An imaginary conversation with an atheist about wonder, worship and the limits of knowledge.
W hen I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him? (Psalm 8:3-4)
I can imagine David lying out on the roof of his palace or in some lonely wind-swept steppe, considering the stars, the cold light of the moon bathing his flock in silver. He ponders the stars scattered across the blue-black deep like diamonds or glass shards or some other insufficient metaphor poets have been reluctantly using for centuries. He drinks from the heavens a potation made of equal parts mystery, curiosity and surprise. This drink is called Wonder. It is the most universal and heady of the human experiences.
But what is Wonder? Wonder is that experience of awe, surprise and curiosity that makes you feel small, that there is something bigger than you, uncontrollable and maybe even unknowable. Wonder is that captivating phenomena which makes you want to seek the source of awe. Wonder is bread crumbs dropped by God in a dark world that we would follow to find him. In a word, Wonder is worship.
A thorough study of Wonder and its implications will not be undertaken here. But before we get into it, a brief caveat. I am not using Wonder in place of a simple, easily answerable question such as, “I wonder what the weather will be like today?” There is no intrigue, awe, surprise. You could nix the “I wonder” part and still get your answer. No need to bring Wonder into this, Alice, just use your weather app.
I am using the word Wonder in the experiential sense. The kind you experience when standing on the crumbly cliffs of the Grand Canyon or watching a sunset. The sense of smallness you feel when gazing at images of the Hubble Deep Space telescope where swirling clouds of exploded stars many light years across look as if you are staring at the innards of a marble and might just as easily pluck it up and put it in your pocket.
Think about this: There are 100 trillion neuronal connections in your brain. That is a thousand times more connections than there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy. We are surrounded by a unfathomable complexity. It causes us to ask questions, to ponder, to posit, to pursue understanding. Wonder is the driving force behind all science, it funds all artistic endeavor. It is the financier of the human spirit. It’s not an overstatement to say that Wonder, in all its forms, is the best part of being alive.
Buddhist, atheist, young, old, Christian, smart, simple—all of us share in this common experience. There are those who are less prone to be still enough to allow Wonder to alight on their upturned brains, but even the arrogant or foolish may have their mouths silenced by a sunset or a sonnet.
But there is one thought that can destroy Wonder, that can strangle it in the cradle: finitude.
Wonder must necessarily be free to inhabit an infinite domain. Leave wonder unbounded to stretch its arms across the universe and spill over into infinity and it will be an eternal spring for the soul and mind to nourish the spirit. Give it a box as small as the universe—say to it, “Thus far you may come and no further”—and the spring will transform into a cistern, shallow and beslimed with green.
However, modern man with their dogma of naturalism has impoverished Wonder, boxed it in and shuttered all its windows to eternity and thus stolen from mankind what was the most sublime experience under the sun. By closing the universe and dismissing any possibility of Divine activity, they killed what made life worth living.
Now I need to go about explaining my audacious claim that modern, godless man has destroyed Wonder. I would like to do this by talkingabout the most wonderful devices of a child’s life: balloons and magic.
I don’t remember my first experience of seeing a balloon. I imagine it was much like my children’s reactions. The child observes this round, red object, seemingly wanting to go up when every other thing in his world goes down. It dances on small breezes and coyishly avoids being grasped by small pudgy fingers. The child gazes on this alien sight with a pristine wonder I wish I could bottle and sell. It is a joy to watch. That’s why we have kids, so we can remember what it must have been like. I think I’ll have me another kid just so I can go sledding for the first time again.
But you don’t feel the same when you look at a balloon as an adult. Why? Where did the wonder go? It was transformed into knowledge.
I can describe a balloon exhaustively. I could talk about the latex molecules and the method by which they stretch; the light frequency of the white light that bounces off the balloon and is interpreted by my brain to be “red” or “blue”; the interaction of the helium within the balloon, how it escapes at a given rate and the buoyancy principles that describe how it defies gravity. And other sciency things.
I am not fascinated by a balloon anymore because my wonder of it was replaced with knowledge of the mechanisms acting within and upon a balloon; there remains no mystery, no surprise. You won’t find an adult who is still fascinated by balloons and, if you do, don’t let him do your taxes.
