Most of us know people who love to hear themselves talk. About themselves. All the time. You would fall over if they ever asked How are you? and then actually sat silently to take in whatever you might say. Authentic curiosity requires us to stop talking, to be patient and quiet, to actually be present.
Recently, I sat in a pub with a new friend. We had participated in a meeting with a larger group, but the two of us lingered around the table afterward. “What’s your story?” he asked. His eyes were intent, his posture fully present and open. He wasn’t going anywhere. My friend had asked me a question, and he was waiting, curious to hear the answer. An hour later, we had shared more than biographical detail. We shared hope, tears, life—all meaningful gifts.
Sadly, we rarely encounter such genuine curiosity. We are more familiar with thoughtless questions asking only for a canned response (How’s it going? Fine.) or disingenuous questions disguising a clandestine insult or a flat, predetermined agenda. Worse, some of us are simply used to being ignored. We can’t remember when someone wanted to truly know us; and we have rarely felt the generous surprise of seeing someone lean our way with wide-open wonder, eager to catch a glimpse of the beautiful mystery they just know they will find within us.
A cursory tour of the gospels reveals how often Jesus asked questions. To panicked disciples on a storm-whipped schooner, he asked, “Why are you afraid?” After watching Peter’s short stroll on the water and after pulling him out of the cold sea, Jesus wondered, “Why do you doubt?” Jesus asked Martha: “Do you believe this?” and to hungry followers: “How much bread do you have?”
However, we often think Jesus’ questions are less than actual human curiosity. We tend to read Jesus’ questions as only a pedagogical technique. Jesus is God, and so we figure he already knows all the answers. It is tempting to view Jesus’ inquisitiveness as a bit of a game: Jesus wanting to make a point and knowing just the rhetorical tool to drive it home. A rhetorical question works well for this purpose, allowing us to pose a question and say what we want to say without actually expecting anyone to reply. We get to talk, and everyone else listens. A rhetorical question may be an honored Socratic teaching device, but it’s a horrible way to start a friendship. And for a long time, these are the only sorts of questions I thought Jesus asked.
Certainly there were moments when Jesus asserted supernatural comprehension, for example knowing what the Pharisees would say before they said it. (Matt 12:25) But even when Jesus was leading someone to a truth (for example, the woman caught in adultery and his poignant words: “who condemns you?”), his question was never purely utilitarian. Jesus always wanted a conversation.
However, Scripture also affirms Jesus’ imperfect knowledge. Jesus himself announced that only the Father, not him, knew the time when the heavens and earth would pass away, and Luke tells us that Jesus had to “grow in wisdom,” just like the rest of us. There are things Jesus had to learn, and we most often see Jesus learning amid the give and take of his relationships with people he encountered, discovering who they were and where they hurt and what they longed for. Jesus was tirelessly curious.
Curiosity, a relational posture of openness and discovery, is a uniquely human quality. Our family dog Daisy may be excited by unusual scents I carry home at the end of the day, but she doesn’t spend a moment wondering who I’ve met or whether I’ve found hope or heartache in the places I’ve been. However, my wife Miska asks questions ripe with possibilities for intimate conversation, questions like How was your day? and Why are you sad? When we are only concerned with the facts and care nothing for the textures, all the delights and fears that make up the narratives of our lives, we substitute human relationship for robotic efficiency. If we are not curious toward one another, we surrender a bit of our humanity.
If curiosity is part of being human, then might curiosity also be part of incarnation? In affirming Jesus’ curiosity, we affirm his humanity.
We always run the risk of emphasizing one part of Christ’s identity over another. Jaroslav Pelikan wisely warns of Christian dogma running “the danger of glorifying Christ so much that it cut(s) him off from the humanity he was to save.” The gospels present Jesus as eager to learn names and histories, dreams and fears, curious to uncover the beauty and the tragedy in every story. Growing comfortable with a Jesus who engaged people as any human would helps us see him truthfully, intimately immersed with us and with our world.
