In Part 1, we saw that, all too often, “we walk sightless among miracles.” Rabbi Lawrence Kushner shares a story that shows this tendency is part of our human condition which has been with us for centuries:
Jewish tradition says that the splitting of the Red Sea was the greatest miracle ever performed.
It was so extraordinary that on that day even a common servant beheld more than all the miracles beheld by Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel combined. And yet we have one midrash that mentions two Israelites, Reuven and Shimon, who had a different experience.
Apparently the bottom of the sea, though safe to walk on, was not completely dry but a little muddy, like a beach at low tide. Reuven stepped into it and curled his lip. “What is this muck?”
Shimon scowled, “There’s mud all over the place!”
“This is just like the slime pits of Egypt!” replied Reuven.
“What’s the difference?” complained Shimon. “Mud here, mud there; it’s all the same.”
And so it went for the two of them, grumbling all the way across the bottom of the sea. And, because they never once looked up, they never understood why on the distant shore, everyone else was singing songs of praise. For Reuven and Shimon the miracle never happened.
– Shemot Rabba 24.1
Call it the difference between epistemology and piety. In epistemology if a tree falls in the
forest and no one is there to hear, it may or may not make a sound. In piety, if a miracle
happens and no one notices, it did not happen. Each miracle requires at least one person to
experience the miracle, even if, like Jacob, only in retrospect.
Now Jacob begins to ponder the events of his life in a new way. A dimension of what has come to be called “the spiritual” now lies open. “If God was here, and I didn’t know, then perhaps God has been other places also.” (Eyes Remade for Wonder, pp. 11 – 12.)
While people have walked sightless among miracles for centuries, I believe that there are several factors in contemporary life which significantly intensify this problem.
During our contemporary eclipse of awe and wonder, there is a hunger for these experiences, but seldom do we recognize what it is that we crave. Robert Capon points out: “We surreptitiously read The National Enquirer in the checkout line precisely because we are itching to believe even the most unbelievable stuff, if we can only convince ourselves it’s astonishing.” (The Astonished Heart. p.120.)
Marketing, always eager to find our hungers, has discovered this hunger. A major electronics brand advertises that it is “Dedicated to Wonder.” A cracker package invites us to “weave some wonder.” cable television channel’s commercials, delightfully declaring “This World is Just Awesome,” draw millions of hits on Youtube.
Surely it is time that we, the Church, remember our calling to be “stewards of God’s mysteries.” (I Cor. 4:1) Awe is a response of our whole being to mystery — truth that is greater than us. We cannot make ourselves feel awe, but we can open ourselves to awe, seek out experiences likely to inspire awe. We must also become aware of the factors which work to limit and reduce awe.
These are five often inter-related factors that contribute to the eclipse of awe in our contemporary society:
1. Nature Deficit Disorder
2. Lack of Sabbath Rhythm – Manipulation and Appreciation
3. Excessive Busyness in our 24/7 society
4. Commercialization of all of Life
5. Triumphalism – “We have all the Answers”
We have much less contact with the natural world, God’s creation, than previous generations had. We work indoors. We relax by watching TV or being on the computer. We drive in cars rather than walking. All but the brightest stars of the night sky are drowned out for most people by city lights. All these things and many more limit our contact with the natural world and decrease the likelihood of our being struck by awe. This problem is growing with each generation. Richard Louv, describes the devastating effects of this in his bestselling book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Louv tells of a fourth-grade boy who said to him, “I like to play inside, because that’s where the outlets are.” Tragically, this boy represents the new norm. In the congregation I serve, the father of a teenage boy told me that when their son brings friends along to their family cabin in Wisconsin, the friends usually want to watch movies or play video games rather than enjoy the woods or the lake. Fortunately, his son’s love of nature is so strong that he usually wins his friends over. Unfortunately, his son is the exception rather than the rule. Michael Reagan shares:
There is a story I once heard about a young boy who went out to the woods day after day. His father took note of this strange habit and asked his child, “My son, why do you go out to the woods each day?” The son responded, “I go there to find God.” At this the father gently reprimanded his child:” Don’t you know that God is the same everywhere?” The son replied, “Yes Father, but I am not the same everywhere.” (Reflections on the Nature of God. p. 110)
May God grant us the wisdom to understand that we are not the same everywhere. We are after all, “clay touched by God” and when we are cut off or close ourselves off from the natural world, we can never become the people God created us to be.
