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The Importance of Wonder and Awe - Part II

         We began our discussion of the presence of wonder and awe in our lives as being essential for experiencing depth of meaning and joy.  Yet, this core emotional state, so prevalent in our childhood, seems to diminish with age for most of us – and, indeed, the loss of wonder and awe may account for why so many of us feel something is terribly missing in our lives.

        This led us to some fundamental questions that must be addressed as essential to resurrect that magic of our childhood by learning to recognize and fulfill our capacity for the experience of wonder and awe. We must ask, how have we come to insulate ourselves from such powerful emotions?  How does the near absence of these emotions impact our lives as individuals and collectively as a society?  What are the consequences of living below the threshold of wonder and awe? 

Insulating ourselves from wonder and awe 

First, we have insulated ourselves from wonder and awe by creating a materialist culture that is obsessed with cultivating the power that we believe will give our lives predictability and control.  In our ignorance of the Higher order of the universe, we have turned the methods and discoveries of science into a new religion that demands increasing control of all things natural.  Instead of increasing our awe and wonder in response to discovering the magnificence of creation, we use our knowledge to gain power over it by breaking it down, refashioning it to our liking and selling it to the highest bidder. Our obsession with power and control has resulted in a tragically-lopsided perception of reality. 

In the middle of the last century, Heschel identified two basic approaches to the world:  the first being one of wonder, the second approach being one of expediency.  In 1951, he wrote: 

We go out to meet the world not only by way of expediency but also by way of wonder. In the first we accumulate information in order to dominate; in the second we deepen our appreciation in order to respond. Power is the language of expediency; poetry the language of wonder. 

In our culture, knowledge is perceived as power, and power is perceived as the ability to predict and control: the very currency of expediency.  Anything less is threatening for us – just look at how we perceive our world since 9-11. We are the information society.  The one with the most answers wins. Where is there room in this for wondering? In a sound-byte culture, where is there time for living with questions? How are we to live comfortably in a Universe where every question answered multiplies mysteries exponentially?  We either live courageously, in wonder with the mysteries, or we bury ourselves in the sand, looking for oil. 

When Thomas Green, in The Activities of Teaching, wrote about wondering, he said the experience of  marveling, “always involves the confrontation with a mystery, which involves an admission of a kind of ignorance.” In our culture, to admit ignorance is to admit powerlessness.  This perspective is so pervasive, even our practice of religion is permeated with it.  

And it is in our practice of religion, in the cultivation of spiritual experience and in the observance of our children that we must seek to establish wonder and awe as the foundation of our emotional lives. 

The universality of wonder and awe 

In the sense that Descartes placed wonder as the first among passions, the experience of wonder and awe is the incipient perception of grace, because the perceiver stands eclipsed in the immensity of the awesome; engulfed, yet somehow sustained in it.  Einstein described this feeling as being at the center of true religiousness.  As such, wonder and awe are the foundation stone for all spiritual experience; the sacred common base sustaining all religious traditions. 

Awe-inspiring experiences are universal and consistent across all of humanity, sharing common phenomena across all cultures and time periods, regardless of the creeds and practices of religious traditions. Researchers, the UCLA Working Group on Awe-inspiring Experiences, discovered: 

substantial overlap in the reports both of religious mystics, who repeatedly achieve a state of awe through meditation or by other means, and of ordinary people struck by single moments of sudden religious awakening or insight. Mystical experiences seem to vary far less than do popular creeds or theological doctrines. 

        It did not matter what culture, religion or time in history these experiences occurred. There was a common, unifying consistency of experience among those who reported profoundly awe-inspiring experiences. The UCLA research group found: 

substantial overlap in the reports both of religious mystics, who repeatedly achieve a state of awe through meditation or by other means, and of ordinary people struck by single moments of sudden religious awakening or insight. Mystical experiences seem to vary far less than do popular creeds or theological doctrines. 

