Anybody who has spent time with an inquisitive toddler knows what it is to be curious: Why? How? Who? Where? Though these questions can become a burden for parents and babysitters alike, I see in them the proof that curiosity is one of the many ways we have been created in the image of God.
When I think about this God-given curiosity, I am reminded of a lecture I attended while a student at Wheaton College in Illinois, given by a retired Ugandan Anglican bishop. He spoke about the sin of thinking we have everything figured out, or what some may call a Pharisaic lack of humility. “One of the problems of evangelical Christianity,” he said, “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?” When Christians are only able to produce rote answers to preconceived questions, not only does our faith become stagnant, it prohibits us from confronting the many problems, fears, and uncertainties of our world.
The power of a question is that in asking it you are forced to look more deeply at the situation in front of you. Heralded statesman Bernard Baruch once famously quipped, “I am not smart. I try to observe. Millions saw the apple fall, but Isaac Newton was the one who asked, ‘Why?’” Curiosity, he seems to say, has the power to open us up to truth and reality in ways we may never have imagined.
It is for that reason that I feel confident in saying that wisdom is found within the questions. Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he commanded his followers to “become as little children” (Matthew 18:3), to unlearn the “truths” we have come to cling to, and to ask the simple, profound questions. Why? How? Who? Where?
Questions are not just for children though. In the tradition of Newton’s inquiries about apples, the scientific method is dependent upon the ability to ask good questions. I graduated college with a degree in geophysics, and will soon be graduating with a master’s degree in environmental science. More than any principle or theory that I have learned during the course of my education, this scientific training has taught me how to go about asking good questions.
I remember the first time I saw a seismometer when our professor took our Introductory Geology class to look at readings from earthquakes caused by slumping aquifers below Mexico City. I remember my mind racing like the needle of the seismometer—how small we were! “How great Thou art!” I felt compelled to learn more about the world God had made. To borrow from the old hymn, in my “awesome wonder,” I desired to delve more deeply into God’s creation with the hope of glimpsing the genius of the Creator. As the psalmist wrote in Psalm 143:5: “I meditate on all your works, and consider what your hands have done. I spread out my hands to you; I thirst for you in a parched land.”
The late Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel put to words well the story that was beginning to unfold in my heart and mind: “Wonder, rather than doubt, is the root of all knowledge.” Wonder is why I began to study water resources and human stewardship in the first place. Wonder is why I continue to explore what it means to be an image-bearing caretaker of creation. Wonder is why faith and curiosity are not mutually exclusive.
Wonder, curiosity, questions. However you word it, this simultaneous awe and longing pushes us to know God more fully. “Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find,” Jesus taught his disciples. I cannot help but think that the reason the Pharisees did not follow Jesus is because they “knew” too much. They had no room for questions; they already knew the answers.
As I have grown and matured as a Christ-follower and as a scientist, I have learned the value of forming and asking good questions of God and the world. The cultivation of curiosity, I have been learning, is a core spiritual discipline that needs to be encouraged as I discern who God is and where God is leading. “Who is this man?” the disciples asked, awestruck by God’s work in the world. I also am awestruck by God’s work in the world—in myself, in my neighbors, in the waters above and below, in all of Creation. In all my life, as a scientist and a Christian, I hope to pursue that question: Who is this man, that all of Creation obeys him?
This is my question; this is my prayer.
Riley Balikian attends Fountain of Life Covenant Church in Madison, Wisconsin, and serves on the board of the national organization Young Evangelicals for Climate Action. He currently is a master’s student at the University of Wisconsin, where he is studying sustainable community development and water resource management, with an emphasis on food systems.