In the beginning was curiosity, and it was with God and it was God. And it became flesh in a very small child.
Ten Things to Know about Curiosity
Curiosity is a way of participating in God's life.
Divine creativity is curiosity informed by love. God is curious, too.
God is inside each of us as a lure toward curiosity.
God is in animals in this way, too. And perhaps also in living cells. Wherever there is a desire to know the not-yet known, there is curiosity. If there is life on other planets, they are curious, too.
Curiosity can make you confused. It is not always happy. "Tyger Tyger Burning Bright" is about curiosity, but it is troubling curiosity. So is curiosity about the causes of war, or mental illness, or hatred.
When we are curious about the universe, we are curious about God's body, whether named or unnamed. The universe is not outside God; it is part of God's life.
This doesn't mean that everything that happens is caused by God. Just as what happens in our own bodies is not controlled by us, so what happens in God's body is not controlled by God. Creatures have something like free will. We can be curious about many things that are not caused by God, both happy and sad.
Curiosity has many settings. It can happen in school, in family life, in community life. It can be done alone or with others.
Curiosity can be stifled in school, in family life, and in community life. We can find ourselves in places that are stiflingly uncurious.
We rightly seek "places" that invite curiosity. The public library can be a sanctuary for curiosity. So can the really good bookstore. Or a garden.
When we sit in the stacks of a library and read books, enjoying the "rapturous rewards of serendipitous discovery," we are doing theology.
The theology is not simply in what we discover, it is in the joy of discovery. Even if the subject is not God, it is theology, It is discovering an aspect of God's body.
The Well-Lived Life as a Curious Life
There are many forms of curiosity: intellectual, scientific, creative, cultural, social, emotional, philosophical and theological. They can be healthy or unhealthy. When they foster personal growth, empathy, understanding, and concern for the common good, they are healthy. All are ways of participating in God's life. All are also theological in the sense that they explore and learn about the multiplicity of the world, which is itself part of God's life. Curiosity is also contagious. When you meet someone with a curious mind, you feel their energy, their enthusiasm, their love of life, and their sense of adventure. The consolation of curiosity is not that it arrives at closure. It is that it yields rapturous rewards of serendipitous discovery, promising still further rewards. The well-lived life is a curious life.
Curiosity and the God of Love
An open and relational perspective
Open and relational theologians, including process theologians, are interested in God's nature. Most conceive God as a sky-like Mind, encompassing the universe, with thoughts and emotions of God's own. God is not above or outside the universe in a spatial sense, with a body of God's own. God is the very mind of the universe: everywhere at once but not limited to any particular region. Thomas Oord, for example emphasizes that at the core of God's essence lies relational love, characterizing God as "amipotent" — an embodiment of all-encompassing love.
Typically, open and relational theologians like Oord do not think of "theology" as a mere expression of loving curiosity about the universe, especially when the concept of God is entirely omitted. They would argue that curiosity about subjects such as the evolution of life on Earth, the historical circumstances of ancient Chinese history, or the psychology of family life falls within the scope of science, history, or psychology. Theology is about God.
Interestingly, however, they envision God as open to an as-yet-undetermined future, where novel occurrences become integrated into God's knowledge as they come into existence. These new occurrences include the emotions and experiences that humans and other sentient beings undergo, on our planet or any other planet, as they interact with their surroundings. These experiences that are entirely new to God. God must, as it were, wait and see. Or better, wait and feel. It's hard not to imagine that in this anticipation, God is, in fact, curious as well. Here, curiosity represents the genuine desire, on God's part, to know what has yet to be known, driven by a spirit of love—a form of loving curiosity.
What kind of knowing is this? I propose that the type of knowledge we attribute to God isn't merely an intellectual understanding but a deeper form of knowing, characterized by empathy. It is empathic knowing, a knowing through sympathy and feeling, where what is known becomes an integral part of the knower's own life. In empathy, the boundaries of separation fall away. Consequently, the events in the universe that God knows and comes to know are, or evolve into, integral components of God's own ongoing life. When we are curious about the universe with a loving spirit, we are curious about the universe as immanent within God. In this light, curiosity about the world is theology too.
