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.

7 comments:

atimetorend said...

Interesting in the way Schellenberg describes leaving religion in order to maintain a commitment to live in wonder. The quotes don't note his finding wonder in religion, but I know from reading your blog that you found wonder for a time in religion. So in a way it served a purpose in your life for a time, as far as finding wonder in life. I know it did in mine, it added wonder to my life and provided something which seemed for a long time richer than what I had left behind. But I definitely experienced that point too that Schellenberg describes, "that my Christianity had sought to confine the world within a rather small package." It is liberating to let go of that small package, and to explore the world without a requirement to remain fixed by presuppositions about where exploration can lead.

Actually... said...

I relate to the experience of wonder - what CS Lewis called the 'numinous' and Philip Yancey writes about in 'Rumors of another world'. But for me the wonder would be less without a God; aren't we all limited by our imagination? Is the problem perhaps that we think if we can/cannot imagine it, it cannot be? It cannot be that simple.

Whether it is a wonderful or wonderless universe, it won't depend on our grasp of it... mystery is as much part of religion as it is outside it. I believe in God, but it's a belief that transcends my understanding it, not cowers inside it.

CRL said...

"a commitment to live in wonder."

I think, more than a commitment to live in wonder, we need a commitment to live in the real world, and find our wonder there. To base our philosophies of what gives us to the most to wonder is rather subjective, as whether a Christian universe or an atheistic one is better is purely a matter of personal taste.

I believe it is more important to find the truth than to live in wonder. Just so happens that the truth is truly wonderful.

Laughing Boy said...

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.

Is "living in wonder" compatible with "learning something new" or accepting things "for what they are"? When you learn something, or when you see a thing truly (understand the reality of it) is that not the end of wonder, at least as it regards that thing?

Kevin Parry said...

Actually wrote
But for me the wonder would be less without a God

I can really resonate with this comment as I once thought the same. I think for a Christian it is wonderful to view God as the source of wonder. After all, this kind of wonder has motivated many theistic scientists to make incredible discoveries. But what should a person do in the situation when one’s wonder leads to learning something that clashes with one’s religious beliefs? I can think of evolution as an example. For me, creationism hindered my ability to learn about the world around me by wagging a finger in my face and saying: “Kevin, you are not allowed to learn about evolution. Wonder has taken you this far, but you cannot go any further.”

LB wrote
When you learn something, or when you see a thing truly (understand the reality of it) is that not the end of wonder

Interesting question, LB. I don’t think they are incompatible. I would say that understanding is the final, highest goal of wonder. That is why creationism never satisfied me; it told me to stop wondering about life on earth, and claimed to have all the answers. But at the problem was that these answers did not provide me with understanding.

The good thing is that we can never know everything, so wonder will always persist.

Actually... said...

"But what should a person do in the situation when one’s wonder leads to learning something that clashes with one’s religious beliefs?"
Kevin, I know this isn't the standard religious line - it's certainly not the fundamentalist line - but when I read the Bible closely, I come to the conclusion to always err on the side of wonder.

The object of belief in God is God himself, not the particular culture or worldview that gives that belief its "voice". Our knowledge about the universe should increase, and I believe it can only inform our knowledge of God. Once, sacrifice and magic were universally accepted ways of understanding and expressing the connections in our universe, now we understand those connections differently and therefore express them differently. But the new expression still operates in the same tension of wonder, and it will never cease precisely because it grows WITH understanding and is not threatened by it (as people are!)

sattler said...

Kevin, there's a lot in your puzzle metaphor that puts me in mind of the Postmodern suspicion of metanarratives. 'Wonder' is playful and Postmodernity does playfulness very well. I posted on my own blog recently that I was hanging on to my own Evangelicalism by my fingernails which is another way of saying that I certainly feel the tension between Christian commitments and 'wild truth'. Thankfully there are some Christians who know (to paraphrase T.S.Eliot) that believers 'should be explorers'.