Shortly before his death, Sir Isaac Newton, one of the most brilliant minds in all science and mathematics, declared: “I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy, playing on the seashore, and diverting myself, in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” (World of Mathematics, Vol. I, p. 271.)
Here this great scientist who developed calculus, a theory of gravity and laws of motion, describes all his discoveries as smooth pebbles or pretty shells compared to all that remained undiscovered and unknown.
A Calvin and Hobbes cartoon that I often use to illustrate this idea shows six-year-old Calvin and his best friend a tiger named Hobbes digging for treasure. As Calvin finds himself deeper and deeper in a pit, Calvin tells Hobbs that he found disgusting grubs and even a tree root. He exclaims “There’s treasure everywhere!”
I believe, with Calvin, that truly there is treasure everywhere. The question is whether we will have eyes, minds and hearts open to experience it.
The following prayer from the Jewish prayerbook, Gates of Prayer, expresses this powerfully:
Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles. Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing; let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk.
Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed.
And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder:
How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it!
Blessed is the Eternal One, the holy God! (Gates of Prayer p. 170.)
I love to use this magnificent prayer to begin looking at awe and wonder. It speaks of the burning bush and God’s creation of man (adam) from soil (adamah) our being clay touched by God — what a marvelous way to view ourselves! There is a third Biblical allusion, not as familiar.
It comes from Genesis 28, where Jacob awakens from his dream and declares “How filled with awe is this place, and I did not know it!” Which leads to the question “If this place was filled with awe and he did not know it, might not other places be filled with unrecognized awe?” Indeed, I believe that all of creation is filled with awe. God is present in all of creation. All creation is the handiwork of God’s love and goodness. But all too often, “we walk sightless among miracles” and miss out on so much.
Awe is a vital dimension of faith and life, but how often we ignore it. Without awe, life becomes flat and people become hollow. God has made us part of a world filled with mystery. Awe is a response to mystery — events, objects or experiences which speak to us of meaning that is grander, deeper or richer than can be fully comprehended.
Mystery is not a problem or riddle to be solved. With mystery, the more we learn, the more we realize how much more there is that we don’t know. Mystery inspires awe, which invites us to enter into mystery and celebrate the wonder that is all around us. While there may be a strong emotional component to awe, awe is more than emotional. It can and usually does involve intellect, will and indeed one’s whole being — even our posture as we speak of “standing in awe.” Mystery should be distinguished from puzzles, riddles and problems.
When is a riddle is answered or a puzzle worked out, that’s all there is to it. The only thing left to do is to share it with someone else. When a problem is solved, it is time to move on. Mystery, while it can be understood more and more deeply, is never fully answered or solved. The more you learn about it, the more you realize it has depths you will never fully plumb. Mystery draws us in, inviting us to participate in the mystery, rather than solving it. Mystery can become a permanent focus, rather than a temporary interest or concern.
Sometimes, as part of a Eucharistic prayer, Christians will pray:
Let us proclaim the mystery of faith:
Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.
In calling this a mystery, we are not saying that it is a problem to be solved, or difficulty to be figured out. We are saying that, while on some levels we understand what each sentence means, we recognize that no one can truly understand the full significance of the realities they express. Jesus’ death and resurrection and his coming again to bring to fulfillment all of God’s promises and purposes for us and for all creation — there will always be far more to these realities than we can ever understand, but we seek to know them more fully and allow our lives to be shaped by them. The deepest mysteries inspire the deepest awe.
