Monday, May 6, 2013

An Accident of Language (and other follies of the times)

Sundays are a good day for me. Church in the morning, parents' house in the afternoon, and in the evening I head to a friend's house for dinner and lively conversations and debates with whoever else shows up. Those evenings are a mixed bag, mind you. Sometimes we have a lot of people with great discussion, a few people with so-so discussion, and vice versa. Two Sundays ago, we had a great discussion with an average sized crowd. We talked about the Boston Bombings, which  led to a debate on the death penalty. Many interesting arguments were made for and against, but in the end no real conclusion or consensus was reached, though many thought-provoking questions were asked.

The next Sunday, I ran into a friend of mine who had been at that discussion but had left early and thus missed the end (or non-end). He asked me how it went after he left, and I relayed it to the best of my memory, including the part about us walking away with more questions than answers. He smiled at that part: "I like leaving with questions rather than answers. It helps create a sense of wonder about things." I smiled back, hesitated, then replied: "Yes, but I like answers too."

Now, my friend is a very kind and thoughtful young man, so I understood what he was saying. It's something I've dealt with before (multiple times, actually): in a world of too much systematization, where every "t" is crossed and "i" dotted and no angle is left uncovered or stone unturned, things tend to lose all life. It is the dead, predictable boredom of the machine, with everything in order and functioning exactly as it should and exactly as it always has without deviation, now and forever, amen. Life, however, and all good things (i.e., beauty, love, joy, etc.), are not mechanical. They are full of spontaneity and surprises, bursting forth in newer and newer manifestations, like an endless array of fireworks ascending higher and higher with different colors and shapes all along the way. It is exciting. It is enthralling. It is, indeed, wondrous.

However, as sympathetic as I am to such an image, I could not help but protest to my friend. I believe he has committed an error many commit today. They confuse "wonder" with "wonder," which you also probably did just now. It's not really anyone's fault that this happens; it is an accident of language that the two words look, sound, and just feel the same. But they are not the same, and the distinction between them is vitally important to understand and maintain.

Allow me to explain this distinction. "Wonder" has (at least) two primary definitions. The first is a sense of awe caused by coming into contact with something sublime, i.e., something too great and grand for you to fully take in. We have all experienced this type of "wonder": staring at the stars, listening to a piece of music, looking out across a mountain range at dawn, watching the clouds painted by the setting sun, or even those incredible, incalculable moments when we come in contact (however minor or subtle) with the presence of God. Whatever the case or incident, we have all been struck by an overwhelming sense of humility and respect for (and joy in) the grandeur of something truly great and greater than us. In those moments, it does not matter that we cannot fully comprehend it; indeed, its incomprehensibleness is all a part of the pleasure. That is the first definition of "wonder".

The second definition is related to the first, but is also much different. It is a sense of questioning and/or confusion caused by coming into contact with something confusing. We have all experienced this too: an unsolvable puzzle leaves us perplexed, an unanswerable charge leaves us bewildered, and an unfixable problem leaves us frustrated. In those moments, we wonder, wonder how something like this could have happened? what are to do or say now? what does this mean for my loved ones? where was/is God in all this? how could He allow such things? Those moments leave us in pain and in doubt and (above all) desiring answers, and that is the key distinction between this definition of "wonder" and the previous one. In the former, you have no desire for answers, or even for further questions; the beauty of the mystery is its own satisfaction, its own answer. In the latter, however, you only desire answers as you spiral out into further questions; the terror and darkness of the mystery leaves you starving for a solution, for solid ground to land on.

This is where the error comes in: people do not maintain that distinction. They assume that the latter definition of "wonder" (i.e., the posture of confusion and questioning) necessarily leads to the former definition (i.e., the posture of awe and joy). I will admit that questioning can eventually, through many twists and turns and toils and snares, lead to awe, but it is never "necessarily" the case. In fact, questioning can have the exact opposite effect. It can harden into an arrogant skepticism that sees questioning as the only stable thing, the only true thing. That is the danger that I was trying to avert (however poorly) in the mind of my friend. It is a danger I try to avert wherever I can.

We deceive ourselves on a crucial point: we conflate together the two separate, distinct definitions of "wonder" and thereby unconsciously equate them. Thus, we believe questioning "helps create a sense of wonder about things." It is here that awe can (and often does) become a cloak for doubt. To be frank, this is an error that I absolutely hate to see happen, and it happens everywhere. It is fashionable even in many Christian circles to see questioning and the doubts they bring as some sort of unassailable good. From David Dark calling it "sacred" to Rob Bell calling it "central to Christian experience," there is a certain naivete floating about, rooted in the assumption that questioning invariably leads to awe. Such a stance is nonsense, of course. Awe is not a result of questions but rather their answer, the answer that silences all questions, for "wonder" (i.e., awe) is an end of questioning. There is nothing left to say; any and every word would be inadequate to capture or express what you are feeling, thinking, seeing, experiencing.

That is a fact sorely missed by many: it is the answers that create awe, not the questions. That is what the Bible reveals. Does it have questioners? Of course, but that is not where their awe came from; it came from the answers they either remembered or received. Think of the Psalms. Lots of despairing questions crop up, but they are never the end of the matter. There is always an answer, and that answer is always a return to the truth of who God is in spite of our situation. Job was the same way. He piles up questions upon questions that no one (save Elihu) could answer. Then God shows up, and His answer is a revelation of the truth about Himself. It answers none of Job's questions, and yet somehow it answers all of them, and Job's response is silence and awe: "Now my eye sees You." The answer was the truth, and the truth set him free, including from questions.

And that is the key: truth is the only source of awe, of wonder, because truth is a wild and wonderful thing, as wild and wonderful and alive as God. Yes, He is beyond our feeble categorizations, but those who think they can outstrip Him by piling up questions upon questions in the hope of overcoming Him with numbers and bigness will never approach His depth and breadth and height and width. To understand this in your own life is the actual "central Christian experience": not to question, but to let our questions and moments and circumstances and experiences and every aspect of our lives drive us deeper into our deep God, to step further into His presence, to come in more intimate contact and communion with His incomprehensible Being. To be there and continue there is not to question but to cease from questions, to become speechless, to place your hand over your mouth in wonder at the awesome answer that is God.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013

1 comment:

  1. Wow.....amazing. I needed this. I have to read it again.