The Need For Awe And Wonder (2 of 3)

So I move on with my view. Growing up in the Central Valley, minutes away from the beginning of the Sierra Nevada’s, 90 minutes away from Yosemite, approximately the same for King’s Canyon, I spent a lot of time in the mountains. I cannot begin to express my love for the mountains. I find it so poetic that the invisible hand of God led me to spend three years in Germany in the Bavarian Alps while in the Army where my love of mountains grew even deeper.

When a youngster I wouldn’t have been able to express this me but my older sister and brother can attest to it. I spent a lot of time observing, just taking in information I had no idea how to define. When the family wanted to go someplace you’d hear mom yell out, “Where’s Dennis?” and the answer would come back he’s looking out the window, just looking.

I’ve told this story before when writing about perfection, an English word we’ve messed up the meaning, especially as Christians. Aristotle loved to sit under a live oak tree and just observe what he saw. He took notice of an acorn falling off the tree he sat under and this was something he observed often over time. As he began to spread out his gaze he noticed new oak trees growing observing those new trees in different stages of growth. He understood that those acorns dropping from those mature trees rooted in the ground; and it was from these acorns new trees came into being. His mind naturally understood he was observing a cycle of life, at least the life of an oak tree. The cycle spoke to Aristotle of maturity, or completeness. The purpose of the oak tree was to mature, produce acorns, release those acorns to the ground where they would develop into a new oak tree that would produce acorns and the process continued on forever. He called this telios, perfection. While the tree didn’t meet a rationalized definition of perfection, no flaws, it didn’t matter, it didn’t stop its purpose which was to reproduce itself.

This was certainly a lesson I read from Genesis. Those characters like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses were not without flaws and yet they fulfilled their purpose God gave them and could be counted as perfect.

There is so much I learned just by observing everything on the farm and the heavens above and sitting under those pine trees in the deep forest asking unstated questions not looking for immediate answers but just allowing what I saw to flood through me. It was a kind of mystical experience but not a religious one, just me connecting with what God created and feeling God.

Years later when I was teaching a young married’s Sunday School class I brought this to the class teaching out of one of my favorite inspirational books: Man Is Not Alone by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Let me share with you just some quotes from that book:

“What characterizes man is not only his ability to develop words and symbols, but also his being compelled to draw a distinction between the utterable and the unutterable, to be stunned by that which is but cannot be put into words.”

“The ineffable inhabits the magnificent and the common, the grandiose and the tiny facts of reality alike.”

“Part company with preconceived notions, suppress your learning to reiterate and to know in advance of your seeing, try to see the world for the first time with eyes not dimmed by memory or volition, and you will detect that you and the things that surround you—trees, birds, chairs—are like parallel lines that run close and never meet.”

“The greatest hindrance to knowledge is our adjustment to conventional notions, to mental clichés. Wonder or radical amazement, the state of maladjustment to words and notions, is, therefore, a prerequisite for an authentic awareness of that which is.”

“Reason and wonder. Through the first we try to explain or to adapt the world to our concepts, through the second we seek to adapt out minds to the world.”

It is such a valuable book I recommend you read it and it’s still in print. Another book I taught from in that class, which too is still in print, is Apology for Wonder, by philosopher Sam Keen. He writes:

“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 [ordinary].”

“Wonder begins with the element of surprise. The now almost obsolete word ‘wonderstruck’ suggest that wonder breaks into consciousness with a dramatic suddenness that produces amazement or astonishment.”

“The first response moves from puzzlement to curiosity to a search for explanation.”

“Ontologic wonder—the shocking awareness that the world exists and does not contain its own explanation. Things are, but they need not have been.”

“The idea that the world is a cosmos contains at least three interrelated affirmations which must be separated for analysis: reality is a unified totality; its harmony is complex and rhythmic; and some sacred power creative of value is at work at the heart of nature, man, and society.”

The point is that without awe and wonder we know nothing important and lose our access to knowledge. Being stuck in the concrete jungle of the city we soon lose all understanding of the real. We certainly lose the reality of God.

Thomas Jefferson writing to a friend commenting on the debate over the Bill of Rights wished the United States would remain a rural nation, an agrarian nation. Today there is a political and cultural war of sorts between the rural middle of the nation and the heavily populated and citified coasts and northern industrial states.

I grew up in central California, heavily agricultural, my small town of 5,000 now a metropolis of over 100,000. Most of that farm land (where I grew up included) now tract homes. City people have always thought differently than country folk. City people become increasingly liberal, country folk remain mostly conservative. City people look to everyone to do for them, especially the government, country folk do it for themselves, government stay away. City people take culture and push it to new definitions of modernism, country folk keep to traditional culture, or at least shape the new out of traditional values.

I’ve lived in both worlds. I recognize my loss living in the city. I now live in Southern California that today is one giant city stretching from Oxnard to San Bernardino, some 116 miles west to east and from Castaic to San Diego, 160 miles north to south. Not that long ago when I was young and my family would visit both my dad’s family and my mom’s family in Southern California there was still large swatches of rural land being farmed, now you might find a plot or two growing strawberries, or a few vegetables.

When Copernicus was alive, and later Galileo came into the world 200 years later there were no bright city lights dulling or obliterating the night sky. Every night, except nights when there were storms, their sky was filled with millions and billions of blinking lights and awe and wonder always filled one looking up.

I know I’m romanticizing the night sky, the mountains, the beauty of nature, but sitting under the tree in my front yard or the tree in one of my several city parks it’s so hard to find God in a man-made world. Not that you can’t, it’s just more difficult to get into a mental place, that quiet place of awe and wonder and reverence where you can step out of yourself more than two inches.

However the cosmos became the cosmos, whether it was always here in a steady state theory kind of way or began with a bang and seconds later began an expansion like a balloon filling with air. In the immensity of all this on a chunk of rock we stand, breathing air, drinking water, eating fruits and vegetables. 

Again we are caught up in a false narrative that there is a war between science and religion over the Big Bang; science declaring it true, the church arguing against it because it doesn’t fit it’s theology, again an argument the Bible doesn’t take up. But wait, the real war isn’t between church and science, it’s between cosmological scientists, an internal war with each side declaring “this is how it is,”, one side laying out evidence for a steady state, the other side a big bang.

In 1931, Georges Lemaître, a Belgian Roman Catholic Priest, who after WWI studied physics and mathematics and attended graduate school in astronomy at the University of Cambridge in England began working on an idea we would later call the Big Bang. 

“Lemaître argued that, if matteris everywhere receding, it would seem natural to suppose that in the distant past it was closer together, and that, if we go far enough back, we reach a time at which the entire universewas in an extremely compact and compressed state. He spoke, rather vaguely, of some instability being produced by radioactive decayof the primal atomthat was sufficient to cause an immense explosion that initiated the expansion of the universe.” (The Physics of the Universe.)

This came up against four, at least, major problems pointed out by Ben Hoyle, English astronomer and cosmologist; Tommy Gold, an Austrian-born astrophysicist; and Herman Bondi, anAnglo-Austrian mathematician and cosmologist, the three arguing against Lemaître in support of a steady state—“an unvarying condition in a physical process, especially as in the theory that the universe is eternal and maintained by constant creation of matter.” The point of this discussion is that we all fall into dogmatism—“the tendency to lay down principles as incontrovertibly true, without consideration of evidence or the opinions of others.” This happens to Christians, religious people of any faith, atheists, and scientists. When we fall into this trap we set up battle positions and we no longer look for truth because we believe we have it.