In one of my favorite Calvin & Hobbes comic strips the two are outside looking up at the night sky. Calvin says, “Look at all the stars! The universe just goes out forever and ever.” Hobbes replies, “It kind of makes you wonder why man considers himself such a big screaming deal.” In the final panel they are back inside with the TV, phone and radio all blaring. Calvin explains, “That’s why we stay inside with our appliances.”
How do you spend time in contact with the natural world?
What is most meaningful about it for you?
Identify two or three ways you would like to spend more time outdoors.
How can you help your children or grandchildren have more contact with and more appreciation of nature?
Lack of Sabbath rhythm
It is not just the amount of contact we have with the world, but also the nature of our relationship with the world that matters. Our relationship with the world has become terribly skewed. Abraham Joshua Heschel, in Who is Man, identifies two primary ways people relate to the world — manipulation and appreciation. The word manipulation often carries a negative connotation and Heschel describes it primarily in negative terms.
I choose to believe that manipulation is an important part of the relationship God intended for humans to have with the world. I believe, with Lutheran theologian Philip Hefner, that we are God’s created co-creators. God calls us to work and help shape this world, helping it to become the world God intends it to become. Having said that, we must take very seriously that in our sinfulness we misuse and abuse every good gift God gives us and distort God’s callings. It is not manipulation per se which is the problem, but our misuse and abuse of it. However, the problem goes deeper still. Life in our contemporary Western society has gotten terribly out of balance. We have over-emphasized and focused on the manipulation of the world and forgotten the appreciation side of life. This just makes the misuses and abuses of manipulation more destructive, for the world and for us. Let’s look a little more closely at manipulation and appreciation. Keep in mind that many activities will involve both manipulation and appreciation in varying degrees.
Awe and wonder
The vast majority of technological advances are on the manipulation side. That is the side that most of us get paid for. That is what is valued and given worth in our commercialized society. It is what we have gotten good at. There is a very human tendency to focus on what we are good at and to shy away from what we are not familiar with and don’t feel competent at. I want to emphasize again that I believe that everything on the manipulation side has its place in the life to which God calls us. However, the imbalance in our society between the two sides is devastating, and amplifies the misuses and abuses of the manipulation side. When we look at our society and our lives from this perspective, we can gain insight into many of the problems we face, including the breakdown of the family, the loss of a sense of community and connectedness, aimlessness and loss of purpose, and more. Madeline L’Engle points out that the word dis-aster literally means being cut-off or separated from the stars.
Do you find it helpful to see life as involving both manipulation and appreciation of nature?
What insights does this understanding of manipulation and appreciation open up for you — about our society and about your own life?
So what can we do about this? A good place to start is with God’s gift of the Sabbath. I used the word imbalance, and it is certainly appropriate, but perhaps as we look at changing this situation, we should aim for a healthy dynamic rhythm of moving back and forth between manipulation and appreciation instead of trying to achieve a static balance. I believe that this dynamic rhythm of regularly moving between doing and being, between manipulation and appreciation, is one of God’s key purposes in giving us the gift of Sabbath. Keeping Sabbath is not just about physical rest, it is about taking time for and valuing being, and especially being in God’s presence. Consider these words from a Jewish prayer welcoming the Sabbath:
Our noisy day has now descended with the sun beyond our sight.
In the silence of our praying place we close the door upon the hectic joys and fears, the accomplishments and anguish of the week we have left behind.
What was but moments ago the substance of our life has become memory; what we did must now be woven into what we are.
On this day we shall not do, but be.
