January 19, 2021

Let’s go marveling


Photo by Tim Haynes, Flickr

You are the God who works wonders.

Psalm 77:14

• • •

Let’s go marveling.

“This felicitous phrase is taken from the great Methodist preacher Fred Craddock, who tells of the ancestral practice of taking walks every Sunday afternoon and finding things to marvel at and to share with others” (Wm. P. Brown).

I’ve just begun reading a new book by one of my favorite Bible scholars and theologians, William P. Brown. You have seen posts here about his book, The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder, which greatly expanded my understanding of how the Bible presents creation.

He has now written a book discussing some of the same texts and a number of others to explore the idea of “wonder,” to “follow a biblical itinerary of wonder from start to finish.” It’s called Sacred Sense: Discovering the Wonder of God’s Word and World, and it is Brown’s effort to explore some wondrous passages in order to experience more fully the wonders of God’s world.

I mention it today, at the outset of this Thanksgiving week, to say that I think a sense of wonder is essential to the attitude of thankfulness. It is when we go through life “marvelling” that we find ourselves most filled with gratitude. “Gratitude” comes from the same root as the word “grace,” and being grateful involves recognizing that my very existence, life, and what I am and have is gift.

The introduction to William Brown’s new book is called, “Wonder’s Wonder.” It is a meditation on the concept and an encouragement to let ourselves be “lost in wonder, love, and praise,” as we sing in the old Wesleyan hymn. With approval he quotes this part of the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition:

The emotion excited by the perception of something novel and unexpected, or inexplicable; astonishment mingled with perplexity or bewildered curiosity.

I especially like that last phrase: “astonishment mingled with perplexity or bewildered curiosity.” Here is a sense I find mostly missing in the Christian world with which I am most familiar. I find enthusiasm, excitement, a sort of adolescent exhilaration that interprets relatively banal events with words like “awesome.” But genuine awe — jaw-dropping astonishment that feels as much like fear as joy — is rare.

Brown notes that wonder can spring from unsettling experiences of disorientation, overwhelming us, throwing our preconceived ideas into question, and leaving us breathless, wordless. When Jacobs says, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it!” (Gen. 28:16), he is undone, barely capable of arising. Brown calls this the “Wow!” response.

Wonder can also come from seeing what one called a “sense of perfection in the ordering of the world.” This is profoundly orienting rather than disorienting wonder. Seeing how things actually and elegantly fit together to create something wonder-full is the task of scientists, artists, musicians, story tellers and sages. William Brown calls this the “Yes!” response that complements the “Wow!” Something deep within us responds to beauty, symmetry, and the overwhelming rightness of something we encounter.

We shall continue our discussion of this in days to come, but I want to look ahead a bit and introduce a point that I find key to this whole matter. Here are William Brown’s own words:

In wonder the object of knowing never becomes conquered territory or something consumed. To know something in wonder is to participate rather than to appropriate; it is to be awakened and made vulnerable, transformed in an ongoing adventure of knowing. In wonder, mystery remains, but it remains ever alluring, drawing us into greater awareness. Wonder is prompted by something or someone quintessentially other, wholly outside of us yet striking a resonant chord deep within us. Wonder is being touched by otherness, and it requires becoming vulnerable to the source or object of wonder. Whether in beauty or in ugliness, the experience of wonder comes unbidden, as a disruption and, ultimately, as a gift.

Our cultural predilection would be to see cultivating wonder as yet another method for coming to know God, one way among others. But we do not control wonder. We do not consciously initiate encounters that take our breath away and bring us to our knees. As C.S. Lewis was surprised by joy, so wonder must ever be something we meet, not manufacture.


  1. …a sense of wonder is essential to the attitude of thankfulness…

    …But we do not control wonder. We do not consciously initiate encounters that take our breath away and bring us to our knees…

    Then are we unable to be thankful, unless wonder has come to us unbidden, and shaped us in ways that we could not initiate? Either you’ve got it, or you don’t?

    I would think the reverse is more true: An attitude of thankfulness is essential to a sense of wonder. In addition, an attitude of thankfulness can, to some extent, be cultivated; when it is, it opens the door to spontaneous experiences of wonder, and it makes us capable of recognizing and appreciating them.

    • I’m not sure which comes first, gratitude or wonder. Chicken or egg? I don’t think it’s a linear thing, one to the other. Perhaps they reinforce one another.

      I had similar thoughts though – how does one cultivate something that is beyond control, beyond even our ability to initiate?

      I liked the quote:

      “To know something in wonder is to participate rather than to appropriate”.

