First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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Curiosity as a Spiritual Practice

August 26, 2018
Rev. Dr. Sandra Fees
Reading: from The Masked Philosopher by Michel Foucault

Curiosity is a vice that has been stigmatized in turn by Christianity, by philosophy, and even by a certain conception of science. Curiosity [is seen as] futility. The word, however, pleases me. To me it suggests something altogether different: it evokes ‘concern’; it evokes the care one takes for what exists and could exist; a readiness to find strange and singular what surrounds us; a certain relentlessness to break up our familiarities and to regard otherwise the same things; a fervor to grasp what is happening and what passes; a casualness in regard to the traditional hierarchies of the important and the essential.

I dream of a new age of curiosity. We have the technical means for it; the desire is there; the things to be known are infinite; the people who can employ themselves at this task exist. Why do we suffer? From too little: from the channels that are too narrow, skimpy, quasi-monopolistic, insufficient. There is no point in adopting a protectionist attitude, to prevent ‘bad’ information from invading and suffocating the ‘good.’ Rather, we must multiply the paths and the possibility of comings and goings.

 

Sermon: Curiosity as a Spiritual Practice

Humans are naturally curious. This is most evident in children. Even a few minutes spent with a baby or preschooler reveals their insatiable desire to understand how the world works and to know why things are the way they are.  

How many of you have children between fourteen months old and five years and one month old? In a recent study of four children in that age range, each child asked about 107 questions per—do you want to guess during what period of time? Per hour. Their questions ranged from asking permission to do something, asking about an activity they were engaged with, asking about where someone else was, wanting information, and asking about something they observed. Another study showed that by kindergarten, questioning became less frequent. Kindergartners averaged 1.18 questions in an hour and by fifth grade .24. This study was conducted by Susan Engel, senior lecturer in psychology at Williams College and author of The Hungry Mind. Her study found that most classroom environments discourage curiosity. Teachers are pressured to ensure students achieve set and measurable goals. That does not leave a lot of time for children to explore their own ideas.

Some teachers are also more comfortable teaching facts than inviting questions that are irrelevant to a lesson or for which they may not know answers. Ultimately, she argues that “getting the right answer is the most important goal.” (In a “Review of The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood written by Susan Engel, Harvard University Press, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/is-america/201502/are-kids-curious)

One thing that strikes me in this study is how the emphasis on right answers gets carried into adulthood. The focus is on practical matters, goals, and success. Curiosity becomes a tool companies use when it advances productivity and improves the bottom line. Too often a spirit of inquiry is considered a waste of time and described as having one’s “head in the clouds.” Curiosity has even been stigmatized as futile, dangerous, and undesirable. As Michel Foucault points out, Christianity, philosophy, and even certain conceptions of science have cast curiosity in a bad light. Religion, science, and culture have sometimes sought to suppress people’s freedom of thought and imagination.

During the Middle Ages, curiosity was seen as dangerous. Knowledge was something to be controlled—and especially by the church. At various times in history, curiosity has been tamped down by oppressive regimes and ideologies.  Nazism and Stalinism both sought to create uniformity and squelch inquisitiveness. As recently as 2001, the Taliban placed dynamite in 1,700 year old statues of Buddha in Afghanistan and blew them up in an effort to eradicate non-Muslim cultural and religious influences. In modern times this country has borne witness to McCarthyism and blacklisting, to the old and new Jim Crow, and to systemic structures of wealth and privilege as well as anti-intellectualism. All of these have attempted to and some are continuing to try to stifle curiosity as well as other freedoms.

Foucault offers a hopeful assessment of curiosity. He describes its capacity to break ideas open and challenge the familiar. Questioning the familiar—what we think we already know and the structures that are already in place—rather than taking these things for granted enables us to cultivate a truer understanding of what is happening, loosens the grip of hierarchies, and resists conformity.

He suggests that we need to forge a wider path of curiosity. In other words, we need to foster a robust practice of curiosity. And as Einstein wisely said, “Never lose a holy curiosity.” Holy curiosity . . . this is crucial to the liberal spirit, to the hope of love and care, to our ability to be human, and to imagine, to dream, to invent. Curiosity is one of the ways of caring about what is and what could be. This makes it holy, sacred, religious. Curiosity facilitates change, greater understanding, human connection, and empathy. It enlivens human experience and engagement in the world.

I love this phrase “holy curiosity.” And I love having my head in the clouds. I have been accused of this more than once. I particularly appreciate free, unstructured time in which I can engage the big questions. These are the questions like why we are here, where we came from, what the future will look like, the relationship of humans to other life, what happens after we die.

I guess that’s part of why I’m a minister. But these questions are not just for ministers. They are questions that our religious tradition asks each of us to spend time exploring and developing. Each of us is asked to build our own religious insights and theology, and to continue to grow and learn and question throughout the span of our lives. Our faith insists that revelation is open and that changing our minds to incorporate new insights and knowledge is essential.

