The Renewal of the Sense of Wonder in the Church

by F. Thomas Trotter

A graduate of Occidental College (AB) and Boston University (STB, Ph.D), Trotter was Dean and Professor of Theology at the Claremont School of Theology. Later he was General Secretary of the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of The United Methodist Church and President of Alaska Pacific University. His special interests are in religion and the arts and religion in higher education.

This essay appeared in Loving God With One’s Mind, by F. Thomas Trotter, copyright 1987 by the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church. Used by permission. This document was prepared for Religion Online by William E. Chapman.


“Wonder” may be an attractive word for us. Trotter reminds us not only what it is, but also provides guides from ancient and contemporary sources in what we have lost, and how we might recover this essential ingredient of our humanness.

We live in a time of extraordinary self-consciousness in regard to the church. The issues of the wider society have catalyzed, polarized, and pulverized the rank and file and confused the chiefs. When Pope Paul appointed St. Therese to be a "doctor" of the church, he felt obliged specifically to disavow any connection with Women’s Lib. By and large, great advances have been made in making the church more sensitive to the injustice in our midst, more imaginative in proposing responsible solutions to social and economic disorder, and more democratic in the structures of decision making. These movements toward a more responsible church are to be recognized as great gain and hopeful sign for the future of the institutional style of the church. But, as you all know, these events have been characterized by a certain soberness and a moral earnestness that has left little room for some other important gestures of faith: I speak of joy and wonder. As Arthur McGill has noted, "In an age of anxiety and violence, glory is out of fashion, even in Churches" (Arthur McGill, The Celebration of the Flesh, Association Press, 1964, p. 184).

It is not simply in the liturgical life of the congregations that glory is missing, but theology itself, bending as it so often does to the popular currents of the time, has encouraged this sadness with its nostalgic conversation about an absent, dead, or (at least) missing God. Peter Berger, in his extraordinary little book, Rumor of Angels, notes that "the theological surrender to the alleged demise of the supernatural defeats itself in precisely the measure of its success. Ultimately, it represents the self-liquidation of theology and of the institutions in which the theological tradition is embodied" (Peter Berger, Rumor of Angels, Doubleday, 1969, p. 26). One of the ironies of our situation is the fact that at the very time the church seems to have given up on its hope, an extraordinary resurgence of interest in religion, particularly in the non-rational aspects of religion, is being observed in groups as diverse as Marxists interested in eschatology and "cultured despisers" interested in the mystery of faith. Our generation’s passionate search for relevancy (that golden word) is a reflex of the suspicion we have that we may have lost our way. It is increasingly problematic to encounter transcendence in the excessive intimacy demanded by some current "liturgies" and the special reading of a variety of new orthodoxies. Berger suggests that we should begin to observe what he calls "signals of transcendence" which are breaking through to call out new forms of faithful response in the church.

Wonder is a word that has a great history. It reflects the synonyms of "awe," "fascination," "mystery," and "terror." In Plato, the word is spoken unequivocally. "There is no other beginning of philosophy than amazement," says Socrates in the Theaetetus. Wonder is the appropriate attitude of man toward the divine. Later on, in the New Testament, it is used frequently in connection with miracles and the events surrounding Jesus. (This, by the way, is one reason it is so hard to make a biblical movie. It is difficult to sustain the expressions of wonder for 90 minutes.) Wonder is the attitude of "intellectual amazement"—the beginning of response or reflection. It is not simply the source of philosophy, but of art, and religion. The American poet Wallace Stevens once wrote that a poem should not be a narrative statement but should be "a meteor, or a pheasant disappearing in the bush." Normal speech is inadequate to handle response to such events. But most of us, confronted with a shaking event, a presence undefined and ineffable, but persistently there, a gesture of human love undeserved and graceful, are (what is the expression?) "at a loss for words." The erosion of the sense of wonder in the church is a serious matter. Our expectations are dulled. Our wit and imagination are tarnished. We are in danger of losing our sense of humor. We find it difficult to separate our private and public visions. Our festivals become contrived. Our theologies become footnotes to the current cultural movements. And, as Paul Valery wryly noted, "Everything ends in the Sorbonne."

If I understand what is going on in the culture today, it is an active and experimental search for authentic ways to confront and be confronted by the enormous complexity and beauty and terror of life and the world. Our current desperate (and appropriate) interest in ecology may be a secularized version of the older metaphysical sense of the authority of creation Survival has replaced wonder as the key word, but the most important ecologists are also consummate artists, vide Eisely, Krutch, Carsons, et al. Ecology is the sister of wonder. As Loren Eiseley has suggested, "We have learned to ask terrible questions."

