Eleanor Roosevelt once remarked : “I think at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask for a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift would be curiosity.”
Aldous Huxley wrote that children are remarkable for their intelligence and ardor, for their curiosity, their intolerance of shams, the clarity and ruthlessness of their vision.
A mother turns on a video of a very famous monkey, as she called him, Curious George, and admits that her intention was to buy time to get some things done while in the whirlwind presence of a two and a half year old: start the laundry, feed the dog, unload the dishwasher. We parents, even we grandparents and babysitters, have all been there, done that. But/and of course this time- buying activity leads to questions, lots of questions. It leads to bubbling over curiosity, that most useful gift. The desire to know.
The mother of that toddler, who encourages this curiosity by going outside on a glorious fall afternoon to search for squirrels (because that curious monkey pretended to be one for the day) shares this story with us in a reflection and so will remember it.
Like the Kodak or Polaroid pictures, the hand held video cameras, the diaries and journals, the cell phone pictures and YouTube clips that so many of have used to capture those moments of single-minded inquisitiveness, of extraordinary, heart-bursting openness to experience our children model for us every day – as long as we let them.
Being curious about how and whether my own oldest child, now a father himself, remembers being curious when he was little (since he had been telling me about watching his own not quite two-year-old son being curious, filling buckets of water to see how much they could contain until they overflowed, asking about what kinds of sounds birds make or why zebras aren’t horses), I emailed him.
I know you are busy (he is always busy), but could you just dash me a few lines on this: I recall when you were a child, you were curious about maps, about going places. Were you ever curious to the point of danger? And what are you still curious about now?
What I was thinking about was perhaps he might have put a peanut up his nose to see what would happen, or experimentally swallow his quarter allowance, like someone in my family did at one point. No, nothing super dangerous, no desire to practice jumping from high places so he could grow up and break the sound barrier while in a skydiving freefall (thank God).
So that those of us who are morbidly curious could watch it being streamed on our computers or smart phones to see whether he would or would not survive.
Yes, he remembered loving maps and visiting other places, maps because of being interested in large spacial patterns – independent of going anywhere. I remember, he said, being bored in that big house on the hill (ouch) and I would dig through the dirt pretending the tunnel would reach somewhere exotic. We did travel some, he admitted, just far enough to stoke his interest in doing more when he grew up, which he has, first living in China, now living in Singapore and researching how people maintain cultural authenticity in a world of increasing globalization — asking lots of questions and traveling much of the time. As writer Zora Neale Hurston observed: Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.
Don’t you remember loving dinosaurs? I wrote him back, and how your dad and I schlepped you to Dinosaur National Monument four states away so you could see the real bones for yourself? I still have a picture of us, with our rented yellow Volkswagen bus, camping out at that very park with our two very small children.
All boys love dinosaurs, he answered me back. But no, as a matter of fact, he did NOT remember the actual experience. I look forward to going there as a dad myself. Perhaps that will spark my memory, he told me.
Being curious, I Googled “when do children begin to form memories” and learned through the social scientists that young children’s earliest memories tend to change over time, being replaced with “newer” earliest memories until around age 10. As this happens, memories occurring in the preschool years tend to be lost. Of course he wouldn’t remember seeing those prehistoric creatures. He was only four years old when we made that trip to show him how ancient the story of life is and how it has so wondrously evolved over billions of years.
Which would be a soul-saving relief to the folks at the Institute of Creation Research, and in particular Paul Taylor, production director of the Films for Christ Association, who wrote an article recently about “Dinosaur Mania and our Children.”
Ever since the first dinosaur reconstructions in the mid-1800s, he writes, dinosaurs have been big business, used to sell everything from breakfast cereal to gasoline, and now, he warns, the interest is greater than ever. He describes the increasing number of new dinosaur extinction theories and fossil discoveries that are frequently featured in national magazines, and a steady stream of adult dinosaur books issued by “humanistic publishers” each year.
The danger in this dinosaur mania? They are being used on a monumental scale to indoctrinate millions of children with false evolutionary concepts, he alleges.
Lies, as a Georgia member of the U.S. House of Representatives who serves on the Science, Space, and Technology Committee has proclaimed, that come straight from the “pit of hell.”
Now is the right time, he is convinced, to counter these blasphemous falsehoods about how the world evolved, with the “truth” about Creation and the Creator by presenting evidence of dinosaurs in the Biblical framework of history as literally consistent with the Genesis story – that the Earth is no more than 9,000 years old and created in totality in six days. Capitalizing on the natural curiosity of children, perhaps, or hijacking it.
In a recent best-selling novel: Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier, also author of Girl with the Pearl Earring, a poor, uneducated young woman who gathers fossils on the chilly English coast in the early 1800s as “curios,” small exotic pieces of bric-à-brac purchased simply as souvenirs by summer tourists, teams up with another, more worldly female fossil hunter to hunt for, dig up, and eventually get displayed in the Natural History Museum in London several complete and extraordinary fossil fishes and a flying reptile.
