The Fellowship of the Curious

August 30, 2023 2 Comments

The Fellowship of the Curious

 Curiosity. Signed 'Horatio H. Couldery, 1893 (Wiki Commons)

 A.J. Culp

I once served in a unique role at a large church. The role was called Pastor & Director of Theological Training, and I was responsible for education across the three spheres of church life: the members, the volunteers, and the staff. Since this was a church with membership exceeding 2,300—plus many more who weren’t members—the role offered opportunities unimaginable to most pastors and theological educators. It is rather interesting, therefore, that the most meaningful aspect of my work there would come from something that can thrive in nearly any church anywhere, but rarely does.   

Upon my arrival, I learned that I had inherited leadership responsibilities for a fledgling contingent that called itself ‘The Theology Group’. I didn’t even know the group existed until then. When it was described to me, it sounded a little like the Island of Misfit Toys. Its membership was a collection of characters—a farmer, a neuropsychologist, a maintenance man, a librarian, etc.—united by the desire to read and discuss real theology books. By ‘real’ it seemed they meant books that were demanding and invigorating, books that opened new vistas on life and faith—books that the rest of the church, including the leadership, weren’t reading. Their discussions, I was told, would often spill out into the parking lot and last into the wee hours of the morning.

Truth be told, I wasn’t sure what to make of this group. I secretly wondered whether, if adequately neglected, it might just dissolve. But that’s not what happened. I would soon learn that these people weren’t there for appearances. They weren’t there to boost their social standing. They came because they hungered and thirsted for God in a way that was not sated elsewhere. As it turned out, they would prove to be the opposite of the Corinthians and the recipients of Hebrews: they were living on milk but craved meat.  

And so they read Lesslie Newbigin’s The Open Secret, Timothy George’s Theology of the Reformers, and Robert Letham’s Union With Christ and The Holy Trinity. We read Richard Bauckham’s Who is God? and Gordon Wenham’s The Psalter Reclaimed. There were rabbit trails, of course. But there were also moments of revelation. I remember seeing tears in men’s eyes as they considered, for the first time, the radical mercy of God in Exodus 32-34, a text central to Judaism but strangely ancillary to much of Christian teaching. And I remember a woman asking, in a mixture of exasperation and delight, why she was only now hearing about the messianic shaping of the Psalter, a text favoured by the Apostles and New Testament writers in showing Jesus as the Messiah.

In time, I would learn that this sort of group existed elsewhere. And that wherever it existed it seemed to dwell awkwardly within the worshipping community. Sometimes it was simply tolerated; sometimes it was treated like an unpopular cousin who had come to visit; and other times it was treated like a rebel group. I began to wonder why this was so.

From my own experience and from what others have shared with me, there is one element that has come up time and again: an unease with curiosity. The groups I’m familiar with are characterised by curiosity, by question-asking, but in each case this is precisely what seems to unsettle their church leaders.

Now, there are all manner of situations in which question-asking is inappropriate, even subversive. But what surprised me was the assumption, in general, that curiosity is not a disposition fit for worshipping communities. I began to wonder where this comes from.

The thing that I’ve observed is more particular than a ‘curiosity killed the cat’ concern that poking one’s nose in where it doesn’t belong can have disastrous consequences. It is, for lack of a better term, a theological unease with curiosity. It seems to assume that curiosity and question-asking is inappropriate within the worshipping community. Here I do not mean the misuse of theology—that is, when church leaders suppress questions by characterising them as acts of spiritual insubordination. That’s a whole other kettle of fish! Rather, here I mean the idea that curiosity is fine in fields like botany and biology, but not in Christian education and formation.

Perhaps this unease comes from the merging of multiple streams (personal, cultural, ecclesiological, theological, etc.). Even if this is the case, one of the major tributaries, it seems to me, is the common view of education as that of ‘the sage on the stage’: an expert who stands at the front and delivers content to the pupils. In Christian circles, this view has proven especially durable, due in large part to its similarity to scenes of divine revelation and education from Scripture: God appearing to Moses on Mt Sinai, so that Moses might in turn teach the people; at the sermon on the mount, Jesus teaching his disciples so that they might in turn teach others. These portray the structure of education literally as top-down, and many have taken this structure as normative for education in general.

