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Jesus, the Learner

The season of Epiphany has me thinking about curiosity. In my twenties, I lived for the moments of revelation that came pouring out of great books. I chewed through volumes of Lewis, Chesterton, Berry, Merton, and Schaeffer, awaiting supernovas of understanding like an addict filing coins into a slot machine, itching for the payoff. I still love those feelings of sudden comprehension, but anymore, the worship therein smacks somewhat of Gnosticism. In part, it’s my hand stretching after knowledge-fruit. Epiphany is a revelation, but it’s at God’s prerogative. Not to disparage the undeniable value of careful study, but no matter in what sense the Wise Men were wise, Epiphany is specifically the Lord’s choice, not the direct result of anyone’s erudition. These thoughts and the on-again-off-again homeschooling of the pandemic have made me wonder: what is the place for curiosity within the Kingdom of Christ?

My eleven-year-old is good at wanting to know everything, and she’s not alone. Most of us carry around little mental satchels of unanswered queries. We await an audience with one who knows, be that the Lord or someone in a position of expertise. Putting God in the dock seems to be something of a human pastime. Not only did C. S. Lewis title an essay thus, but his majestic novel Till We Have Faces also pits the heroine against a god in a final courtroom scene. Beyond Lewis, personal deconstruction is normative enough that we have a social lexicon for it. We seek God’s answers—directly or indirectly—in philosophical proofs, in archeology, in geology, in physics, and in our own introspection. We value books like Mere Christianity and The Everlasting Man. For myself, I plan to pin God to the wall about dinosaurs after I die. Are they dragons? Are they really old or somewhat new? Couldn’t we have had some good info-graphs in Genesis? Why couldn’t Moses have written something more like a Popular Mechanics article, quick and brightly-colored?

Though I remain quite fact-obsessed, I feel increasingly disabused of the notion that God will reveal everything to me upon my death. Paul’s promise to the Corinthians that at some juncture, we who are in Christ “shall know fully, even as [we are] fully known” seems more about being one with the Lord than about possessing all knowledge (I Cor. 13:12). I don’t expect the Father to be handing out study sheets on brontosaurus at the resurrection. I do long, though, for a more complete picture of holy curiosity. Whatever else it may be, curiosity is a virtue, because our Lord came as a child.

Precious little narrative exists regarding the childhood of Jesus. Some fragments from outside the scriptural canon consist of miraculous stories more like the movie Brightburn than the Gospel accounts: Jesus is a powerful, vengeful pre-adolescent, killing and resurrecting his playmates by turn and bringing clay animals to life on the Sabbath to the chagrin of his neighbors. Much of this is easily dismissed by his community’s incredulity at him in Luke, chapter four. “News about him spread,” records the good doctor. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” say the crowds. If they had grown up around a young miracle-dispenser, his authority and power would have come as no surprise.

Thinking of Jesus as curious is dangerous, I suppose. Curiosity is tied inextricably to ignorance, and we don’t like thinking of the Son of God as ignorant. Jesus’ potential curiosity as a child—or as an adult—leaves us writhing amid the fully-God-fully-man debate, a mystery, to be sure. Tacit implications of Jesus growing “in wisdom and in stature” (Luke 2:52) make us squirm. Was there some point when he, the Lord, was not responsible for his actions? What does it mean for the God-man to learn obedience (Isaiah 7:15-16)? To actually be once-young?

Epiphany is a revelation, but it’s at God’s prerogative. Adam Whipple

We can know that curiosity can be sanctified. The biblical narrative begins with both sides of curiosity present, the worshipful and the idolatrous. The man Adam names animals he has never seen. He and the woman Eve work the Garden, new to the endless peculiarities each plant has to offer, left in wonder at tastes and colors which no one has yet described. Yet they also eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, partaking of understanding which was not theirs to wield. “The woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye…” (Gen. 3:6). You can practically see the pendulous drupe glistening dew-flecked in dappled light. It honestly makes me long for a taste just thinking about it. Without getting too deep into a controversial passage, that picture is one of curiosity—curiosity where it should have been tempered by truth and humility. It is the same curiosity that plays a part in leading a child to steal a brightly colored packet of candy, or in leading a man to steal another glance at a woman not his wife.

However, broken curiosity obviously isn’t a proper representation of all curiosity. I’m glad for Isaiah’s insinuation that Jesus had a naturally burgeoning body of human knowledge. In the midst of the oft-referenced prophecy about the virgin birth is an interesting little gem:

The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. —Isaiah 7:14-16

Before he knows enough. Before he knows how to reject the wrong and choose right. Jesus’ perfection and wisdom are more complicated than I like to let myself believe.

So what about my curiosity and my questions? How does hypostatic union really work? What happens when one passes the light-speed barrier? What is the actual role of man’s sub-salvific agency in accepting grace? How do the imputed guilt of Adam and the sinlessness of Jesus relate? And most importantly, was the story of Saint George and the dragon a tall tale, or did it involve a Spinosaurus aegyptiacus?

There are people who have attempted to answer these questions, but I always feel dissatisfied with their explanations. Whenever we verge upon the mystical, earth-bound logic must give way. I believe it was Michael Card, at a conference or breakout session, who at one time mentioned a professor of his who had the audacity to answer some questions with “I don’t know.” He also mentioned how good it felt to hear the man say that. I’ve listened to a lot of R. C. Sproul, and I can vouch for my own relief, once in a blue moon, to hear the good doctor say that he didn’t know something. Personally, I’m great at lecturing my children, but I try to remember, when I don’t know an answer, to let them in on my limitations. It reminds me of one of my more favorite verses. Remember that “for such a time as this” conversation between Mordecai and Esther (Esth. 4:14)? Mordecai entreats his cousin to help prevent genocide:

“Who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?”

My favorite part—the part often left out of t-shirt designs and song lyrics—is the “who knows.” I hear it in the voice of Chaim Topol’s Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof (1971), and I’m so glad it’s in the Bible. For one thing, it makes Esther less the American-style savior of her people and more a servant of the Lord, a servant whose only role within God’s sovereignty is plain obedience. In times of televangelists and cult personalities who imply, apparently, that they get emails from the Lord, admissions of proper human limitation definitely sound virtuous to me. Who knows?

I don’t know if the Lord will ever tell me everything, but I do know that he has given, does give, and will give me Himself in Jesus. Personally, I like to think of God answering my jabbering queries with nothing but a twinkling eye and a wry little smile. Maybe he’ll tell me a tiny bit about velociraptors, too.

To tell the truth, I don’t know.


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