Holy Curiosity
An address to the Calvin Alumni Heritage Class

by Scott Hoezee '86 MDiv '90

bee on flower

My daughter will be a freshman at Calvin this fall and when she begins her studies here, I hope she will be encouraged to continue something that I know she has had pretty much all her life. I can illustrate what that “something” is through a little story of what I observed quite a few years ago when she was still in elementary school. One afternoon as I was peering into our backyard, I noticed her standing in rapt fascination near one of our flower beds. For the longest time she stood there and stared, so finally I went to see what had so arrested her attention.

It turned out that she was watching the bees. One kind of flower in that garden was cup-shaped such that these big, fat bumble bees could actually crawl all the way inside the blossom, completely disappearing from view for a few seconds—you knew they were in there, though, because the whole blossom would vibrate with their hidden buzzing. Then the bees would emerge covered with a ridiculous amount of yellow pollen—they looked like small cookies that had been dusted with a little too much confectioner’s sugar! Weighed down with what must have been a relatively heavy load of pollen, the bees would then take off like some overloaded jetliner, lumbering through the air and back to the hive. All in all it was a spectacle that was both fun and fascinating. It certainly grabbed my little girl’s attention for a good while.

All of us who are parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts, know that children are born curious. Anthills, flowering shrubs, tide pools and daisies provide kids with long moments of intrigue and wonder. They really are born this way, such that when you meet an incurious adult—someone who is bored with mountains and who speeds through a national park’s scenic drive at 50 miles per hour—you’re seeing damaged goods. Something natural got quashed in such a person at some point, maybe through the harsh words of an impatient adult who believed that life is too short to stop and smell the roses.

When you think of God, what kinds of images come to mind? Maybe you picture God on a majestic throne, radiant in resplendent glory and seated high above the universe. Maybe you picture an incessantly busy divine figure who is a holy blur of activity in superintending this vast cosmos. And those images are no doubt accurate as far as they go. But for me, when I saw my daughter standing stock-still in rapt attention watching those funny bees coat themselves with pollen, I saw a glimpse of God.

I’ve gone through seminary and read a lot of theology books and articles over the years. But rarely, if ever, in reading such books do you encounter curiosity as a theological category. God is described as the embodiment of justice and as the font of all good things. God is described as omnipresent and also as all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful. But God is rarely described as being all-curious. But maybe He should be.

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. Genesis 1:31

Because of all the things we can learn from Genesis 1 in the Bible, one thing is abundantly clear: God adored the creation he made. God stared and stared and stared at the variety of fish he made to live on coral reefs. He sat for long stretches and peered into the tide pools he had fashioned. He delighted in the wild variety of chirps and whistles and calls that came from the multi-colored birds with which he blackened the skies. As Walter Brueggemann has pointed out, when in Genesis 1 we read again and again “And God saw all that He had made and said it was very good,” the sense of the Hebrew is more along the lines of “When God saw all that He had made, He found it to be just gorgeous!”

This year you are focusing on the theme of student and faculty research. This topic covers most every department on campus, of course, but when we think about research, probably the various fields of science are what come to mind first because it is science that leads the way in helping us to maintain and to exercise our God-given curiosity. We want to know what’s up there, what’s down there, what’s in there, so we do research to find the answers to these utterly human—yet utterly divine—questions of curiosity.

When we are enthusiastic learners and researchers, we look like God. We human beings created in the image of God are the only beings we know of who love to learn. Just visit the Hekman Library—it is chock-full of books that catalog every conceivable kind of prairie grass, tropical fish, song bird and rock. Almost all other creatures in this world learn only what they need to survive. But not us. We are curious about things that have nothing to do with our survival. We don’t need to understand the composition of beach sand to survive. Knowing about the differences between a Summer Tanager and a Scarlet Tanager does not put food on our tables nor protect us from harm. Yet we want to know. And it’s the spark of God, the image of God, in us that makes us this way.

