Let’s Talk: Professor J. Todd Hibbard discusses living curiously

Professor J. Todd Hibbard
Professor J. Todd Hibbard

Associate Professor and Chair of Religious Studies Todd Hibbard gave this talk “On Living Curiously” as the Last Lecture of the 2018-19 school year. The Last Lecture was a tradition at Mercy College of Detroit and was reintroduced at Detroit Mercy in 2014. This is the first in an occasional series of in-depth posts called Let’s Talk, sharing lectures or essays by Detroit Mercy faculty, staff, alumni or invited guests designed to start a conversation. If you would like to contribute, please fill out the form here www.udmercy.edu/faculty-staff/marcom/requests/story.php

I would like to begin autobiographically. As a child growing up, our family moved several times. I attended six different schools during my K-12 years. We lived in three different states and different towns in those states. Many kids would have found our rather frequent moves difficult – and rightly so. Moving for a child can be upsetting for so many reasons. I was a little different, though. I do not recall feeling anxiety about our family’s peripatetic ways so much as finding them adventurous. Each new move brought an opportunity to explore some new place and experience a different part of the world — or at least moving from Kentucky to Michigan when you’re nine years old feels that way!

At any early age I developed what my family came to regard as a peculiar habit with each move. It went like this: when we arrived at our new house, I would search the kitchen drawers or cabinets or hallway closet until I found that key to decoding my new geographic reality: the phone book. Why did I consult this repository of numerical knowledge with each new move? I generally wanted to investigate two things.

First, I would look to see if anyone else in the town was named Hibbard, it being a fairly rare surname. If so, I reasoned, we might have an unknown or long-lost relative my family could perhaps connect with. Alas, only once or twice in our moves was another Hibbard listed in the white pages. We were usually a tribeless group.

The second thing I wanted to investigate were the restaurants listed. I reasoned, in my simple way, that the kinds of restaurants in a town told me something about what kind of place we had come to. Did our new town have Italian restaurants? Mexican? Polish? This might give me useful information about my future schoolmates as well and the cultures they embodied. Most importantly, the size and/or complexity of the ads told me something about which were the good ones (or so I thought). In this way, I might learn something about my new town. All this, despite the fact that as a child we rarely ate out. So the places whose ads I scanned were almost certain to be establishments whose doors we would never darken.

Why start with this seemingly inconsequential bit of detail from my childhood? Because I have come to see that in its own strange way, this phone book sleuthing was an outlet for my admittedly trivial curiosity about each new place my family made our home.

Scientists, philosophers, theologians and authors, among others, have long wondered what distinguishes us as human beings from other animals. Of course, many suggestions have been made — the capacity for language, deep self-awareness, higher order thinking — but I would suggest that among the possible answers rests the human capacity to be curious.

I do not mean to suggest that only human beings possess this capacity. But the type of curiosity we share with other animals revolves around need fulfillment: I am hungry and must find a way to expunge that physical feeling. In this sense, curiosity is what psychologists sometimes refer to as a drive intended to satisfy needs, mostly physical.

What I wish to draw attention to, however, is a different type of curiosity. We might think of it as curiosity reflective of more complex problems or situations, but also the sort of behavior that might result in the production of art, music, scientific discovery, abstract thinking — that is, products that are uniquely human. Given that we are curious beings by nature, to greater or lesser degrees, the questions I wish to pursue today revolve around what kind of curiosity we should express and how best to cultivate it.

What is curiosity? On a basic level it is a desire to know. In that sense, to be curious is to express inquisitiveness. Linguists have long noted that part of what makes human speech — and by extension, thought — unique is our ability to ask questions. If you’ve ever spent time around young children you’ve undoubtedly encountered this phenomenon in their seemingly unending question: Why? It is in our nature to be curious, to seek to understand why things are as they are. However, this only takes us so far; we are still left with the difficulty of defining curiosity with precision. At its most basic, it is a drive state for information, a desire to know.

I suppose we all operate with a basic understanding of what being curious is that highlights our desire to uncover information and know things. That is what my story about reading the phone book illustrates. But, psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers, among others, who study the subject recognize in the concept something deeper than simply adding information to our mental portfolio. However, researchers do not have a shared definition. Consequently, it becomes a bit like a famous Supreme Court justice’s declaration about another elusive concept: hard to define but recognizable when we see it.

