The following words, “There’s the wonder of sunset at evening, the wonder as sunrise I see; but the wonder of wonders that thrills my soul is the wonder that God loves me,[1] were the opening verse to one of Christian music’s most famous and adored baritones, George Beverly Shea. But the word Wonder is used as a noun as admiration or surprise and as a verb for curiosity or doubt. For instance, looking up at the Eiffel Tower in Paris and saying, “One of the wonders of the world.” And then seeing someone trying to climb it and say, “I wonder if they know what they are doing?”

So, the real question may be, not that you don’t understand the word Wonder, but are not sure of how you use it in dealing with life’s successes and failures. For instance, in Plato’s Theaetetus, Socrates presents the young Theaetetus with several difficult contradictions.

Soc: I believe that you follow me, Theaetetus, for I suspect that you have thought of these questions before now.

Thea: Yes, Socrates, and I am amazed when I think of them; by the Gods I am! And I want to know what on earth they mean, and there are times when my head quite swims with the contemplation of them.

Soc: I see, my dear Theaetetus, that Theodorus [of Cyrene] had a true insight into your nature when he said that you were a philosopher, for Wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy begins in Wonder. He was not a bad genealogist who said that Iris (the messenger of heaven) is the child of Thaumas (wonders of the sea).

Psychiatrist Neel Burton tells us that in his Advancement of Learning, Sir Francis Bacon called wonder ‘broken knowledge,’ and there is undoubtedly a sense in which Wonder, which may be related to the German Wunde [wound], “openings” or “exposes” us. This opening requires filling or repairing, not only by philosophy but also by science, religion, and art, giving rise to a third and even more holy kind of Wonder, which is the Wonder of insight and creation.

Culture does not state but nourishes Wonder. Scientific theories and discoveries such as the Big Bang theory and the periodic table of the elements are often more wondrous than the perplexities needing solving. Religious buildings and rituals make us feel small and insignificant while at the same time, elevating and inspiring us. Wonder begets culture, which produces yet more Wonder, and the end of Wonder is wisdom, which is the state of perpetual Wonder.

Sadly, many people do not open themselves to wonder for fear that it may distract them or upset their equilibrium. After all, Wonder is wounding, and the Greek name thauma is only one letter removed from “trauma.” To wonder is also to wander, to stray from society and its norms and constructs, to be alone, to be free—which is, of course, deeply subversive, and why even organized religions need to tread a fine line with Wonder. They often dismissed Wonder as a childish and self-indulgent emotion that is to be grown out of rather than encouraged or nurtured to rationalize the fear of it.

So much is true that children brim with Wonder before it is sucked out of them by need and neurosis. Today, most young people who go to university do so for the sake, not of marveling or even learning, but of gaining a piece of paper. They believe it will advance their career prospects – entirely bypassing the Wonder and wisdom that might have rescued them from needing a career in the first place.

According to Matthew, Jesus said, “Allow little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” Later Jesus may have said to Himself, “I wonder what in the world they were thinking?”

Psychologist Thomas Hills tells us that his son recently asked me if we could live on a speck of dust in a much larger universe.  He had just heard that the earth is like a speck of dust in the universe. I’m always eager to promote the impossible, said I don’t see why not.  And he walked about blissfully, wondering about the possibilities.

Dr. Karin Arndt reminds us that pioneering conservationist Rachel Carson, who sparked the modern environmental movement with her 1962 book Silent Spring, wrote a little-known essay a few years earlier called “The Sense of Wonder.”  The piece describes her attempts to help foster and preserve her young nephew, Roger’s, sense of Wonder and awe in the face of the natural world.  She understood the necessity of protecting Wonder – a way of being toward the world that tends to get stamped out of consciousness by the time we hit adulthood.  Sixty years later, in the middle of our hyper-technoscientific culture, it seems all the more urgent that we remember what’s too often lost, and the price we pay for this loss – Wonder.

Jesse Prinz, professor of philosophy at the City University of New York, writes that Wonder is sometimes said to be a childish emotion, out of which we must grow. But that is surely wrong. As adults, we might experience it when staring at the Grand Canyon. We also experience Wonder when we discover extraordinary facts. Think of this, when arranged in a straight line, the neurons in a human brain would stretch the 700 miles from London to Berlin. But why? What purpose could this wide-eyed, jaw-dropping feeling serve? It’s difficult to determine the biological function of any affect, but whatever it evolved for, Wonder might be humanity’s most important emotion.