Given that we all share this common ground of spiritual reality, the question must be asked:  Why do we place so much emphasis on the doctrines and dogma that divide individual religions, as opposed to finding our unity in the commonalities of our spiritual experience?  Perhaps we could begin by exploring why the former is emphasized over the latter in the Judeo-Christian tradition. 

Absence in religious practice 

Anabel Proffitt, in her article, The Importance of Wonder in Educational Ministry (Religious Education, Winter, 1988), laments the failure of religious education in its emphasis upon, “parroting back doctrines in confirmation classes or reducing the Bible to story snippets,” in many mainline Protestant churches, as opposed to recognizing the need to feed and nurture that forgotten faculty of wonder in the human spirit:  

Wonder helps to put our place in the world into perspective. It reminds us that we are finite, that we are a part of something much greater than our ability to comprehend it. Wonder is aroused by sensing the mystery of our life: Why am I alive? Why are babies born? Why are leaves green? Why am I loved? The human spirit needs wonder. We need to appreciate, to feel a the giftedness of our lives, if we are to be whole. 

Proffitt found little receptivity in the church for such experiences and further, “People in the church didn't talk about religious experience.” This is where the permeation of religion by  our culture’s concepts of expediency and power come in.  Notice how Proffitt shares some of the ultimate questions of life as being tied to the experience of wonder and awe.  

Whether in religious or educational settings, we are pumped full of answers by religious or educational authorities before we even get the chance to ask the questions!  This is meant to minimize ignorance and bring us up to a functional level as far as knowledge equates with power is defined.  The ideas of getting into college to avoid poverty in this life, and into heaven to avoid hell in the next, are also frequent considerations.  Nothing stifles wonder and awe more quickly and surely than the introduction of fear.  

Overcoming fear, cultivating courage 

Stifling the impulse to wonder stunts spiritual development.  We all need to experience wonder and awe in order to set a firm foundation for spiritual and psychological development in our lives.  This includes our being  allowed the time and support to ask the ultimate questions.  My book, The God-Shaped Hole,  emphasizes how we must not only be allowed to ask the questions without fear of retribution, we must be allowed to live the questions.  Those of us who are adults can make those choices for ourselves.   

It does not matter whether you believe or know that the Source of you, the spark of the Divine of you, is driving you to seek your true level. What you can trust is your own experience: the emergence of events that will bring states of wonder and awe in a sequence and quality exactly suited to your particular needs. Once you allow yourself to fully experience the wonder and awe that will naturally come into your life, you will come to a level of knowing that will inspire further questions in you.  In allowing yourself to live those questions, you will come to the place of yearning. 

The yearning has been described as the most sublime of all types of  human suffering. As you consciously open yourself to deeper levels of wonder and awe, the answers will come from all levels of your life experience. The yearning is overcome as the God-Shaped hole is filled, where everything else you have attempted to fill the emptiness in your life has failed.  Then, you will know.  It doesn’t matter whether you believe already or not. Whether you are already a person of faith, an agnostic, or atheist, this process will add the dimension and fulfillment to your life you have always intuitively felt was missing.  There is another thing you are intuitively aware of with regard to allowing wonder and awe to be a conscious part of your life. 

Doing this will ultimately require more courage than you have expressed at any point in your life.  Beyond the constraints of our culture, this is the source of our greatest resistance to opening ourselves up on this level – even in so many of our religious settings.  

Next, our discussion will continue with how we can overcome our fear and resistance and learn to cultivate wonder and awe.  

Continued - The Importance of Wonder and Awe - Part III 

Granville Angell   © 9/2006 

Granville Angell, EdS, LPC, NCC, invites you to submit questions for his column. (Your identity will be kept confidential.) Email him:  angell(at)transitions-counseling.com, call his private practice, TRANSITIONS Personal & Family Counseling Services at 704-276-1164;  visit his web site: www.transitions-counseling.com, where you can read prior