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A colleague whom I respect very, very highly has a theory with which I disagree. My friend thinks that it is fully possible to teach people how to be curious. Even given an individual who evinces precious little by way of being interested in the various facets of life can, my friend asserts, be turned into someone who can get excited by a range of interests after all.
I’d actually like to think this is true. It’s just that I am by no means convinced.
In my work, I think of this most often in connection to preachers and to aspiring preachers (i.e., my students). When I listen to sermons in churches or in classrooms, I can usually tell (and I’ll bet you can, too) which preachers are fully alive to the wonders of this creation and which preachers have an exceedingly narrow range of interests in life. Some preachers (and teachers, too) display an aliveness to life that can be downright contagious. Whether they are speaking about music or science, about a well done film or Sandhill Cranes in flight, they evince a level of engagement and enthusiasm that reveal a deep down and much cherished sense of curiosity. Curious people are better communicators–better preachers, better teachers, probably better business people for all I know–because they have so much more to bring to the table. The incurious have so little to draw on, so few items to reach for when concocting analogies or looking for just the right image or story. The curious, on the other hand, usually have to sift through the pile of possible images or stories at their disposal from all they have collected across many years of curious surveying of life and culture.
And as George Buttrick used to say (in a line my friend Neal Plantinga has often quoted), everyone knows that when it comes to sermons, it is far better to have a preacher who regularly has to prune abundance than one that consistently fans scarcity.
My own belief is that all things being equal, people are born curious. Curiosity is, to my mind, a key hallmark of the Image of God in humanity. In Scripture when God institutes the Sabbath as Day 7 of the creation story, the purpose (for God at least) was surely not so God could rest in the sense of his having exhausted the divine Self with the work of creation but rather to “rest” in the sense of reveling in and investigating and just watching the busy goings-on of the world that had been created. Every time your four-year-old invites you to turn aside (for a half hour or so) to observe the activity on a really big ant hill or to watch a bee travel in and out of flower blossoms, what you are observing in that child is an echo of Almighty God–the same God who in Job and in some of the Psalms admits that he spends a good deal of his divine time watching coneys run around in crags on remote mountainsides and observing deer giving birth to fawns in the forest and getting really, really excited about creatures rarely observed by people.
Alas, this in-born sense of God-like curiosity can get damaged–and all but snuffed out–in a thousand unhappy ways as a child grows up. Whenever I see an adult who settles for a “windshield experience” of driving 55 MPH through a National Park’s scenic drive, I know I am seeing damaged goods. Here’s someone bored with cliffs over the Atlantic Ocean and the sight of Harbor Seals popping up in a bay but who will sit for hours to watch the home shopping network on cable or something.
But can a hearty sense of curiosity be revived in such a person? My colleague thinks so, I remain skeptical. One thing I do know is that all of us who are parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts can do our level best not to beat the God-given curiosity out of the children under our influence even as we can be on guard against others who may be doing this nefarious work (wittingly or unwittingly). I also sense that if the incurious can be made curious again, it will probably be because someone who has influence over him or her–a pastor, a spouse, a close friend–does a good job modeling healthy curiosity in action. Maybe (just maybe) something good can rub off on even the least curious folks we know if only we can convey the joie de vivre that accompanies a person’s having wide-ranging interests and enthusiasms.
Whether or not such an engaged life helps others go and do likewise, however, may be secondary in any event to a larger truth in which we can all try to revel as often as not: namely, being curious about most everything reveals a dear connection between us and the God who made us and who made also everything else way back “in the beginning.”