Sunday, February 21, 2010

The cost of wonder

I often describe my walk away from Christianity as a failed exercise in puzzle building. Growing up, we all struggle to build a puzzle of understanding about life, the universe, and the nature of existence. I think my Christian faith started to take strain when I began to realise that the puzzle forming in my mind – each piece representing a new insight gained by understanding or experience – was starting to look less and less like the box cover Christianity had given me, a box cover that claimed to have all the answers.

In an attempt to match the Christian paradigm, I tried unsuccessfully for a while to force pieces together that didn't fit. I gave up in the end, finally deciding to throw the box away, as it was unsatisfying in meeting the demands imposed by my thirst for understanding.This image of the Puzzle of Life came back to me when reading an essay written by J.L. Schellenberg, Professor of Philosophy at Mount Saint Vincent University in Canada, in the book 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists. Schellenberg, an atheist himself, describes his own journey away from faith, and argues that his sense of wonder was a major cause. On page 28:

Plato says that philosophy begins in wonder. What he doesn't tell you is that many things end in wonder too. One of the things that ended for me as I sought to conform my life to the ever-expanding sense of the world’s wonderful complexity was religious belief.

His essay resonates with me, probably because I can identify with his sense of wonder, but also because I can relate to his story. At a young age, Schellenberg channelled his wonder through religion, but as he started to learn about himself and the world around him, he slowly realised that – when it came to the complexities of the universe, history, and the human condition – the
answers provided by the type of Christianity he had grown up with were far too simplistic and shallow (pg 28):

What I swiftly discovered was that my Christianity had sought to confine the world within a rather small package. The world could not be thus confined! Carefully smoothed into a Christian shape, it kept bursting free. And I discovered that, even without God or Christ, wonder remained.

Schellenberg describes his sense of loss after leaving the faith (pg 30):

It hurts to have your neat picture of the world torn to shreds, your emotions left jangling. But no one said that a commitment to live in wonder, straining for real insights and understanding, comes without cost.

I like that phrase: a commitment to live in wonder. I think that if there is any phrase that describes the basis of my current worldview and the reason why I get up in the morning, that would be it. But I also realise that a commitment to live in wonder can come with a difficult cost: the cost of changing one's mind about things when learning something new, of leaving behind cherished beliefs when you suddenly accept things for what they are, not for what you want or hope them to be.