The Rapturous Rewards of Serendipitous Discovery
I like to search the internet, but I often search for things that already interest me. I plug something into Google and seek results. Often, to my surprise, topics emerge I never thought of. I discover unexpected treasures. The same thing happens when I go to a bookstore and stroll through the aisles. Or go to my local public library and do the same. I enjoy reading titles of books. I open them up, look at tables of contents, and read paragraphs. Something comes alive in me.
Such discovery is itself a spiritual gift, a way of participating in divine curiosity. Being curious about the world is a way of walking with God in daily life. Curiosity is rooted in a desire to be connected with something else. Curiosity is a form of love. God is Curiosity informed by love.
Not being curious is a problem. Maybe even a sin, albeit redeemable by visiting a library. Or a disease, albeit curable by visiting a bookstore. Uncurious minds are like trains on a single track, or chess players with only one move, or single-minded archers. They aim at a single target with unwavering concentration, disregarding the surrounding landscape. They are curious about what interests them, but not very curious about the rest. They forfeit the capacity to revel in the 'rapturous rewards of serendipitous discovery.'
I borrow the phrase from Maria Popova, herself a very curious mind and editor of Marginalia. Her phrase offers a way of describing the special kind of curiosity I have in mind on this page. It is the delight in the rapturous rewards of serendipitous discovery combined with a sense of hope, of openness to future discoveries. It is inwardly inspired by openness to novelty.
For my part, I sometimes partake of this kind of curiosity and sometimes don't. When I do, I feel alive, with a special sense of adventure. When I don't, I am usually engrossed in what Popova calls "my conscious self-directed intentions." I avoid subjects that seem irrelevant to my purposes. If I am feeling a bit pretentious, I say that they are "uninteresting." Really, I am just saying: "I can't see the connections, at least to what interests me."
I am always a little suspicious of myself when I speak of something as "uninteresting." What is uninteresting to me is interesting to someone! And who is to say that what interests me is more important than what interests them? Isn't here some level at which everything is interesting and important? Why think things are not?
I marvel at ordinary people who have interested minds, who are curious about everything. They remind me of polymaths in history, people who have excelled in multiple areas of study because they are curious about everything: Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), Barbara McClintock (1902-1992). The people I have in mind are not polymaths in a literal sense, but they have a polymath sensibility. They would like to know a lot about many subjects. They have a special energy about them, a love of life, a sense of wonder, a capacity to be amazed, an openness to novelty.
They also have a sense of relationality. From a process-relational perspective, the absence of curiosity is problematic philosophically as well as personally. In reality, everything is interconnected; every subject of exploration is linked to all others, and becoming aware of these connections is, in essence, an awakening to the very nature of reality. We do not create connections between subjects; we discover them. We do not connect the dots; the dots are already connected. Curiosity is not just about learning things; it is about sensing relations that already exist. If we say something is uninteresting, we really mean that we can't see the connections.
There is a theological side to this. In process theology, God is a Consciousness that embraces the whole of the universe, in which those connections are understood and felt. The world is, as it were, God's body. This does not mean that everything that happens in the universe is good. It does mean that everything is part of everything else and everything is part of God. And it means that when we are learning about the interconnected world, we are learning about God, even if the word "God" is never used.
At least this is how things seem from an open and relational or process perspective. Process theologians add that this Consciousness is itself curious. Curious about the way things are already connected in infinite ways and curious about how things will be connected in the as-yet-undecided future. Muslims speak of the ninety-names for God: God the Beautiful, God the Majestic, God the Compassionate, God the Strong. Process theologians add God the Curious.
This means that education, when in tune with the depths of life, can and should be a greenhouse for curiosity. Fostering curiosity is a fundamental goal of education, whether in formal classroom settings or in informal learning environments like homes and communities. Needless to say, one place where curiosity is fostered in formal education is in preschool education, such as kindergarten. In kindergarten, children are encouraged to explore, play, and engage with a variety of subjects and activities. It is here that the seeds of curiosity are sown, and the joy of discovery begins to take root. Another place, at the other end of the formal spectrum, is liberal arts education in college. Liberal arts education emphasizes a holistic approach to learning, encouraging students to explore a wide range of subjects across the humanities, sciences, and social sciences. It recognizes that knowledge is interconnected, and that by exploring various disciplines, students not only gain a deeper understanding of individual subjects but also discover the interplay and relationships between them.
