Quite a bit of interest in curiosity suffuses business journals and higher education essays these days. The Harvard Business Review devoted a good chunk of its most recent issue to making the business case for curiosity, contending that it can improve a firm’s adaptability and performance. Key benefits are fewer decision-making errors, more innovation and positive changes, reduced group conflict, and more open communication and better team performance.
As a person who has a complex job leading a seminary, I am heartened to read: “When we are curious, we view tough situations more creatively and have less defensive reactions to stress.” The longer we are in a particular role, the more we need to be vigilant about cultivating curiosity as it usually declines as we settle into predictable strategies. This is true for business people, faith leaders, and educators. Curiosity is not only the province of the scientist or researcher.
Over the past several years articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education have probed the question about the role of curiosity in academic success. Intellectual curiosity is a strong predictor of future academic performance. It is as important as conscientiousness and nearly as important as intelligence itself. A “hungry mind” is of great value, and professors need to find ways to construct learning opportunities that open the door to student discovery. Yet the very demands made by the college admissions process often requires only good grades and concrete service projects, not curious dabbling that might awaken one’s true interests.
Curiosity, it seems, has been an undervalued human attribute, too often squelched as troublesome. It is seen as costing time, at the expense of efficiency. Exploration is too open ended for controlling leaders, especially those who have not cultivated their own inquisitiveness over the years.
When asked about his near miraculous landing on the Hudson River, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger described his passion for continuous learning. In the 208 seconds between discovery of his airplane’s problem and bringing it safely down, he sorted through available options in his mind and decided to act bravely and creatively, as Francesca Gino, a Professor at Harvard Business School reflected (HBR, September-October, 2018, p. 55).
“Christianity may have done more than its share of tamping down the questions it was not sure how to answer.”
Christianity may have done more than its share of tamping down the questions it was not sure how to answer. Famously, when a student asked St. Augustine what God was doing before God created the heavens and the earth, he exasperatedly answered: “God was creating hell for people who asked such questions!”
Asking good questions is a crucial index of faith. When stumped, some teachers have attempted to shush the questioner thereby underscoring that faith is not to be interrogated, or they have offered simplistic answers as a cover for the mystery they could not comprehend. The very nature of faith, however, summons questions, as faith “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).
Early in Scripture our human forebears could have profited by asking more questions. When instructed not to eat from the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil,” Adam asked nothing. What was in the mind of the Creator in issuing this prohibition? Do you suppose God had set up a teaching moment, waiting for the curious “why?” Obviously, Adam discussed this with Eve, for when the serpent showed up she was aware of the prohibition. The crafty serpent demonstrates a far more developed curiosity than the fledgling humans. (Irenaeus thought we really expected too much discernment from these recently created beings!)
Rabbinic writing often contrasts Noah with Abraham as each heard the news of impending doom, through a flood and through the judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah. Noah was incurious and just tended to the exact measurements of the ark, his family, and the animal companions. Abraham, on the other hand, did not follow Noah’s lead in thinking he was the only righteous family remaining. Abraham asked God, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” Then he began to bargain with God about how to preserve as many as possible. His questioning of God’s justice, which God does not rebuke, is seen as a model of “contending with God” that other biblical figures will follow.
“The very nature of faith summons questions.”
The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday recounts Jesus’ teaching about his upcoming betrayal, death, and resurrection. “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him” (Mark 9:32). Evidently, they had been arguing about who was the greatest, and they totally missed an opportunity to ask serious questions about how their Teacher was seeking to interpret the future outcome of his ministry.
Curiosity purportedly “killed the cat” — a tired and unlikely adage. Surely life is far more interesting and faithful if we explore how this world works and our spiritual place within it, especially the relationship between divine and human agency.
I think that would make God smile.