Of course, in practice, it can initially be difficult to distinguish between a mystery and a problem or puzzle. What may appear to be a deep mystery can turn out to be a problem that can be fully solved and closed. Or what appears to be a simple problem may open up into genuine mystery.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, the theologian who seems to me to have the most developed understanding of awe, writes:
Awe, in this sense, is more than an emotion; it is a way of understanding. Awe is itself an act of insight into meaning greater than ourselves. The meaning of awe is to realize that life takes place under wide horizons, horizons that range beyond the span of an individual life or even the life of a nation, a generation, or an era. Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple. (God in Search of Man, pp. 74-75)
Because awe is a response to that which is greater than ourselves, we cannot make ourselves experience awe. Therefore, it is inaccurate to speak of “recapturing awe.” But there are things we can do to be more open and more likely to experience awe. Next month, in the second part of this series, we will examine ways we unintentionally hinder the likelihood of experiencing awe. It is important to seek opportunities to experience awe, not just to read or talk about it. Therefore, whenever I talk to groups about awe and wonder I try to incorporate activities that will help people experience awe and share their experiences with others.
These are the activities I use when I talk to groups. I encourage you to use them or modify them as best suits your setting:
I pass around which help inspire awe and wonder in me, such as meteorites, crystals and fossils. To hold in your hand a piece of another world, or the remains of a living creature millions or even billions of years old can be a powerful experience.
I spread out on a table by the entrance of the room a large variety of nature. (Old calendars are an excellent source for these photos.) As people enter the room I ask them to “Grab picture that grabs you.” Generally people are drawn to pictures that remind them of experiences that moved them. During the session, at one point I will ask people to get with one or two other people and talk about their pictures and how they speak to them. This almost always leads to very lively discussion. When we share with others our memories of experiences of awe, it renews and refreshes those memories in us and inspires others.
I developed a scale model of the Solar System which I call “Honey I Shrunk the Solar System.” This is very easy to duplicate and always has a powerful impact on groups of all ages, helping them get a feel for the magnitude of the universe. You can find a full description of this and other activities to inspire wonder on my website at http://mysteryandawe.com.
As Christians we consider this world to be the loving creation of the Triune God whose compassion and nature are as far beyond our comprehension as the heavens are above the earth. You would think that we should find countless causes for awe and wonder in our lives. Yet, contemporary Christians are often as blind to the wonder of creation as the rest of society. Christian author Michael Yaconelli writes:
The critical issue today is dullness. We have lost our astonishment … Immorality is more than adultery and dishonesty; it is living drab, colorless, dreary, stale, unimaginative lives. The greatest enemy of Christianity may be people who say they believe in Jesus but who are no longer astonished and amazed. Jesus Christ came to rescue us from listlessness as well as lostness; He came to save us from flat souls as well as corrupted souls… Tameness is not an option. Take surprise out of faith and all that is left is dry and dead religion. Take away mystery from the gospel and all that is left is frozen and petrified dogma. Lose your awe of God and you are left with an impotent deity. Abandon astonishment and you are left with meaningless piety. (Dangerous Wonder. pp. 24, 28.)
Kendra Creasy Dean and Ron Foster write of youth ministry in the contemporary setting:
The hypertext generation has made it excruciatingly clear that evangelization must aim for Christian discernment, not simply Christian information. Believing in God is not the issue; believing God matters is the issue. The signature quality of adolescence is no longer lawlessness, but awelessness. Inundated with options and the stress that comes from having to choose among them, contemporary adolescents have lost their compass to the stars, have forgotten the way that points to transcendence. (The Godbearing Life, p. 15.)
Episcopal priest and author Robert Farrar Capon considers the astonishment that Jesus Ben Sirach, author of Ecclesiasticus, felt watching snow fall: “As birds flying, he scattereth the snow, and the falling down thereof is as the lighting of grasshoppers. The eye marvelleth at the beauty of the whiteness thereof, and the heart is astonished at the raining of it.” (Ecclesiasticus 43:17-18, KJV) Capon observes:
It was precisely [Jesus of Nazareth’s] ability to astonish that led people to respond to him the way they did. Indeed the Greek word existanai (which is the verb “to be astonished” in the passage from Ecclesiasticus I’ve quoted) appears no less than eight times in the Gospels (translated as astonished”/”amazed”/”marveled”) as a description of their reaction to Jesus — and it can be found six times in Acts to describe their reaction to the Apostles. But most of the preaching I hear in the contemporary church is so bereft of that kind of astonishment … that it’s to tame to raise a single hair.” … If the heart of Jesus Ben Sirach could be astonished at the raining of the snow which the Holy Wisdom – the Sancta Sapienta, the Hagia Sophia, the eternally creating Saint Sophie — has brought into being, how much more astonished should be our hearts, which now look on that same Wisdom who became incarnate for our salvation in Jesus and who now orders the world mightily and sweetly by the resurrection of the dead. We are in a war between dullness and astonishment.” (The Astonished Heart. Pp 118-120.)
