On the Varieties of Wonder, Awe, and Radical Amazement

Abraham Heschel writes in God in Search of Man:
Awareness of the divine begins with wonder. It is the result of what man does with his higher incomprehension. The greatest hindrance to such awareness is our adjustment to conventional notions, to mental cliches. Wonder or radical amazement, the state of maladjustment to words and notions, is therefore a prerequisite for an authentic awareness of that which is.

...The way to faith leads through acts of wonder and radical amazement...
I agree with this assessment. Awe, wonder and radical amazement are the taproot of the religious experience. But what I find interesting is in how different we are in our experiences of wonder. There are varieties of awe.

For example, a couple of weeks ago a friend of mine expressed something along these lines: "Sometimes, when I contemplate the power of God, how God could just totally wipe us out and destroy us, I just feel the need to fall on my face and worship."

I've often wondered about the emotional appeal of Reformed theology. I think my friend captured it. For some people the vision of a holy, sovereign, and omnipotent God fills the soul with awe and wonder. And, trying to instill this awe in others, you'll often hear people describe the power and majesty of God in these terrible and awful terms. And I'm using the terms "terrible" and "awful" in precise ways here. "Terrible" and "awful" as in omnipotent and unapproachable majesty.

The trouble was, when my friend was describing the power of God in this way I felt a chill run down my spine. The notion that God could or would "wipe me out" doesn't move me to awe. I find that vision, well, awful, only this time I mean "unappealing" rather than "full of awe."

To be clear, I'm not saying one view is more right than the other. I'm just saying that people differ in what prompts radical amazement. And truth be told, I think that's the main problem I have with Reformed theology. There is an emotional disjoint. I just don't find the God pictured in Reformed theology as something wonderful, awe-inspiring, or worthy of worship. Raw power isn't anything that moves me to worship, emotionally speaking. More, I think you become what you worship. So I worry about worshiping power, even if awe-inspiring.

So were do I find radical amazement? Mainly in this: I find radical amazement in the delicate, poignant, fragile, particularity of human life.

I find it remarkable that you exist. How did you coalesce out of stardust? What a remarkable string of contingent events led to your being here. And there you stand, so fragile, so breakable, so rare, so precious, so unique.

The fact that you and I are here at all fills me with radical amazement.

That is a very different kind of amazement from bowing down before power. It is an amazement found in what is delicate, fleeting, frail, and weak. It is an amazement at flowers, seasons, sunsets, clouds, rain showers, laughter, tears, friendship, kindness, the young, the old, grief, loss and love.

That is what fills me with awe.

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29 thoughts on “On the Varieties of Wonder, Awe, and Radical Amazement”

  1. In a way, I can understand where your friend is coming from. A similar line of thinking creates wonder and amazement in God for myself. Yes, God could just totally wipe us out and destroy us in an instant with absolutely no effort on His part. However, my wonder and amazement comes from something a bit simpler: the fact that He doesn't. But not just that He doesn't, but that the God of love that I believe in would never, ever, even contemplate doing such a terrible thing.

  2. Sadly, my sense of awe and wonder has been (hopefully temporarily) damaged by creationists who insist on ending most expressions of awe and wonder with an expression of contempt for contemporary science.

  3. My first thought after reading this post was to think about my own relationship with my children.  Would I be honored if, even as an tender act of devotion, one my children came and said, "Dad, you are so powerful, you have the power to wipe us out, but you don't.  Thank you!."

    Whenever I'm challenged with an idea about God (like God wiping us out and destroying us), I find myself turning again to Jesus.  He is the Word, the Image, the Radiance of God's glory--he reveals God.  And I see there...the heart of God for people...in his love, his touch, his words, and his victorious death and resurrection. 

    What I don't see is something about the character of God that would make me question, or even give thought to the idea that he stayed his hand from wiping me out today.  

