FMBR Editorial: Jan, 1998
Fear and Curiosity
One of the major driving forces of humanity is the duality of fear and curiosity. Their combined effects have been dominant elements in the evolution of cultures, and remain major determinants of individual and societal behavior at both the conscious and unconscious levels. What are we afraid of, and what are we curious about? We fear chaos but we are also curious about it. We fear the unknown, but we also want to make its mysteries known. This polarization is, I think, of profound importance to us as individuals and to humanity in general.
Some would say that this ignores the power of love love of another, of our families, our communities and nation, and ultimately, at least among Christians, of Jesus and God. I do not deny love. However, I would argue it, too, is rooted in fear and curiosity. On the mundane level, one of the motives behind the need for relationship is a fear of isolation and aloneness. On the transcendent level, we fear finding a world in which we are nothing more than incidental trivialities. This possibility threatens a terrible, and terrifying isolation. It is, I think, what Kierkegaard meant by existential despair. On the other side, there is the desire to discover what it is to receive Gods Grace and so to find a reality far beyond the normal world. This is curiosity at a very high level.
The growth from the earliest hunting-gathering cultures to modern civilizations has been largely driven by fear. Agrarian cultures began as a way to avoid the desperation of a failure of both the hunt and the search for food. But agriculture meant storing food, and so invited human predation. Walled villages and cities emerged as an answer to this fear. From similar needs for protection against all manners of perceived threats, the nation-state and, later, modern nations emerge. That this threat is still with us is evident in the investment all nations still make in armaments and defense. (Cf. Jared Diamond, in Guns, Germs and Steel; The Fates of Human Societies, W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 1997.) The reality of modern international relations makes it clear that fear of predation by hostile nations is still very much with us.
A curious fact emerging from this view is the imbalance between fear and curiosity on the social level. It seems clear that cultures and the institutions implementing them are mainly driven by the fear side. Armaments and the defense establishments are one example. Corporations, with the emphasis they put on competition and other elements of economic and political force are another. Historically, governments and other organizations have very largely focused on controlling curiosity. Some of this has been overt, much covert. They have been afraid of the curiosity they cannot control. On the other hand, curiosity has been a creative force for individuals. Fortunately, there have always been some with an irrepressible curiosity and the courage to pursue it despite the forces arraigned against them.
In the interplay of fear and curiosity we see the whole range of individual and collective behavior past, present and possible future. In it are both the seed of most of the present troubles of the world and the hope of the future. It provides no guarantee. Fear can be realistic and curiosity can be destructive. What is needed is an emphisis on a curiosity that centers on the higher truth.