Capon goes on to suggest the thirst for astonishment may be a main reason many people seek ordination — hoping to find in seminary the astonishment missing in the church. However, he is skeptical that most will experience seminary as a place where this astonishment, this wonder, is encouraged and nurtured.
Science reveals mystery and wonder in creation
While the church has paid little attention to awe and wonder in the past century, science has picked up the banner. Especially in the past century, science has discovered depth and richness in our world that is literally unfathomable. Author W.G. Pollard writes:
J. Robert Oppenheimer (in Science and the Common Understanding) has likened all of science to a vast underground palace with an unending series of interconnected rooms. At first as we began to explore the antechambers near the entrance, it seemed a familiar building of limited size much like other buildings we were familiar with. But as this century has advanced, unsuspected rooms have been entered and surprising interconnecting passageways discovered. Each new room or suite of rooms has been full of surprises, strange new beauties, and unsuspected wonders. Yet each time we began to think that we had reached the palace boundary and were in the innermost rooms, hidden doorways have been stumbled upon, which have led us into still deeper and more amazing sections of the palace. (Transcendence and Providence, pp. 244-245.)
Chet Raymo observes “Knowledge is an island. The larger we make that island, the longer becomes the shore where knowledge is lapped by mystery. It is the most common of all misconceptions about science that it is somehow inimical to mystery, that it grows at the expense of mystery and intrudes with its brash certitudes upon the space of God.” (Honey from Stone, p. 66.) Biologist, E. O. Wilson writes “Our sense of wonder grows exponentially: the greater the knowledge, the deeper the mystery.” (Biophilia, p. 10.) Perhaps quantum physics best epitomizes the sense that there is a depth of mystery to this world which we will never plumb. Physicist Richard Feynman, writes: I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics. Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possibly avoid it, “But how can it be like that?” because you will get “down the drain”, into a blind alley from which no one has yet escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that. (The Character of Physical Law, p. 129.) It is Albert Einstein though who best expresses this sense of mystery:
The most beautiful and deepest experience a [person] can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as of all serious endeavor in art and in science … [the one] who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind. The sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious. To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all that there is. (“My Credo” 1932.)
It is this sense of awe and wonder that many scientists identify as what drew them into science and helps inspire them in their endeavors. Physicist John Polkinghorne said in an interview: “A word that is commonly used among scientists is wonder, though you won’t often see that word used in their scientific papers. Doing research is laborious, and often the reward for all that is the sense of wonder that people get from time to time. Scientists’ experience of wonder is, in a sense, an act of worship.” (Interview with Daniel Burke, April 15, 2009.)
American Novelist Richard Powers writes: “Science is not about control. It is about cultivating a perpetual condition of wonder in the face of something that forever grows one step richer and subtler than our latest theory about it. It is about reverence, not mastery.” (Dialogue from The Gold Bug Variations.)
Meanwhile, British philosopher Mary Midgely says:
What is not generally appreciated is that serious scientists experience a sense of awe. They are usually drawn to ask questions about a particular thing in the natural world. It may be flowers or stars, or it may be something that other people do not care for at all — toads, beetles, tapeworms. Whatever it might be, the study of this thing moves them to reverence. And make no mistake, this sense of reverence is real. Scientists can sense the vastness of even the smallest things. They know that these things have unending connections with the rest of life. For that reason, their experience of wonder does not vanish when the questions have been answered. To the real scientist, a question that has been answered becomes not less wonderful, but more so. Increased understanding increases scientific awe. And most great scientists have named awe of this kind as their deepest reason for pursuing science at all. (The Need for Wonder in God for the 21st Century, Russell Stannard, ed. Pp. 186-187.)
