January 19, 2021

The two sides of wonder


Yesterday, we highlighted William P. Brown’s point that “the experience of wonder comes unbidden, as a disruption and, ultimately, as a gift.”

But this must be balanced by what he goes on to say. For wonder is more than a gift to be received. When we meet it, wonder enlivens us, awakens us, inspires us, and calls us into a new atmosphere of wanting to know, to see, to understand, to appreciate, and to love more. It creates hunger as well as satisfying. It not only stops us in our tracks, it calls us to journey onward to new places. In this way, wonder begets more wonder.

Yes, wonder is akin to mystery, but it is far from ignorance, blissful or otherwise. Philosophers, both ancient and modern, have identified wonder’s luring yet perplexing character as the very basis of deep inquiry. Socrates famously claimed that “wonder is the only beginning of philosophy,” the love of wisdom. Put more provocatively, wonder is “surrendering ourselves to the eros of inquiry.” It is both wonder’s gravitational pull and its “frightening indeterminacy” that keeps the pursuit of wisdom ever ongoing, ever generative and open to the new.

Wonder, thus, is a paradox: it instills a reverent, even fearful, receptivity toward the other, a posture of standing back or bending the knee. Such is wonder’s afinity with awe. At the same time, wonder quickens the desire to venture forth, toward the source or object of wonder. Wonder kindles the “eros of inquiry,” the desire to know intimately but never fully, for the full satisfaction of desire entails, paradoxically, the death of desire. Wonder cultivates an emotional and cognitive openness that is genuinely receptive yet ever restless. Such are the two sides of wonder: awe and inquiry. Born of awe, wonder is intimately more active than awe. Wonder animates: “In wonder I want to leap or run, in awe to kneel.”

• William P. Brown

Brown then goes on to discuss a phrase prevalent throughout the Hebrew Bible: “the fear of the Lord.”

This was helpful to me. We think of fear as an avoidance response, he says, but the scriptures present a different kind of fear, which he calls an affiliative fear. This kind of fear draws us toward God rather than causing us to flee. To be sure, Brown writes, in wonder we “tremble at the threshold of approach,” but it doesn’t set us running out the door in panic.

In wonder God both encounters and engages us, confronts and captivates us, startles and stimulates us.

William Brown gives this a name I find wondrous: “fear seeking understanding.”


  1. Eckhart Trolle says

    Those celebrated theologians, Joseph Bruce and Joseph Utlser, hail the everyday “miracles” all around us (though “seeking understanding” doesn’t quite fit their remarks on magnetism). At the same time, they integrate the aspects of darkness and fear into a cohesive symbolic system. Woot woot.

    • Hmmm, I can find Joseph Utsler, aka Shaggy 2 dope rapper/ producer, but no Joseph Utiser. Personal friend or neighbor ???

    • Hmmm, I can find Joseph Utsler, aka Shaggy 2 dope rapper/ producer, but no Joseph Utiser. Personal friend or neighbor ??? Maybe I need more Fargo..

  2. David Cornwell says

    Trolle, are you ok this morning? I can’t make sense of it as to its connection to the subject at hand. However some kind of “magnetism” keeps pulling you into this place at early hours.

    Anyway, may your sleep be good.

  3. Morning coffee
    long hot shower
    bracing wind
    On my way to work

    A day
    like any other

  4. Perhaps the loneliest I have ever been is seeing beautiful, awe inspiring things alone as I traveled the world in my 20s. What I longed for was someone to share that beauty with to be able to say, “You remember that time when…?” or to just know there was someone else who may have seen what I saw.

    I wish it had drawn me to something more. It might have in that I believe that beauty can call us to relationship. But mostly, I look on those times, and the awe laced with loneliness is bittersweet.

    • Thanks for your poignant experience, Andie. And perhaps it hints at an aspect of the “community of believers” that might be overlooked: the need to share in God’s awe and wonder. Maybe “going it alone” makes us miss those moments of “remember that time when God…”.

      • The community of believers can be a lonely place too. When you are the one person not praying in tongues or raising hands or moved by the music, you are alone. When you are the one person finding something amazing, totally in awe of God and the moment and whatever, but no one else is around you…you are alone.

        Fact is, I don’t and never have worshiped in a church. And I know I don’t relate to those who do and can. The common ground gets very thin.

        • I hear ya. I had several years in a spiritual desert where I was standing in worship service with those singing to the Lord while I mumbled the words to myself and felt alone.

          But I think sharing God’s wonder and awe with fellow believers is a good thing.

    • Yeah, that’s my life. Wanting to share life with someone. I know I can go out and experience things by myself, but they will be muted, incomplete, without someone to share them with. And I don’t want to get used to being alone either. Though I already am.

      • Awe but Stuart B who have you been sharing your life with?????? Oh and by the way Thank You.

        I think you make me wonder!!!!!! With so many here. How sometimes I am left so perplexed. I have spent my life in a crowd so alone and everyone seems to be a little more like me. All week good stuff. Where do we go now. Where do we go. Where do we go now.

  5. One day you’ll look back, and you’ll see
    Where you were held
    How by this love while you could stand there
    You could move on this moment
    Follow this feeling

    It’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright
    She moves in mysterious ways

    • Eckhart Trolle says

      Thousands of dead souls covered in wax
      All of the rare exhibits you are about to encounter
      Are strange and wonderous creations of the one and the only
      Leader of them all
      So both dead and undead please welcome the Ringmaster

      Let’s see where your soul
      Will spend the rest of eternity
      What’s it gonna be, mister?
      Heaven or hell, the bonus or the bone
      Turn the crank and let’s find out

      Linquish you fall into hells grip
      Lost in darkness […]

      If I only could I’d set the world on fire

  6. Looks like a wondering wunderkind

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