Is Curiosity a Shared Value?

The first shared value Elaine Ecklund discusses in in her new book Why Science and Faith Need Each Other: Eight Shared Values that Move Us Beyond Fear is curiosity.

Scientists, by their nature, are curious about how things fit together, how the various facets of this universe work. This is true in astrophysics, in chemistry, in geology, in biology and in sociology. The dictionary definition of curiosity is quite simple: a strong desire to know or learn something. To flesh out this definition, Ecklund turns to the philosopher Elias Baumgarten:

As a character trait … curiosity is a disposition to want to know more or to learn more about a wide variety of things. The more one has this character trait, the more often or the more intensely one will on particular occasions experience a desire to or urge to investigate and learn more about something. (pp. 60-61 quoting from Baumgarten’s  article “Curiosity as a moral virtue” Int. J. Appl. Philos. 15, 169 (2001))

In general, curiosity is valued and nurtured in scientific and academic environments. Research is driven by a desire to move forward in understanding, to explore questions or realms of this world that have not been answered before.

Is curiosity a value that is nurtured in the church?

Here the answer is mixed. The history of science as developed in the Christian West was driven by curiosity and a desire to better understand God’s creation. Clearly the church has often been a place where curiosity is nurtured and valued.

However, for many Christians curiosity, or too much curiosity, is a threat.  To illustrate, Ecklund relates an interview with an atheist scientist, “Jill” who had grown up in the church.

Church and school were both central to her life. She was simply an inquisitive kid, following and feeding her natural curiosity.  But, “when I asked hard questions, I was told by my pastor just to make a decision to believe … to forget about science.” (p. 59)

There is more to the interview, but the gist is that “Jill” found that the church stifled curiosity and was more interested in passing judgment than on understanding. Curiosity elicited fear. This fear is not entirely unfounded. There is no doubt that the desire to know, to learn, and to understand will sometimes lead to unexpected answers.

If the church is a place that emphasizes answers rather than questions, regurgitation, rather than understanding, it will not value or nurture curiosity. The curious child (or adult) will be left to seek answers and understanding outside of Christian community.

But Christian communities can be safe places for the curious. Sometimes the answers may be surprising, but this is a part of growth. Ecklund looks to Philippians 4:8 for support.  “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable-if anything is excellent or praiseworthy-think about such things.” God speaks through his creation and through his story as related in Scripture. She goes on to write:

It is time we honor curiosity about science in church. Interpreted from a Christian perspective, science can be seen as a tool to pursue knowledge and truth about creation and to better understand the words and works of God and how we can live better lives.(p. 62)

As a Christian and a scientist I have found that the freedom to explore questions of science and faith has lead to a deeper faith and a better understanding of my faith. Curiosity led me to answers that are far deeper and more satisfying than the simple statements of faith. However … I have relatives who would view me as something of a heretic. Although I value scripture (studying it and listening to it on a continuing basis) and can affirm, without hesitation, the basic tenets of our faith, my answers to questions surrounding science and faith don’t always agree with their rather fundamentalist view of origins, or evolution, or inspiration.

Curiosity can lead to investigations that challenge our current understanding and preconceptions. And this can lead to doubt. A value (?) we will consider in the next post on Ecklund’s book.

Is curiosity a value we should nurture in the church?

Are there limits to the questions we can ask? If so, what are they?

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This post is also available at Jesus Creed, now published as a Christianity Today blog.

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