We are to walk the path of our humanity, no longer ride unseeing through a world we do not touch and only vaguely sense. (Gates of Prayer p. 245.)
What are ways we can regularly move from doing to being, and in the process, weave what we do into who and what we are? I can’t help but believe that his regular observance of Sabbath is a significant reason that the Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel emphasized the importance of awe and had a much deeper understanding of it than any Christian theologian I have encountered. However, many Christian theologians have also emphasized the Sabbath rhythm between doing and being. Karl Barth writes that Sabbath is about being as distinct from doing:
It is not a question of recuperation after a toilsome and well-done job. Even the Sabbath rest of man corresponding to the divine rest does not have this sense in the Old Testament, but means negatively a simple cessation and abstention from further work. The freedom, rest and joy of the Sabbath consist in the fact that on this day man is released from his daily work. On the Sabbath he does not belong to his work. Nor is it merely a question of having to recuperate from the work that lies behind him and to fortify himself for the new tasks that are ahead. On the Sabbath he belongs to himself. Whether he be farmer, artisan, servant or maid, he is just the man who for six days had to be these things and to perform the corresponding tasks, but whose being and existence are more than all these things and his work, who in and with these things seeks to be a man, male and female, and as such before God. That he does not strive in vain towards this goal; that his work cannot devour him but consists of steps towards this goal, is confirmed at the end of each week by the proffered freedom, rest and joy of the workless Sabbath which he is granted. It is this which gives perspective and depth, meaning and lustre, to all his weeks, and therefore to his whole time, as well as to the work which he performs in his time.
–Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (ed. Geoffrey Bromiley and Thomas Torrance, Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1958 E.T. of the German 1945 original) III.I.para. 41, Creation and Covenant, p. 214
So, the question facing us is: How we can develop more of a Sabbath rhythm in our lives, moving back and forth between doing and being, between manipulation and appreciation? In The Small Catechism, when Luther looks at the Third Commandment and Sabbath, he says nothing about physical rest or about a particular day. Instead, he focuses on our treating God’s Word as holy and gladly hearing it and learning from it. While there certainly can be great value in setting aside one day a week as Sabbath, I don’t think we should limit our understanding of Sabbath to one 24-hour period each week.
Congregational stewardship programs often recognize that many people cannot see themselves moving from their current level of giving to a full tithe of 10%, so they often encourage an intentional stepping up each year. A similar approach might be a helpful way to build a Sabbath rhythm into our lives. We can build upon (or start with) weekly worship, intentionally adding time on other days to focus on being and not doing, spending time on the appreciation side of life. We can find ways to include more appreciation into our routines. As a pastor, when I visit people in the hospital, while I am at the hospital I try to go by the nursery and spend a few minutes looking at the newborn babies and praying for them and their families. I have often said that if I ever find myself looking at the newborn babies and don’t feel a sense of awe and wonder, it would be best to be in a hospital where someone can check to make sure that my heart is still beating. As we become more familiar and comfortable with spending time on being at certain times, we can more easily find ways to incorporate the appreciation side of living into other parts of our daily and weekly routines. Simply being aware of the distinction between these two sides of life and intentionally working to develop a healthier appreciation of the world is itself an important step.
In light of all that we have learned and continue to learn about the impact of human activity on the environment, it is very clear that a renewed appreciation of the world and a reduction of the misuse and abuse of manipulation is vitally important. We need it not only for the ways it can renew our faith and life, but also for the sake of this world God created. We have come to regard this Earth as simply a stage for our actions and a source of resources for our consumption. The ecological devastation we have wreaked is enormous.
Do you find the idea of Sabbath rhythm helpful?
In what ways would you like to “try out” experiencing more Sabbath rhythm in your own life?
In what ways might increased appreciation of nature help in the ongoing ecological crisis?
