Science and Belief

Awe and Wonderers

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Image courtesy of http://www.sxc.hu

All scientists get to feel a sense of wonder at some point in their career, whether it comes from the interpretation of a new data set, the observation of a surprising phenomenon, or something particularly beautiful. They may come to different conclusions about what they’ve seen and what it points to, but wonder seems to be part of the package for a scientist.

I remember wondering as a child how my food and drink knew where to go in my body when I swallowed them, in order for their waste products to exit so neatly from different places. I was clearly destined to be a biologist. The answer provided by my medical parents – that food and drink were swallowed down the same ‘tube’ and mixed up in my stomach – was not as satisfying as a the complex series of pipes that I had imagined, and I lost interest. But when I studied biology in more depth at university I learned about the exquisite physiological detail and complex biochemistry of the gut, liver and kidney, and my sense of wonder at the way my body works returned.

Having established a link between wonder in science and the ‘transcendent’ in previous posts, it’s worth exploring the concept of wonder in theology. Does God wonder? Some will say that we wonder because we are made in the image of God, but if God is truly omniscient then he has nothing to wonder about, does he?[1] The Bible describes how God delights in the good things he sees in the world, but wonder always seems to be on the human side. So why do we wonder? Perhaps because it is part of our commission: a gift so that we can fulfil our God-given potential as stewards of the earth. You could approach the question from another angle and say that we are a species that has developed with a highly developed sense of wonder, therefore God could call us to follow him. Either way, experiencing wonder seems to be an important part of being human.[2]

The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and New Testament are full of awe and wonder, but in the average English translation there are about twice as many mentions of the word wonder than awe.[3] I think this reflects something of the way God chooses to work. It’s good to feel awe, but we also need to be active and use our brains. The Old Testament is crammed full of accounts of God using ‘signs and wonders’ to teach people what he is like. God does wonderful deeds, and his love and his law are described as wonderful.[4] In the New Testament, and particularly in the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), people wonder at Jesus’ miracles and teaching. They wonder at the course of events: why did God choose to work through an articulate carpenter? The story of Jesus’ birth is especially marked by wonder: everyone involved in this extraordinary sequence of events is left wondering what is about to happen through this child. God doesn’t always provide answers, but he does identify with us and make us think. As Olaf Pedersen quickly discovered in his physics lessons, the more roundabout process is often a far more effective method of teaching.

On closer examination, it turns out that wonderful events are often ambiguous in their outcome. In the Old Testament, people often forgot what God had done and returned to their old ways. In the New Testament, wonders provoked people to think and this resulted in a decision: either towards belief or disbelief. Miracles alone wouldn’t convince them that Jesus was from God. [5] Jesus knew this, so when people demanded a miraculous sign for its own sake he never gave one.[6] Wisdom must guide wonder.

 


[1] My own particular Christian heritage is on display here, and I’m well aware that others will disagree.

[2] Scott E. Hoezee, Proclaim the Wonder: Engaging Science on Sunday (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 67-70.

[3] For wonder and awe respectively: NIV 109 and 53, ESV 80 and 47. More versions available on http://www.biblegateway.com/

[4] For examples see Exodus 15 (wonderful deeds), Psalm 9 (wonderful deeds), Psalm 139 (wonderful knowledge and works), Psalm 7 (great love), Psalm 119 (wonderful law).

[5] Celia Deane Drummond, Wonder and Wisdom: Conversations in Science, Spirituality and Theology (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2006), chapter 7.

[6] For examples, see Matthew 12, Matthew 16, Mark 8, Luke 11, John 2:18, John 6:30.

Written by Ruth Bancewicz

December 13, 2012 at 10:00 am

Posted in theology, wonder

Tagged with , ,

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