Let’s expand our scope a bit and back up to the enormous magellanic cloud I mentioned before. Across the board, humans experience Wonder when looking at this; the nursery furnace of stars birthed by crushing gravity and elemental fury exploding and colliding in the vast coldness of space. Find me the most ardent atheist, a stringent materialist, who won’t allow so much as a fairy fart into his worldview, and I will show you a person who has true, God-given wonder as he gazes upon this cloud.
But there is a problem. For the atheist, the cloud is contained within a finite universe—a closed universe that mindlessly congealed by mere chance and necessity. This universe is explicable with a few laws you could write down on the back of a napkin. The universe is complex and still a profound mystery, but no more a mystery than the balloon was to you as a child when you lacked knowledge of its mechanisms. So what begins as a sublime experience of mystery and surprise is, in the end, a mere knowledge deficit, just like the balloon. The atheist is a big kid and the cloud a giant balloon. Just as our wonder of the balloon deflates with increasing knowledge, so the cloud’s mystery and wonder will contract and come to a cold, grey end.
“Yes, but I still experience Wonder,” that atheist may say.
“I would agree with you,” says I, “but Wonder with an asterisk. If I stood beside you, both of us gazing slack-jawed through an eyepiece of a telescope, I would remind you that in the end, the experience you are having is nothing more than the sweet bliss of your own ignorance, for, if you were able to track each molecule of the stardust, analyze the cloud in each spectrum of light and make a model of all the gravitational hocus-pocus that is taking place, your Wonder would pop like a balloon I was just telling some friends about. In exchange for the joyous experience of surprise, you have gained exhaustive predictable knowledge. Your universe is finite, so your experience of Wonder, in the end, is simply the temporal enjoyment of your own stupidity.”
No doubt he would take offense at this and fire back something like, “Well, don’t you experience Wonder when looking at the cloud? And, if so, aren’t you merely enjoying sipping on the dregs of your insipid little mind? And won’t your Wonder be transformed into knowledge?”
“No,” I would say.
“No?” says he.
“Nope,” I reply crushingly.
“And what makes you so special? How can you say you experience true Wonder, if that is actually a real thing now that you have soiled all over the word, and have it not transform into this banal knowledge? And speaking of knowledge, I find it very typical of you mouth-breathing, young-earth types to hold knowledge in contempt as you seem to do. It is through knowledge that we have achieved anything worthwhile on the earth. Knowledge has saved lives and made them better.”
“Because Wonder,” I shall say, “can only expand as large as the container you keep it in. Much like a goldfish in that way, but that may be the only way it is like a goldfish. You keep Wonder in a tiny box the size of the known universe. Everything contained within can be explained with chance and necessity, according to you, and therefore can be relegated into the category of predictable things, boring things in themselves. You only think it is wonderful because your mind is so little. You know in the end the cloud will end up, much like my little red balloon, completely explanatory with a few laws of physics. You will be as bored with the human genome as you are with a pair of jeans. Why not skip to the end of the inquiry and not waste time on this short-circuiting of the primitive mind we call Wonder—a cerebral experience, by the way, which is completely predictable and measurable with a few electrodes stuck to your head.”
At this point I imagine my foe to be unhindered in his stickiness to his point of view.
“And I don’t have contempt for knowledge,” I add. “Quite the opposite. I respect knowledge and only expect from it what it was meant to give which is structure. Knowledge is a trellis; Wonder is the flowering, fragrant vine. Knowledge is a means to an end, the end being Wonder, which is worship. You make it an end in itself. As if the purpose of building a house was to merely arrange two-by-fours and not to make a home where life happens.”
“So what? How is your experience any different than mine? And if you are about to jump into some silliness about a creator God, I will first roll my eyes and then come back to my question of how my and your experience would be any different. We both would end up explaining the cloud by means of light and energy and such, as you mentioned before.”
I say, “You are right on both accounts. I would explain it by means of the laws of science we both know and I will jump into the silliness of a Creator.”
He rolls his eyes.
“Do you like magic?” I ask.
