Pick up any modern convenience that you consider useful — a cellphone, zippered sweater, electric toothbrush — and you can be sure that object, in its original form, started out as an invention. Someone hit upon an idea and went to work experimenting with its development. 

The entire world of experimental science is driven by curiosity. So is every other realm where we find ourselves contemplating deep mysteries and wild truths. Colleges and universities are built on a spirit of inquiry. Relationships, at least the best ones, are woven thick with curiosity. 

There is no other creature in God’s kingdom that comes close to matching our curiosity as humans.

We ask questions. Geckos do not. Curiosity is innate to humans. Children arrive in this world as a bundle of questions. “Where do babies come from?” “Why is water wet?” “Do ants survive being flushed down the toilet?” “Where did the ladybug get its name?” Kids don’t ask these questions just for the sake of gaining information. For them, asking a question is also about relationship. In bringing their imponderables to the attention of another person, they are hoping for a response. Their very act of inquiry involves an element of trust or affection. When an adult squelches the “why” of a child, both curiosity and relationship get thwarted.

One outcome of asking questions of God in prayer may be the gift of coming to know God more fully. If Jesus advised us that “the Father knows what we need before we even ask,” the reasons for informing God of our needs list diminish greatly. At the real center of questioning God may be our desire, however hidden or obvious to us, for kindling a relationship with the Lord.

When Thomas asked to see and touch the wounds of the resurrected Christ, he was interested in relationship. It wasn’t doubt so much as holy curiosity that filled him. He was eager to become intimate with the truth. With his inquiry of Jesus, Thomas essentially opened himself to a relationship that was likely to include personal change ahead.

That’s what questions do. They prompt openness that allows for change. This trait is what makes questions fundamental to conversation. Answers, in contrast, are basic to making a point. “Having the answer” is fundamental to argument. Incurious people don’t make for good conversation partners. They let us down. They’re hard to hire for a job. Why bring someone into a workplace who isn’t interested in personal growth? When you meet someone who is absent of curiosity, expect that individual to have little interest in your life. Sustaining a close friendship with such a one is difficult.

Psychiatrist Alfred Margulies once proposed that “wonder” is what it really takes to understand another human being. Wonder, he wrote, “promotes a searching attitude of simultaneously knowing and not knowing.” It blends astonishment with curiosity, a combination that ends up fostering a deep appreciation of the other. Wonder and curiosity keep us from behaving as if we have other people figured out. 

To be devoid of curiosity is to lack an inquiring spirit. In the case of our spiritual lives, says Jonathan Sacks, one-time chief rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth, having no questions of God is not a sign of confident faith. It is rather a lack of spiritual depth. Deep people of faith are curious people, a joy to be around, in part because they have curiosity about those in their company.

For people who have decided that religion is all about answers, writer Edward Hays has a different idea. He imagines the question mark as a holy symbol. Whereas the exclamation point is emphatic and insistent, the “?” is really a bent over “!” that has bowed its head in humility. Open to a spirit of exploration and wonder, the “?” is both a prayer tool of everyday people and a creative tool of artists, geniuses and explorers.

We could say, “God is love!” Or we could say, “God is love?” Notice the wonder and astonishment in the second example, all because of a question mark. Building such curiosity into our Christian lives is not only our calling, it’s also a vital clue to our depth as interesting people.

Peter W. Marty
Marty, a pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church, Davenport, Iowa, and publisher of The Christian Century.

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