We know that curiosity killed the cat. We know it just as we know that Jack and Jill tumbled down a hill and birds of a feather flock together. But if this proverb offers a moral judgment on the ill-fated cat, do we agree with it? Is curiosity really such a bad thing?
Forgetting the hapless cat for a moment, the word curiosity simply means a strong desire to know. Because the Bible tells us that “the ear of the wise seeks knowledge,” curiosity could be, not a moral failing, but a defining quality of wisdom (Prov. 18:15). And if there is wisdom, there is humility (Prov. 11:2).
Albert Einstein famously spoke of a “holy curiosity.” “One cannot help,” he told an interviewer, “but be in awe when contemplating the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of the mystery every day. The important thing is not to stop questioning; never lose a holy curiosity.” According to Einstein, then, a proper—or holy—curiosity is rooted in awe. Awe is what we feel when we study the stars on a cloudless night. Awe visits us when we stand on mountaintops and before canyons. It is reverence laced with heaping portions of fear and wonder. In other words, awe is a slayer of pride. In awe, we remember our smallness, and we tremble before true greatness.
While the oft-told story of the proverbial cat aims to censure those prone to snooping and prying, curiosity, specifically the holy curiosity of Einstein’s telling, is one key to understanding the active nature of biblical humility. The Bible tells us to “seek the Lord” and “seek humility” (Zeph. 2:3). We are also told to “put on” humility and “clothe” ourselves with it (Col. 3:12, 1 Peter 5:5). Humility is an active posture towards others, and we are warned against the false humility of self-abasement (Col. 2:18, Col. 2:23). False humility, in its focus on the self, is merely pride turned inside out. It’s pride masquerading as piety.
In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin described the slippery continuum between pride and humility: “even if I could … completely overcome [pride], I should probably be proud of my humility.” Is it any wonder that true humility must be pursued, grasped, and put on daily like a suit of clothes?
While the proverbial cat aims to censure snooping and prying, the holy curiosity of Einstein’s telling is one of biblical humility.
If we are truly humble and “regard one another as more important” than ourselves, we will listen to others with a genuine desire to learn (Phil. 2:3). Indeed, we will eagerly seek out the perspective of others and will be more interested in gaining understanding than in winning debates. False humility does not encourage the search for knowledge. It is too preoccupied with the appearance of righteousness. The proud, because they value themselves so highly, are afraid to follow the risky path of the curious.
The well-known proverb gets one thing absolutely right: Curiosity is dangerous. It’s risky because it involves self-exposure. We cannot seek knowledge without revealing, to ourselves and perhaps also to others, just how much we do not know. It requires humility to ask the questions to which we do not already have the answers. Einstein himself, though admired specifically for his considerable intelligence, claimed that his scientific achievements were the result of having retained a childlike sense of wonder. In order to follow in his footsteps of discovery, we must, he said, “stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we are born.”
Though we well remember Jesus’ claim that the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are like children, few of us really want to be as lowly as a child. We may admire the innocent curiosity of children, but we do not easily embrace that level of vulnerability and dependence. Humility, then, is also risky. If we raise the questions for which we do not have answers, if we live as if others are more important than ourselves, isn’t that like begging to be passed over, ignored, and underestimated? Humility asks that we deny the self we love so very much. Humility asks that we risk even the death of self. And yet dying to self is precisely what we have been called to in Christ. Curiosity may, in fact, be the death of us.
The proud, because they value themselves so highly, are afraid to follow the risky path of the curious.
What does it look like to accept these risks and begin to imitate the intrepid cat of the proverb? We do it by remembering the true significance of the word seek. The biblical charge to seek first His kingdom is as familiar to me as any proverb or nursery rhyme (Matt. 6:33). And yet, I consistently skip over the word seek in order to emphasize the word first. I have made this command from Jesus only about priorities. Put the kingdom first, is all I have heard. This is part of what Jesus says but not the whole. Seek the kingdom, He tells us. Seek. In other words, search, explore, pursue. Where is the source of all wisdom? And where is His kingdom to be found? The curious want to know, and they will not let an instinct for self-preservation hold them back.
Though few people have heard it, there is an epilogue of sorts to the story of the cat. The well-known portion of the proverb has long been joined with a five-word response: “Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back.” In this context, satisfaction does not mean contentment but, rather, has the sense of consummation or fulfillment. The full proverb is thus a great encouragement to those of us considering curiosity with some fear and trembling.
Faithful seeking has a destination, and it is our triune God. He is the ultimate and complete satisfaction of our holy curiosity, and if curiosity should cost us our life, we will find our life again in Jesus Christ.
God has set eternity in our hearts like a rumor from a far-off land. Will you respond to the summons? Will you follow though you do not know precisely where this path will take you? Will you be curious?
Art by Jeff Gregory