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The Power of Curiosity

The Power of Curiosity December 14, 2020

Editor’s Note: Here’s a breath of fresh air – a post written before the pandemic and before the 2020 presidential election! There’s nothing, (except this note and the Editor’s Question at the end) that directly addresses the physical and societal plagues we are currently experiencing. The theme, however, is timeless, and is a reminder of the value of clear thinking no matter what the subject. /Linda LaScola, Editor

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By Bob Ripley

Curiosity is a curious thing. It can be disastrous. Literature is filled with fables that warn about the seductive nature of curiosity. Neither Pandora nor Eve could resist the dangerous allure of the unknown. Lot’s wife peeked over her shoulder to see the destruction of Sodom and for her curiosity, she was turned into a pillar of salt. According to the proverb, curiosity managed to kill the cat.

Sometimes the results of curiosity are not so much dangerous as embarrassing. The sign says Wet Paint but is it really wet? How many of us were tempted to lick a frozen metal pole because we were curious about whether our tongue might stick to it?

And, sadly, curiosity is simply discouraged. For a long time, people thought that there are some questions which should not even be asked. There are things we should not try to know.

Sadly, the Christian church has played a role in this campaign. The writer of the Book of Acts (19:19) was delighted when books were burned, even estimating the market value of the torched tomes. The Emperor Constantine exiled philosophers, declaring them social outcasts. The Inquisition and the creation of the Index of Forbidden Books epitomized the campaign to eradicate opinions that deviated from Church doctrine. Galileo is probably the poster child of the Church’s hostility toward curiosity. How dare he point out that the Earth revolved around the Sun!

But despite all the dangers and discouragements, I’m so glad we are born curious. It’s curiosity that makes toddlers pay attention to their environment, learning how to reach and walk and what hurts and what doesn’t hurt. As kids we’re insatiably inquisitive. Everything — from cups to cupboards to dirt to our own hands — fascinates us. What’s behind that door with the child lock on it? What happens if eat this spaghetti with my hands? Why this? Why that? (And as we all know, ‘because I said so’ is not a satisfactory answer)

Curiosity is how we have evolved and continue to evolve as humans.

Curiosity is the cornerstone of commerce. What can our business offer? Who is our competition? Is there a better way to do this? Constant curiosity in business is never more important than in today’s knowledge based economy where the goalposts are constantly shifting. Today’s dream can be tomorrow’s dud. But without curiosity, a business will go bust.

As the years roll by, sadly, curiosity, which once waxed in our infancy, begins to wane. Answers become more important than questions. Challenging traditions is considered disrespectful.

Beginning with the educational system itself, we become more content with an answer, any answer, than with continually asking questions. Someone has called this “a pedagogy of intellectual hide-and-seek’ where teachers have the correct answers and students have to provide them. Of course it’s important to have correct answers. But not at the expense of good questions.

We can easily become so enamored with answers, that we value them more than questions. We can end up spouting answers even when no one is asking the question. With self-deprecating humor, I used to joke that the church could answer more questions that no one’s asking than anyone else.

Since we are born curious, I believe we can re-ignite our natural curiosity. How? We have to risk it, value it and practice it.

RISK CURIOSITY

Being curious has its risks. The answer you get may not be the one you’re looking for. If you are genuinely curious, you have to set aside your preconditioned notions. You can’t be invested in the outcome of your curiosity.

When my book, Life Beyond Belief was published, I expected to hear from clergy colleagues. Maybe they’d be angry but maybe some would be curious about my decision and, at the very least, want to point out where I was wrong and try to woo me back to faith. I couldn’t wait to engage. What I heard was the sound of silence. I wondered why.

Among the reasons for the silence, I suspect, is the reluctance to go where evidence leads. What would the contradictions in the Bible say to those who believe it is the faultless word of God? What would the findings about the origin of the universe and our planet say to those who believe in a literal reading of the Book of Genesis? I did manage to ask one pastor how the Antarctic penguins hopped from the South Pole to the Middle East to get on Noah’s Ark and hopped back after the great flood. His answer? God made it happen!

I realized that some clergy just didn’t want to face the questions I was asking. To go down the path I was on was too risky for them. Remember what Upton Sinclair said:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Maybe Blaise Pascal the French mathematician and Catholic theologian got it right when he wrote, “People almost invariably arrive at their beliefs not on the basis of proof but on the basis of what they find attractive.”

