There’s a notion in some circles that religion suppresses curiosity, perhaps because religious leaders, being human, have a history stifling arguments that question their dogma. But I’ve found that a faith grounded in the pursuit of truth actually welcomes curiosity, because the questions that spring from curiosity reveal answers that lead to truth.
With Easter and Passover overlapping on the calendar this year, it got me to thinking about how Christianity and Judaism traditionally have fostered the type of curiosity in children that produces innovative and effective leaders as adults.
Jews and Christians, of course, share a common history. The Passover is important to both, although Jews and Messianic Jews celebrated it differently than followers of Jesus who aren’t Jewish. One thing I find interesting about the Jewish celebration is its emphasis on fostering curiosity in children. An article I read a few months ago by Lord Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s former chief rabbi, points out that passages from the Haggadah, which is read at the Seder feast table at the beginning of Passover, connects back to the story of the Jewish liberation from slavery in Egypt in ways that foster curiosity.
It quotes from the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy to emphasize the importance of sharing the story with future generations, and it paints a picture of four types of children – one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who doesn’t know how to ask. The conclusion, Sacks says, is that children should ask questions, that their parents should share the Passover narrative in a way that begins with and responds to questions, and that children who don’t yet know how to ask questions should be taught.
The importance of this type of critical thinking and faith and curiosity, I’ve found, is stressed throughout the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament for followers of Jesus) and the New Testament. Obedience and discipline are stressed, as well, but not to the point of throwing cold water on hot curiosity. Deuteronomy 5:16, for instance, tell us (young and old) to honor our parents. But, as Sacks points out, there is no Hebrew word for “obey,” even though Judaism, by his count, “is a religion of 613 commandments.” Instead, the text uses the Hebrew word shema, a verb rich in multiple meanings – to listen, to hear, to understand, to internalize, and to respond. The Shema, in fact, is a traditional daily prayer based on the use of that word in Deuteronomy 6:4-9.
The New Testament, meanwhile, tells children to obey their parents (Colossians 3:20, Ephesians 6:1) but follows those instructions by telling fathers not to “embitter” or “exasperate” their children (Colossians 3:21, Ephesians 6:4).
Religious leaders who teach or preach without fostering curiosity and embracing questions are doing a huge disservice to their students, because they make it challenging for critical thinking to develop and for truth to be understood and applied.
This doesn’t just apply to children. As I was thinking about this topic, I called up one of my Jewish friends and asked him how the time-honored cultural emphasis on critical thinking has shaped his life and leadership. He told me curiosity is encouraged in Jewish homes from birth, and that the value of critical thinking really hit home for him when he experienced multiple crisis points in his life in December 1984.
During that one month, my friend was studying to get his real estate license so he could change careers, his mother passed away from cancer, and his wife asked him for a divorce. He turned to a rabbi, who, among other things, put him in a group with other students to discuss matters in life that required critical thinking. As he reconnected with Jewish orthodoxy, the process pushed him to think through the type of person he was and that he might become.
“I could have wallowed around in the sorrow of what was happening,” he told me, “or I could use these things as a motivation to move toward positive goals I had in life. People helped me think about it, talk about it, and make the changes I needed to become a success in life.”
I’ve experienced similar benefits from surrounding myself with people who push me to think critically – in particular, my wife, my personal board of advisory, my pastor, and several other key friends. Rather than always telling me what they think I should do, they ask questions and challenge me to ask questions. And like the children who will hear the Passover narrative from their parents this weekend, asking questions leads to understanding and responding to the truth that’s revealed. That’s the power of curiosity.