  4. Even though some people's encounters with God are terrible, I'm convinced that those who are covered in His righteousness and have had the eyes of their hearts opened to see the glory of God can approach God with a bold amazement and humility. God's glory for me is a happy thing. The glory of God is the happiest thing I have experienced. It's the happiest reality in the universe. It's this joy in God that sustains me through the hard times. It is this joy that sustained Christ through His sufferings. For it was by the joy that was set before Him that He endured the cross.

  5. Not wishing to misunderstand you I wonder if your amazement is with the 'particularity of human life' or with the one in all His fullness who caused and maintains this life?

    I think you do your friend a disservice. You are assuming that He is 'not' amazed by the creator who keeps His creation from poofing into nothingness just because at that moment he mentioned one aspect (and only one) of who God is. Is that the only aspect that leads your friend to awe? At another moment, he might just have mentioned that sunset you so value as a gift from God leading him to awe.

    Do you believe that God can 'wipe us out?' So, if you find that 'unappealing' aren't you saying that you are finding God unappealing? Or do you think you can pick and choose His attributes to value?

  6. "I just don't find the God pictured in Reformed theology as something wonderful, awe-inspiring, or worthy of worship. "

    I have to agree with you there Richard. The "god" of Reformed theology not only CAN destroy the non-elect, but has fully intended to do so from before the foundation of the world. Not much "good" news in that.

  7. The birth of our only child was just such a wondrous experience for me.  The same is true of the one and only time I was able to witness a total solar eclipse at high noon on a cloudless day. 

    And music.  Whether it comes from humans, birds, or whales -- if it is well written and performed, it allows me, the skeptic, for that moment to exist only in the Now.

  8. I guess I need to add that I am also amazed at modern science and medicine. When I don't take my meds I'm a basket case. I've been diagnosed as schizo-affective (bipolar type). But as good as the medicine is it doesn't do everything. My faith in God gets rid of the anxieties so that I am sensitive to the Beauty arround me.

  9. David, I have been lurking on this blog for several years now. I very rarely comment. I have decided to break with my normal silence to make an observation.

    It seems as if your goal here is to respond to every one of Richard's posts with some form of disagreement. It seems as if your entire purpose is to find something in each post to find fault with and then comment about it. I suppose if I were to try I could probably do the same.

    It seems that what we should be attempting to do here is to engage in conversation with Richard and with each other, and largely I think that is what happens. However, it doesn't seem like that is your desire. If I were to enter into all my conversations with my wife or my friend with the sole purpose of looking for things I disagreed with and then pointing them out, they would soon tire of me and I would start sounding much like a clanging gong or a crashing cymbal. Conversation would no longer be possible. That would be sad.

  10. An interesting look at God. While I'd not be considered Reformed by many people, I've found most people who are find comfort in God's Sovereignty. They take comfort that, in what appears to be chaos, there is order. There are so many different streams of Reformed thought that all within that camp don't feel the same way.

    Some would even say that God's divine interplay with the stardust grants them comfort because they become more aware of God's presence in all things.

    As for me personally, I'm just glad there is a God who loves me and has granted me so many things more than I deserve. The great family I have and the love of my children show me a beautiful caring God each day. I bow before God's love because it continues to amaze me.

  11. "I find it remarkable that you exist. How did you coalesce out of stardust? What a remarkable string of contingent events led to your being here. And there you stand, so fragile, so breakable, so rare, so precious, so unique. "
     So beautifully said!  

  12. John O'Donohue captures my experiences with Beauty quite well:

    While Beauty usually quickens our senses, awakens our delight and invites wonder, there are occations when the force of Beauty is disturbing and even frightening. Beauty can arrive in such a clear and absolute sweep that it throws the heart sideways. It takes over completely and we are overwhelmed, unsure what to do or how to be in the presence of this radiance. The authority of such Beauty unnerves us for a while. This of course is an exceptional experience of Beauty, yet it befalls everyone at some time. It could be the Beauty of a person, the Beauty of nature, music, painting, poetry or the unseen Beauty of kindness, compassion, love or revelation. For a while we are caught up in the majestic otherness of Beauty. It is an experience in which the sheer eternal force of the soul strains the mortal frame; the natural gravity of the body no longer grounds one. This causes unease and yet the unease is still somehow delightful

  13. Given that it is not in God's nature to do so, why the wonder and amazement that he doesn't?

    If it requires both ability and intention for a person to act.  If either of these is missing then the act is either an idle threat (no ability) or a null threat (no intention).