This summer I was fortunate to be able to spend a lot of dedicated time with my head in the clouds, in that garden of the mind Mister Rogers talks about. I was able to spend many hours stripped of my watch and daily time constraints to get lost in my own reflections, wonderings and wanderings.

In Maine I was able to reflect and daydream, losing myself in the dramatic and intriguing landscape. It is a landscape that never fails to make me wonder about the origins of this earth and life, and about the ways that some places seem to remain unmarred by overdevelopment and other modern woes.

At an art class in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, I was able to be among visual artists for 5 days. I learned new techniques using hot beeswax as a medium for mixed media collage. Being in a rustic environment creating art inspired me to reflect on creativity, meaning, the natural world, beauty, and simplicity. I was also able to observe my own mind during the creative process.

At home, I had the spaciousness to journal and write poetry daily, and to spend time with poet friends and attending poetry readings. These times inspired me to be curious about the meaning and purpose of life—and to think deeply about words and language. I also read a lot of books, mostly fiction and poetry.

I did read a book on the summer challenge list that I hadn’t yet read. That was Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me. I’m currently reading the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Common Read Justice on Earth. Each year the UUA recommends a book for congregations to read and study together or to read individually. The book includes a series of essays about the intersections of race, class, and the environment. One my recurring questions has to do with balancing these priorities and living with the tensions of competing interests—and how to deal with that as a religious community.

I spent countless hours staring out at my trumpet vine and beebalm, visited by butterflies and hummingbirds. I wonder how they find my little patch as soon as the flowers bloom. Do they remember year to year, pass that information along? Do they send out a scouter?

Observing crows at my birdbath, which showed up in record numbers in my yard this summer and also in sizes larger than I have ever seen, led me to do research. I studied their behavior, read old wisdom tales about crows, and became more and more curious about their intelligence and capabilities. I read that they can recognize and remember human faces. I keep wondering if they know mine?

This week I was reminded by a short piece in the New York Times of one of the most important questions: what does it mean to be human? Why do we do what we do, how we are different from other beings, what is the nature of our consciousness, how are we called to be together?

The idea of practicing holy curiosity is the spiritual practice of asking all these questions. It means asking the big questions and also asking seemingly small questions and being open to where they may lead. Often they lead to more questions and into greater mystery. That’s when I know I’m on to something truly juicy. This practice of inquisitiveness invites us to try to encounter the world with openness, playfulness, hopefulness, and joy. It encourages us to come into the presence of another person or another idea or another culture with wonder.

Many of my experiences this summer come from a place of pleasant encounter and reflection. But the practice of curiosity can be particularly valuable when we face people and ideas we don’t agree with or have a strong visceral reaction to. How can we approach situations that make us fearful, angry, and reactive with a curiosity that asks: What’s going on here? What do I need to do? What is the most caring and human response I can have?

At the art workshop I took this summer, I met someone who didn’t vote in the last presidential election. We stumbled onto the topic. I was stunned because this was a creative person, and I just couldn’t imagine an artist or poet not realizing how important voting is. I wanted to convince her of the importance of voting. But I stopped myself. Believe me, that was a true exercise in self-control.

Instead, I asked myself: Am I going to lose it every time someone tells me they didn’t vote or voted for the other candidate? How else might I respond? Does my negative judgment build the common good and foster understanding? Does it build connection? Where is my growing edge? I held my judgment at bay. I had other conversations with her over a five-day period, conversations that were very personal. They had nothing to do with politics. If I had pushed my agenda about voting, I have no doubt the other conversations would never have happened. I focused instead on human connection. I was curious about her life, who she is and what motivates her. We ended up sharing common experiences as women. This story does not end with me convincing her to vote. It ends—or maybe really begins—with me choosing curiosity over judgment. Encountering people and situations with openness is what I affirm as part of my faith. I fall short on many occasions.

Taking time to reflect and choose a response rather than reacting is not easy. It is work to be sure, spiritual work. Ultimately the wider path of curiosity is more nuanced than right and wrong. As Michel Foucault says, curiosity “evokes the care one takes for what exists and could exist. . . .” It is a creative process that focuses on potential and possibility, connects us to inner wisdom, allows the spirit to move freely, and grows empathy and connection to others.

I hope this summer you have had some free time to explore, to imagine, to get creative and curious. I hope you have been able to reflect on some of the questions that you are most curious about and to deepen your experience of being inquisitive about other people and the world. I hope you will continue to practice that curiosity or to renew the practice wherever you go. As Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron says:

The best spiritual instruction is when you wake up in the morning and say, “I wonder what's going to happen today.” And then carry that kind of curiosity through your life.

My we each carry the gift of curiosity with us, allowing it to enliven us, bring us hope, and heal the world. Amen. Blessed be.