My Faith—A Philosopher’s Look At Christianity, 31

Awe, Wonder, Ineffable, and I Include Soul.

Let me introduce you to two men who in my university studies helped me put life into perspective, especially ancient life: Abraham Joshua Heschel, born in 1907, was a Polish-born American rabbi and one of the leading Jewish theologians and Jewish philosophers of the 20th century, and Sam Keen, born in 1931 is an American author, professor, and philosopher who is best known for his exploration of questions regarding love, life, wonder, religion.

There are three books of Keen I cherish; To A Dancing God, Fire In The Belly, Apology for Wonder, but it is from Apology for Wonder I’m going to quote. For Heschel there are two books I cherish, Man Is Not Alone, and The Prophet, and from Man Is Not Alone, I will draw. Now let me be honest about Sam Keen and this is my experience and interpretation of him; the Sam Keen I met through his writings way back when I was in university is not the Sam Keen of today. I know he would argue that he didn’t change, that the progressive thinking was always in him and his agnosticism was always at his core, just that one day it became more clear in his thinking. Again, this is my interpretation of what he went through; Keen was a free-mind in that he wanted to experience what he was thinking, believing, writing so he went to fundamentalist churches and New Age Ashrams to experience how others were interpreting life. Again, my interpretation, he got lost in the mysticism of New Age ideology. One writer on Keen writes: “The stories of Keen’s life — as documented in Apology for Wonder, Hymns to an Unknown God, Beginnings Without End, and the bestseller Fire in the Belly— are those of a restless soul, a nonconformist, a lover of questions. Born into a deeply religious family in the American south, Keen attended Harvard Divinity School and earned a Ph.D. in philosophy of religion from Princeton University.” I’m putting this qualifier on an inspiration in my life, Sam Keen, for two reasons. One, if you became interested in him over what I will write and pick up his latest writings you will wonder what I saw in him that moved me; and two, I find in his change the danger of people like me who live by questions the possibility of getting lost because of those questions. Keen is still a brilliant mind, we still have much to learn from him but he’s more rebel now than pioneer. I hope I haven’t spoiled what I learned from him because it is truly insightful and worthy of knowing, and it isn’t that the later Keen disavowed the earlier Keen, he hasn’t so it is still valid.

I’m bringing up these two men’s writings because through their eyes we understand why Paul writes that we have no excuse not believing in God because nature reveals him and these two men show us that even though we don’t know God’s true name, don’t have the revelations the Jews had, then the Christians, the world (people) has enough knowledge of God and it undercuts their excuses, and our sense that those outside Jewish and Christian history are simply doomed.

I grew up, first on a small farm then on the edge of a small town, Clovis, California. Some 90 miles to my north was Yosemite National Park, a lesser distance to my east Kings Canyon National Park, both filled with wonderful pine, cedar, and redwoods. Taking a different road than to Yosemite, more North-East were Shaver Lake and higher up Huntington Lake, still higher up the natural Ward Lake, and the road ending at Florence Lake. These mountains were my vision of heaven and I could easily “feel” God there. When I was in the Army stationed in Germany most of my time there was spent in the German Alps, a massive mountain chain that took in parts of France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, and Germany and most of my experiences were in those Alps.

When I think of those ancient Greek philosophers up to and including Socrates, and Plato, the Greece they knew and experienced wasn’t at all like the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, or the Alps of Europe, it is a more rugged land, especially around Athens, the center of Greek philosophy. My mother loved the desert, she found such beauty there. When I drive the long road from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and most of the drive is through desert, it is a most boring drive. And yet, even in the desert, when I’ve stopped and really looked around, there is a beauty there, a speech that speaks of “creator.”

Whether we are in the forest, the flatlands, the deserts, when we stop thinking, stop talking, just looking and listening we know that we know what we see is more than the sum of what we see, and as I will go into these two men we experience that through awe and wonder and the ineffable.

