"Our culture has filled our heads but emptied our hearts, stuffed our wallets but starved our wonder. It has fed our thirst for facts but not for meaning or mystery. It produces "nice" people, not heroes.” –Peter Kreeft
“Wonder is the desire for knowledge.” –Thomas Aquinas
These days there is a debate between science and faith, and I think “wonder” is the solution that will reconcile them. When I was in high school, I used to be filled with wonder when it came to sunsets and sunrises. Every morning on the way to school, I would be so overjoyed when I saw a beautiful sunrise; if I had a challenging day ahead, those sunrises gave me courage because they reminded me of God’s particular love for me. Sunrises were God's way of speaking to me at that point in my life; they reminded me of His beauty, despite all the ugly trials of life. Depending on the time I arrived at school, I would sometimes either sit in the car in silence as I watched the sun rise, or step outside on the stairwells of school and look out as the vibrant, golden light spread across the green fields of grass, or fell on the walls of the building. I would cherish that light.
On the way home after track practice, the sun was setting, so sometimes I would pull over in a parking lot that had a good view, and just enjoy the sunset with God. I would be in wonder at how the clouds caught the sunlight, at how slowly and persistently the clouds marched on to the horizon (as opposed to the cars stopping and going, stopping and going for the streetlights, like our hurried, racing thoughts) and at how the sunlight moved across the clouds, sometimes like a hand waving, or an eye shutting before the last rays of rich orange disappeared, leaving the sky empty, silent, and at peace.
My point is this: I was filled with wonder at sunrises and sunsets, and they taught me so much. And that is what wonder is. To be intrigued by an object, to therefore seek knowledge of it, and to delight in it without ever feeling or thinking that you know it completely, or have experienced it completely.
I think Kreeft puts it very well. With all of the scientific data we have, we think we know everything. Now, there are a few problems with thinking that way, but one that sticks out to me is: if we know everything, then all the fun and beauty disappears from life. Some might cease to wonder at the sunrise, because all they think when they see it is the factual data. Are you fine with saying that when you look into another person’s eyes, all that you are experiencing is explainable by the concept of “cells” (or whatever they’ll say- I’ll just use “cells”)? What’s the point of poetry, then, and if there is one answer to everything (cells interacting with one another), then why do we find so many different ways of expressing things? Why are we able to gain so many perspectives on the world--scientific, poetic, theological? To say it’s all just cells interacting, or atoms bouncing off each other, is like saying, “now that we have iTunes we no longer need music”!
This isn’t to say that we should not pursue scientific knowledge. We should! But we must not pretend to know why something happens when we merely know how it happens. This is not science, but only the distortion of it into a cookie-cutter conception of the world called Scientism. Wonder disagrees with Scientism, the view that “science alone can put us in touch with the ultimate depths of the world,” but not with science. Good science embraces wonder because science humbly and patiently studies the world.
Heroes such as St. Maximilian Kolbe and Martin Luther King Jr. cannot be explained through cells and chemicals alone. Science simply does not do justice to our total experience. Cells and chemicals might explain an aspect of our experience; indeed it does do this, but it does not explain the whole of it. Scientism changes the questions we are asking, and pretends that it doesn’t. The real question we humans ask is “why do humans do what we do?”, and Scientism answers that question with the answer to a different question: “how do humans do what we do?” Most of the time, when we hear the "how" answer, we recognize that it is a true explanation of what happens, but we don’t recognize that it is a true answer to a different question. That’s why Scientism is so alluring, but the question matters as much as the answer.
I’m beginning to learn that much of the misunderstandings/errors of life come about because someone takes an aspect of something and explains it as if it is the whole thing. The next time you deeply feel that something a person says is wrong, but can't exactly put your finger on what it is, try thinking of what is true about their statements, but also what aspect(s) of the truth they are leaving out.
For knowledge to be preserved, it must be saved by humility, by Wonder, which has as its starting point an understanding that the truth of life is an inexhaustible truth, about which one can think forever, constantly discovering new things, and always finding more meaning, more beauty, simply more to be known and valued in what you have found. And Wonder also causes us to seek to know what we experience better, like my experience with sunrises and sunsets. A perfect example was given this past Sunday on the Feast of the Epiphany: the “Star of Wonder” which we sing of in the Christmas Carol “We Three Kings.” Science tells us that the Star was probably a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, or maybe a comet or a supernova. For the Magi, though, this Star of Wonder was more than that; it led precisely to Jesus, God Incarnate, who is the eternal Mystery. I am convinced that all true Wonder leads to Christ, precisely because He is the deepest beauty, the deepest Mystery. Science cannot explain why, but Wonder pulls us deeper into that question, and leads us, like it led the Magi and myself when I was in high school, to Christ.
In summary, Faith and Science have no quarrel, but Faith and Scientism do. Scientism stuffs our heads with facts, but starves our hearts. It limits us to asking the “how” question, and pretends the “why” question doesn’t exist. Scientism has given us true answers, but for the wrong questions. Let’s start asking the right questions again, and the answers which fill our heads and hearts but still somehow retain their mystery and wonder in us are the answers which we should seek. It is not a matter of knowing less or more, but of remembering why you seek to learn in the first place.
Since we are in a world which is so fallen and corrupt, the paradoxical answer which doesn’t make sense to the logic of the world (but actually does make perfect sense) sounds like a sure bet to me, and there is only one King of paradox and mystery, and His name is Jesus Christ. The only Being who could do just fine on His own chooses to help those who receive everything from Him; He is Creator of Man, yet He Himself became man; He died for us in order to rise for us; He tells us that those who love their life will lose it and those who lose their life for His sake will save it; He tells adults to become like children again, and many more examples could be given. So much paradox.
It has worked wonders in my life and in the lives of thousands of Saints throughout centuries of history and across the world who say such things as their "deepest sorrows becoming their greatest joys" when they unite those sorrows to the Cross of Jesus Christ for love of Him and those He loves. Those are the heroes I’m looking for; I'll search for that kind of Knowledge; I’ll live for that kind of Love. "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55: 9) Ultimately, Wonder at things such as the sunrise are not ends in themselves, but lead us as the “Star of Wonder”, which led the Magi, to contemplate the face of Christ Himself.