Researchers recognize various types of curiosity, though no definitive taxonomy exists to my knowledge. The categories psychologists discuss capture aspects of our capacity to be curious for different purposes or in different ways. For example, perceptual curiosity describes our interest in seeking out physical experience: climbing a mountain, lifting weights. Diversive curiosity, on the other hand, makes us want to know what lies on the other side of the mountain we are climbing or, of a more mundane and pernicious sort, who is texting, emailing or posting on social media. While these types of curiosity can and do play a necessary role in our lives, they aren’t really what I have in mind in this talk. Closer to the mark is what researchers call specific curiosity — a desire to find a particular piece of information (like whether other “Hibbards” live in my town).

However, I am most interested in two other types of curiosity identified by researchers: epistemic and empathic. The first of these represents the quest for knowledge and understanding and is usually the result of deep, disciplined, and effortful work — the kind of work that characterizes universities.

Then, there is empathic curiosity — the desire to know about the thoughts and feelings of other persons. In his book Curious, Ian Leslie points out that this is related to diversive curiosity, but represents a move beyond it. He writes: “Diversive curiosity might make you wonder what a person does for a living; empathic curiosity makes you wonder why they do it.” As he also points out, empathic and epistemic curiosity seem to have developed as cognitive capacities about the same time in our evolutionary development.

Given that curiosity is so constitutive and characteristic of the human experience, it may come as a surprise to learn that being curious has a checkered history. As you will undoubtedly have recognized, my title for this talk riffs on the famous children’s book series, Curious George. In preparation for this lecture, I re-read the first book featuring Curious George and was surprised at how ambivalent the book is about George’s curious ways. Indeed, we meet George as a perfectly happy monkey in the jungle who is forcibly taken from his home and re-settled in a zoo. Along the way, his curious nature leads to adventure, none of which is condoned by the book. In fact, at one point he is called a “good little monkey,” but only after he abandons his curious ways. Exactly what type of behavior does this book commend to children?

In fairness, however, this is not all that dissimilar from dozens of other depictions of curiosity. Some of our earliest stories from the ancient Middle East express misgivings about human inquisitiveness, particularly when it was thought to encroach on mysteries that belonged to the realm of the gods. Early cuneiform writing does not possess a word meaning “curiosity” or “curious,” but the idea exists. What we may rightly regard as the idea of curiosity appears in attempts to understand and tame reality. Authors writing in Akkadian, the language of Mesopotamia for nearly 3,000 years, regularly use the term “tabritum,” or “astonishment” when they wish to indicate the proper human disposition to the world. Later, Aristotle compares θαυμα,“wonder” and περιεργια, “curiosity” or “nosiness,” pitting these two notions against one another. I could cite many others, but this is sufficient to establish the point: in the ancient world thinkers urged wonder and amazement as the proper disposition toward the world, but usually stopped short of encouraging people to investigate why the world was, in fact, so full of wonder.

Most ancients saw the world as a dangerous place and, therefore, saw in curiosity a way in which human beings exposed themselves unwisely to that danger. Such danger could, at a minimum produce disappointment and heartbreak, but in extreme cases, cause actual physical danger. For example, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the most told and retold epic tale in antiquity, the great epic hero and king, Gilgamesh loses his closest friend Enkidu because in their curiosity they overstepped their bounds and offended the gods by confronting and then killing the bull of heaven. Biblical stories feature people like Lot’s unnamed wife, who looks back to see Sodom’s destruction and turns into a pillar of salt. Perhaps best known of all is the Garden of Eden story in which the first human couple become curious about the potential of the forbidden tree’s fruit to provide wisdom and wind up exiled from the garden. The sentiment is found in the Greek literary tradition as well. Recall that in The Odyssey, Odysseus’s curiosity repeatedly results in the death of members of his crew.

Why do these narratives find curiosity dangerous? The classicist P. G. Walsh has argued that all of these texts take the view that curiosity is a form of impiety. But, of course, that simply begs the question: why are these actions impious? The Jewish writer of The Wisdom of Ben Sira, thinks it induces pride. Several centuries later, the influential Christian thinker Augustine would argue similarly. In his view, the proper disposition toward the world was also one of wonder, which stood in contrast to vain or idle curiosity. The first led to pride, the second to mischief. Either way, in his view, both were dangerous.