In addition, fostering curiosity and promoting interconnected learning also occurs in local communities, notably through institutions like the public library. Public libraries are not just repositories of books and information; they are hubs of exploration, discovery, and communal learning. These libraries provide access to a diverse array of resources, from books and digital media to educational programs and community events. They serve as spaces where people of all ages can come together, engage in lifelong learning, and explore topics that pique their curiosity. There is a contemplative side to them, too. Quiet strolling through the stacks of a library can be a meditative experience, where the serendipitous encounter with a book or an idea can spark the flame of curiosity.
Public libraries are, in their way, sanctuaries. At least this is how process theologians see things. Process theologians believe that God the Curious is inside each person as a lure toward holistic well-being, a lure toward spiritual aliveness. To be sure, this lure is toward moral virtues such as love, kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and justice. But it is also toward intellectual virtues such as honesty, openness to truth, a sense of mystery, a sense of the connectedness of all things, and openness to new insights.
Back, then, to the uncurious mind. I worry about this mind, including in myself. As a religious person, I worry about how focusing only on “religious” topics, perhaps especially the subject of God, gets in the way of a healthy curiosity about the world, about life. I believe that this focus undercuts our fidelity to the world that God so loves. Where to go? What to do? Try a public library. Walk through the aisles, look at the titles, pick up a book, read a paragraph. Don't worry about the subject. History, fiction, poetry, sports, science, economics, religion, philosophy, art? It's OK. Just read a paragraph and see what comes of it. Truth be told, the internet can function like a library, too. But it's important not to be looking for information alone, information that serves your purposes. Be looking for new ideas, new stories, new insights, new connections. Let the titles of books speak to you. Let them be your bibles. Let them be poems. Let them be rapturous rewards of serendipitous discovery.
The Tyger, by William Blake
It is possible, indeed probable, that God inspires curiosity about God. The God of love is a friend of deep questions, including questions that question God's love.
Tyger Tyger, burning bright, In the forests of the night; What immortal hand or eye, Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies. Burnt the fire of thine eyes? On what wings dare he aspire? What the hand, dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art, Could twist the sinews of thy heart? And when thy heart began to beat, What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain, In what furnace was thy brain? What the anvil? what dread grasp, Dare its deadly terrors clasp!
When the stars threw down their spears And water'd heaven with their tears: Did he smile his work to see? Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger Tyger burning bright, In the forests of the night: What immortal hand or eye, Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
The repeated questioning of "Tyger Tyger, burning bright" conveys a sense of awe and curiosity about the nature of the tiger and the creative forces that brought it into existence. It is not easy to reconcile divine amipotence with these forces. We live the questions. Even God wonders.
The world is not in a happy place. Consider war and the threat of nuclear war, the rise of authoritarianism and ethnic nationalism, global climate change, the obscenity of economic disparities, the loneliness of the elderly, the abuse of children, the abuse of women. Yes, there is happiness, but there is also tragedy. Curiosity finds its home, not only when it enjoys the unexpected treasures of surprise, and not only when it it awestruck by the beauty of creation, but when it peers into the realm of possible solutions to these tragedies. Prophetic curiosity has the courage to be "curious" about how the world could be different from the way it is. It has the courage to hope for solutions to old problems, and to look for them. This, too, is inspired by God.
Some kinds of curiosity What distinguishes healthy from unhealthy curiosity?
A question put to ChatGPT. Its (her, his, their) answer:
"Curiosity comes in various forms, and distinguishing between healthy and unhealthy curiosity can be important for personal growth and well-being. Here are some different kinds of curiosity, along with characteristics that help distinguish healthy from unhealthy curiosity:
Healthy: A desire to learn, explore, and acquire knowledge in various fields.
Unhealthy: Seeking knowledge with the sole purpose of showing off or gaining an advantage over others, leading to arrogance and intellectual snobbery.
Healthy: A passion for scientific inquiry, experimentation, and a commitment to the scientific method.
