This year’s lectionary readings for the matriculation service at the seminary where I teach were rather curious. They were from Psalm 90 (“You return man to dust and say, ‘Return, O children of man!’”), Ecclesiastes 1 (“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity”), and Luke 9 (“Herod said, ‘John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?’ And he sought to see him”). For encouragement at the outset of the seminarians' studies, one would think almost any other passage might have done better than these.
There’s no denying the sobering character of these Scripture readings. The Preacher of Ecclesiastes, in particular, seems determined to undermine even the most committed novice: All of our work is hevel, vanity; it’s a puff of wind, fragile, empty, insubstantial. The academic curriculum is crammed with books—words upon words. And the Preacher reminds us, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (12:12).
Why does the Preacher claim it is a wearisome thing to devote ourselves to our studies? Because no matter how much knowledge we cram into our brains, they never fill up: “The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing” (1:8). Our eyes turn page after page, our ears take in lecture upon lecture; yet satisfaction escapes us. In the end, it is all more of the same—been there, done that. “Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’?” (1:10). The Preacher seems to undermine his students’ insatiable appetite for knowledge.
Ecclesiastes questions one of our most dearly held cultural assumptions: that curiosity is a good thing. Curiosity is a vice, not a virtue. 1 John 2:16 speaks of three kinds of worldly love: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. Saint Augustine, in his Confessions, identifies the second of these, the lust of the eyes, as curiosity. Why? Because seeing and knowing are one and the same. The African bishop laments our “lust for experimenting and knowing.” “To satisfy this diseased craving,” he comments,
outrageous sights are staged in public shows. The same motive is at work when people study the operations of nature which lie beyond our grasp, when there is no advantage in knowing and the investigators simply desire knowledge for its own sake. . . . Even in religion itself the motive is seen when God is “tempted” by demands for “signs and wonders” (John 4:48) desired not for any salvific end but only for the thrill (Conf. 10.35.55).
“Even in religion,” says Augustine. Even theological studies are not immune to the vice of curiosity.
King Herod, in Luke 9, raises an excellent question: “Who is he?” This is the first and foremost question for every theology student. It is not the question itself that’s the problem, it is the curiosity with which Herod raises it. This should hardly surprise us. Herod, after all, was not a particularly virtuous person: He lived with Herodias, his brother’s wife, and when John the Baptist dared raise a question about it, the king served his head on a platter. Herod was driven more by vice than by virtue.
Still, he engages in theological inquiry. People are speculating about who Jesus is. Herod, we read, is “perplexed” by the question (Luke 9:7). Could John have risen from the dead? Could this be Elijah? Or could one of the prophets of old have arisen? No matter how wicked a person, Herod remains a theology student. He wants to know who Jesus is, and so he seeks to see him (9:9).
Herod gives curiosity free rein. His perplexity endures to the end, when Pilate sends Jesus off to Herod. We read in chapter 23, “When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had long desired to see him, because he had heard about him, and he was hoping to see some sign done by him” (23:8).
Herod’s desire is to see Jesus. Sadly, he is merely curious. He has fallen into the empirical trap of the “lust of the eyes.” His hope of seeing a sign done by Jesus cannot but remind us of Augustine’s claim that even in religion itself curiosity shows up when we seek knowledge for its own sake as we look for “signs and wonders” only for the thrill. Herod sees Jesus, and yet he still treats him with contempt, mocks him, and arrays him in gorgeous apparel (Luke 23:11). Herod’s question, “Who is this?” stems from curiosity. He is not a genuine student.
Jesus takes up the Herodian question. “Who do the crowds say that I am?” (9:18), he asks his disciples. They respond with the various options mentioned earlier—John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets of old. “But who do you say that I am?” Always eager, with his hand up first, Peter responds: “The Christ of God” (9:20). Both Herod and Peter may have matriculated. But only Peter knows how to tackle the question.
Let’s return to the Preacher’s question: “Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’? The question may seem rhetorical. No, would be the obvious answer. There is nothing new under the sun. A resigned weariness in studying and working would seem inevitable.
And yet the Book of Lamentations holds out the gospel, in the midst of Jerusalem’s ruins: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness” (Lam. 3:23). The Prophet Isaiah holds out the gospel, promising an end to all exile: “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isa. 43:19). John the Seer holds out the gospel when he sees “a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away” (Rev. 21:1).
There is a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new.” The new thing is the gospel. The new thing is Jesus, the Christ of God. The new thing is the Spirit of Pentecost. The new thing is the church. The new thing is the kingdom of God. Indeed, the entire curriculum of the new covenant is packed with new things.
Immediately before discussing the vice of curiosity in the Summa Theologiae, Saint Thomas Aquinas deals with the topic of studiousness (ST II-II, q. 166). He treats curiosity as a vice but regards studiousness as a virtue. In other words, it is not knowledge per se, but the immoderate or otherwise wrongful pursuit of knowledge that is the problem. Borrowing the language of Ecclesiastes: Recognition of the gospel as new distinguishes studiousness from curiosity.
Vigilance is required for those wishing to be students of new things, for Herod’s approach is easier than Peter’s and curiosity easier than studiousness. Curiosity is the lustful pursuit of the pleasures of the eyes; studiousness the sacrificial pursuit of things that are unseen (cf. 2 Cor. 4:18). Both Herod’s and Peter’s approaches to knowledge are open to students of Jesus. We are called daily to engage in the fight against curiosity as we explore ever more deeply the one question that truly matters: “Who do you say that I am?”
Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Professor in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.