Our granddaughter Madeline was spending the night one evening last month and she and I began talking about haircuts. She’s a very curious child, so there were lots of haircut questions. She’s decided she’s Rapunzel and never wants a haircut. She asked if I could play Rapunzel with her, and I told her I didn’t have the hair for it. She wanted to know what had happened to my hair. Presumably, so she could avoid the same circumstances. Then she wanted to know who cut my hair. I cut my own hair, I told her. She grew even more curious and asked if she could watch, so I said sure and got out the clippers, put the correct attachment on to cut my hair a quarter of an inch short, then buzzed the clippers over my head, cutting my hair, over the objections of Joan, who told me later that kids have a fascination with hair clippers and there was going to be an accident and someone would end up bald. I reminded Joan that Madeline wasn’t an idiot and wouldn’t shave herself bald, and suggested she should have a little more faith in human intelligence.
This past Monday, I noticed my hair was getting shaggy, so staggered into the bathroom. It was early in the morning and I wasn’t quite awake, turned on my clippers and began cutting my hair, not realizing it was missing a clipper attachment, and that I now had a reverse Mohawk down the center of my head. Apparently, after satisfying Madeline’s curiosity, I had left the attachment off and hadn’t noticed it. So Joan was right; there was an accident.
Fortunately, some accidents can be solved with a trip to the barber shop and a baseball cap. Joan, being a kind woman, didn’t gloat, though I did overhear her saying to our sons, “You’ll never guess what your father did now.” It was the word now that pierced my soul.
Still, it was a small price to pay to further the cause of curiosity, which is the burr under our existential saddle, the giddy-up that inspires us to explore and question and invent and look at the world and ourselves a bit differently than we had. For eon’s, we’ve said, “curiosity killed the cat,” though the animal rights group PETA now urges us to say “Curiosity thrilled the cat,” which I agree with in principle, because I like cats and I believe curiosity is more thrilling than killing. Curiosity is not the death of us, it is the life of us.
When I was thinking of the fruits of the spirit that Paul left out, those virtues Paul should have mentioned but didn’t, what we’ll call the missing fruits, I thought of curiosity—the strong desire to know or learn something. Where would we be without curiosity? I’ll tell you where. Living in caves, trembling at the sound of thunder, cold, wet, hungry, and ignorant. No wheels, no fire, no Beethoven, no Brahms, no electric guitar and therefore no Eric Clapton. No antibiotics, no vaccines, no cure for cancer, no medicine, no surgeries. No books, no art. Maybe even no love, if it is true that curiosity is the strong desire to know or learn something or someone.
So we might think everyone would welcome curiosity, but we would be mistaken. Curiosity has its enemies. These enemies of curiosity are those who fear our growing knowledge will threaten their power. I was reading a sermon this week written by a pastor in Kansas who wrote, “I’m often asked questions about things where the Bible is silent, but if the Bible is silent on these questions, we have no business asking about them or trying to figure things out on our own.” No business asking about them? That sounds suspiciously like a man who fears the loss of his authority, like the Wizard of Oz hiding behind the curtain, like the judge who says, “How dare you question me?”, like the pastor whose word must be gospel, like the husband who must be obeyed, like the elected official who places himself above the rule of law.
Enemies of curiosity chant their constant tune—don’t question, don’t think, don’t consider how things might change, how old ways of living might give way to new ways of living. Enemies of curiosity, who would, if they could, keep others entrenched and enslaved. Enemies of curiosity, who for centuries forbid blacks from learning to read, and when they could not keep them from reading, tried their best to keep them in ignorance, so they would never wonder why they were always on bottom and never on top.
Enemies of curiosity. In 1871, Danville’s state senator, John Hadley, said women shouldn’t vote, because knowledge of social and political matters would expose them to corruption and wickedness. And might also get him voted out of office, which he didn’t say. This fear of knowledge might also explain why some in the media peddle one lie after another, daily dishing out one-sided and foolish vitriol and calling it fair and balanced.
Wherever you see an enemy of curiosity, ask yourself what they are protecting. Wherever there is an enemy of the investigation, the probe, the fact-finding, the study, wherever there is an enemy of research or inquiry, of education, there you will find someone whose power is threatened, a dweller in darkness who cannot bear the light of truth and fact, which are the inevitable consequences of curiosity. When I decided to attend college and study theology, I was warned by a man that it would ruin me. What was he defending but an archaic worldview that elevated him and diminished others?
The Bible salutes curiosity in the gospel of John, the gospel the early Friends modestly referred to as the Quaker gospel. “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” Curiosity is a holy endeavor, it is the way God advances the world, by placing within men and women the desire, the longing, to know. This is why early Friends said education shouldn’t be limited to the powerful and wealthy and opened public schools for the powerless and poor. So they could know the truth. So the truth could set them free.
When Kim Jong Il was the dictator of North Korea from 1994 to 2011, his official biography said he shot a 38-under par round on North Korea’s only golf course, including 11 holes-in-one. They were told he bowled a perfect 300 game the first time he bowled, that he learned to walk at the age of 3 week and was talking in complete sentences at 8 weeks. And no one in North Korea questioned it, because curiosity and inquiry were forbidden. Where curiosity is not permitted, tyranny flourishes.
It was the mob at the trial of Jesus who rejected outright a discussion of his innocence.
It was the judges of Boston who sentenced Quakers to death so as not to lose the power vested in them by a corrupt state and a self-serving church.
All of them, the enemies of curiosity.
This is why curiosity is a holy endeavor, the way God advances the world, by placing within men and women the desire to know, which leads to truth, which casts out darkness, and gives us light. Curiosity is the means by which we shall know the truth, and be set free.