“I suppose,” he says suspiciously, smelling a trap.
“I love it. I frequently watch YouTube videos and I am half decent at a dozen tricks or so.”
A look of complete lack of surprise flashes across his face.
I continue, “I especially love the magicians who pull out dozens and dozens of cards seemingly out of nowhere. Its like they are reproducing inside his jacket pocket.”
“You know it’s not real, don’t you?” he says. “He isn’t actually pulling cards out of thin air. They are not copulating in his jacket lining.”
“Yes, I am mostly sure you are right. But my question is, does watching a magician like that cause you to experience what you would call Wonder?”
“I suppose I would call it Wonder. But I know it is just a trick, sleight-of-hand sort of stuff. Unlike you, who seem to think there is some salacious card shagging going on inside his breast pocket.”
I ignore the jab and continue. “If given the opportunity, and if the magician were disposed to break the old code and share his secrets, would you like to know how he does it?”
“Yes, I would. If only for the pleasure of getting to the bottom of a mystery.”
“I would as well,” I say. “Though I know that the moment the mystery is uncovered, my knowledge deficit of how the trick is done will instantly disappear. My Wonder will transform into knowledge and my enjoyment of my ignorance would cease. I would no longer have the joy of the surprise. Not only that, but I would no longer Wonder at any magic, knowing all of it to be employing some trick which only needs to be explained to vanish.”
“Well done,” he says victoriously. “You have gone a long way around the block to end up right where you started, right next to me.”
“Ah, but here is the thing. When I see how the trick is done, my wonder wouldn’t transform into knowledge. Rather, it would transfer and grow, like a repotted seedling.”
He looks down his nose at me and says, “I don’t know if you enjoy your stupidity, as you put it, but I certainly do. Please continue.”
“Yes, um, where was I?”
“Repotting plants and the mass extinction of Wonder, if I was following you correctly.”
“Yes, thank you. When shown how this magician who, at one point a muggle like me, through years of practice, dedication and innovation, invented this trick and spent years perfecting and performing it, my Wonder of the trick now transfers to the magician. It doesn’t go away, but in a sense grows and matures, becomes more complex and incorporates other factors like personality, will, desire and ability.”
I continue. “The analogy is straightforward. When I see the magic cloud floating in space, expanding at an impossible rate, governed by all the laws that both you and I know, love and are fascinated by, I can see how the trick is done, so to speak. But rather than transforming the sublime experience of wonder into dry knowledge, my wonder is transferred to a Person who invented the cloud—thought it up out of nowhere, spent time fashioning it, painting it and speckling it with terrible forces. That Magician is infinite and, when my Wonder is transferred to him, there expands and spills over into eternity. Wonder, my imaginary friend, is the smell of God, and he has perfumed the universe with it that we may follow our nose.
“But the real trick is the one you have played on yourself,” I continue. “Your whole life you have been drawn by the strong smell of Wonder, pursued it, studied the objects of it, only to find you are bankrupting the Benefactor that funded all your efforts and financed your desires. No matter how unfathomable they are now to your ignorant mind, all the mysteries are balloons in the end. Since you believe we live in a closed universe, when you uncover the knowledge behind the Wonder and realize it was mere mathematics and probability, not only will you lose the Wonder of that specific phenomena, but all Wonder at any phenomena will be explained by these cold, structural facts. Your world transforms instantly from a lush world full of life, to a world of stone. It will be a sturdy house with empty rooms and dark windows you have built.”
At this he would dissolve into a pile of bone powder. And so would end my conversation with my imaginary antagonist.
There are a great many wonderful things in our universe, yet David’s psalm captures the greatest: Given all the mysteries and glorious surprises in the vastness of creation, what am I that God would care for a tiny speck of carbon like me?
Our world is shot through with the mechanisms of the Magician. Everywhere his curiosities are as numerous as the stars. The Christian is the one who enjoys the Wonder, enjoys the uncovering of tricks God employs through study and scientific inquiry and artistic expression, then enjoys the sublime experience of Wonder falling off the edge of the universe into the palm of the Magician who makes something out of nothing, and calls things that are not as though they were.