      I cannot explain it, but more and more I see the entirety of life as a participation. It’s dying to self. The way of the cross. Still (and without resorting to formulas), what it means to “participate” usually isn’t self-evident to me.

      I’m frustrated (even ashamed) at my own lack of gratitude and lament my lack of wonder. I wish it was within my power to make these things happen.

      • I think I’ve posted this before, but I really like this 14 minute film’s take on the idea of wonder.


      • We’ll talk tomorrow about another characteristic of wonder that may address some of your questions, Mike.

      • It seems to me that if one knows that one should be grateful for something, despite not feeling grateful for it, one may yet say “Thank you” in the absence of the feeling. The knowledge is the seed of gratitude itself residing within; the uttering of “Thank you” waters the seed. In this way, gratitude may be cultivated.

        C.S. Lewis suggested we start with the things near at hand, things that we like and appreciate, rather than those far away and/or abstract. Do you like that hot shower in the morning? Would you miss it if you couldn’t have it? “Thank you”; in this way the sense of gratitude may be cultivated a little bit at a time. Like any healthy plant, it spreads on its own, with a little water and care.

        But I do see your point. Chicken or egg. I do think, however, that if we don’t respond to the spontaneous moments of wonder that come to us with gratitude, we close ourselves off from being able to sense them in the future. Gratitude makes us more able to perceive the more subtle notes that wonder sometimes plays.

  2. I like the emphasis on otherness. The God and Father of our lord Jesus Christ is a God of otherness; he has created a world in which there is much otherness, and he himself is a community of being in which otherness and unity are both equally important and constitutive of his being.

  3. And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

  4. A quote from Christian Wiman:

    “Contemporary physicists talk about something called “quantum weirdness,” which refers to the fact that an observed particle behaves very differently from one that is unobserved. An observed particle passed through a screen will always go through one hole. A particle that is unobserved but mechanically monitored will pass through multiple holes at the same time. What this suggests is that what we call reality is conditioned by the limitations of our senses, and there is some other reality much larger and more complex than we are able to perceive. The effect I get from MacCaig’s metaphorical explosiveness, or from that of poets such as Seamus Heaney, Sylvia Plath, or Ted Hughes, is not of some mystical world, but of multiple dimensions within a single perception. They are not discovering the extraordinary within the ordinary. They are, for the briefest of instants, perceiving something of reality as it truly is.”

  5. I know not everyone here is enamored of Aristotle, but he did often get to the root of things: “It is through wonder that men now begin and originally began to philosophize; wondering in the first place at obvious perplexities, and then by gradual progression raising questions about the greater matters too, e.g. about the changes of the moon and of the sun, about the stars and about the origin of the universe.Now he who wonders and is perplexed feels that he is ignorant (thus the myth-lover is in a sense a philosopher, since myths are composed of wonders)” (Metaphysics). So learning, thinking, and pursuit of understanding begin with a sense of wonder — I agree with that. And if our capacity for wonder were increased, we’d understand far more. What a shame that many people feel that showing awe or amazement will make them look ignorant or naive — or rather, that many people resist feeling ignorant and naive, when that is the first step to insight.

  6. On the practical side, a regular exercise of the imagination is a sure aide in restoring a sense of wonder. Imagination is defined as “…the faculty of imagining, or the ability to form new images and sensations in the mind that are not perceived through senses such as sight, hearing, or other senses.” A sense of wonder is often tied to this ability to see what more is implied beyond the mundanity of the thing that presents itself to us. Regularly exercising the imagination, even in the silliest of ways ( I’m sitting Indian style on top of the car next to me racing down the highway), fosters a capacity for wonder that may have been diminished. At worst it makes the drive down the highway more interesting.

  7. As Walker Percy said, quoting John Cheever, the salient emotion of the adult white Northeastern American who has had all the advantages of wealth, education, and culture is disappointment.

    Not an emotion compatible with cultivating a sense of wonder.

  8. “Concepts create idols; only wonder comprehends anything. People kill one another over idols. Wonder makes us fall to our knees.” -St Gregory of Nyssa


  9. David Cornwell says

    Wonder mostly comes to me unbidden and unexpected. In a moment it has the power to change everything flowing through psyche, body, and mind, interrupting agenda perhaps now, and maybe even forever.

    Wonder writes it own script, makes its own way, and sometimes brings with it a vision not only of God’s history, but the power of God’s creative future. It opens up for us a side of God that is unheeding of definition and wild in display. It bids our tongues to praise, but with a language only partly understood.