Busyness in our 24/7 culture
Tied to our lack of Sabbath rhythm is the excessive busyness of our “24/7” culture. Story Musgrave, one of the U.S. astronauts with the most time in space, developed a practice of intentionally making time on every spaceflight to just be and experience the awe and wonder of being in space. Here is an excerpt from an interview he gave:
The point of all this, he says, is to try to derive meaning from experience and then to “express space.” Without such preparation, the rare opportunity of space flight is wasted. “If you don’t work on the inner experience beforehand, the inner experience is not going to happen,” Musgrave says. “There are loads of people who have told me, ‘The greatest thing I regret is that I’ve been up in space three times and retired and never saw the stars.’ I say, ‘Don’t feel bad, that’s the average.'”
At least once a mission, Musgrave turns off the lights in the shuttle cockpit and watches the stars. He also plays with the radical perceptual shifts that occur in free fall, such as the way his brain shifts his vision to try to create a top and bottom when there is no gravity as a reference point. And just before going to sleep, he shuts his eyes and watches the white tracers of cosmic rays, unbuffered by the atmosphere, crash into his eyeballs. (Boston Sunday Globe, “Taking Time to See the Stars”, John Yemma, 1996.)
If astronauts in the awe-inspiring, wonder-filled realm of space can be so busy they never really see the stars or experience being in space, what does that say to us? We spend our time in an environment which, in reality is no less wonder-filled, but which is so familiar to us that we easily take it for granted and miss its wonders. We should certainly be sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s leading and respond when awe takes us by surprise, but we should also be intentional about making time to be in God’s creation. Brian McLaren shares a creative exercise:
I simply tried to help people imagine what it would be like to live in a world that really was God’s creation. In such a world, I suggested, there is nothing purely “objective” – meaning there is nothing that does not have a personal value attached to it. Why? Because if God is Creator, and God has feelings for everything God has made, then every atom in the universe is not a neutral objective object; rather it is the artwork – beloved artwork – of a Creator who values every square centimeter of space, every moment in time, every quark, muon, gluon, neutrino, and proton; every whale, sparrow, chipmunk, and child. In other words, as we wander through the universe, we are not just encountering meaningless stuff; rather we are walking through an art gallery, filled with objects full of meaning, expressiveness, revelation of the Creator’s heart, intelligence, compassion and whimsy. (More Ready Than You Realize, p. 94.)
How does the busyness of our 24/7 culture affect your life?
What practical steps would you like to take to reduce this impact on your life and the life of your family?
How would you like to intentionally set aside time in your life for appreciation of nature?
The commercialization of all life
Our language and therefore our understanding of value and worth have become almost completely commercialized. Value and worth are used almost exclusively in terms of money or production. Oscar Wilde said that sunsets were not valued because we could not pay for sunsets. When the question “What is its value?” is asked, the answer is expected to be in monetary terms. Activities that do not produce a tangible product are often thought of as not having worth. Far too many people measure worth, for themselves and others, in terms of making money or producing something. We are regularly told by media and political leaders that we are consumers. Consider for a moment that a synonym for consumers is devourers. Perhaps that will help us better underline what is at stake here.
Another of my favorite Calvin & Hobbes comics shows the two of them walking in the woods. Calvin says “People keep talking about opening more wilderness for development. We seem to understand the value of oil, timber, minerals and housing, but not the value of unspoiled beauty, wildlife, solitude and spiritual renewal.” Hobbes responds, “We need to start putting prices on the priceless.” And Calvin answers, “Yeah, if our woods are worth a zillion, jillion bagillion, think what Alaska is worth.” In a Christian Century blog, Amy Frykholm responds to the cover article of the November 2011 issue of The Atlantic, by Kate Bolick. She quotes Bolick: If dating and mating is in fact a marketplace — and of course it is — today we are confronted with a new “dating gap.” Frykholm writes:
But what about that “of course”? For me that’s the heart of the problem…My husband and my marriage are not prizes, lottery tickets or possessions. I did not win or purchase him in the marketplace of courtship… “Dating and mating” is only a marketplace if we consent to being commodities. To think outside the marketplace is tricky in our society. (Commodity Dating? Nov. 10, 2011.)
Do you feel like you always need to be accomplishing something?
