.” Of course, using critical appreciation well requires an understanding of God’s Word as the plumbline, the measuring rod of what is true and untrue. Critical appreciation is a kind of intellectual or heart separation of the wheat from the chaff, and it’s absolutely necessary to thoughtfully view life through a biblical lens, a Christian worldview. It’s also impossible unless one has cultivated curiosity about ideas and people, engaging with them, rather than rejecting or ignoring them outright.
As I grow older, I realize that there are ways I looked at life, things I believed, and characteristics I thought about people that weren’t consistent with God’s Word. And, I’ve had to change, to be transformed by the renewing of my mind. (Rom. 12:2). I know there are still ideas yet to be discovered, new insights that will cause me to change still further before I see the face of God. That’s the idea of sanctification, and all followers of Jesus are called to it. Staying curious is how I’ll get there.
Being curious requires active listening, listening or reading to understand, rather than to generate a good counter-argument. Listening to build an argument was good when I was a lawyer trying a case in court, but it’s bad for building a relationship or for showing love.
One of the most brutal things we can do to another is to be intentionally non-curious. As we come to the end of Lent and near Holy Week, I reflect upon the Pharisees. The older I become, the more sympathetic I am toward the Pharisees, and the more I see my own sin and brokenness in theirs.
Perhaps the Pharisees’ biggest problem was they had become so threatened by the culture change happening around them, so fearful of their loss of cultural power to the pagan Romans, that they became stuck in their ways, and lost their curiosity. They neglected to ask “why?” and instead, just assumed: “Why doesn’t this Jesus character just…”
And, in so doing, the Pharisees completely missed this Messiah, right under their noses, that they had been waiting on since ancient days. They had Him killed instead. Only Nicodemus, who had to come to that Messiah under cover of darkness for fear of being cancelled, stayed curious, and was likely transformed and saved in the process. May we all have the love and courage to be Nicodemus. To stay curious.