Religion is what people do with their wonder. — Abraham Heschel
From my perch in aging, now a distant eighteen years from retirement, I am amazed. I am astounded by the wager we make. You and I have this in common: we have bet our lives on a reality we cannot measure or control or prove or name precisely. This reality, in the words of Rudolph Otto, is mysterium tremendum et fascinans: mystery that makes us tremble with awe, shakes us up, yet ever lures us forward with fascination. Furthermore, you and I wager that this mystery, most clear in Jesus of Nazareth, is a Love from which nothing in life or death, now or later can separate us. In other words, you wager that reality in its essence is relational, inter-connective, oneness, love-energy, shalom. And, as if that is not wonder enough, this gracious mystery wants to be incarnated or embodied in us.
So strong was this fascination that you staked your vocational life on this invisible Spirit that, like the wind, blows where it wills. Daily you gamble with what you have, your life energy. Daily you place your bet with the coins of your time — 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 hours a week; 20, 30 even for some 50, 60, 70 years of your life — declaring a wager that can look foolish in a world that distrusts what’s not explainable. You surrender. You doubt. You adore. You wonder. You stammer. You accept being “fingers pointing to the Moon” — so you point. You witness. This fact remains: Without the existence and our experience of this mysterious Spirit our vocation collapses into folly.
Will Campbell was a maverick Baptist in my time. Once I was in a group of pastors where Will was present. The conversation turned toward an “ain’t it awful” direction. Will, it seems, weary of the clergy complaining, proceeded to stop the bitching session in its tracks. “Well, as I see it,” speaking in his drawn out Southern drawl, “life is a horse race. And I’m bettin’ on Jesus.” While the mystery remains with multiple interpretations of Jesus, nevertheless you and I keep looking to Jesus as our way, our truth-full witness and our clue to abundant living. In short: you keep bettin’ on Jesus, so much so, you serve the church that called you to be his body in the world. Amazing. Absolutely amazing.
This re-frame, a full-of-mystery wager, stoked by radical amazement, surfaced with clarity for me against the backdrop of its opposite — my denomination’s ideological turn toward “certainty.” For this re-frame it’s important to understand this context. In the 1980s and 90’s a fundamentalist arm of Southern Baptists gradually, deliberately seized control by establishing doctrinal norms, the primary one being the infallibility of Scripture. Denominational agencies, including seminaries, were required to affirm a doctrinal statement of faith. This set of beliefs served as a knife that divided those “in” from those “out,” the faithful from unfaithful, truth from error. I felt the sharp edge of this knife, so much so, the congregation I served was cut from its denomination’s ties in 1992. I was also dismissed as an adjunct professor at a near-by seminary. I, and those like me, were deemed cancer to the body and must be cut out.
This was my learning: up close I saw the danger of religion that hardens its arteries in the form of set beliefs. Mystery is forfeited. Wonder is silenced. “Right” beliefs thrive on certainty, fueled by binary thinking with its either/or, right/wrong, in/out, true/false ways of seeing. And, this as well, belief systems require opposition to stay alive. Advocates for their own belief system enter the battle for “truth” with self-sacrificial allegiance.
During that fundamentalist takeover a gift dropped into my lap. In 1983 I was introduced to the life and thought of Rabbi Abraham Heschel through his book, Man Is Not Alone, loaned to me by a member of the congregation. That book and his other writings re-awakened in me what was being depreciated by my family of faith — the awesome wonder of faith, hope and love that had summoned me in the first place. We hear Heschel’s voice in these few quotes.
“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement . . . get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”
“The surest way to suppress our ability to understand the meaning of God and the importance of worship is to take things for granted. Indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of sin. Wonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of the religious man’s attitude toward history and nature.”
“Only one response can maintain us: gratefulness for witnessing the wonder, for the gift of our unearned right to serve, to adore, and to fulfill. It is gratefulness which makes the soul great.”
A personal story captures the heart of his witness. Heschel, from a long line of hasidic rabbis, spent most of his years as teacher and writer at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. When he was coming toward the end of his life his rabbi friend, Samuel Dresner, visits him. Dresner writes: “Heschel spoke slowly and with effort . . . ‘I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder. And You [Yahweh] gave it to me.’” Religion, as he noted, is what we do with that wonder.
In retirement I came across James P. Carse’s book, The Religious Case Against Belief. Carse illuminates some important nuances of wonder in his distinguishing three types of ignorance.
- Ordinary ignorance is simply not knowing. We don’t know who will be the next President or who will win the World Series next year or when we will die.
- Willful ignorance is choosing not to know. We may choose not to hear the news of a bad diagnosis or see the contradictions in Scripture or admit the verification of global warming. We can close our eyes or refuse to listen to what we don’t want to see or hear.
- Higher ignorance, Carse suggests, is learned curiosity about what we don’t know. It’s the “wondering about” that fuels scientists, philosophers, and yes, theologians and preachers. This perspective invites us to lead with inquisitive questions, not answers. Only from “not knowing” can we reach for the understanding we don’t possess. Higher ignorance exchanges the certainty of right-believing for paradox, curiosity and mystery. The risks of faith, Carse insists, do not guarantee safe, conclusive conclusions. Rather, they assure the exhilaration of creativity and new learning.
With the witness of Heschel and Carse highlighting the wager we keep making, how then might this re-frame translate into ministry? I suggest two opposite postures. You can either lean in or step back.
Leaning in means leading from curious questions, admitting, even valuing the stance of not-knowing. In preaching you publicly, and with a playful curiosity, lean into the connection between the storied, biblical text and the storied life of congregants. In pastoral care you lean in with curious questions, probing with the parishioner into what new territory their crisis may be taking them. In committee meetings you lean in from a not-knowing position with curious questions that invite creative solutions. In pastoral conversations you lean in, asking open-ended queries, experiencing the wonder of where the vulnerable exchanges take you, the other, and your relationship. Or coming up close, very close to a flower, butterfly, weed or any one aspect of nature, you and I cannot help but marvel at its beauty and complexity.
Or, you can step back allowing the radical amazement of any situation to sink in. Have you ever stepped back from glancing through the church directory or from scanning the congregation on a Sunday morning and felt the wonder of it all — all these people choosing to volunteer their time, money, love energy in common cause, making church possible? Have you ever paused for even a moment in the pulpit with Bible before a congregation and pondered the miracle of this 2,000 year old narrative in your hand or the miracle of your worship space bequeathed by those not present? And if we step way, way back we can’t suppress the awe over being a very recent species, arriving the last 30 minutes if we imagine evolution as a 12-month calendar. Have you ever walked away from a family, whether profoundly grieving or celebrating, asking yourself, “How can people love so deeply and be loved so profoundly? Where does such capacity come from?” What mystery! What grace, what gift!
This practice you can do any time and from any place: stepping back, pausing, focusing and noticing the breath-taking gift of what or who is before you. Immediately you go to that place of wonder, radical amazement. You may even hear yourself saying, “This wonders me — this thing, this person, these persons wonder me!”
You and I are in the mystery business. We work with realities — love, life, faith, trust, community, grace, forgiveness, hope — that we cannot measure or prove or name with certainty. In the spirit of Rabbi Heschel, we could say, “I asked for wonder and God gave it to me in a vocation.”
But we cannot live and serve from wonder and mystery alone. We must risk words and Word becoming flesh, only to fall short every time. This is what we do. We wager. We wager on the mystery with our lives. We wonder at the mystery, yes, but also wager on its Truth. We lean into life with curiosity and occasionally step back in awe. Over time this posture became a new way of framing the complex ministry we offer.