These stories and others like them are not as straightforward in their evaluation of curiosity as it might seem as first blush, however. Several of their protagonists also benefit from their curious behavior. Gilgamesh finds the immortality for which he longs, at least initially; Eve and Adam do, in fact, gain wisdom that makes them human; and Odysseus’s actions produce virtue, though in each of these cases what the protagonists discover differs slightly from what they expect. Hence, even for the ancients, the situation was not as simplistic as some assessments make it appear. Indeed, Marc van De Mieroop’s book Philosophy Before the Greeks chronicles the centuries-long quest of the ancient Babylonians for knowledge about the world and its inhabitants. Though these ancients differ from us in so many respects, van De Mieroop demonstrates that in their quest to know and understand the world or cosmos and what it

Indeed, so many of these stories probe what it means to be human that we are justified in naming this one of the preeminent themes of ancient literature. Even in cases where the subject is ostensibly something else, cosmogony for example, one can easily detect an interest in understanding the nature of human experience. Take the Babylonian poem Atrahasis, an epic featuring a Noah-like figure who survives the flood. This cuneiform tale also presents a passage detailing the creation of human beings. The process involves slaying one of the gods, Aw-Ilu, whose blood is then mixed with clay to create a human being. What is important for purposes of this talk revolves around the quality of the slain god that the epic mentions: Aw-Ilu possessed intelligence. Here we have an ancient text in which the author is curious about what makes human beings distinctive. The answer: They possess intelligence like that of the gods.

When I read and teach an epic poem like Atrahasis, I have an opportunity to “think with” those who have come long before me about the nature and quality of our shared human experience. While we would, of course, think differently about the subject, the question this ancient author is raising is perennial. It is the object of our epistemic and empathic curiosity. What does it mean to be a human being?

This is, of course, the great question we find expressed in so many different ways throughout human history. As a scholar whose work has focused primarily on the biblical text, there are two stories that draw my attention most regularly on the matter of what it means to be a human being. The first is the one I have already mentioned: the story of the first human couple in the garden paradise. The story is about many things and possesses different avenues of interpretive possibility, but one cannot fail to notice that central among its polyvalent qualities is a fascination with understanding what it means to be human. The first woman takes the forbidden fruit only after determining that it possesses the quality to make her wise. When the two humans decide to consume the fruit, they assert their own autonomy and agency — two of the qualities that make us fully formed human beings. That there are negative consequences to their actions cannot be denied in the story, but this confirms what we know about human experience. To be fully human means, among other things, to experience great joy and wisdom but also the capacity to suffer. To be denied these things is to be denied our humanity.

The second story is one that will also be familiar to many of you, the Book of Job. The book’s protagonist enjoys great success in life, only to have everything taken from him. The bulk of the book— which most people are either unaware of or simply ignore — is a series of dialogues between Job and three friends. The purpose of the dialogues is to come to some understanding of the nature of human suffering. Other works similar to Job exist throughout the Mesopotamian literary tradition, demonstrating that this particular subject and form of exploring it was evidently well known from an early date. Near the end of Job, the divine voice is heard as well. One expects that this will settle the matter, since the voice of God usually functions in just this way in the Biblical text.

Something interesting happens in Job, however. After God speaks, Job acknowledges the superiority of divine power to his own but does not concede that God’s explanation of the matter has been satisfactory at all. This is a stunning turn of events in the story, but one that most readers acknowledge gets at the heart of the matter: Human suffering seems constitutive of the human experience but facile, easy explanations — even when they come from God — will not do. While this likely seems almost de rigueur in the modern world, for an ancient text written from within a theistic context to insist on this is quite unexpected.

Moreover, it reminds me as a modern person curious about the nature of human experience of the complexity and mystery of so much about human life. This recognition, that human experience is marked by mystery, leads to an important distinction in the way we treat curiosities. Ian Leslie notes that those who emphasize epistemic curiosity to the exclusion of empathic curiosity treat the world and human experience as puzzles in need of a solution.

