The motto of Harvard University at its founding was Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae, “Truth for Christ and the Church.” It has since been shorted to just Veritas, “Truth,” with the College realizing at some point that it looks bad to presuppose the existence of Christ and the preeminence of the Church before other ‘truths.’ After all, other ‘truths’ can be backed up with concrete evidence and play nicer with other prevalent world-views. I used to know what truth was, and then I came to Harvard.
Before coming here, truth to me was that the Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2001, and then I learned that winning and losing and the rules of football are constructs. Truth to me was Newton’s second law (F = ma), and then I learned it to be wrong if you look closely enough (thanks a lot, Einstein). Truth to me was that God, my creator, loves me more than I could ever imagine, and while I still hold this to be true, I no longer have an unshakeable belief in it, but rather a hopeful faith based on a jumble of emotional experiences, partially understood arguments, and decontextualized evidence from other thinkers that I am convinced by on occasion. So if I can’t know truth in these things, then what’s the point of looking? It’s easier instead to simply assert the truth of Christianity, to have faith, “confidence in what hope for and assurance about things unseen” (Heb. 11:1).
Yet the search for truth has been something by which I and many other Christians before me have understood and identified ourselves, as curious wanderers, as seekers of truth, as people that put the pursuit of understanding above the idea that we know anything with 100% certainty. We question whether there is anything more fundamental to our understanding of the world than our Christian worldview, and conclude that there must be. We identify ourselves as seekers of truth who have arrived at (as opposed to started from) the belief that Christianity is more true than other perspectives for understanding our place in the world. Yet the notion of being preeminently a person of faith and the labeling of oneself as first and foremost a seeker form a seemingly irreconcilable contradiction.
While this introduction may make this article sound epistemological in nature, it is not my intention to use it as a philosophical soapbox. Instead, I hope to use it as a space to explore myself and my own contradictions when it comes to my thinking about curiosity, briefly survey some historical perspectives on curiosity, and in the end hopefully have gained some semblance of understanding of what I mean when I call myself both one who seeks after truth and a follower of Christ.
I was born to a scientist and a doctor, and was introduced to the Church and Jesus before the time that I could walk. They are to date some of the smartest people that I have met in my life. My parents were both exceedingly committed Christians, with my father’s primary Christian ministry being the teaching of apologetics, the ‘rational defense of faith’. What this meant for me was that I knew a lot of answers to questions that I hadn’t thought to ask. Instead of learning Christianity as a faith with gaps of understanding, my belief in Christianity developed under a mode of thinking where all evidence that I encountered, properly understood, must point to God and to Christ. I could not conceive of evidence that could not be righted to point to God the creator, or of a truly rational mind that did not assent to Christ as the risen Lord and son of the living God.
I do not resent this being the start of my Christianity; indeed, I’m quite grateful for it. It strikes me that every Christian must begin their faith somewhere, and my own story has given me a wonderful position from which I can learn and grow. Yet, as with all points of view that we adopt early on in our learnings, this particular view of Christianity emphasized selected pieces of evidence and de-emphasized/ skimmed over other relevant facts. As I have grown older, I’ve encountered so many other ways of looking at the world; I’ve met friends that think there could be nothing less intellectual than to believe in God; I’ve met Christians that spurn rational thought about God, preferring only hold their encounters with God in the context of emotional experiences as truth; I’ve met completely normal and earnest Christians who swear to observe healing and interpret prophecy; I’ve met devout Muslims who live to serve God and encounter him through their prayers and intimate devotions. At the same time, I’ve met people who have been hurt and suppressed by the church and spurn it on emotional grounds. In essence, it’s clear to me that there are many other ways to live and many other ways to shape faith beyond the Christianity that I grew in. Acknowledging this diversity, it seems that there are two extremes to avoid.
The first extreme is feeling too comfortable in our current lives, to the point where we stop looking at what else is around us. For me (and I imagine many other Christians), the start of curiosity as it pertains to religious experience begins the moment that we open our eyes to the world around us and realize that human experience of God is much larger than our sheltered, sometimes hermetically sealed holy huddles. When we really give credit to the shared experiences of others and acknowledge the wideness of knowledge and divine encounter, the notion of blind faith seems inadequate, and to some extent woefully ignorant, not unlike an ostrich burying its head in the sand. We start to ask questions when we acknowledge that our experiences and thoughts, not purely objective reasoning, have lead us to our Christian beliefs. We begin to listen to our friends of other faiths without assuming a priori that they are interpreting their experiences incorrectly, but rather that their experiences are as valid as our own and worth our time to listen and to learn.
