Research in recent decades by people like Charles Taylor with his book A Secular Age has identified a clear link between the decline of religious belief in the Western world and a progressive disenchantment or loss of awe and wonder. Disenchantment leads to a weakened sense of mystery that makes the conditions for faith in God more challenging. If this loss of enchantment has a negative impact on faith, an important question for the Church is how we can cultivate a renewed sense of awe and wonder in our children, students, congregations, and ourselves so that faith can be renewed. Here, I offer four ways we can cultivate a greater sense of awe and wonder that will lead to faith in God becoming a credible and attractive option in a skeptical world.
The first step to recover a sense of awe and wonder is for us to be humble. Humility is an attitude of the mind that compels us to acknowledge that God is God, and we are limited creatures that he has made. If we deny there is a God, sooner or later we begin to act as if we were divine and so begin to think and act as someone we are not. If we accept there is a God, then we begin to wonder who God is and understand ourselves in relation to him. An accurate assessment of who we are includes pondering, on the one hand, our high dignity as made in God’s image and likeness, our potential and intelligence; and, on the other hand, our mortality and fallen nature. This is why a classroom lesson on the progress of science must be balanced by a history lesson about Auschwitz. As Blaise Pascal reminds us, we must consider both “the grandeur and misery of man” (sublimitas et miseria hominis).
Looking deeper into the mystery of human nature inspires awe and wonder. Consider the wonder of the Psalmist, who ponders: “What is humanity that you are mindful of him; mortal humanity that you should care for him. . . . Yet you made him little less than a god; with glory and honor you have crowned him’ (Ps. 8:4-5). Notice also the awe and wonder in Mary’s humble soul, who magnifies the Almighty who “has done great things for me. Holy is his name” (Luke 1:49).
Humility is needed for us to see what is real and true. Facing the full extent of reality is the only option for us who seek the whole truth. In contrast, pride kills wonder because it reduces everything down to its own size, conforming truth to itself. This leads to the death of awe and wonder, and locks the soul into a small, stifling space. Humility de-centers the ego and helps us find our place in the great story that God has set in motion—one we have not invented but rather one we discover.
Ask and Seek
When Jesus encourages us to “ask and it shall be given to you; seek and you shall find” (Matt. 7:7), we naturally interpret his words as permission to intercede for our needs. Of course, this is true, but they can also be interpreted as words of encouragement to ask the questions that beg to be asked and to seek the truth that is to be found. In this sense, wonder begets wonder. When we contemplate the wonders of nature, like the sun, moon, or stars, or the things that we have made, such as cars or machines, our minds naturally wonder: “Who made this?”; “How did it get here?”; “How does it work?” This is good, for our wondering leads to answers that lead to more questions that lead to more wonder. St. Augustine encouraged all Christians to contemplate creation like this: “Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea . . . question the beauty of the sky. Who made them if not the beautiful one who is not subject to change?” (Sermon 241). God has created our nature with a dynamism that leads us to desire to find him and know him. It is like God has left clues about himself in what he has created. He wants us to pursue these clues and stay on the path of truth that leads to him.
The problem with our disenchanted world is that many have stopped asking, seeking, and caring. The problem of our time is not a passionate debate about whether God exists or not, or whether something is true or false, but a terrible indifference to these questions. We are losing wonder because we have stopped wondering. The soul that is alive has a natural passion to discover what is true and has the courage to go to where that truth leads us. So while we disagree with Jean Paul Sartre who said that “desire is an attitude aiming at enchantment” (Being and Nothingness), he is right in making the connection between desire and enchantment. Kill desire and you kill enchantment. Destroy enchantment and faith dies too. In the other direction, the desire for love and truth leads to the enchantment that gives birth to faith.
Spend less time looking at what we have made and more time looking up to what God has made
When was the last time you gazed at a full moon or a sky full of stars and said “Wow!” When was the last time you stopped in rapture at a beautiful sunset or rainbow? Do you know the magnificence and complexity of one cell of a living organism? Or when did you last take the time to gaze in awe at your sleeping child? Have we become so familiar with these things or too busy that they no longer amaze us? This is why the simple gesture of lifting up our heads is so important in recovering a sense of awe and wonder. We are increasingly more attentive to what we have made and less attentive to what God has made. No wonder Jesus placed such emphasis on seeing properly as key to the life of faith.
Albert Einstein spoke of a sense of “rapturous amazement”—that the little he saw and understood of the natural world pointed to a far greater unseen reality that lay beyond his capacity to grasp. Here is where the contemplation of creation leads us deeper into the heart of reality and teaches us to be comfortable with mystery. We might marvel at the works of our own hands, but the works of God are a source of even greater amazement. In the words of the classic hymn: “O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder, consider all the works thy hands have made. . . . How great thou art!”
One of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is “awe and wonder,” also known as “fear of the Lord.” Because awe and wonder lead to the enchantment that leads to faith, then if the whole Church unites in asking for this gift of the Spirit, a renewal of faith will surely follow. This is the Spirit we pray for to pierce the veils of drudgery and boredom. This is the Spirit that leads us to contemplate God’s creation in itself, without wishing to grasp or control it. May the Holy Spirit stir up in us the gift of awe and wonder that keeps our souls alive to new epiphanies of God’s beauty so that we might come to believe in him.
The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh once lamented that “we have tried and tested too much, lover. Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.” He then hoped that the season of Advent would “charm back the luxury of a child’s soul” (From the poem “Advent”). Through these simple steps of being humble, asking/seeking, looking up more, and praying for the Spirit’s gift of awe and wonder, we can again stand before life with new freshness. If Elizabeth Browning is right and “earth is crammed with heaven,” then may we behold God’s glory in our enchanted universe and respond anew with faith, adoration, and praise.