    My wife could say she loves me because I didn't hit her today.  But with no intention of doing so, that response is meaningless.  More like grovelling than love.

  14. *chuckle*  Even if the objective quota were 10/90 instead of 50/50, you STILL wouldn't even approach it, David.  There may be one or two comments you have submitted in the months you've been haunting these realms that have been engaging, self-effacing, and substantively constructive, but one would be hard pressed to recall them.

  15. "Even if the objective quota were 10/90 instead of 50/50, you STILL wouldn't even approach it"

    I haven't been aiming at a target.  But, apparently there was one that I should have been seeking to achieve?  Unwritten rules of the road . . .

    "but one would be hard pressed to recall them."
    Quite possibly then, there were none that meet your criterion for a good comment, i.e.,  engaging, self-effacing, substantively constructive.  Alas, I am also missing the substantive or self-effacing or engaging part of this comment.  Would you be so kind as to point out those parts so I can have something to emulate?

  16. Perhaps my reference to "contemporary science" was a bit vague.  I don't think creationists have contempt for science per se, but for the conclusions of scientists that disagree with their understanding of Scripture.  What I hear are statements like: "the cell is so amazing, how could scientists possibly believe it evolved?"  What is missing in these statements is any sense of uncertainty or nuance.  Yes, some scientists use their results to bolster their views of God (or lack thereof), but there are plenty of scientists who believe that the cell is amazing AND that it evolved.  Why am I forced to choose between science and my faith?  Why can't creationists be content with awe and wonder without editorializing?

  17. Perhaps I might make a practical suggestion in this regard. When I'm grading students, I frequently want to criticize and 'correct' what they say but if I only ever do that, they will rightly distance themselves from me and I'd be quite a bad teacher. In my comments on a paper I will start with a positive thing (e.g. 'good job spelling your own name correctly', then sneak in one or two disagreements or suggestions, then end with a positive. I think it's a commonly used feedback strategy and might have a positive impact as a commenting strategy here. Of course, now I've said it out loud, it might also be fairly transparent, but we all have to start somewhere.

  18. I like what you are saying about "varieties" of awe and wonder. I think many who are non-religious are so because our vision of awe and wonder is too narrow. Anyone can experience it. We have only to interpret it in a way that accepts alternate viewpoints.

  19. Everybody editorializes. And everyone has contempt for the conclusions of others who disagree with their own understandings. There is a lack of uncertainty or nuance on both sides of the issue. To intimate that it's only the creationists who do this is is to engage in a sort of prejudice.

  20. What fills me with awe is the scope of creation.  As the middle child in a family of seven billion, I am amazed at a God who can know each of our innermost thoughts, and be aware of a stone that falls on a planet a billion light years away.  I wonder how involved God truly is with this corner of His creation.

  21. What strikes me straight away (and chiills my spine too) is that I suspect there is a very close relationship between that religious paradigm of God-as-destroyer-leading-to-awe leading to the delight in using shock-and-awe tactics on each other.  May seem far-fetched ... perhaps it is.

    I much prefer to focus on the kindness of God leading to repentence :)

  22. Isn't it possible to find awe in both the fact that "God couple wipe us all out utterly" and in the vast, unlikely, unfathomably meticulous and intricate dynamics, great and small, seen and unseen, of all of existence (i.e., the sheer wonder of God's creation)?  Isn't there a connection there, anyways?  I am in awe that God is Love, and that it is, indeed, Love that can utterly wipe us out.  That sheer abyss of compassion, kindness, and self-giving love is also infinite, burning, unimaginable power. "God is a consuming fire."  Is it not amazing that the same force that could destroy us utterly and completely is in fact a force that creates and maintains the delicate intricacies of life and keeps count of the hairs on our head?