The second extreme, however, is that in encountering other viewpoints, it’s all to easy to throw away what we believed before, and fetishize acknowledgement of and disorientation within the wideness of the world. This extreme is dangerous for two primary reasons. First, it prevents one from learning, understanding, and operating in the world. In order to engage others and move bodies of knowledge forward, one has to be willing to build knowledge on other prior knowledge. In other words, greater understanding of God will happen through moving to understand, rather than distance ourselves from, the religious experiences of those who walked before us. Second, a life of constant searching is incredibly exhausting. To reject belief in the absolute in place of the search is to leave open the question of what one is worshipping. As stated by David Foster Wallace in his 2005 address to Kenyon College, “Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship”. To glorify the solo sojourn for truth is to be constantly shift between viewpoints and opinions on matters, unaware that this leaves us to worship idols unbeknownst to our conscious; sometime we worship accomplishment, sometimes our families, and in the worst case, ourselves.
We should seek, then, some appropriate balance between these extremes. And although every Christian must decide where they will land in the balance of inquiring further and accepting what is already believed, Leslie Newbigin brilliantly captures what I believe to be the essence of this balance:
[It has been suggested] that a claim to absolute truth must be oppressive… The claim of the Christian community is that in Jesus the absolute truth has been made present amid the relativities of human cultures, and that the form which this truth took was not that of dominance and imperial power but that of one… whose power was manifest in weakness and suffering… The Church thus does not claim to possess absolute truth: it claims to know where to point for guidance… for the common search for truth. (Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, pg. 163)
The essence of being curious and faithful is to not approach interactions as though we possess the truth, but rather that we know where to look in order to find it. In other words, the essence of Christian curiosity is to ask many questions, but to ask with a lens of humility rather than critique. And humility, in turn, reorients our relationship to knowledge, turning it into something that we desire in order to know God, his creation, and ourselves better, rather than something that defines us, grants us power over others, and gives us meaning apart from our creator. Knowledge is thus properly interpreted when we understand the essence underlying truth that governs knowledge’s existence.
Many biblical passages speak to the significance of humble searching in the Christian life as well. To give a few examples, in Proverbs 25:2, King Solomon writes, “It is the glory of God to conceal things; but the glory of kings is to search things out.” In Psalm 131:1, David writes, “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with thing too great and too marvelous for me.” Scripture emphasizes that it is both our glory to search out the mysteries that God has created for us and our responsibility to humble ourselves and acknowledge that there are many things that we will not understand, that are too great and marvelous for us. We should seek knowledge because it is good and pure, but not because we think it can be possessed or define us or give us meaning.
To close: the resolution of the apparent contradiction between faith and seeking comes not from intellectual dishonesty of the mind, but rather a humility of the heart. Seeking comes to complement rather than contrast faith when it acknowledges the finiteness and uniqueness of our individual positions, and accepts our instincts and experiences as good a starting place as any for the search for truth. We acknowledge that if Christianity is true, then there are things too great and marvelous for us to understand, and yet it is our responsibility and perhaps our created duty to search and understand things. We may “know” that F != ma, or that the rules of football are constructed, but humility exhorts us to listen carefully when others advance those ideas that we deem to be wrong or useless; we might just learn something that we didn’t know about each other, or even about God. Humility does not preclude us in our search from trying on other ways of looking at the world (indeed it encourages it!). Instead, it moves us to think more of others and their experiences, listen quickly, and in the end, loves others as Christ did. Above Dexter Gate at the south edge of Harvard Yard, the text exhorts travelers to “Enter to grow in wisdom, depart to serve better they country and thy kind”. May that humility transform our experience of “Truth” at Harvard, that we might better serve our country, each other, and our God
One thing have I asked of the Lord,
that I will seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord,
and to inquire in his temple.
Daniel Yue ’16 was a Physics concentrator in Lowell House.