Reflections on Curiosity and Wisdom

RileyAnybody who has spent time with an inquisitive toddler knows that curiosity breeds questions. Questions are inherent to the very nature of curiosity; they are both the seed and fruit of curiosity. They are the reward of curiosity, and the badge of it. They are the litmus test of intelligence and thoughtfulness. American statesman Bernard Baruch, in response to a question about his career as presidential advisor to Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, famously quipped, “I am not smart. I try to observe. Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton was the one who asked, ‘Why?’” Rather than knowledge, Baruch seems to say, it is curiosity that has the power to change the world. Curiosity, however, is boundless, and like light through a lens, has more power when focused. In academics, this concentration and partitioning give us the various fields of study.

According to strict classification, I am a student of the sciences; “Physics: Geophysics” is what will be emblazoned on my diploma in May, and this achievement will be an integral part of my vocation for the rest of my life. In actuality, I have taken far more classes in the social sciences than the hard sciences, with minors in Spanish and Bible/Theology, as well as a HNGR certificate to prove it (not to mention the general education credits that the liberal arts oblige). Each of these fields of study incubates its own series of questions, although they often overlap in surprising ways. What is consistent in all of them, however, is the idea that inquiry leads to discovery, which inevitably leads to a fuller understanding of God. In light of this, I posit that curiosity can be a spiritual discipline. Curiosity is not, however, a degree program at Wheaton. So how do curiosity and academic study interact?

In the sciences, one understands the power of curiosity and questions in an especially tangible way, as questions themselves are the very foundation of the scientific method: How? What? When? Why? The formation of questions is the first step of this time-tested process that allows one to see the implications of God’s laws more truly. While all fields enable revelation in some manner or another, each engage distinct questions that reveal the nature of God in unique ways. In geophysics, for example, the inspection of a microscopic thin-section or a massive mountain range or even an ordinary hand-specimen reveals a narrative that unfolds for those literate in the code created by a groaning earth; or a seismic wave driven by slumping aquifers in Mexico City reflects and refracts among subterranean strata, crisscrossing thousands of miles to vibrate the needle on a seismometer in Wheaton’s science center, arousing not only the instrument’s readings, but with it a sense of both the greatness and smallness of creation. Even so, this wonder at God’s workmanship, however awesome and inspiring, is not the reward of curiosity. This wonder is better understood as the impetus of curiosity.

Indeed, curiosity is simply a response to God’s creative movements. Curiosity does not spring from the heart of man, but from the active Spirit of God. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,” says Proverbs 1:7. From God all things proceed, including our curiosity. However, as the proverb implies, if it is not carried out for and by the Spirit of the One who created curiosity, it represents a distortion of the intelligence God has given us. This is why the call to wisdom is necessary. Curiosity breeds a myriad of questions, but wisdom leads us to the prudent ones. Curiosity seeks and explores answers; wisdom is contented by them. Curiosity runs down the path of inquiry with imagination and joy, but wisdom directs it into a proper orientation.

Finding this orientation is perhaps the greatest challenge to all seeking to engage the world in service to God, including myself. If the questions brought up by geophysics are the vehicle through which I will live a life of worship in sight of God, the road has largely been carved out by the wisdom attained through my studies in theology and through my experiences in HNGR. To borrow a concept from mathematics, if my curiosity and vocation lie principally in the geophysical plane, the scale and orientation of these have been forged primarily in my exploration of the challenges facing people throughout the world and the Church’s role in fulfilling the spiritual and material needs of those She serves. This entire system is contained within the domain of my faith in God, “who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:6). The key, then, in pursuing not only excellence in higher education, but also effective service, is a healthy dose of both curiosity and wisdom that beget significant and often difficult questions.

Wheaton graduate and former Anglican Bishop in Uganda Rev. Dr. Zac Niringiye recently said in a lecture on Wheaton’s campus, “One of the problems of evangelical Christianity is that we have no questions; we just have answers. In fact, we tell the world, ‘Jesus is the answer’…But what is the question?” The formation of questions in light of global and local issues is important in our understanding of Jesus as “the answer,” as they will help to elucidate a nuanced understanding of Christ and His work. And if these questions are sought in faith, this activity is a spiritual discipline, like a wordless prayer uttered through the Spirit, who knows the mind of God (Romans 8:27). As I seek to serve “Christ and His kingdom” in the years after I graduate, I see that perhaps the greatest lesson I have learned at Wheaton College has been learning how to ask the right kinds of questions of the world, its powers, and most importantly of God. Now the task is to carry on in those questions – to nurture curiosity and appeal to wisdom – and to continually exercise these spiritual disciplines as a way of continuing to seek Christ in the world.