You have to risk being wrong. That’s not easy. The ability to shelve a sense of being right in favor of being open to the insights and opinions of others is a trait of curious people, says Sue Heilbronner, cofounder and CEO of MergeLane, an program that focus on female-run companies.

There are benefits to taking the risk of curiosity. One is the element of surprise. Curious people welcome surprise in their lives. They try new foods, talk to strangers, or ask a question they’ve never asked before.

Curiosity is the fuel that powers science. With science it is permissible to ask any and every question.

A few years ago, I took that new freedom to heart. As I wrote in my book, Life Beyond Belief:

“I was asking myself questions, which only led to more and more questions. Curiosity is an amazing accelerant.”

My testimony of deconversion is that I was no longer satisfied with pat answers. How did we get here? God made us. No, really. How did we get here? It led me to cosmology and biology, which pointed to a big bang 13.8 billion years ago. The formation of our planet four billion years ago; the evolution of our species over time. And so on.

How did the Bible get here? God gave us his word. No, really. How did it come about? Who decided that should be in the Bible and what shouldn’t be in the Bible? On what basis?

Where did Jesus come from? A virgin gave birth to a baby boy on Christmas Day. No, really. After decades of a fluid oral tradition, the figure of Jesus evolved with each new gospel writer.

See what I mean? Curiosity is such a powerful force in our growth as humans but if we hold on to that power, we may not like what we discover. We have to be willing to be wrong. It’s more important to learn than to appear smart.

We also have risk having to say, “I don’t know”. It doesn’t sound very smart to say, “Beats me!”. What existed before the Big Bang? How did life first form in the primordial sludge on our planet? We don’t know. But since curiosity is what fuels science, we’re still trying to find out. And science will not be satisfied until it finds an answer.

VALUE CURIOSITY

Despite the risks, there is something inherently precious in curiosity. It adds color, vibrancy, passion and pleasure to our lives. It helps us solve stubborn problems. True. It may help us in school or in business.

But more than that, curiosity is the very spice of life. It keeps our minds engaged and our imaginations on fire. It is our very birthright. As Ian Leslie writes in his book Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It.

“The true beauty of learning stuff, including apparently useless stuff, is that it takes us out of ourselves, reminds us that we are part of a far greater project, one that has been under way for at least as long as human beings have been talking to each other”

Curiosity can transport us into someone else’s shoes. We become more empathetic when we discover why someone acts the way they do. It helps us meet our own and others’ needs, whether it’s in a company or a marriage. It takes us from the obvious and superficial, and opens us to deeper, valuable truths.

PRACTICE CURIOSITY

So if we take the risk to be curious and value it in our lives, we reap rewards. But it is not something that comes easily as we age. We don’t walk like a toddler anymore. But we can still think like a toddler. And we must. We must ask the big, simple questions. How? Why?

Some of us may be just naturally curious. We are very lucky. Others of us have to practice it. But do you know what? It’s easier than ever before.

The Internet has its dark side, I admit. But it also makes it easier to satisfy our curiosity. Google everything. Who sang that song? Who was the lead in that movie? Ask Siri or Alexa. She can tell you in a second.

In our digital age, where any information is just a click away, we have to be careful not to remain complacent and stay in shallow waters. Curiosity is deep sea diving. There is more to know that we will ever know. But keep diving. Keep exploring. Keep asking questions. It has been said that Einstein’s mother used to ask him what questions he asked at school at the end of each day.

Albert Einstein later said,

“I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious. The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”

Curiosity drove our origins and drives our survival. In the words of Will Rogers,

“When you’re through learning, you’re through.”

**Editor’s Question** What do you wish those who think the 2020 US presidential election was stolen would be curious about?

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Bio: Bob Ripley was a syndicated religion columnist, broadcaster, former preacher and author of Christian devotional material.  His book, which came out in October 2014 is titled Life Beyond Belief: A Preacher’s Deconversion. Find out more about the book and his other writing here.  This post is reposted from his blog with permission.

>>>>Photo Credits: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b0/Gutenberg_Bible.jpg ; By Ferdinand Schmutzer – http://www.bhm.ch/de/news_04a.cfm?bid=4&jahr=2006 [dead link], archived copy (image), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34239518

 

 


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