Knowledge 1: Curiosity

Knowledge is at the heart of the story of the human Fall from God into the life we now lead (Gen 2:17; 3:5-7, 22), and we are still cramming ourselves full of it.

The complexity of human life is not just a burden but also our delight. I have known people who spiced up their boring lives by imagining sudden illnesses so that they could ride in ambulances and others who knew they were the next (always the next) target of hit men sent by the Mafia, the government, or extraterrestrials. But this love for complexifying a humdrum life is not just the province of lonely neurotics who watch too much TV. It is also the pastime of educated, employed people who have hobbies and friends and go to church, such as me, though we indulge not in paranoid fantasies but in knowing stuff. We thus display clearly that, just as in Eden, knowledge is at the center of human complexification and self-glorification. Knowledge is so important to human need (somewhere on the Maslow scale, or it should be) that it has become a commodity, just like marijuana, alcohol, and video game hardware.

Discipleship to Jesus is radical simplification, along the lines of the acting-out of Luke 14:26 at the beginning of Pilgrim’s Progress or as in chopping off body parts (Matthew 5:29-30).

Augustine matched up the three human drives named as from the world and not from God in 1 John 2:16, the three temptations of Christ in the wilderness (Matthew 4 and Luke 4), and the three things Eve found so attractive about eating the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:6) and thus identified three kinds of people. One group is “the curious,” identified with 1 John’s “the lust of the eyes,” Jesus’ temptation to jump off the temple, and Eve’s “a delight for the eyes.” Curiosity, he wrote, is the “joy of knowing things.” It is not just what we might call curiosity or a quest for knowledge but also includes the desire to witness the spectacular, grotesque, or horrific. A person seeking to know God, by doing so, both counteracts and makes use of curiosity.

I have heard that “no one learns to ride a bicycle by reading a book,” but I’m sure it has been tried. In any craft, there are those who know more than they do. It is not just a matter of curiosity: it is cautious over-preparation. It is knowing over doing, knowing rather than doing, taking the safe road out of fear of the real road, the one that gets to a destination.

Curiosity is the drug of choice or real religion of vast numbers of people. Indulgence of this habit has become illimitable with the advent of the Web, that supermarket of instant answers and random knowledge. Wikipedia is the high temple, a vast opium den for the addict-adherents of curiosity, and there is a “Random Article” button on every page of Wikipedia. All of us can now know much about things that we do not need to know anything about.

It did not have to wait on the Web. There were already history buffs, subscribers to magazines (National Geographic the best example), nosey neighbors, and celebrity followers. Many hobbies amount to tidbit-of-information collecting. There have long been people who could recite baseball statistics, capabilities of fighter jets, titles and dates of paintings, the names and finely-differentiated products of fruit jar manufacturers, dates and results of gran prix circuit races, sources of different tobacco varieties, and so forth. Some people need to know those things professionally, but that often amounts to saying that they need  to know in order to serve those who only want  to know. Such professional knowers occupy much of academia and miles of library shelving.

This is not an argument against non-practical knowledge, mostly because I would not trust anyone, including myself, to determine for the rest of us what is practical and what is not, or against any particular quest for knowledge or against the general human quest for knowledge. It’s just who we are, though we do need to hear what Augustine and others among our ancestors in Christ said about it.

Our dealing with this curiosity is, according to Augustine, part and parcel of our confrontation of the self-deception, complexity, and noise we hide behind. Curiosity is part of that seeking of distractive noise. It is part of our clothing. It is as we realize our nakedness that a move against curiosity can be part of our redemption and discipleship. The staleness or death of curiosity experienced in depression can be a realization of the incompleteness of humanity and can thus lead to redemption.

Theology certainly comes under the heading of curiosity. Theology is not redemption and not discipleship. It, too, has been used by some to distract themselves from the issues of redemption and discipleship. What is the theologian trying to do? Seeking to advertise redemption and enable discipleship? Preaching repentance? Or describing the merry-go-round as if it existed only in imagination or at least without actually inviting anyone aboard? In that regard, try this from one of the best-taught theologians we’ve ever had:

The remedy for curing desire does not lie in satisfying it, but in extinguishing it. In other words, he who wishes to become wise does not seek wisdom by progressing toward it but becomes a fool by retrogressing into seeking folly. Likewise he who wishes to have much power, honor, pleasure, satisfaction in all things. This is the wisdom which is folly to the world.

  • Augustine
    • on three types of people: De Vera Religione 38.70-71,
    • thirst for entertainment as part of curiosity: De Vera Religione 49.94-95,
    • seeking to know God counteracts and uses curiosity: e.g., De Vera Religione 53.103.
    • For more about Augustine on curiosity see A. Rowan Greer, “Sighing for the Love of Truth: Augustine’s Quest,” in God, Truth, and Witness: Engaging Stanley Hauerwas, ed. L. Gregory Jones, Reinhard Hütter, and C. Rosalee Velloso da Silva (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005), 13-34, particularly pp. 22-23, and Paul J. Griffiths, Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2009), 19-22.
  • “The remedy for curing desire …”: Martin Luther, Heidelberg Disputation,  explanation of thesis 22 (Luther’s Works, vol. 31, p. 54).
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