Religion is that human enterprise that "asks terrible (wonderful) questions." And the response is often wordless—the gestures of liturgy and rite, music and poetry, art and science. The recovery of wonder in the church will necessarily take the form of an iconoclasm—the risky business of smashing idols. An idol is a statement about the mystery of things that is opaque to its source. Idols serve a function of making events less mysterious and therefore more manageable. Ranier Maria Rilke, the Austrian poet of the early part of the century, refused to be psychoanalyzed because he suspected that that process, however helpful in itself, would make it impossible for him to write poetry. He preferred to live in the no man’s land of the demons of his subconscious world

rather than rearrange them for an otherwise functional existence. We are in the business of "unlearning of metaphysical terror," to use a phrase of R.W.B. Lewis. The honest-to-goodness fright that is our finite environment has been pretty well housebroken in our modern existence. But we have paid a great price for this. The price is the rationalization of existence, the flattening of wonder, and the ultimate risk of a boredom with life that is reaching epidemic proportions. We obscure the frightening human cost of the war in Vietnam with daily "body counts" that are announced with routine poise by television newscasters who follow with the baseball scores. I had a student who, on encountering Sophocles’ "Oedipus Rex," dismissed the entire drama with the suggestion that the hero had an Oedipus complex. Reductionism and anachronism intersect to produce extraordinary confusion, but the result is the failure of contemporary perception to apprehend the incredible turbulence that is a part of every event and (as the Greeks knew so well) every hero. Robert Browning, describing the authority of the Greek sense of things, wrote:

Aischulos’ bronze-throat eagle-bark at blood

Has somehow spoiled my taste for twitterings!

The banality of much modern religious life in the church is ultimately what wears us down. But there is hope for the church if a sufficient number of its people have enough wit and courage to sense the "signals of transcendence" in our time and to open themselves to their grace. Camus, in The Plague, says, "Even in a time of pestilence (we learn) that there are more things to admire in men than despise."

Where do we turn for the pre-dawn of a new sense of wonder? Berger’s suggestion is that we ponder what he calls "prototypical human gestures" as an appropriate place to begin our theologizing: the argument from ordering, from play, from humor, from terror and from hope. There is so much in church life that has prevented us from the exercise of these graces, and distortions of them dominate our style. Our task as ministers and theologians is to make distortions of the gospel appear as distortions to a people grown accustomed to seeing them as natural. We need to sense what Wallace Stevens has called "engulfing moments"—ecstatic moments, if you will—when we stand outside ourselves and are renewed in the authority of our vocation. This takes respect for events of the most common sort—the care and feeding of uninspired committees in the church who just might come alive. Most of us are better prepared for cosmic events. Our attitude toward the concrete, implacable, and frustrating givens of human community existence is to pronounce the judgment of damnation (a blasphemous interposition with God, by the way) and say "To hell with them!" But ministry, despite the grim landscape in our generation, has within it the signals of transcendence, the possibility that frustration (which is the obverse of wonder) is not the last word, that even abrupt events invite us to that intellectual activity we call wonder.

Robert Frost puts this remarkably well in his poem A Tree Fallen Across the Road:

The tree the tempest with a crash of wood

Throws down in front of us is not to bar

Our passage to our journey’s end for good,

But just to ask us who we think we are

Insisting always on our own way so.

She likes to halt us in our runner tracks,

And make us get down in a foot of snow

Debating what to do without an ax.

Frost loved concrete images. His was a world in which events were continually confronting man with questions. When man takes these events for granted, he will lose fruitful contact with them. Frost belief was in the necessity of man never to forget respect for the hard given items with which he has to work, and the hardest is not stone or steel, but the human event. And behind this lies the promise implicit but real, that there is no other way to joy.

What I am suggesting to you is this: we are not simply called to the task of making the church more relevant (whatever that means) or more disciplined (whatever that means), but more faithful. And that means to me, more sensitive to what in former times was ca1led the "leading of the Spirit." Being less certain of our own strategies and more attendant upon the ineffable. If I understand our traditions in the Christian church, it seems to me that we make the claim that God reveals himself in concrete events, and that these events are not to be taken lightly. This, I take it, is what Incarnation is about. This I take to be what theological education is about Among the most marvelous lines in the Old Testament are these from the Book of the Wisdom of Solomon (18:14-15):

For while all things were in quiet silence

and the night was in the midst of her course,

Thy almighty word leapt down from heaven,

from Thy royal throne, as a fierce conqueror

into the midst of the land of destruction.

May we sense the contours of God’s Word in the little events of time so that we may be interpreters of his hard words and soft in the language of faith.