18th-century Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith, better known for first articulating the tenets of capitalism, has a fascinating Wonder definition. He wrote that Wonder arises ‘when something quite new and singular is presented… [and] memory cannot, from all its stores, cast up any image that nearly resembles this strange appearance.’ Smith associated this quality of experience with a distinctive bodily feeling — ‘that staring, and sometimes that rolling of the eyes, that suspension of the breath, and that swelling of the heart’.

These bodily symptoms point to three dimensions that might be essential components of Wonder. The first is sensory: wondrous things engage our senses — we stare and widen our eyes. The second is cognitive: such things are perplexing because we cannot rely on experience to comprehend them. It leads to a suspension of breath, akin to the freezing response that kicks in when we are startled: we gasp and say ‘Wow!’ The third, Wonder has a dimension that can be described as spiritual: we look upwards in veneration; hence Smith’s invocation of the swelling heart.

And Canadian clinical psychologist and professor Paul T. P. Wong shares this perspective: Life could change for the better when living it on a higher plane. Visualize yourself at the bottom of a grimy pit. If you look down, all you can see is muddy ground. But the moment you lift your eyes towards the sky, your world suddenly opens up and brightens with new possibilities. A perspective shift can dramatically transform your view of life. Life is almost totally consumed by mundane concerns and endless struggles to stay alive at the earthly level.

For instance, a single mom, torn between a crying baby and a pile of dirty dishes. A waitress tries to survive her shift without collapsing. A wife cares for her husband with Alzheimer’s disease 24/7. An office worker tries to get his work done while coping with vicious office politics. So many hardworking, decent people are being harassed and oppressed by forces beyond their control. For most people, life is a daily battle with no end in sight. In a broken world, things have a way of falling apart despite our best intentions and efforts. How can one stuck in a tar pit enjoy the thrills of peak experiences? Is it possible to discover Wonder and awe when drowning in a raging sea of anxiety and depression? But in a higher realm, far above the wreckage of human strife, even a life filled with suffering, shame, and guilt can take on a mystical glow. Consider existing at the God-forsaken Nazi death camps –the barren and bleak campground, the blackened chimneys from hell, the menacing presence of SS soldiers, and the stench of death. Even amid such unimaginable horrors and degradation, Jewish survivor Viktor Frankl (1984) was able to catch a glimpse of Heaven.

Yes, life could be beautiful, only if we learn how to capture and multiply Awe and Wonder’s magic moments. What is fleeting and transitory can be stored in an everlasting river. We may never step into the same river twice, but we can relive the same joy over and over again.

But does God’s Word have anything to say about Wonder?

Moses shared these majestic words in his song: “Who among the godsis like you, Lord? Who is like you majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?”[2] And when Moses received instructions to build the Ark of the Covent, he turned to the children of Israel and told them: “The Lord is your God. He is the God of gods and the Lord of lords. He is the great God. He is a wonderful and powerful fighter. To Him everyone is the same.”[3]

And the Psalmist David declared: “Everyone on earth should fear and respect the Lord. All the people in the world should stand in Wonder of Him.”[4]

Also, to the last prophet Malachi, God gave these words: “I made that agreement with Levi. I promised to give him life and peace—and I gave him those things. Levi respected me and stand in awe and Wonder of my name.”[5]

And after Jesus healed the paralyzed man let down through the roof, Luke tells us: “And they were all filled with wonder, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, ‘We have seen extraordinary things today.’”[6]

Finally, the writer of Hebrews gives us these words of advice, “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and wonder.”[7]

Let us hope that none of God’s children have reached the place where they gaze out at a beautiful sunrise and not be filled with Wonder. Or look up at the moon and stars at Night and not see the Wonder of it all. Or the flowers blossoming in the spring, the forests filled with trees, the crops growing and cattle feeding, natural springs that never stop and do not do so in Wonder.

But even more, see a picture of the cross, a crown of thorns, a wounded side, nailed scarred hands, and the agony of death on His face, and not wonder why He did it all for you and me. Yet, imagine Him walking out of the grave, ascending to on high to be with the Father where He is building a place for us that when the life is over, we can be with Him forevermore and not be amazed and in awe and Wonder that He did so much for those who’ve done so little for Him. – Dr. Robert R Seyda

[1] Words and music by George Beverly Shea (February 1, 1909 – April 16, 2013) in 1957

[2] Exodus 15:11

[3] Deuteronmy 10:17

[4] Psalm 33:8

[5] Malachi 2:5

[6] Luke 5:26

[7] Hebrews 12:28

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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