Do you feel guilty if you relax?What gives your life value and purpose?
The final factor in the reduction of awe and wonder that I want to examine is triumphalism – the desire to say “we have all the answers.” I have explored mystery, awe and wonder primarily from the perspectives of science and religion. I believe mystery, awe and wonder play vital roles in both. Theologians have referred to God as Mysterium tremendum et fascinans — Mystery both awe-inspiring and fascinating. Many scientists speak powerfully of the role of mystery, awe and wonder in science.
My website — www.mysteryandawe.com includes pages of insights by scientists and theologians on mystery, awe and wonder. However, I must also acknowledge that there are those in each field, science and religion, who insist that they have all the answers or that their approach is the only one that can yield any meaningful understanding. Those who claim a monopoly on truth cannot tolerate mystery: truth that is bigger than us, truth that we cannot tie up into our neat little packages. If we want a renewal of awe and wonder, we must speak, teach and live with an openness to the mystery that surrounds us.
For eight years I served as pastor in LaPorte, TX, a suburb of Houston on the western shore of Galveston Bay. We had a strong Inter-Church council which sponsored community Thanksgiving and Easter Sunrise services. The Easter Sunrise service was held in a county pavilion on the shore of Galveston Bay with floor to ceiling windows on the eastern wall so you could look out at the sunrise over the water. Each year the newest minister in town would preach and the other ministers all had a reading, prayer or other part in the service. One year the preacher started his sermon by motioning to the other ministers on the podium. “You see these men here” – unfortunately we were all men; the woman who had been the minister at the Presbyterian church had taken another call a few months earlier. “These men are up here because they have the answers. We know you have problems and questions, well you can come to these men and know that they will have all the answers for you.” I wanted so badly to stand up and say “I don’t have all the answers, but I would be happy to talk with you and pray with you and see where God might be leading you.” I still don’t have all the answers, and I don’t believe anyone who claims that they do.
I agree with a pastor who said that ministers “are not so much people with answers as ones who guard the important questions and keep them alive.” The church exists to guard the important questions! Keep them alive! When the questions are kept alive, our souls have a chance of staying alive. The church should be full of Christians who seek questions rather than answers, mystery instead of solutions, wonder instead of explanations.” (Alan Jones, quoted by Michael Yaconelli in Dangerous Wonder, p.42).
There are people who say that someday science will be able to explain everything and there will be no need for God. I believe these people are wrong for at least two reasons. First, Einstein and many other scientists have stated clearly their belief that science will never explain everything, that every new discovery leads to more questions. Second, while I believe that religion does provide important insights and understanding of the world, God is so much more than just a source of answers. God is the source of love, joy, life and the entire creation. For more on this, please see my article in Covalence.
Fr. George Coyne, SJ in “My Personal Manifesto (on Science and Faith)” writes “God is primarily Love and not Explanation. I am driven by my rational nature to seek to understand the God who loves me but I am at the same time convinced that God can never be understood. God is mystery, not in the sense that if I knew enough I would understand him but in the sense that he is the ground of all understanding. Science is tempted to the idolatry of seeing God as exclusively Explanation.”
Have you experienced examples of triumphalism?
How did these affect you?
Abraham Joshua Heschel 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: A Philosophy of Judaism, pp.74-75.)
Few people today live with “wide horizons.” We so readily get caught up in our own interests, our own struggles, our own activities. We live with blinders on rather than living with wide horizons. What are ways you can open up your life to the fullness of God’s activity in this world as well as in your life? In conclusion, I believe that we need to stop ignoring and begin embracing awe. Without awe life becomes flat and people become hollow. Over the years I have shared my passion for awe and wonder with many groups, and found people to be truly hungry for these experiences. People often ask what the factors are that contribute to awe being seldom experienced or valued. That is how I started looking at what I have shared here. It has opened up insights I never would have imagined. I believe that a focus on awe and Sabbath rhythm offers a promising and important path to renewal for persons of faith, for the Church and for the world.
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.