The following is a guest post by Richard Goodwin. He is a PhD student of theology and film, cooks an awesome pasta and is a fantastic friend.
I recently missed the birth of my son. I tried, believe me, but a Hail Mary dash to the airport involving illegal speeds, toll fines, and an aborted attempt at relieving myself in the manner of a truck-driver just weren’t enough to get me home on time. Long story, short: a parenting fail of Don Draper-ish proportions.
I have a bunch of regrets about the whole thing, but the biggest? Missing my four-year-old son’s reaction to the birth. He entered the hospital room and, upon seeing his baby brother for the first time—so I’m told—instantly fell silent and his eyes welled up with tears. His reaction was, in a word, wonder. That might’ve been as magical a moment as the birth itself. And I missed it.
Okay, so I missed out on some sappy-dad moment. Big whoop. But here’s the thing: I’ve come to really value wonder. Walking through thick fog on a sunny morning, hearing music from a cello, seeing dust particles suspended in sunlight—these are the spellbinding experiences that stoke my belief in something more. In fact, without wonder, I’m not even sure I’d be a Christian.
How Wonder Makes Us Spiritual
That might sound borderline heretical, but that’s just how wonder works. When describing certain emotions, some psychologists talk about “action tendencies”, the types of action that an emotion compels us to take. Fear makes us flee, disgust makes us reject, anger makes us fight. But wonder has more of an inaction tendency, because wonder causes us to stop and simply contemplate. Contemplate what exactly? “The possibility that there are causal powers existing ‘beyond’ our immediate physical surroundings,” answers religious scholar Robert Fuller. “Wonder encourages belief in a metaphysical order of existence.” Wonder gets our minds off mere survival and encourages us to think about the “more” of life. In other words, wonder is what makes us spiritual.
Admittedly, nobody this side of 1950 describes their experiences as “wondrous”. We’re more like to say “mind-blowing”. That LSD-inflected piece of hippie slang is a surprisingly accurate description of how wonder operates at the cognitive level. When we encounter something, we either try to fit it into our existing mental map of reality (“assimilation”) or we’re forced to change the map (“accommodation”). Some things are so extraordinarily beautiful, mysterious, or powerful that they blow apart our mental categories. We have to rebuild them and, this time, make them bigger.
Wonder vs. Fear
And the feeling that undergirds faith actually shapes it. Fuller argues, for instance, that strict, fire-and-brimstone religious styles (“apocalypticism”) arise when the prevailing emotion is fear. But when the fundamental emotion is wonder, the result is a religious style in which God is sensed as present and intimate (“aesthetic spirituality”).
As a religious scholar, Fuller isn’t talking exclusively about Christianity. But I think we see both styles manifest in the church—and, in fact, I think there is value in both. After all, we’re supposed to fear God (Ps. 111:10, 1 Sam. 12:24), right? (Fear of God isn’t sheer terror though. I think it’s more akin to wonder’s close cousin, awe, which is like wonder with an added dash of fear, viewed from a position of safety. Like the slightly spooked feeling you get when you gaze up into the infinity of space, while knowing that gravity will keep your feet on terra firma.) Maybe this is why Christianity Today has made “beautiful orthodoxy” its recent catchcry; it’s an attempt to reconcile the best of what “truth-Christians” (fear—or, at least, reverence) and “beauty-Christians” (wonder) each offer. Wonder and fear needn’t be a zero-sum equation.
Personally, I’m well-acquainted with the fear side of the equation. As a kid, whenever my parents weren’t home by the agreed-upon time, I’d instantly assume that they’d been raptured and that I’d been…left behind. And this being the pre-mobile era, I couldn’t just flick them a “IS DIS DA RAPTURE OR ARE U JUST BUYING T.P.?” text, so instead I’d phone somebody from church, somebody whose name was surely written in the Lamb’s book of life, to see if they picked up. And when, inevitably, they did, I’d make up some lame excuse for why I was calling. Of course, I knew all the core Sunday School tenets by rote. I knew that ours is a God of grace and I could recite the Sinner’s Prayer backwards. But, despite being well-catechized, I couldn’t shake the feeling deep down that God was really just a big meanie. Fear had priority. It has taken a steady diet of wonder to allow a healthier, more positive picture of God develop in its place.
Things that Make You Go “Whoa”
Fear seems to be the emotion du jour. Writing against the current culture of fear, novelist Marilynne Robinson points out that “fear is not a Christian habit of mind”. And yet we’ve drunk the Kool-Aid. In an age when news media, which has always trafficked in fear, has turned the dial all the way up to eleven, it’s not easy to keep fear from becoming your default setting.
The Beatles sang “all you need is love”, but at a time like this, maybe we need wonder too. Lest we become crippled by our habit of fear, we ought to cultivate habits of wonder, which is precisely what many of the Psalms do:
“The whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders;
where morning dawns, where evening fades,
you call forth songs of joy.” (Ps. 65:8)
Scriptures like this one urge us to open our eyes to the “wonder-full” world around us. Nature is replete with the wondrous. The arts too are a gift for the wonder-hungry. The world is popping with opportunities for wonder, even for schmucks like me who miss their kid’s birth. Do your spiritual health a favour: seek out things that make you go “whoa”.