Her practical and disinterested need to earn money for her family inadvertently sets the Anglican religious community of her time on edge, as the discoveries of these unfamiliar and no longer existing skeletal remains creates curiosity in the mind of her partner, who cannot make the story of creation she had learned in church — that God had created all creatures at once for all time — with the strange ones she was discovering on the rocky beach. She is told by the priest that God had placed the fossils there when He created the rocks, to test her faith.
And she was obviously failing the test by her assiduous — persistent — questioning and ultimately her doubt, no longer trusting that what she was told to believe was true.
The punishment for her dangerous curiosity was a kind of shunning in that small provincial English town, but historically religious curiosity, that which threatened the orthodoxy of the day, had been more severely penalized — sometimes onto death.
Listen to this telling of the consequences of first curiosity and then insistent and unpopular doubt, and then heresy, a fatally unorthodox opinion. It comes from an extraordinary book Out of the Flames by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone:
Shortly after noon on a cold and rainy late October day in 1553, a procession began at the town hall in Geneva… at the head were the local dignitaries, magistrates in their robes and hats, members of the town council, clergymen in their gowns and the chief of police… next came the citizens of the city… then the trades people and artisans, and finally a mob of the city’s lower classes… their destination was a hillside at Champel about a mile outside the city’s walls.
In the midst, we are told, of these fair-skinned Swiss, a man stood out, a prisoner in his forties, dark, almost Moorish, dirty and weak, with an unkempt beard. He is surrounded by a group of pastors urging him to confess his sins.
While he looks shabby, he is one of Europe’s leading physicians and preeminent thinkers. His name is Michael Servetus and his crime was publishing books, one in particular, that refined Christianity in a more tolerant and inclusive way.
Books that were banned but did not stop him from writing them. Books that eventually led to the end of his career as a distinguished doctor and scientist, that led to arrest and isolation and mockery.
Servetus argued against original sin and the concept of blood atonement that went along with it, and infant baptism, and while not actually opposed to a Trinitarian notion of God, strongly suggested that such a definition was not to be found in the Bible itself, at least not in his own reading of it.
Servetus did not believe people are totally depraved. He thought all people, even non-Christians, susceptible to or capable of improvement and justification. He held that God was present in all creation.
The invention of the printing press with movable type had made it more possible for college students like Michael Servetus to get hold of books that had previously been rare or, in his case, forbidden, like copies of the Gutenberg Bible (which ironically had been the first book ever produced this way). Ignoring threats of being burned at the stake or thrown in the river for the crime of passing copies of the forbidden Bibles from hand to hand, the students staying up late at night debating the philosophical and political implications of what they had read.
What the 17-year-old Michael Servetus read, aided by his fluency in Greek and Hebrew, convinced him that Rome and its Popes had corrupted the text and original tenets of Christianity. He did not want to reject or “reform” the Church. He wanted to restore it to a time when theology was not decided by councils and decrees, decrees he found in conflict with the Christianity he saw as true.
Years later, shortly after the publication of his book, called On the Errors of the Trinity — which laid out and carefully documented his unorthodox findings, he was hounded by both the Protestants who ran him out of town, and the Catholics, whose Inquisition in Spain took interest in trying him.
First the Catholic Church and its priests had worried about whether direct access to scripture would lead readers away from papal teaching into other possible interpretations, and then the Reformers, after arguing for the rejection of the authority of the church fathers, began to impose strictures of their own. There were things that were not acceptable to glean from sola scriptura, scripture alone.
Servetus had been dangerously curious, which led to becoming even more dangerously and not so ironically dogmatically doubtful. In fact he was sentenced to death by the Catholic Church for his heresies but it was John Calvin and his Calvinst Council of Judges who ultimately caught him, threw him in a dark, airless, vermin-ridden cell where he was kept for 75 days, denied a change of clothes or bedding, and often food and water. While he was said to have argued brilliantly in his own defense at his trial, going head to head with John Calvin himself, on October 26, 1553, he was condemned to be burned alive together with his books. For the crime of being antitrinitarian and opposed to child baptism, for what was called his “stinking heretical poison.”
As the authors of Out of the Flames tell us, torture and cruelty were no strangers to 16th century European justice.
Slanderers had their tongues cut out, thieves were impaled. The penalty for murder was beheading. But of all the punishments, the very worst was to be burned alive, and so this horror was reserved for the most terrible crime there was — heresy. Heretics were especially loathed because (it was thought) they not only put their own souls in moral jeopardy, but those of otherwise innocent people infected by their teaching.
And while Servetus died, his ashes comingled with those of his books, and while there were efforts to totally eradicate it, somehow, miraculously three copies of it survived.
