Christianity and the One-Storey Universe – Where Do We Begin?

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I read an interesting article today on a blog for those who are “de-converting” or in some sense trying to get over their religious past. For some of my readers it may come as a surprise that I find this interesting – but I find it deeply fascinating. I do not think that those who find themselves in that position are terribly different than myself or many others that I know. I do not think that they are misfits who have fallen off the wagon of faith. In many cases I find that they have asked questions similar to my own (over the years). They have come, generally, to different conclusions, but I think some of this is on account of the experiences and opportunities that have separated us rather than radically different hearts.

This particular article shared the insight that a particular post-believer shared in a group discussion that gave some account of how he made sense of the world without belief in God:

A couple of years ago, as I was shaving one morning before going to work, I was thinking about a book I’d been reading on evolution. I have some educational background in biology, and I started thinking about some of what I remembered about the molecular basis for life — the fact that we (and the living things all around us) are mind-bogglingly elaborate constructions, assembled from raw materials drawn from the environment by the cells that comprise us. Beyond this, we each begin life in the form of a single cell that contains all the information needed to drive a developmental process over many years that eventually leads to conscious beings capable of experiencing love, and beauty, and wonder. In one revelatory instant I realized ! — whether or not God exists, our existence is a wonder. As I thought about this, it became clear to me that although many of us spend much of our lives in “the fog of the ordinary,” feeling that each day is pretty much like the last and wishing for something more, we are in fact swimming in, and even composed of, a sea of wonder. I developed a strong conviction that this is actually the more accurate way of viewing our circumstances.

There is much that separates my own faith from this particular statement – except there are significant things that we share in common. To say that “our existence is a wonder,” is a far more significant statement to me than many religious formulae espoused by many. It comes, first of all, closer to the place where we live and, indeed, where we truly encounter God, than most abstracted statements of doctrine. It is as St. Gregory of Nyssa said:

Ideas create idols; only wonder leads to knowing.

For someone, whether they believe in God or not, to look at the world and realize that they are “swimming in, and even composed of, a sea of wonder,” is far closer to the revelation of God in Christ than a book full of religious syllogisms. And it is much the place we have to begin if we are to live Christian lives in a One-Storey Universe.

The phrase in the Psalms, sung at every Vespers, “O Lord, how manifold are Thy works, in wisdom hast Thou made them all,” is a statement of pure wonder and, when properly voiced, not a description of a two-storey universe. There is nothing secular in such a statement.

The wonder of a Christian is that the “wonder” of this world is, in fact, the act of a good God who has made everything in wisdom. It is the place where the good God became incarnate and rescued this wonder from the darkness of non-being and has made possible a wonder that is itself a transfiguration of the wonder of this world.

My journey in Christ has revealed to me the wonder of this world day by day and the beauty of this wonder has sustained me through difficult days. I accept the promise that the end of all things will be more wonderful than I can imagine, but it is the daily wonder that I find all about me that sustains me through the day.

When I read a well-stated description of the inner life of one who now considers themselves to be a non-believer I do not despair at their lack of faith, but rejoice that here someone has still seen the wonder of the world and believe that this is truly an act of grace, a gift of God, whether acknowledged or not. And I know that without that same wonder the life of a believer can become a cold set of lifeless doctrinal formulae that cannot do more than dazzle our reasoning. We cannot live our life in our heads, whatever name we call it. We must live our lives in the fullness of our being, which requires that we live it in the place of wonder.

It is in this place that the life of a Christian must begin – if ever he is to live where he is and not in a fantasy.

Comments

  1. artisticmisfit says

    Thank you for this beautiful post, Father Stephen. You wouldn’t believe how many I know with your namesake. I take that as a message. A martyr is someone who has seen something. I believe that anyone who is attempting to live out their Orthodox faith in today’s post-modern post-Christian world is a martyr. And I totally agree with you about a sense of wonder being the mustard seed of faith. Sometimes it seems that the honest agnostics have more faith than the self righteous Orthodox, forgive me. I also like what you said about deconverting. I would call it unconverting save for that little story in the Gospel about the dog that returns to its own vomit. I would apologize for that language too, but its in the Bible. Anyways, it is apparent we are forbidden to return to our old ways if we are a convert. That is unfortunate, but that is the way it goes.
    Its very hard to be a Christian in this cultural milieu we are living in… We are held responsible for all of Christendom’s sins and blamed for them.
    There is no real easy solution to this except to put one foot in front of the other and keep walking up that narrow, hard road.

  2. Jonathan says

    Fr. Stephen,

    Pieper’s “Leisure, the Basis of Culture” spoke to that idea extensively.

    –Jonathan

  3. Reader John says

    Three thoughts come to mind:
    Augustine, among others, said that “All is grace.” (which one can spend every monute of everyday reflecting on and it would be akin to “unceasing prayer” in my book). Einstein, in typical wonder at the miracle that is “matter”, said that this whole universe was like part of someone’s incredible dream. And St. Paul beat him to it 2000 years ago by saying that everything that exists is in Christ. (Col.1:17).

  4. Michael Bauman says

    I don’t dispair at an un-believer’s lack of belief in God (it is impossible to live a life without belief in something). I am still shocked by the malice of many until I reflect once again on what a horrible job we Christians have done at communicating what we actually believe. I am deeply saddened that my life is mostly a slander to the name of my Lord.