  10. I was hoping that the Greek word behind “turn” in Chris’s quote, “unless you TURN and become like children”, would turn out to be the same word as in “REPENT and believe the good news”. It was not. Does anyone know of a program, ideally online, where you can input the Greek word for “turn” above, ideally transliterated, and come up with a list of usages in the New Testament, ideally with English translations.

    If I knew which box my Young’s Analytical Concordance was in I would start there but I’m hoping someone knows of something newer and more sophisticated without requiring fluency in Greek.

    • I thought the word would be ‘metanoeô’, but it isn’t. It’s “Metanoia” is a deep word in Orthodoxy. From what I can gather at my altitude [which isn’t much] it is more akin to the process by which a caterpillar becomes a moth than about feeling bad because you pushed your little brother off his tricycle.

      The word Jesus uses here is strapheô.

      Biblehub. com is a good place for doing word searches of this kind.

      • Thanks, Mule. Biblehub works and was new to me. Now that I think about it, I’m kinda surprised the American Orthodox Church doesn’t offer something like this. That would have been a day’s work figuring out on my own.

  11. I fell asleep with the radio tuned to an NPR documentary and woke up forty five minutes later in the middle of some classical music program with Thomas Tallis’ Spem In Alium radiating from the speakers.

    For about thirty seconds I truly thought I was dead.

  12. There was a tiny spider making a tiny web in the corner of my shower yesterday. Sometimes its the tiniest things in an immeasurable universe….

  13. High above valley,
    Above deep shade coloured with the calls of cuckoos,
    The ring of coppersmith’s hammer high in the hiss of the wind
    Wind filled with spirits and bright with the jangle of horse bells
    After a crisp night crammed with stars
    It’s morning

    Over the scratched-up soil, scorched-earth wasted,
    Long shadows lead women bearing water
    I watch the sway of skirts,
    Think of moist spice forests –

    Too many pictures
    Momentum of civilizations
    Threw me too far over this time-simple landscape
    And I hang here
    In this mountain light
    A balloon blown full of darkness –
    Got to let this ballast go
    Got to float upward
    Till I burst

    Weavers’ fingers flying on the loom
    Patterns shift too fast to be discerned
    All these years of thinking
    Ended up like this
    In front of all this beauty
    Understanding nothing

    Rhododendrons in bloom, sharp against
    Spring snow
    Remind me of another time
    In japanese temple –
    There was a single orange blossom
    At the wrong time of year –
    Seemed like a sign –
    When I looked again
    It was gone

    Weavers’ fingers flying on the loom
    Patterns shift too fast to be discerned
    All these years of thinking
    Ended up like this in front of all this beauty
    Understanding nothing

    -Bruce Cockburn, Understanding Nothing

  14. “I wonder, wonder who, who-oo-ooh, who (boom)
    Who wrote the Book Of Love”

    Not that many of you all were alive to hear it, the sound in the first line was originally a kid kicking a ball against the garage where The Monotones were rehearsing, and it sounded good so they left it in. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qIfuNPbBaaA

  15. w,

    I am thinking of you, Pet your cats for me.


  16. I can pick up a book famous for its language of ‘wonder’ and there, in the middle of my desire to escape into it, reality can still intrude so sharply . . .

    comes to mind that photograph of the little drowned refugee child being cradled and carried by a soldier . . .so frail and beyond our human help . . . and still my country seems so turned away from the plight of the Syrian refugees

    the fate of those refugees calls to me even as I read from a masterwork of ‘wonder’ these words:

    “‘It’s not always a misfortune being overlooked,’ said Merry. ‘I was overlooked just now by—no, no, I can’t speak of it. Help me, Pippin! It’s all going dark again, and my arm is so cold.’
    ‘Lean on me, Merry lad!” said Pippin. ‘Come now. Foot by foot. It’s not far.’
    ‘Are you going to bury me?’ said Merry.
    ‘No, indeed!’ said Pippin, trying to sound cheerful, though his heart was wrung with fear and pity. ‘No, we are going to the Houses of Healing.”
    (JRR Tolkien)

    trying to momentarily escape from the harsh realities of our time can be futile when our choice of recreational ‘fiction’ is deeply rooted in a truth that calls up that reality even more painfully

    . . . and I think, ‘what the hell are we doing,
    abandoning those poor people’?

  17. “Moment of peace like brief arctic bloom
    Red/gold ripple of the sun going down
    Line of black hills makes my bed
    Sky full of love pulled over my head
    World of wonders…”
    – Bruce Cockburn.

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