What many people do not realise, however, is that this represents only one side of Scripture’s educational coin. We might call it the salvation history side. Here revelation comes via the magnalia dei—the magnificent signs, wonders, and voice of God; and education, in turn, comes through people rehearsing and expositing these. Deuteronomy 6 is an exemplary text in this tradition. But there is another side to the coin: the wisdom side. Here revelation—that is, knowledge of God and his ways—comes via the exploration of creation. In the biblical worldview, creation is not just a brute fact, but a gift of God designed to be explored and discovered (see Proverbs 25:2). Proverbs 8, with its depiction of Woman Wisdom, is an exemplary text in this tradition:

When [YHWH] inscribed the foundations of the earth,
I was beside him growing up.
I was his delight day by day,
playing before him every moment,
playing in his inhabited world,
my delighting in the offspring of adam (Proverbs 8:29b-31)[1]


As William Brown notes, this passage is profound in at least two ways.[2] Firstly, it portrays the ideal wisdom seeker not as a solemn man lost in contemplation, but as a little girl delighting and playing. Secondly, it portrays creation not as an alien and dangerous place, but as a ‘playhouse’.

The resulting picture is extraordinary. Creation is God’s playhouse, designed for his children, and he invites them to ‘Come in and know me better!’[3] They do so by exploring creation from the perspective of holy wonder, of curiosity born of awe and delight in God’s handiwork. And, as Brown points out, this is nothing less than an act of worship, for the word pair that characterises Wisdom’s activity—‘delight’ and ‘play’—appears in Scripture only in contexts of worship.[4] 

It’s hardly surprising, then, that we find these ideas taken up and developed in the New Testament. Here Jesus is identified as Wisdom incarnate, that is, as the true and final form of Wisdom from Proverbs 8 (e.g., Colossians 1:15–18; 2:3; 1 Corinthians 1:30).

As the New Testament makes clear, however, we come to know Jesus not by splitting revelation and wisdom, but by seeing them as twin threads of a single cord. It means seeing, in the person of Christ, both the Word of God (John 1:1–3, 14) and the Wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:18–25). Yet to recognise this is not to discover something new; it is, instead, to uncover something very old, even primordial—something that begins at the very beginning: ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth’ (Genesis 1:1).  The element that sets the creation account in Genesis apart from all other Ancient Near East (ANE) accounts is not that God created, but how God created. ‘And God said, “Let there be…”’. All of creation is born of words, divine words, and this simple but profound reality sets the biblical worldview on a radically unique trajectory.

What this means is that creation is not random but intentional, not meaningless but meaningful. Because creation is born of and sustained by words, it quite literally has logic: it has order and can therefore be systematically explored. But it means more than this. The English word ‘logic’ comes from the Greek term for ‘word’ (logos), and this points to the fuller sense of the idea. Creation is not merely orderly; it is also meaningful. Even though voiceless, it still speaks (Psalm 19:1–4). As scholars have pointed out, this idea was central, even necessary, to the rise of scientific inquiry.[5] Without it, creation is just a brute fact.

It is not incidental that the Gospel of John, in articulating the identity of Christ, merges these elements: creation, wisdom, and word (logos):

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. (John 1:1–3).

Here, then, we find a profound meditation on creation, wisdom, and revelation. What it shows is that Christians encounter the Word of God in two interwoven ways: not only through the mighty acts of God in history (magnalia dei), but also through holy wonder. Whether it’s marvelling at the goodness of a gesture, the beauty of a stained-glass window, or the truth of a book—holy wonder creates an encounter with the logos of creation.

If this is true, then holy wonder is essential for our worshipping communities, and cultivating it should be a first-order priority.[6] There is, no doubt, a wide variety of ways to do this. But one such way is to encourage groups like the ones we’ve discussed here. Thankfully, this doesn’t require creating something entirely new, for the basic impulse of holy wonder exists nearly everywhere. What it does require, though, is the building of a trellis on which basic curiosity can grow into something sacred. In my case, the group already existed. I simply tried to help orient it toward holy wonder by crystallising its mission and vision statements, and by giving it a fitting name: The Fellowship of the Curious.

Rev Dr A. J. Culp is Dean of Studies at New College, and Assistant Director of CASE.


[1] Translation by William Brown, Wisdom’s Wonder: Character, Creation, and Crisis in the Bible’s Wisdom Literature (Eerdmans, 2014), p51.

[2] William Brown, The Ethos of the Cosmos: The Genesis of the Moral Imagination in the Bible (Eerdmans, 1999), pp271-280.

[3] This comes from the Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.

[4] Brown, Ethos, pp278-279. See also Bruce Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: 1–15 (Eerdmans, 2004), pp421-422.

[5] For a wonderful account of this, see Vishal Mangalwadi, The Book that Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization (Thomas Nelson, 2011).

[6] I’ve developed this idea further in A.J. Culp, ‘In My Father's House: The Place of Wonder in Proverbs' Vision of Education’. Les Ball & Peter G. Bolt (eds.), Wondering About God Together: Research-Led Learning & Teaching in Theological Education (SCD Press, 2018), pp254-269.

2 Responses

Blake Orr
Blake Orr

September 29, 2023

I have missed your wit and wisdom, my brother!


September 29, 2023


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