Finding Awe in the Familiar

The following is a guest post by the user idunno from the Reasonable Faith forums. The authors of this blog intend to use guest posters from time to time in order to promote diversity of ideas and viewpoints.

In his work Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton poses the question, “How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it?” I think the question is of great importance for the thinking Christian to ask his or herself. In our quest to not only understand the natural order of things, but the deep things of God revealed in Scripture, have we failed to be astonished by it all? Have we missed the majesty of the forest for the formation of the tattered leaves scattered on the ground?

I’d like to suggest that understanding, however great, if not accompanied by a sense of wonder and awe at the beauty of both Creator and His creation is missing the point. Actually no, I’d like to make the bolder claim that knowledge, void of awe, is incomplete. For only by experiencing the beauty of life, the love of God, and His creation will we truly come to understand these things. This is obvious enough when you think about love. For it’s one thing to have an abstract understanding of the concept, and another to actually fall in love. One might spend years locked up in a room tirelessly doing research on this thing called love. Reading and interviewing those who have fallen in love. But only when this individual falls in love himself does he realize that all his head knowledge was but straw. To be sure, his conclusions may have been accurate, but they were in a sense hollow until his experience. For the philosophically minded among you, think the knowledge argument involving the neurophysiologist Mary.1 The same is true of Christian truths. The psalmist can sing of the beauty of God’s creation till he's blue in the face, but it will not move you till you've stepped away from the books and computer and seen it for yourself. Yet we can so easily get caught up in thinking that this book, or that lecture will really show us something. The truth is we’ll never begin to fathom the wonder of heaven till we've begun to grasp the wonder of the here and now.

In this sense knowledge apart from wonder is similar to faith apart from works. In both cases the former will always be found lacking without the latter. For we know that a faith which fails to produce change in an individual is dead. You cannot get by as a 'person of faith' simply wishing your neighbor well. Your faith, if genuine, will move you to make an effort to help in any way you can. Likewise you can’t get by simply knowing in your mind that God is love in a way that is divorced from experiencing this love. A true knowledge of the love of God, one that has tasted His goodness, will invariably move you. To put this simply- knowledge of the beautiful must involve an experiential aspect, and such experiences are transformative. And I do believe this is a biblical principle. For the process of our being sanctified is perfected only when we see Christ as He truly- “Beloved, we are God‘s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is.” I John 2:2. That is, in coming to know the Truth in all His beauty, we are forever changed.

The question remains, how do we find awe in the familiar? I can tell you from experience that it’s actually much easier than you might think. It’s simply a matter of looking around you. You’re literally surrounded by it. Get out of the house and go for a walk. Take special notice of the trees swaying in the breeze (assuming there is a breeze) and listen to the rustling of the leaves. Go to the park and have a seat on the grass. Watch the kids play (but try not to look like a creep). Go out at night and look up at the stars and just dwell on the fact that the God who set them in place is the same one who enables you to draw your next breath. In essence- live life consciously. These are things that we've simply stopped looking for. The hum drum of every day life has blinded our eyes. But I believe Chesterton was right when he said, "We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders”. You might think you don’t have time for such notions, but life is but a vapor. We’re here today and gone tomorrow. So let’s make the best of our brief stay. I've found wonder and it’s made life so much more than just bearable. I have found New South Wales.2

In closing I’d like to thank two individuals. First, the artist formerly known as AAQ for badgering me into reading Orthodoxy (a work in progress). And second, the one I will simply refer to as Graceful.  You’re a new found source of inspiration. “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Philippians 4:8

1. For those unfamiliar, Mary is the star of a thought experiment by the philosopher Frank Jackson; the thought experiment defends the Knowledge Argument.  Here's a link to a brief video that explains it.  The guy being interviewed, by the way, is John Searle.  He's kind of a big deal in the world of philosophy, especially philosophy of mind.
2.  idunno is alluding to an analogy by Chesterton in Orthodoxy itself.  Rather than doing the analogy grave injustice by trying to explain it, we urge you to read the book!
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  1. "Actually no, I’d like to make the bolder claim that knowledge, void of awe, is incomplete."

    I want to say that it's not only incomplete, but somewhat perverse. See, the irony of it all is that where there is knowledge without wonder than there is a sense that something has been grasped when nothing has been understood. Thus, the very sliver of wonder that was left for the heady among us (and I say this because it's a personal reflection) is completely lose and never to be found unless someone wakes you up--someone like Chesterton.

    "There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.” --Chesterton

    Maybe that's why Jesus is so odd and special and real and inescapable. Maybe, just maybe, Jesus shows us what it means to be truly human for, as Chesterton said, if the Fall means anything it means that whatever I am, I am not myself, and that's why He's so utterly authentic.


  2. Thanks again, AAQ, for the recommendation. Given the timeliness of your recommending it, and the similar natuture of Graceful's influence on me (as though we were discussing Chesterton's Romanticism before ever hearing of it), I must conclude the hand of Providence was involved.


  3. idunno, for a second there, I thought you were in NSW and was gonna' organise a meet-up!

    I loved this post. Your deep thought as well as your humour came through, and it was substantive. My favourite line:

    "In essence- live life consciously."

    I'll try.


  4. Firstly, I am very proud of you idunno for writing this post and being open to "change", as I know that this topic was a rather spontaneous redirection of focus.

    Secondly, thank you AAQ for "badgering" idunno for so long. You helped loosen the lid and I agree... it would have been perverse to lose such a noble heart for God to "years locked up in a room tirelessly doing research" on things that could end up being quite hollow if not filled with the wonder of His essence.

    And lastly, always remember to "try and not look like a creep" because that is very important.


  5. I kinda agree that there is a relationship between awe and knowledge of God and God's creation. Knowing God truly provides a reason for awe, but it was only when Isaiah was struck by the magnificence of Yahweh in a personal experience, that the occasion for awe came to be.


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  7. Great post!

    The Eastern Orthodox, if I recall correctly, distinguish God's Essence- who he actually is, which is mysterious- from his Energies- his acts, creation, miracles, etc. While God has graced us with an ability to be in touch with his Energies, idunno's post strikes me as positing a way to in fact be in touch with our Father's Essence- living with a conscious sense of wonder and awe (hey, he literally said "In essence- live life consciously"). God in his omniscience literally knew the every working of his creation down to the minutiae, yet he stood back and said it all was "good (some translations: "very good")." Given we are after all made in his image and filled with the Spirit, it seems then that to be in awe, in wonder, is to be in touch with His otherwise mysterious Essence- a Holy Communion indeed!

  8. Ruben, with Michael's constantly offering up his couch my visiting you guys is seeming more and more possible. Do try to live life thusly, as you won't regret it.

    Graceful, as ever, thank you for being you. A writer is only as good as his inspiration. And I'm sorry my physical appearance is creepy ;p

    Troy, I almost included Isaiah's experience.

    Steve, that's interesting. I'll have to look into that.