Heschel: “The grandeur and mystery of the world that surrounds us is not something which is perceptible only to the elect. All [of us] are endowed with a sense of wonder, with a sense of mystery. But our system of education fails to develop it and the anti-intellectual climate of our civilization does much to suppress it. Humankind will not perish for lack of information; it may collapse for want of appreciation.”
The rejection of metaphysical realism is only the negative corollary of a positive and passionate commitment to the reality of our experience. Such a commitment is not easy to maintain, for the simple reason that the reality of our experience is not static but dynamic, not fixed but fluid, not even all that “humane” but frequently random, ruthless and absurd. It’s not difficult to understand why human beings would construct worldviews where such straightforwardly evident features of reality are contained, transcended and resolved.
Our “worlds” are like psychological shelters that make us feel secure. They detect – or rather project – patterns on the fluid and random mystery of existence, like the constellations we “see” in the stars. Is the Big Dipper really there? Well, yes, there it is! But where, exactly? Meaning (pattern) is in the eye of the beholder.
Heschel’s point is that our world-shelter is also a screen that obscures the grandeur of being, pinching its boundless magnitude inside our frames of meaning. Like the cartographic grid of longitude and latitude, our projections interfere with our ability to perceive the elusive mystery that is all around and within us. As we add to our catalog of knowledge, expanding the grid and refining the details, we are accumulating information at an accelerating rate. Maybe this makes us smarter than previous generations; but are we any wiser?
Wisdom is “understanding,” not mere knowledge. It has more to do with an appreciation of mystery than the discovery of meaning. The wonder Heschel speaks of is, as he calls it elsewhere, “radical amazement” in the presence of what is. It’s not just the apparent boundless magnitude of the universe that can cause you to catch your breath; it’s also the precious impermanence of this passing moment.
Do we need a mythological God to impose a “beginning” and “boundary” on this mystery? Do we need an immortal soul to hold down some permanence and anchor our identity through the fluctuations of change?
Oddly enough, for all our avid and enthusiastic information gathering, Heschel regards the climate of our civilization as “anti-intellectual.” For him, our intellectual capacity as human beings entails much more than an ability to pull information out of the mystery and connect the dots in ever more sophisticated patterns. Thinking begins in wonder, with the mind opening to an unfathomable mystery. In the presence of what eludes our mental grids and transcends our mental grasp, all we can do is stand in amazement.
The business of world-construction, of projecting our patterns, imposing our frames, and making meaning of it all gets going soon enough. But before it gets going – just prior to the moment we reach out to grasp and reduce the mystery to something that makes sense to us, there is wonder, the sheer appreciation of just how marvelous reality really is.
The revolution begins in wonder.