    Joy Behar of The View may actually be more correct than she realized–the saints are crazy. They are crazy because they refuse to live in a nice, safe, logical two story universe bounded by what can be seen, touched, smelled and tasted. The wonder has become not just imagination but present reality with an infinity of more wonder open to them. They refuse to be atomized and maintain or regain the living connection not only with God, but through Him with the rest of creation as well.

    What is missing from the recognition that we live in a “sea of wonder” is the realization of a personal, loving creator who is the source of that wonder.

  5. says

    I am so tempted to quote St John Climacus’ Step 18 of The Ladder of Divine Ascent…
    In response to a comment, though perhaps there is something better, so maybe I will wait and keep reading and just request your prayers…

  6. says

    Michael,

    I agree. But I’m more than willing to see someone who can appreciate the wonder and start there. The quote from St. Gregory of Nyssa pretty much sums it up.

  7. says

    I appreciate your post — thanks so much.

    I find that the sense of wonder — of God and of His works — is on one hand only a starting point, yet on the other hand it is a starting point of such significance that the word “only” seems horribly out of place.

    Words like wonder, awe, and fear have really suffered through the ages, and it is such a shame. The words today seem too weak to carry the burden their former selves used to bear, and the time you take in your post to describe the sense of wonder — and the comments made by the “de-converted” — help give the reader a sense of what these words used to mean, and how deserving God is of them.

    David’s comment in the Psalms that “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” came to mind as I read the de-conversion poster you quoted above — such a beautiful paring of those two words, “fear” and “wonder.” Also, though I must take it quite out of context, I am reminded of Yeats’ words in his poem “Easter, 1916″: when we truly begin to grasp the wonder of our creation and existence, we “[a]re changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.”

    Thanks again for the excellent post.

  8. Michael Bauman says

    Father, wonder is a really good place to start I agree. Somewhere along the way, wonder got separated from God and God from wonder. Many who profess to be followers of the person Jesus Christ seem to have forgotten wonder and replaced it with legalistic formulae. On the other hand, many who say they reject God have great wonder simply in the physical reality–Carl Sagan comes to mind. The wonder becomes a substitute for knowing God, not an avenue to Him. It can turn into nature worship and even become anti-human. On the other hand the “noetic practice of the prayer of the heart in search of Theosis” can be nothing but formulaic nonsense that separates us from God rather than unites us to Him. I think both are manifestations of the two-story mind-set fueled by pride.

  9. says

    I agree. But I wanted to give a man his due – and be glad of his wonder. I do think it requires grace to wonder and so I will start with grace. Could be misused – I waste most of the grace given to me.

  10. Erik says

    I don’t have too many epiphanies while I’m shaving. Usually, I’m thinking about how I will manage the area around my Adam’s apple without drawing blood. But it seems to me that if I were to put down my Bic Twin Blade at the thought of something, it could just as easily be in wonder at the suffering and death that surrounds us, the vanity of our (certainly my) pursuits, etc. The other day, here in Nashville, a man was arrested for intentionally dropping his infant child on his/her head. He was having some sort of drunken altercation with his wife at a gas station. (The child was knocked unconscious, but was believed to have suffered no permanent damage). Faith, like philosophy, may begin in wonder, but sometimes wonder requires faith: “At such times, to see the goodness indwelling all creation requires a labor of vision that only a faith in Easter can sustain; but it is there, effulgent, unfading, innocent, but languishing in bondage to corruption, groaning in anticipation of a glory yet to be revealed, both a promise of the Kingdom yet to come and a portent of its beauty.” — (David B. Hart from The Doors of the Sea) Thank you for this post, Father.

  11. says

    Yes, indeed. The faith of all staggers at the senseless suffering of the innocents. In Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, the only answer given to this suffering is the life of the Elder Zossima. For pure reasoning drenched in the blood of suffering children can only be answered by the true love of God. It is interesting that Scripture speaks of the “mystery of evil” as well as other mysteries. I agree that faith, a heart that in purity knows God, alone sees the truth of the world. But again, I’m glad to see anyone embrace wonder. I take it as a good thing.

  12. says

    Post hits home. I’ve experienced this truth recently as I try to communicate the faith I’m discovering to my friends, both on and off the net. As soon as I start to make exalted positive statements about God and his holy things, especially within the context of a debate, I’m taken with a feeling that I’m doing something impious, almost blasphemous. I’m a fool at that moment, never more. A witness (martyr) can only speak of those things he has seen. How much better would a speechless wonder be, and Saul’s cry: “Who are you, Lord?”

  13. says

    Thanks so much!

    I’m not very familiar with St. Gregory of Nyssa’s work, so I’m somewhat at a loss to find anything by him, well-known or otherwise. I appreciate your help.

  14. Jordan says

    Father,

    Thanks for another awesome post. Its very helpful.
    I found this clip of Elder Cleopa talking about prayer one day:

    I think he says something about how to put your mind when you are praying, since God is not delimited, or something like that…
    Maybe what he says is useful to contrast ‘teleology(sp?)’ from theology?

  15. tyler says

    At present, my faith is vanishingly small, as is my sense of wonder. I can remember a time when I did believe, and it was that sense of being immersed in mysterious beauty that helped me and provided so much joy. Now I don’t know if I’ve lost my faith because I’ve lost my sense of wonder, or the opposite. Either way, it is a sad and confusing place.

    I come here from time to time because your words are thoughtful, and they often stir up those feelings of mystery that I miss. I don’t know what to do with those feelings, but thank you for writing.