The scientist and author E.O. Wilson does not believe in God and finds people who do believe in God to be a bit silly. Yet, he has spent his life studying the habits of the leafcutter ant. And in a radio interview recently, he admitted that having spent so much time watching these ants, he has fallen in love with them. Wilson doesn’t know it, but it’s the spark of the God he doesn’t believe in that makes him able to study creatures who have no interest in us. Ants don’t study people, but people study ants because God has equipped us with the ability to do just such things.

That’s why the people of God have always celebrated learning. That’s why our Reformed tradition has likewise recognized that the Book of Creation is as fine a book to read and research as the Book of Scripture. Both are books of revelation given to us by God. Both reveal God to us and so are gifts to savor and to explore.

We usually think of the word “disciple” as meaning “follower,” and in a sense that’s true. But the original word used in the New Testament for “disciple” really means “student.” The original disciples hooked up with Jesus not merely to tag along behind him to see what might happen next; no, they apprenticed themselves to Jesus because they sensed that he was an interesting rabbi at whose feet they dearly desired to learn the great things he would impart to them. In fact, it can fairly be said that just such learning is itself an act of love.

When you love someone, you delight in teaching that beloved one all that is important in life. So in the Bible, a God of grace invites you to learn and learn and learn so that you can get along well in this world and so that you can find out more and more about who God is and the things that bring even God delight.

We often think of a place like Calvin College as a repository of knowledge, as a place that stores and warehouses facts and history and then doles out that stored-up data to students as they pass through. But as a fine representative of our Reformed heritage, Calvin is a far more exciting place than merely a knowledge warehouse. We’re not merely handing out to our students knowledge that was squirreled away long ago. We are constantly researching God’s cosmos to find more and more new ideas, new pieces of knowledge, new vistas of insight and then dispensing all that new learning to the students, whose curiosity we are so eager to maintain and deepen.

In one sense you could think that the topic of student and faculty research sounds rather dry and academic. But it’s not! As we’ve noted these last few minutes, when we take loving note of the world in which we live— when we stare into tide pools, learn about history, delve into the wonderful complexities of math and science, learn about the power of words, celebrate the joy of art, exercise our imaginations in the reading of great poetry— we allow the image of God in us to flourish and sing.

Recently I was reminded of something that G.K. Chesterton wrote more than 100 years ago. Chesterton suggested that God so thoroughly delights in creation as to be almost child-like himself. Chesterton wrote, “Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, they want things repeated and unchanged. ‘Do it again’ they always say, and the grown-up person does it again and again and again until he is nearly dead. Grown-ups are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun and every evening says ‘Do it again’ to the moon. And maybe the reason God makes all daisies alike is because although he makes every daisy separately, he never gets tired of making them. It may be that God has the eternal appetite of infancy.”*

God never tires of learning, of staring at the same tree, the same flower, the same creation so as to learn more, and to learn over and again, all that is in this vast and intricate and fascinating world. A great Christian thinker once said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” What a gift it is to be alive to all the wonders we can learn about in God’s world and through God’s Word.

It is said that after he left the White House, President Harry Truman used to take a long walk around Independence, Mo., every morning. A friend would often accompany Truman and noticed that each day Truman walked over to a gingko tree and seemed to say something to the tree. Finally the friend asked, “Mr. President, what do you say to that tree each day?” And Truman replied, “I say, ‘You’re doing a good job.’” It’s a funny little story, yet it’s rich with the kind of joy we can all take in God’s good handiwork.

By God’s grace, there are so very many reasons to be grateful for a place like Calvin College. But for me one of the most exciting and energizing reasons to be enthusiastic about Calvin is the research that goes on here— research that is fueled by the dual beliefs that God has made a great big universe of wonders and that God has further equipped us to explore all that grandeur. Four years from now when, the Lord willing, my daughter graduates from Calvin, I hope I can still see in her eyes the same twinkle of curiosity she flashed at me when she looked up from those silly bumble bees all those childhood years ago.

Scott Hoezee is the director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.

* Chesterton, G.K. Orthodoxy (New York: Mead, Dodd & Co., 1908), Chapter IX (available at the Calvin Ethereal Library site).