My 5-year-old twins, Desmond and Anna, ask me questions that truly run the gamut. Everything from, “Why did God make so many humans?” (my response: “Humans have a hand in that, honestly”) to, “Where does the sun sleep?” to, “What does grass eat?”
Curiosity drives their day, and truth be told, while it’s exhausting, I love the energy. It quickens my mind and spirit to see the world through their eyes; it helps me experience everything in fresh ways.
I have never before considered what grass eats, but as we talk, I realize it makes perfect sense to look at dirt, rain and sunlight as food. I am struck by the lovely poetry in these kinds of questions that sometimes only children are able to conjure up.
The tenor of curiosity changes as we get older, but it remains a necessity for all stages of life. While the conversations I have with students at Indiana University require a higher level of intellectual engagement, their questions, like Desmond and Anna’s, often deal with existence and purpose.
They ask, “What kind of job will I have after graduation?” or, “Where will I live? Will I get married and have children?” Also, “How do I know I am passionate about my major of study?” and, “How do I incorporate my faith into this work?”
These are tough questions with no clear answers for any single one of them. But the same drive is there -- it’s dynamic and stimulating, and the conversations expand our understanding of how we shape our lives.
Often as I engage in these kinds of conversations, I find myself considering similar inquiries, not only about my ministry but also about my daily life. I might ask myself, “What does motherhood look like as a vocation? What does it mean to approach marriage as ministry?” And so curiosity becomes a way of life -- a way to stay open to the possibility of change.
"The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day."
-- Albert Einstein
Yet according to public educator and nonprofit consultant Alicia Wallace, with the evolution of social media, curiosity is in decline:
"From MySpace and Hi5 to Facebook and Twitter, our relationship with social media has evolved over the past 15 years. Unfortunately, this may have led to the loss of curiosity and the devolution of our bonds with the people these platforms were built to connect us with, beyond the boundaries of time and space," she writes on the website Big Think.
Wallace contends that social media networks, once meeting places for enhancing personal relationships, are now little more than battlegrounds for political opinions and celebrity gossip.
Because of that, she argues, they have stopped offering an opportunity to encounter a variety of perspectives and thus be formed in positive ways. Instead, they have become a means of self-obsession. The result is a loss of genuine curiosity, which Wallace seems to define as an openness to engaging other people’s experiences.
Though I am not in total agreement with Wallace about the impact of social media on curiosity, she does raise an important point: without curiosity, without this posture of openness, we face stagnation -- we lose an important opportunity to grow and change.
Jan Edmiston, a pastor and leader in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), recently adapted some business advice about what to do on the first day of a new job for the church. “It’s all about curiosity,” she writes. “The future of effective ministry is curiosity. Being curious about everything from the people we serve to the people we work alongside to the world in which God has placed us is everything.”
I would go a step further, with these takeaways on curiosity:
Genuine curiosity yields compassion. Curiosity does not exist in a vacuum. It can be a way to bring people together, whether in faith communities or social groups.
This year, our campus ministry collaborated with religious groups to host interreligious gatherings. Some were large conversations where students shared their experience of religion in a campus community. Others bordered on the silly, like “speed faithing,” where small groups responded to questions about their faith in short, timed bursts (like speed dating).
Each gathering centered on mutual hospitality and invitation, and the diverse participants -- Catholics, evangelicals, Lutherans, Muslims, Hindus and others -- walked away with a deeper sense of one another’s humanity. I was moved by the way these young people were teaching me new expressions of compassion as they asked honest questions and opened up about their faith.
It was more than an exchange of information; it was an experience of connection and community. Curiosity is a way to create a welcome space that allows us to see each person full of dignity and worth, and to foster compassion within ourselves.
Genuine curiosity yields transformation. In January, I led a retreat for a Presbyterian church in Indianapolis on the topic “Rethinking Church.” The idea was to go beyond schemes of simply fixing up the worship service or youth group programs.
We positioned ourselves intentionally, taking a step back (historical perspective), taking a step forward (imaginative perspective) and taking a more aerial view (missional perspective), in an effort to expand our vision of ministry and the church.
I am certain they walked away with more questions than answers about the future of their beloved church, but in many ways, that was my goal. Curiosity is useful not only for individuals, whether CEOs or ministry professionals, but also for communities.
Curiosity is not just for kids. It’s for all of us. It keeps us compassionate and open to change. And from there, anything is possible.