He writes: “Puzzles have definite answers. When you’re trying to answer that crossword clue, you know the kind of answer you need, even if you don’t know what it is yet. Even when you don’t know the answer, you know the question, and you know that a corresponding answer exists. Puzzles are orderly; they have a beginning and an end. Once the missing information is found, it’s not a puzzle anymore. The frustration you felt when you were searching for the answer is replaced by satisfaction.” In other words, people who privilege this modality operate with the view that questions have definite answers and that solutions (usually one) exist. This stands in marked contrast with those who are more inclined to see mystery in the human experience. Again, Leslie writes: “Mysteries are murkier, less neat. They pose questions that can’t be answered definitively…” That, in a nutshell, describes the nature of human experience.

I am often asked why I chose to study religion. The short answer to that question lies in my own curiosity about what it means to be human. Religion has several coordinates, but central to them all is a fixation on the question of what it means to be human. To put that differently, religion is primarily about the human experience. In other words, in studying religion, I have an opportunity to explore how others have expressed their own curiosities about the human experience. In doing so, I have an opportunity to understand my own curiosities about this more fully. However, it is often the case that religion treats the mystery of human experience as a puzzle that can be solved. But occasionally, as in the Garden Story or the Book of Job, one hears voices in the tradition that push back against this formulation in order to insist that we respect the mystery that is our humanity.

Our stories and history remind us that we often have an ambivalent relationship with curiosity. Curiosity has been instrumental in many of the great scientific discoveries, in explorations of what it means to be human, and other worthy pursuits, yet people often warn against giving into its impulses. Curious people can be transgressive, effacing boundaries that define our lives socially, politically, institutionally. Here I am talking about curiosity that compels action.

This has customarily been understood through limits on what humans should or should not do. The best example of this that I know is the aforementioned archetypal mythic story about Adam and Eve. Readers often fail to notice that the story of the forbidden fruit is about human curiosity and its capacity to improve human life. Indeed, as I noted earlier, the story clearly notes that the woman “saw that the tree was to be desired to make one wise,” among other benefits. Given the positive evaluation of wisdom elsewhere in Biblical tradition, its prohibition here seems unusual. As becomes clear as the story progresses, the basis for its exclusion from human consumption rests solely on the idea that the divine has prohibited it. Is this alone sufficient? The author seems to realize that the depiction of the human couple’s actions is transgressive and disobedient, yet necessary. In other words, the narrative recognizes the need for human beings to live curiously even at the risk of upsetting the established order of things. Not to do so is to forfeit the opportunity to become wholly and entirely human.

In her excellent book Being Wrong, Kathryn Schulz argues that there are two models for thinking about error: pessimistic and optimistic. The pessimistic model sees error as embarrassing, dangerous, and humiliating, while the optimistic views error as an opportunity for improvement and betterment. I think her two models apply equally well to idea curiosity. For example, we might be curious about how close we can stand to the edge of high cliff, but such curiosity might lead to our untimely and tragic deaths. This type of curiosity is the type ancient writers see and criticize in people like Odysseus. On the other hand, curiosity about why some stars appear more or less bright in the night sky can lead to scientific discoveries that alter our view of the cosmos. Of even more importance is the recognition that optimistic curiosity forms an antidote against a paralyzing fear of being wrong, Schulz’s pessimistic error.

If we adopt an optimistic model of curiosity, we begin immediately to perceive its benefits. To be curious is to express an openness to the world and people around you. To be open to wonder, beauty, amazement, and mystery, the very thing the ancients saw and often feared in the world. It is to strive to be present to those around us, aware of the gifts and graces others sow into our lives. This is because curiosity compels us to turn our gaze outward from ourselves and to the world around us. It is an antidote to narcissism and self-centeredness. But curiosity also compels to greater self-awareness, whereby we come to know ourselves with depth and complexity.

A curious life also creates intellectual humility, a trait that seems to be in short supply in our public discourse at the moment. Recall that it was Socrates who was insisted that he did not know anything. But in recognizing his own intellectual limits he charted a path forward for the intellectually curious. Indeed, curiosity consistently forces us to come to terms with what we do not know, with what eludes us at the present moment. For the intellectually insecure such lack of knowing creates angst and consternation, but for the curious it becomes a sphere in which our current limits stare us squarely in the face. It is to acknowledge that we do not know the answer to the question. Current research from the fields of psychology, philosophy and interreligious dialogue have begun to amass empirical evidence confirming the value of intellectual humility. As one researcher has recently expressed it, only when we recognize and affirm the limits of our own knowledge do we become able to pursue deeper knowledge, truth and understanding.

