Over the past month or so I’ve been rotating through a few different books, all of which are of the pop academic genre. For example, I’m about halfway through The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: How Risk-Taking Transforms Us, Body and Mind. It’s a fun book by a former trader turned academic that describes, using the example of a trader, the physiological responses that occur to the human body when people take risks and experience stress of various types and magnitudes. It attempts to explain through biology why we are wired to seek risks and how, in a modern environment, this can lead to spectacular failures like the 2008 financial crisis.
While interesting, it seems like it’s lacking something. It didn’t give me that feeling of amazement, of wonder.
This is one of the core weaknesses of the modern pop-whatever books. They are fun to read and you can sometimes learn something new, but they don’t teach you to be mindful of how spectacular, how improbable it is that you are alive and that you have the capacity to even read and understand anything at all!
I’m creating a bit of a straw man here, but us moderns treat these books, these excursions into modern research, as if they will solve all our problems. We are always just one Malcolm Gladwell book away from truly understanding how we can be successful and happy.
In contrast, the foundation of religion is awe and wonder.
Wonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of the religious man’s attitude toward history and nature. One attitude is alien to his spirit: taking things for granted, regarding events as a natural course of things. To find an approximate cause of a phenomenon is no answer to his ultimate wonder. He knows that there are laws that regulate the course of natural processes; he is aware of the regularity and pattern of things. However, such knowledge fails to mitigate his sense of perpetual surprise at the fact that there are facts at all. Looking at the world he would say, “This is the Lord’s doing, it is marvelous in our eyes” (Psalms 118: 23).
-Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism
On the surface, it appear as if religion is trying to explain through supernatural phenomena how the world works. This is often used as a critique against embracing religion in modern life. “Well we know how evolution works therefore there is nothing to be gained by reading the creation story in Genesis.”
But this ignores the fact that much of the intent of Genesis is to marvel at creation, reflect on man’s broken nature, and ponder the symptoms of a broken and corrupt society.
There are certainly non-religious works that will make you wonder and reflect on these same things as well, but religion ritualizes the process of wonder and reflection so that you don’t go through an extended period of time taking things for granted. There is a reason that religious services occur at least weekly (and even daily): it’s very easy to get lost in the profane.
If you think that you can just create a ritual of wonder on your own, it’s possible. However, it’s very difficult. I haven’t done a 30-day experiment in a long time and I have definitely let myself get wrapped up in the routine and the profane. It was simply easier to go to Mass everyday or practice Salat or participate in Shabbat services. It didn’t require that I believe the earth was created in seven days, but it did remind me how spectacular and amazing everything is.
I encourage you in the next week or two to attend a religious service of some sort and see if gets you out of your own head and away from your regular concerns. You might be pleasantly surprised.
Or, you know, wait until the next Malcolm Gladwell book comes out…