This is not to say that all scientists are constantly filled with awe and wonder. As American anthropologist Loren Eiseley notes:
In the end, science as we know it has two basic types of practitioners. One is the educated man who still has a controlled sense of wonder before the universal mystery, whether it hides in a snail’s eye or within the light that impinges on that delicate organ. The second kind of observer is the extreme reductionist who is so busy stripping things apart that the tremendous mystery has been reduced to a trifle, to intangibles not worth troubling one’s head about. (“Science and the Sense of the Holy,” in The Star Thrower, p. 151.)
Nor does this mean that science education does a good job of instilling a sense of awe or even acknowledging its importance in science. Physician and author Lewis Thomas made a powerful argument in the early 1980s for science education to lift up early and often the mystery and wonder contemporary science reveals. (“Humanities and Science” in Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. pp.143-155. 1983) Any examination of science education today, at least in this country, reveals that his plea fell mostly on deaf ears.
Many scientists find their scientific study of the world to inspires awe and wonder in them. I wonder how often non-scientists find that their experience of science inspires this awe and wonder. Consider this example:
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
–Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
Now reflect on your experiences of science. In what way, and how regularly did they inspire awe and wonder in you?!
The fear of the Lord – Awe that draws us to God
Many writers use the terms awe and wonder interchangeably. Certainly, awe and wonder are closely related. Strictly speaking wonder is inspired by the new and the surprising, while awe is inspired by reality and meaning that is grander, deeper or richer than can be fully comprehended. As we become more familiar with something, novelty wears off and wonder may fade. Awe, on the other hand, is often felt more deeply and strongly over repeated experiences with that which is greater than us.
An important aspect of awe is that we are fascinated by and drawn to that which inspires awe in us. Because that which inspires awe speaks to us so powerfully on so many different levels, we want to experience it more deeply and richly, while knowing that there will always be more than we can ever comprehend. John Masefield’s poem “Sea Fever” powerfully expresses the way that awe draws us to experience more:
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking.
And a gray mist on the sea’s face, and a gray dawn breaking.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
This deep fascination, this compelling sense of being drawn to that which inspires awe in us, leads us to consider what the Bible refers to as the “fear of the LORD.” Abraham Joshua Heschel writes:
According to the Bible the principal religious virtue is yirah. What is the nature of yirah? The word has two meanings: fear and awe. Fear is the anticipation and expectation of evil or pain, as contrasted with hope which is the anticipation of good. Awe, on the other hand, is the sense of wonder and humility inspired by the sublime or felt in the presence of mystery. Awe, unlike fear, does not make us shrink from the awe-inspiring object, but on the contrary, draws us near to it. This is why awe is compatible with both love and joy. (God in Search of Man, pp.76-77)
We are not called to be afraid of God, as Adam and Eve are in Genesis 3 when they try to hide from God. Rather, the fear of the Lord, (which Psalm 111:10 and Proverbs 9:10 tell us is the beginning of wisdom), draws us closer to God. That is why we pray for those who are baptized:
Sustain (name) with the gift of your Holy Spirit: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence, both now and forevermore. Amen.
We must get past the idea that the fear of the Lord has anything to do with being afraid of punishment or wrath, or indeed of being afraid of God in any way. It is not “sinners in the hand of an angry God.” The fear of the Lord does not grow out of sin or guilt. The Holy Spirit is the source of the fear of the Lord. Isaiah 11:2 declares that the Spirit of the Lord is the spirit of the fear of the Lord.
We find joy in the presence of that which we are in awe of, but not in the presence of what we are afraid. Still, awe does recognize that which is greater than us and which we cannot control. C.S. Lewis expresses this very dramatically in The Chronicles of Narnia, where four children from our world find themselves in a world of magic and talking animals:
“Oh, yes! Tell us about Aslan!” said several voices at once; for once again that strange feeling — like the first signs of spring, like good news, had come over them.