Curiosity also speaks to people’s willingness to reconsider their views, to avoid defensiveness when challenged, and to moderate their own need always to appear “right.” It is sensitive to counter-evidence, realistic in outlook, strives for accuracy, shows little concern for self-importance, and is corrective of the natural tendency to strongly prioritize one’s own needs. In that sense, it offers a healthy space for making mistakes without the accompanying fear that errors diminish our value or worth as persons. Moreover, it also helps us see the same in others. Recent research published in the Harvard Business Review on this subject shows that curiosity reduces the possibility of confirmation bias and stereotyping. The same research demonstrates that curiosity helps us analyze difficult problems more creatively. In other words, there is ample evidence that people who live curiously lead richer and fuller lives.

The case I am trying to make here is that deep curiosity is part of what defines us as human beings, and when we are at our best, we become curious people. This means, though, that we must cultivate habits of mind and action that enable it. We must find ways to live curiously. To that end, I want to make four suggestions for developing habits to cultivate curiosity.

First, read. Read widely and read deeply. Read something about which you have no knowledge. You might be surprised what you discover or where it leads.

Second, intentionally slow down your life and take your time. We live in a world that tells students (and adults) that more is better and that quantity of experience outweighs quality of experience. I look at resumes frequently that are packed with experiences, but the sheer number of them causes me to wonder if the person has been truly present in them. To live curiously takes time.

Third, learn to ask good questions. Start with why. Remember that asking good questions is often more important than finding answers. A good first question will lead to subsequent questions.

Fourth, cultivate listening. Listen actively, but listen. We live in a world where everyone wants to talk and that means that fewer people are truly listening to, paying attention to one another. I don’t guarantee that these habits will lead to success (whatever that means), but I do promise that developing these habits will assist you in becoming a person who lives more curiously and more fully human.

The acquisition of information and knowledge is only the first step in cultivating curiosity. What I have in mind is cultivating ways of knowing, modalities of thinking that enable us to makes sense of and better the world in which we live. There is, of course, nothing new in framing it this way. But others have shown is that this classic notion of curiosity risks falling by the wayside in favor of enabling superficiality and triviality, especially among those whose lives are engaged in the pursuit of technological advancement.

As the internet democratizes knowledge, making information available to billions of persons who otherwise would not have access to it, we must also remind ourselves that acquisition of information and knowledge constitute only the first step on the way to developing our human selves. What I am arguing for is the classically robust idea that to be curious means not only to ask what, who and when but, more importantly, why and how. Why and how constitute more challenging questions that resist easy answers most of the time, but asking these kinds of questions is what makes us human. They force us to engage mystery, not just puzzles.

I’d like to end where I began: sitting with the phone book. In my naivete, my explorations of phone books in our new homes was an important starting point on the journey to curiosity. It was my simple way of asking, Who lives here? What restaurants does this town have? When are they open? But I eventually came to see that there are more important ways of being curious, of asking: Why do these people live here and how did they come to be here? How do these restaurants help explain this town’s social and political life? What I didn’t realize in those young moments but see clearly now is this: The questions I was interested in weren’t really simply about gathering information about our new town. They were, rather, my own simplistic and childlike attempts to understand better who we were and who those around us were.

They were expressions of curiosity about what the new human experience our family had embarked upon was going to be like. And as we all know, finding a good Italian restaurant is essential to that.

Hibbard teaches courses in biblical studies, including both Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and New Testament. In addition, his courses regularly examine religious texts and practices from the ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman worlds. His courses are also interested in interpretive questions raised by the reader’s social location. He serves on a national steering committee for the Society of Biblical Literature and frequently teaches on Bible in local congregations. Prior to joining Detroit Mercy in 2011, he taught at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and the University of Notre Dame. Hibbard’s research focuses on the formation of the prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible and its role in the development of early Second Temple Judaism; early biblical interpretation, especially in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Septuagint; and the narrative literature of the Pentateuch. In 2006, he published Intertextuality in Isaiah 24-27 (Mohr Siebeck), an examination of the latter stages of the formation of the book of Isaiah. He co-edited two volumes published in 2013 and is working on a book examining the idea of salvation in Isaiah as a key to understanding the book’s development and meaning. Previously, he served as co-chair of the University Honors Program. He became the chair of the religious studies department in January 2019.

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