Jesus’ full immersion in the human experience allows for a textured appreciation of Jesus and his relationships. Sometimes, Jesus knew precisely what someone needed—and he was bent on helping her move there. Sometimes Jesus knew little, and he was eager for the discovery.
Curiosity carries the conviction that something is actually happening, now, in the moment, between you and me. Curiosity believes there is something in you worth discovering and that the conversation actually matters. Recognizing Jesus’ curiosity is indeed one way we affirm Jesus’ humanity. However, Jesus’ curiosity is also a way that he affirmed our humanity. We are worth Jesus’ time and energy.
Curiosity is a form of hospitality, creating space for someone else to inhabit, space where someone else can be heard and known. When we offer our engaged inquisitiveness, we say, “You belong here.”
Knowing this, it is no surprise that the very first word of St. Benedict’s Rule, the guidebook for monastic orders for the past 1500 years, is “Listen.” Benedict insisted on the fundamental communal posture of listening, first in obedience to God and then in humility toward one another. Benedict followed Augustine’s lead. Augustine taught the priority of discovering what people love as a prerequisite to truly knowing them–and to living with them well.
Understanding Jesus as one who is curious can change the tone of how we hear Jesus speaking into our life. It alters how we engage Scripture and how we discern the Spirit’s voice. Alongside the moments when Jesus provides strong words and firm instructions, we can also expect Jesus to ask us open, probing questions. It will be no surprise when the Spirit speaks with the gentleness of one who cares deeply for the unique wounds and pleasures submerged in our soul. When we go to the Scriptures, we will not search for lifeless moralisms, but we will see the text as a dialogue between God and us, where we both ask questions and we both have opportunity to ruminate and respond. As Frederick Buechner says, “Don’t start looking in the Bible for the answers it gives. Start by listening for the questions it asks.”
When my oldest son was seven, he discovered the world of video games. One night at dinner, he launched into an excited explanation of a game two of his school friends play regularly. The more he described the game, the more horrific it sounded. There were lots of guns and lots of blood, with nothing redemptive so far as I could tell. I was tempted to drop the dad-hammer and tell him that the game was so outrageous I couldn’t believe he would even consider playing it–and then maybe add a line about God’s hatred for those who take pleasure in wickedness, just for emphasis. Thankfully, a better impulse prevailed, and I asked a question. “I’m not sure I like that game, Wyatt. What do you think about it?” A conversation followed between a dad and his son, a conversation that would never have happened if I hadn’t made a choice to care more about his heart than his compliance with my boundaries. I think Jesus cares more about our heart than about mere compliance.
The example of Jesus’ curiosity alters not only how we hear Jesus speaking into our lives, but also how we speak into the lives of others. If curiosity is hospitality, then curiosity is part of the ethos of the Kingdom of God, the realm of ultimate hospitality. Jesus’ work of reconciliation on his Cross and in his Resurrection is not only the redemptive act of saving us from our sins, but also the relational act of bringing us back into friendship with God. In Jesus, God enacted his desire to know all of his creation. In Jesus, God embodied the virtue of holy curiosity.
What would it be like for the people of God to love our neighbors with this kind of radical, reconciling hospitality? Maybe, alongside learning how to clearly state better answers, we also need to learn how to ask better questions—good, curious questions like: “Who are you?” and “How can I know you better?” Could the skill of basic human curiosity be included in our apologetic curriculum?
What if, before we heralded our answers to every moral quandary, we asked questions about a person’s story, about what they hope for, what they are afraid of and what they most desire. Dallas Willard nodded to this winsome hospitality when asked how a Christian should converse with others on dicey ethical issues. “I wouldn’t start with the rightness or wrongness,” he said. “First, I’d be curious.” Would the world view the church differently if we owned the reputation as people who were authentically curious, who hoped to turn every stranger into a friend?
All of us want to be known and seen, which is another way of saying we’d really like for someone to be curious about us. What we long for, we find in Jesus.
Winn Collier is the author of Restless Faith and Holy Curiosity and is a pastor at All Souls Charlottesville. You may read more at winncollier.com