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Curiosity is Contagious
What is the most memorable thing you learned as a student? There are many contenders for me, but if I go with the first one that comes to mind, it’s a lesson from my college pastoral studies professor and mentor John Koessler. It came in one of two classes, I can’t remember which, either Pastoral Theology, or Cultural Dynamics of Pastoral Ministry. Here’s what he said:
“Sometimes the question is more important than the answer.”
Now, this was a surprising statement to me at a conservative Bible college when postmodernism was the ever-present bogeyman. When relativists were questioning all truth, Christians can trust the Bible and its answers! Or something like that.1
But there is much more to that statement than the tension between doubt and certainty. At root, it signals the possible connection between curiosity and spiritual health.
Curiosity is an important theme for Christian psychologist and author Chuck DeGroat. Here is one recent tweet:
Curiosity. Research shows this is core to people who change, who mature. Not your brilliant insight, whether in a sermon or a counseling session or a tweet. I’m not good enough at my job to magically provoke curiosity in someone, but I can work with someone who is willing.
We may not be able to “magically provoke” others to curiosity. But as anyone who has read the book of Genesis—not to mention the whole Bible—can tell, provoking curiosity is something God likes to do. God asks 8 questions in Genesis 3 and 4 alone.2
The Son of God, as the image of the Father, revealed this same characteristic in his earthly life. According to Martin Copenhaver, Jesus asked 307 questions in the 4 Gospels.3 Clearly, Jesus valued the way questions can spark curiosity. But questions, in and of themselves, aren’t the key to curiosity. Sometimes questions are actually veiled judgments.
Just this morning, in a moment of exasperation I asked my kids, “Why do you keep fighting?!” A more honest statement would have been something like, “I don’t like this and I demand you stop immediately!” I was not genuinely curious, or at least not wholly so. But there was enough curiosity to prompt my 11 year-old son to repeat the question: “Yea, why are we fighting so much this morning?” He had a softer, more playful tone of voice. His genuine curiosity was disarming, quickly calming my dysregulated nervous system. You might even say his curiosity was contagious.
We didn’t really need the answer in that moment. Just the question, asked gently, hinted that there was some kind of reason for the heightened emotions. And the fact that we didn’t know the answer got us out of the trap of judgmental thinking. In that moment, the question itself was more important.
Speaking of questions, perhaps you’re asking “What is judgmental thinking?” It is the kind of closed-loop negative thought process that reasons from concluded judgments and so never finds anything new. The mind’s judge has already rendered a decision, no further evidence or investigation needed.
Curiosity is the antidote to the black-and-white either/or trap of the closed mind. This characteristic is so important that recovering alcoholics turned it into a slogan for “H.O.W.” they recover: honesty, open mindedness, and willingness. One of the hallmarks of addiction is that such open mindedness usually comes through desperation. But perhaps we can cultivate curiosity through less extreme measures.
“Necessity may be the mother of invention, but play is certainly the father.”
Roger von Oech
Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” (Matthew 18:3). Perhaps one of the traits he wants all of his followers to recover is the playful curiosity that all children are born with. Indeed, researcher George Land found that creative thinking—an adjacent concept to curiosity—universally declined over time among a sample of 1,600 American children. At age 4-5, 98% of the study population tested as gifted with imaginative thought. This declined to 30% at age 10, and 12% at age 15. Shockingly, only 2% of adults, with an average age of 31, demonstrated this ability.
Maybe we really do need to become like children. If curiosity killed the cat, maybe it can cure the human. Even more, maybe it is a contagious cure. And maybe one simple—though by no means easy—method of pursuing that is doing things that engage our imagination, our innate drive to play, even just a little, with the serious business of life. Are you willing to give curiosity a try?
Quote from James Stephens in The Crock of Gold
Curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will.
How can you practice curiosity today? What opportunities can you create to be playful?
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In case you’re wondering, I do believe the Bible has real answers to real questions, and we can have a strong degree of confidence in God’s revelation, both special and general. Dr. Koessler didn’t say the question is always more important than the answer, only sometimes, comparative to the answer. But even when answers are important, the questions are always important, too.
Here are the questions in Genesis I remember off-hand from teaching Genesis a few years ago. If I missed any let me know!
Genesis 3:9 But the LORD God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”
Genesis 3:11 He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”
Genesis 3:13 Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?”
Genesis 4:6 The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen?”
Genesis 4:9 Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?”
Genesis 4:10 And the LORD said, “What have you done?”
Genesis 16:7-8 The angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. And he said, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?”
Genesis 18:13-14 The LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the LORD?”
Genesis 32:27 And he said to him, “What is your name?”
Martin Copenhaver, Jesus Is the Question: The 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 He Answered.