A copy of the book by Servetus, Christianity Restored, one book among many other refugee books that has been shipped in crates to bookstores and booksellers in London in hopes of outliving the Thirty Years religious wars and other such conflicts, was picked up by a Hungarian Count, humanist scholar, and Transylvanian Unitarian who recognized the importance of the book and Servetus as the spiritual center of his small and beleaguered denomination. In fact, there soon would be a diaspora of Unitarians across Europe: to the Netherlands, Germany, and especially England. This Hungarian purchased the rare and almost disappeared book and then donated it to his church, where it would be once again kept safe but forgotten.
While Servetus’ actual writings and even some of his ideas (he believed that the Devil was in constant dualistic battle with God) did not make it across the Atlantic as an influence on the budding Unitarianism of the late 18th and early 19th century, the story of his martyrdom at the hands of John Calvin for his tenacious curiosity about what was actually written in the Bible, his tenacious doubt, his public opposition to the tenets of Calvinism did.
Thomas Jefferson, who imagined, following his hardy embrace of Unitarianism that in the very near future the whole country would follow suit, invoked Michael Servetus in a blistering critique of the Protestant religious establishment, saying that the “Presbyterian clergy are the loudest, most intolerant of all sects, ready at the word of the law-giver, of such a word could now be obtained, to put their torch to the pile and to rekindle in this virgin hemisphere the flame in which their oracle Calvin consumes the poor Servetus, because he could not subscribe to the proposition of Calvin… they pray to re-establish by law that holy inquisition which they can now only infuse into public opinion.”
This Calvinist-Anti-Calvinist quarrel raged in pamphlets and in congregations, pitting the Establishment against Doubters, ending up with major victories by the Unitarians in taking over churches that had been Trinitarian and believers in original sin and predestination.
But in the process of analyzing and reinterpreting biblical passages, battling endlessly and only about scripture and whose truth was true, ultimately our own faith tradition began turning on its own curious, especially those whose curiosity turned to overt doubt about the alternative Christianity that was being so defended.
One of our own who found himself under attack by his own Unitarian peers was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who in his address to Harvard Divinity School argued for less focus on finding faith only through scripture (and one version of scripture, the Bible) and more on a direct experience of God available to all of us without mediation. Based on his own curiosity about what the nature of revelation is, he asked why should we not enjoy an original relation to the universe, where the holy abounds.
This address was met by near universal dismay by the establishment Unitarian community, who saw this as an affront to the Christianity they were so diligently reconstructing in their parsonage studies and libraries. But an admirer of the time wrote that while over time the (initial) controversy diminished, his own congregation still resented him, but the intellectually curious and spiritually seeking were drawn to him because he was a friend and aider of those who (truly) live in the spirit.
But if there is any single stunning historic example of our own devolution into suspicion of curiosity and punishment of doubt, it was the response to the Rev. Theodore Parker, whose intellectual exploration of scripture and direct experience of the holy led him to conclude that the biblical miracles were not real, that Christianity did not hold any unique mandate on religious truth, nor was the Bible any more or less valuable than any other written history. And that Jesus himself had no particular authority, rather he was an organ through which divinity spoke.
These findings of his own conscience, which came out of his own inquisitiveness, led to a stern and accusatory meeting of the Boston Association of Unitarian Ministers, which felt to many like every bit as much an inquisition and trial as the one Servetus had endured several centuries before. Without the burning.
That was 1843, we venerate Parker now, and we moved past this low water mark, sometimes painfully. Still, Calvinism vs. Anti-Calvinism, and the embattled parsing of Christian scripture was replaced by Theism vs. Humanism and the parsing of religious and philosophical points of view, narrow either/or arguments that still moved straight past exploratory inquisitiveness to charged doubt to hardened positions.
Our commitment to being a many-lensed, inclusive, and expansive living tradition, in the words of the Rev. Kathleen Rolenz “reflecting the ever-flowing stream of human thought and spirituality” was, thankfully, exponentially increased and made tangible by the adoption of the six Sources of Unitarian Universalism, the second half of our Principles and Purposes document. These sources, as she tells us, outline the diversity of religious experiences, teachings, and inspirations we call upon to answer our questions, to feed our curiosity. The direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder. Words and deeds of prophetic men and women.
Wisdom from the world’s religions. Jewish and Christian teachings. Humanist Teachings. And the spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions.
All of these are available to us now, pulling us away from polemics, contentious arguments intended to establish the truth of a specific belief and the falsity of the contrary belief, and toward creating and being the open, mature religious people and community to which we aspire. A place where we actively and compassionately support each other on our spiritual quests.
If we bring our questioning fully and authentically into this space and in the listening company of our fellow congregants.
Children look at squirrels with wonder and are curious. Or zebras or buckets of water or dinosaur skeletons. They ask a hundred questions, peppering us with their openness. And somehow and somewhere along the line, we lose that sense of wonder and the questions fade.
One of our charges and I would maintain part of our covenant together is to stay curious, to ask more and deeper questions :
What does it mean?
Why does it matter?
Who does it impact?
You will never know what you will find out or begin to understand.
In the words of Albert Einstein:
I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.
May it be so for us.
 From Allison Arden, The Book of Doing.