WonderWonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of the religious man’s attitude toward history and nature. One attitude is alien to his spirit: taking things for granted, regarding events as a natural course of things. To find an approximate cause of a phenomenon is no answer to his ultimate wonder. He knows that there are laws that regulate the course of natural processes; he is aware of the regularity and pattern of things. However, such knowledge fails to mitigate his sense of perpetual surprise at the fact that there are facts at all. Looking at the world he would say, “This is the Lord’s doing, it is marvelous in our eyes” (Psalms 118:23).

Abraham Joshua Heschel
God in Search of Man : A Philosophy of Judaism
pg 45

Astronomers have combined two decades of Hubble observations to make unprecedented movies revealing never-before-seen details of the birth pangs of new stars. This sheds new light on how stars like the Sun form…The movies reveal the motion of the speedy outflows as they tear through the interstellar environments. Never-before-seen details in the jets’ structure include knots of gas brightening and dimming and collisions between fast-moving and slow-moving material, creating glowing arrowhead features. These phenomena are providing clues about the final stages of a star’s birth, offering a peek at how the Sun behaved 4.5 billion years ago.

“Hubble movies provide unprecedented view of supersonic jets from young stars”

How do you combine these two quotes together? Can you see the hand of God in “energetic jets of glowing gas traveling at supersonic speeds in opposite directions through space?” I can. It’s not always easy, though. Building somewhat on yesterday’s morning meditation, we live in a world that strives to explain everything in terms of naturally occurring events. Nothing is amazing or astounding anymore, it’s just stuff that can be explained by science. But according to Heschel, just because you can explain something takes nothing away from the wonder of it being a creation of God.

Religious people and particularly “fundamentalist” Christians tend to take the opposite approach. They find wonder in all of God’s creation but see science as the enemy of God. Any scientific analysis of observable phenomenon is considered a denial of God’s existence. It’s only a miracle if it remains unexplained in terms of it’s physical, chemical, or electrical properties. Of course, by that thinking, we wouldn’t have the study of medicine which saves so many lives. We wouldn’t have the existence of the Internet which gives us virtually instantaneous access to information that would otherwise take weeks or months for us to locate. We would probably still think the Sun circled the earth and that God made the world as flat as a pizza.

Science is a tool and like any tool, it can be used and misused. In the post-modern era, scientific inquiry is often used as a tool to “prove” that everything in existence has a “natural” origin and that the universe doesn’t require a supernatural agent to explain its formation (and never mind that no scientific inquiry can adequately explain how the universe came into being in the first place). Yet science as a method of investigation, is amoral. It’s neither good nor bad. It simply is (at its most basic level) a set of steps that tells us how to look at something with as much objectivity as possible so we can learn what it is without tainting the conclusions with our own intervention and personality.

That’s of course, if it’s used correctly and with its original intent. Human beings have a tendency to abuse tools in order to acquire the results they believe fits their best interests, the truth not withstanding.

Even if used correctly though, scientific inquiry can have an unintended side effect. It can dull wonder, as Heschel states (pg 46):

As civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines. Such decline is an alarming symptom of our state of mind. Mankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living. What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder.

What a hideous way to exist. Nothing is amazing. Nothing is fantastic. No event leads us into the presence of sheer awe at the glory of God’s works. That is such a sad and sorry way to live.

OceanThere are atheists who are proud to call themselves by that name and who marvel at mankind’s genius as it progresses toward a higher and enlightened scientific and social order. As the last gene becomes identified and mapped and the last star in the galaxy becomes classified and planets made of diamonds are cataloged, it all is taken in stride and in self-satisfaction. But it’s all so empty without God, for whose glory creation exists.

Heschel wonders why a “scientific theory, once it is announced and accepted, does not have to be repeated” but observant Jews continue to pray the Shema twice daily saying “He is One”. The reason this is done is because the “insights of wonder must be constantly kept alive. Since there is a need for daily wonder, there is a need for daily worship.”

Heschel continues (page 49):

The sense for the “miracles that are daily with us,” the sense for the “continual marvels,” is the source of prayer. There is no worship, no music, no love, if we take for granted the blessings or defeats of living…Even on performing a physiological function we say “Blessed be Thou…who healest all flesh and doest wonders.”

Where is your sense of wonder? Perhaps it is doing well each day but if not, there is a way to inspire yourself. You don’t have to wait. Just start “doing” wonder. It’s like praying twice daily. Even if you don’t “feel” like it, the feeling doesn’t have to come before the doing:

People are not changed by arguments, nor by philosophy. People change by doing.

Introduce a new habit into your life, and your entire perspective of the world changes.

First do, then learn about what you are already doing.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Change by Doing”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Do you need help? It’s available, in fact, no one can develop a true sense of God alone because God didn’t create us to be in the world alone. As Rabbi Freeman writes:

Each of us has deficiencies, but as a whole we are complete. Each one is perfected by his fellow, until we make a perfect whole.

What we have, we were given by God. The environment around us, our intelligence, our sense of wonder, others among us to complete us and encourage us. We need only take advantage of God’s gifts including the gift of prayer. We need never lose our sense of wonder in the universe or our awe in God. I suppose it’s why Jesus said this, for who but a child has the greatest sense of wonder at the world and beyond?

Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. –Matthew 18:3 (ESV)

Later today, I’ll post my commentary on this week’s Torah Portion Shoftim. Stay tuned.

3 thoughts on “Wonder”

  1. Your post reminds me of these lines from Elizabeth Barrett Browning that capture the wonder that Heschel would later write about.

    “Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes – The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.”

    These are my favorite lines of poetry, a regular reminder to let my eyes rest on these common wonders.

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