  23. If you hold that God utterly wipe us out, and that it is only by his grace that he doesn't, the relationship with him tends to be one of subservience and obedience.  Grateful for his mercy but still cowering in case you set a foot wrong and invoke his wrath.

    If you hold that God could utterly wipe us out, but that it is not in his nature to ever do so, the relationship with him tends to be one of love, fellowship and enjoyment.  Thankful for his mercy and rejoicing that even when you do set a foot wrong he welcomes you with open arms.

    The question is, which view is more correct, and which relationship does God prefer or desire?

    I always apply these questions to my relationship with my wife.  Would I be happy with her saying she loves me because I don't hit her?  No- it would offend me that she would even think I would consider violence.  While there might be right action and obedience on her part, there would be no enjoyment, mutual sharing or enriching love- not the relationship I would desire.

  24. Sorry, this was really addressed to David as a suggestion for commenting etiquette, not to Richard.

  25. I don't mean to come across as saying everything is always peaches and cream. I go along with the Apostle Paul:

    “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.”
    —The Apostle Paul, Letter to the Romans (9:1)“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”
    —The Apostle Paul, Letter to the Philippians (4:4)“[We are] sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”
    —The Apostle Paul, Second Letter to the Corinthians (6:10)“Joy is protected from being flippant by steady sorrow. Sorrow is protected from being fatal by steady joy.”–John Piper
    “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.”—The Apostle Paul, Letter to the Romans (9:1)

    “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”—The Apostle Paul, Letter to the Philippians (4:4)

    “[We are] sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”—The Apostle Paul, Second Letter to the Corinthians (6:10)

    “Joy is protected from being flippant by steady sorrow. Sorrow is protected from being fatal by steady joy.”–John Piper

  26. Thanks for this - I get what you are saying about awe/amazement at delicate, fleeting, frail, week things etc., and that the thought that "God could just totally wipe us out and destroy us in an instant with absolutely no effort on His part" is not something wonderful, awe-inspiring, or worthy of worship .... but I think that my reformed understanding of awe comes more from passages like Isiah 6:5 where their seems to be an inherent awsomeness about God ... the Holyness of God "Woe to me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I
    live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King,
    the LORD Almighty."  .... even the mighty seraphim are covering their faces with their wings (I imagine them daring peeks at God every now and then, but being dazzled and being unable to contain their praise/awe)...... so the emotional appeal of Reformed theology for me is more to do with the inherent awesomeness/ holyness of God that passages like Isaiah evoke rather than rationalising it to "God could just totally wipe us out and destroy us in an instant with absolutely no effort on His part" (which I can imagine might be the only way that someone can put to into words...but it ends up sounding shallow).... its difficult to explain.

    How do you/ other traditions view the inherent awesomeness and Holyness of God (rather that the awesomeness reflected in creation)?

    p.s. I'm missing the sidebar bit that used to list the latest comments from all blogs

  27. It is in the caterpillar's nature to transform into a butterfly, yet I
    can be amazed at that. If someone is not a jerk, can't I appreciate
    that? It may not be in their nature to be a jerk, but so what. It's
    still wonderful that they're not a jerk.

  28. That is true!  I should rephrase my statement...
    My wife saying she loves me because I didn't hit her THIS TIME is a grovelling response.
    My wife saying she loves me because I WOULD NEVER hit her is a genuine love response.

    At the risk of shooting down my own argument, I must say I AM thankful that God's nature as demonstrated by Jesus words and action is one of welcoming love and acceptance. So radically different from God's apparent nature attributed to him in the OT.  

    Now, did God change and now doesn't hit us THIS TIME, or has his nature always been as expressed in the Gospels and WOULD NEVER hit us?

  29. Sorry for the late response. I forgot about posting a comment here. I guess I should have been more clear in my original comment. My apologies.

    My wonder and amazement of God is because I believe He WOULD NEVER hurt us. His nature is to love us absolutely unconditionally, no matter how "good" or "bad" we are.

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