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…


  • Acinta

    Thank you for yet another very beautiful and thoughtful article. It called to mind David Brooks’ recent New York Times commentary, “Big Love” (http://mobile.nytimes.com/2016/05/31/opinion/big-and-little-loves.html), also encouraging us to step out!! Thank you again!

    • Thanks Acinta. Just read that article the other day. I’m a big fan of David Brooks.

  • Aaron Latchaw

    Awe-some post! (sorry I had to)

    Would you say that most religious gathering rituals (mass, services, etc…) generate some sort of unintended beneficial awareness? There seems to be a sacred pause threaded into the act of communal worship, I find it fascinating that it manifests without any prompting and to your point, that it’s rooted in marvel.

    I would call myself more spiritual than religious but even I often wonder about this seeming increase in secular attitudes, I find it deeply ironic (like many things) that the secular-scientific symbiosis dances together when it is often the marvel,awe and wonder that drives the passion for scientific investigation.

    Great stuff.

    • I would say yes, but some better than others and it is somewhat dependent on how much the participant understands what is going on. Some preparation may be required.

      I think secular people can be spiritual (though I cringe a bit when i hear the expression “spiritual but not religious.” I think the hard part to nail down is creating a system to cultivate spirituality, somethings religions do very well.

      Your thought about awe and wonder driving scientific investigation is a good one. I’m certain it does drive a good percentage of scientists. The thing I worry about is “scientifism,” mostly practiced by non-scientists who believe that science can answer all questions and fulfill all needs. It almost becomes its own religion or dogma.

  • Ashish Nair

    Hey dale, it’s been a long while since I visited. You’ve done a stellar job with the redesign of the website! Kudos.

    Regarding wonder, as I became more learned and sceptical wonder was lost because I think mystery is lost to a large degree. Thinking about it, there are moments of wonder in my life now, but they all are due to a sense of grandeur, rather than mystery, if that makes any sense.

    For me, considering my mortality everyday is a habit, but that consistently gives me a sense of awe, that I am alive, that I’ve lived this long, etc. It’s bittersweet obviously, but it always reminds me to think on a grander scale, about my greater goals in life, etc.