In Apology for Wonder, apology not “I’m sorry,” but defense of, the first experience of wonder is “ontological wonder.” Keen writes: “The primal source of all wonder is not an object but the fact that something exists rather than nothing.” This is in contrast to “mundane” wonder: “Most often wonder arises out of an encounter with some concrete object or person and not out of a global awareness of the mystery of being. In such encounters the structure and meaning of the object rather than its bare existence are the occasion for wonder.” This is me driving through the long desert to Vegas seeing but not seeing.

One problem we humans have is that we can live in the middle of a beautiful forest, or in the desert, or in a city and all that we see becomes mundane, we’ve seen it before and we turn our mind away and we don’t really see what we see. Again that’s me going through the desert to Vegas. And to this Keen writes: “It is unfortunate but true that wonder is often experienced only on the frontier of the startling. . . A mature sense of wonder does not need the constant titillation of the sensational to keep it alive. It is most often called forth by a confrontation with the mysterious depth of meaning at the heart of the familiar and quotidian [occurring every day].”

The greatest curse we moderns face is our loss of time. It’s a loss because we’ve given it up. We fill time with doing. Adults fill their time with working, either more hours or more jobs because the cost of living is so demanding we find it hard to get ahead of it. Kids fill their time with social media or playing games, all of this an abstraction from real life. No, work and games and social media is not real life. The same time allotted to the ancients is the same amount of time allotted to we moderns but we fill our time with distraction and abstraction. So it’s no wonder it takes something sensational to get our attention.

Under the heading, “Formal Characteristics of the Objects of Wonder,” Keen examines three characters of wonder. The first one he calls “Contingency.”  By this he means 

“[T]hat in raw experience the object we apprehend in wonder comes to us without bearing its own explanation. Why it is, or perhaps even what it is, is not immediately obvious. . . [W]onder-events are happenings, revelatory occurrences which appear as if by chance, bearing some new meaning (value promise) which cannot immediately be integrated into a past pattern of understanding and explanation.”

I loved my years on the farm where we grew oranges, mostly peaches (we were, after all, a peach ranch), plums, and grapes. I knew the difference between each fruit, I mean, it was rather obvious, but in knowing that it didn’t stop what Keen calls a contingency experience. I can still remember looking at the oranges, peaches, plums, and grapes not asking them to tell me what they were (I knew), but I knew they were not something I created, just took care of and from that care grew and produced fruit. I experienced them not for what they were but that they were. It was in these times I had a new experience, a raw experience because I wasn’t demanding something from them. I was filled with wonderment that they were. In the forests I often went to it was a constant sense of wonderment, experiencing so many new and different things from the earth to the trees to the bear grass to the wind to the water, and that I couldn’t explain what I was experiencing did not take away from the experience of what I saw. I felt, sensed, intuitively that there was more than what I saw and that it was all connected. And the more I let that experience flood in and through me (an experience by osmosis) the more I understood there was something greater behind what I saw, the cause of what I saw.

A second characteristic Keen calls “Mystery.” 

“[T]he mysteriousness of an object has little to do with how well or how poorly it is known. An object event, or person may be well understood and adequately explained (in the sense of causal explanation), yet evoke more wonder than a less well-understood phenomenon. . . . The more intimately known and ardently loved a place, thing, or person is, the more mysterious it is, because it is so homogenized into the psychological fabric of the knower that knower and known form one reality.” 

There is a danger that we must be aware of: “Knowledge destroys mystery and wonder only when it is used hostilely to reduce the dimensions of meaning in an object to those that can be manipulated and controlled.” This could have been me on the peach ranch where the fruit trees I knew very well, a familiarity that makes things become mundane. Yet for me they still held mystery, the same mystery when I walked through the forest where the unfamiliar was a mystery and I wondered “why” this and not something else. When in the forest I would come upon a stream of water, I would sit in wonderment of the flow of water over the rocks. I knew water, I knew rocks, but here in this forest it spoke of so much more than what I knew in a scientific way. In a material world it’s just there, a happy accident that water is the fountain of life, that air is also a fountain of life, that sunshine is one fountain of life and I know that I know these are no happy accidents, there is meaning beyond what I see, and in Plato’s Form and Ideas I feel without knowing what it is I know. I know to call this God, but before I knew God, Plato’s thoughts told me the same thing.