“Who is Aslan?” asked Susan.
“Aslan?” said Mr. Beaver, “Why don’t you know? He’s the King. He’s the Lord of the whole wood.”
“But shall we see him?” asked Susan.
“Why, Daughter of Eve, that’s what I brought you here for. I’m to lead you where you shall meet him,” said Mr. Beaver.
“Is–is he a man?” asked Lucy.
“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion–the lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
“I’m longing to see him,” said Peter, “even if I do feel frightened when it comes to the point.”
“That’s right, Son of Adam,” said Mr. Beaver.
—The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. pp. 74-76.
In Narnia, the children are reminded more than once that “Aslan is not a tame lion.” Certainly, we in the church need to be reminded that God is not tame! God is the Creator; we are creatures. God is sovereign and does not answer to us. Our hope lies, not in God being safe, but in God being good. English author and poet Dorothy Sayers expresses this powerfully:
If [Christian dogma] is dull, then what, in Heaven’s name, is worthy to be called exciting? The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused him of being a bore — on the contrary, they thought him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him “meek and mild,” and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies. To those who knew him, however, he in no ways suggests a milk-and-water person; they objected to him as a dangerous firebrand. True, he was tender to the unfortunate, patient with honest inquirers, and humble before heaven; but he insulted respectable clergymen by calling them hypocrites. He referred to King Herod as “that fox”; he went to parties in disreputable company and was looked upon as a “gluttonous man and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners”; he assaulted indignant tradesmen and threw them and their belongings out of the temple; he drove a coach-and-horses through a number of sacrosanct and hoary regulations; he cured diseases by any means that came handy, with a shocking casualness in the matter of other people’s pigs and property; he showed no proper deference for wealth or social position; when confronted with neat dialectical traps, he displayed a paradoxical humor that affronted serious-minded people, and he retorted by asking disagreeably searching questions that could not be answered by rule of thumb. He was emphatically not a dull man in his human lifetime, and if he was God, there can be nothing dull about God either. But he had “a daily beauty in his life that made us ugly,” and officialdom felt that the established order of things would be more secure without him. So they did away with God in the name of peace and quietness. (The Whimsical Christian, p.14.)
The last thing the Church and the world need is a god we have tamed and cut down to a comfortable size, a god who doesn’t threaten our chosen lifestyle. A god cut down to size is powerless to transform human life or renew creation. As Dorothy Sayers notes, in his life and ministry, Jesus refused to be domesticated. He rejected all efforts to make him conform to the expectations of leaders, the crowds or even his own family. Jesus knew that his actions would lead to a cross and said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32)
While the religious and political leaders may have thought they were doing away with Jesus in the name of peace and quietness, it is Jesus’ love and grace revealed in his life, death and resurrection which “turned the world upside down”(Acts 17:6) and continue to transform lives and renew all creation.
The fear of the Lord is a deeply profound, humble and reverent awe that recognizes God as Creator and Sovereign of us and of all creation. I cannot imagine a greater mystery than this — that, in love for us, the Creator and Sovereign of the vast, majestic universe that science reveals, would be born as one of us, and live a life serving us in love. Then when we rejected him and nailed him to a cross, he prayed “Father, forgive them.” Rising from the dead, he came back to the ones who had denied and abandoned him, saying “Peace be with you” and sharing with them his new life. If such a God loves us with such love, then nothing else can possibly be as important as this love, for us and for creation. Let us live our lives as a response of awe to this greatest of mysteries, being drawn ever closer to Jesus. Isaiah declared that “The Fear of the Lord is Zion’s Treasure.” (Isaiah 33:6). May this awe become our treasure.
Bruce Booher is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, living in Seneca, SC. He serves on the Steering Committee of the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology. He leads retreats and presentations on awe and wonder in faith and science and maintains a website – www.mysteryandawe.com.