Unhealthy: Pursuing scientific knowledge without ethical considerations, such as experimenting on others without their consent.
Healthy: Exploring one's creative abilities, trying new artistic techniques, and seeking inspiration.
Unhealthy: Obsessively comparing one's creativity to others, leading to self-doubt and creative blocks.
Healthy: A genuine interest in different cultures, customs, and traditions, fostering cross-cultural understanding.
Unhealthy: Cultural appropriation or voyeurism, where curiosity about other cultures becomes superficial and disrespectful.
Healthy: An interest in understanding human behavior, empathy, and building meaningful relationships.
Unhealthy: Invasive curiosity about others' personal lives, gossip, or manipulative behavior to gain information.
Healthy: A desire to explore and understand one's own emotions and the emotions of others, leading to emotional intelligence.
Unhealthy: Uncontrolled intrusive curiosity into the personal emotions of others without their consent.
Philosophical and Theological Curiosity:
Healthy: A sincere exploration of the nature of reality, and the search for meaning in life.
Unhealthy: Blind adherence to dogma, cult-like behavior, or exploiting others' spiritual beliefs for personal gain.
Characteristics that distinguish healthy from unhealthy curiosity in general include:
Ethical Considerations: Healthy curiosity respects ethical boundaries and consent, while unhealthy curiosity disregards them, potentially causing harm or violating privacy.
Open-Mindedness: Healthy curiosity is open to diverse perspectives and new information, while unhealthy curiosity is often close-minded and resistant to change.
Empathy: Healthy curiosity seeks to understand others' experiences and perspectives with empathy, while unhealthy curiosity may exploit or objectify others.
Balance: Healthy curiosity is balanced with other aspects of life, allowing for personal growth and well-being, while unhealthy curiosity can become obsessive and detrimental to one's mental or physical health.
Respect for Boundaries: Healthy curiosity respects personal boundaries and consent, while unhealthy curiosity crosses boundaries without consideration for others' feelings or privacy.
Ultimately, healthy curiosity fosters personal growth, empathy, and a greater understanding of the world, while unhealthy curiosity can lead to negative consequences for oneself and others."
Some Evolutionary and Psychological Benefits of Curiosity
from Six Surprising Benefits of Curiosity. BY EMILY CAMPBELL | SEPTEMBER 24, 2015. in Greater Good Magazine: Science-Based Insights for a Meaningful Life
1. Curiosity helps us survive. The urge to explore and seek novelty helps us remain vigilant and gain knowledge about our constantly changing environment, which may be why our brains evolved to release dopamine and other feel-good chemicals when we encounter new things.
2. Curious people are happier. Research has shown curiosity to be associated with higher levels of positive emotions, lower levels of anxiety, more satisfaction with life, and greater psychological well-being. Of course, it may be, at least partially, that people who are already happier tend to be more curious, but since novelty makes us feel good (see above), it seems likely that it goes the other direction as well.
3. Curiosity boosts achievement. Studies reveal that curiosity leads to more enjoyment and participation in school and higher academic achievement, as well as greater learning, engagement, and performance at work. It may seem like common sense, but when we are more curious about and interested in what we are doing, it’s easier to get involved, put effort in, and do well.
4. Curiosity can expand our empathy. When we are curious about others and talk to people outside our usual social circle, we become better able to understand those with lives, experiences, and worldviews different than our own. Next time you have the chance to talk with a stranger, especially someone who may be quite dissimilar to you, try engaging with them on a personal level (respectfully, of course) and showing them that you are interested in what they have to say.
5. Curiosity helps strengthen relationships.One study asked strangers to pose and answer personal questions, a process scientists call “reciprocal self-disclosure.” They found that people were rated as warmer and more attractive if they showed real curiosity in the exchange (while other variables like the person’s social anxiety and their levels of positive and negative emotions did not affect the partner’s feelings of attraction and closeness). This implies that demonstrating curiosity towards someone is a great way to build your closeness with them. 6. Curiosity improves healthcare.Research suggests that when doctors are genuinely curious about their patients’ perspectives, both doctors and patients report less anger and frustration and make better decisions, ultimately increasing the effectiveness of treatment.