A last characteristic is “presence.” In existential philosophy, which is really an anti-philosophy, there are no objects of wonder, things just are, “something thrown over against us, something we can, figuratively, walk around and examine dispassionately in a problematic manner.” Keen’s response to this: “The other, which we encounter in wonder, is a presence rather than an object .  . . as it involves us in a total cognitive and emotional response.” It’s the wonderment that there is something (its presence) and that it is this and not something else. Keen gives us an interesting analogy: “When, after I have noticed but not relished ninety-nine roses, the one-hundredth suddenly strikes me as an object of wonder, it is as if it had taken the initiative and reached out and presented itself to me.”

We moderns, especially those of us stuck in a city, have lost our sense of wonderment, but even here in our strapping metropolitan cities there is always wonderment to behold. And as I’ve already shown, being in rural areas filled with every day wonderment, we can walk by without even a thought.

I’m knee deep in wonder because it’s this experience that every person in every age in every location has through which they can find God, and are, as Paul writes, without excuse when they don’t acknowledge him. And for our Western Civilization, Greek philosophy helped us by stripping away our myths and showing us a connected world that clearly speaks of nous and logos, that Paul says to the Romans and the Athenians, the real name is God.

Keen goes on to explain the “Subjective Aspect of the Experience of Wonder.

  • Surprise—“The now almost obsolete word ‘wonderstruck’ suggests that wonder breaks into consciousness with a dramatic suddenness that produces amazement or astonishment. . . Because of the suddenness with which it appearss, wonder reduces us momentarily to silence.”

  • Puzzlement—“When something explodes into awareness and shatters our ordinary categories of understanding, it quite naturally creates mental and emotional dis-ease and puzzlement.”

  • Ambivalence—“Of necessity, we order our everyday existence to keep the unexpected and the unexplained to a minimum. In order to get on with the practical requirement of living, we domesticate our world and systematically insulate it against the intrusions of strangeness . . . . On the other hand, we grow tired of the usual. Unless we are exceptionally gifted with a strong propensity to wonder, the quotidian easily becomes stale and boring. Thus we long for a surprise that will bring refreshment and novelty.”

  • Admiration—“In wonder we experience the other as inexhaustible, as the locus of meanings which are only revealed as we cease to be dominated by the impulse to utilize and process the other and learn to rejoice in its presence. It is when we cease making imperialistic claims over objects and persons . . . and allow them to be what they are in their own right, that we touch the inviolable strangeness which is their sacredness.”

Surprise, puzzlement, overcoming ambivalence, and admiration are subjective feelings we have in every wonder experience. When walking through the forest I am constantly surprised by what I see, often puzzled with the why of what I see, and then I’m filled with admiration by what I see. But this happened with the fruit trees I grew up taking care of, and, with the woman who would become my wife. Those early ancient Greek philosophers who knew nothing about the Jewish Yahweh stopped listening to the myths in their culture and just looked and admired what they saw and soon the lines of the earth, the formation of the rocks, the beauty of the trees, the overwhelming experience of the billions of stars that was a complete mystery, began to flood their inner selves and they knew that they knew it was all connected and connected in an intelligent design. Now it didn’t take a philosopher to discover this, it was being discovered by millions of individuals everywhere who while trapped by cultural religious rites saw more depth in nature than their gods could explain. Their inner selves found a connection and without even knowing a name began to connect with that feeling and began to accept that feeling as more real than the life they knew. Did the God we know accept their humble belief even though they didn’t know his name? I have no doubt he did.

Let me offer two other quotes from Keen on the subject of religion and wonder. “Otologic wonder, which is the experiential formation of belief in the existence of God, and theophanic [visible manifestation of God] wonders, which are the experiential basis for the predicates that are assigned to God or the holy. Quoting William James, “Otologic wonder—the shocking awareness that the world exists and does not contain its own explanation. Things are, but they need not have been.”