Back to Wonder: The search for mystery in a scientific world

In recent years, amid the quantum antics of technology and the violent insanity of global restiveness, I have been reading more about religion and spirituality than about any other topic. I am not sure if this is a retreat from responsible engagement or a search for a transcendence of that macabre nightmare described in Archibald MacLeish’s poem “The End of the World.” Composed not too long after the Great War, and describing history in terms of a surreal circus, its bleak conclusion reflects the fear, early in the 20th century, that existential dread might indeed be warranted.

There in the starless dark, the poise, the hover,
There with vast wings across the cancelled skies,
There in the sudden blackness, the sudden pall
Of nothing, nothing, nothing—nothing at all.

“Poets!” one might sigh; “their job seems to thrive on dread, if it isn’t love betrayed or a rerun of something else unrelated to the front page or the bottom line.” So when the poet/insurance executive Wallace Stevens claims, “We have imagination because we do not have enough without it,” or the poet/physician William Carlos Williams says of poetry that people die for want of it, we tend to dismiss these otherwise practical men. Poetry, or any of the arts, would seem to have little utility in the social and economic maelstrom that is our day.


What is said of poetry may, of course, be said as well of religion. Apart from its role in mitigating violence and lawlessness, religion, properly understood, has always addressed something more than ethics or social harmony. In its very assumption of another order of reality, its principal function has been the mediation of mystery—a function whose object, by definition, is not accessible to ordinary means of human understanding or resolution. In religious and perhaps aesthetic terms, mystery refers to things that cannot be proved or disproved but that nevertheless exert a force on our thinking and our lives: why, for example, there is anything and not nothing; why matter is relatively consistent in its behavior; why suffering and injustice persist; why life is never quite enough; what follows death. It is this very inexplicability, moreover, that may explain the origin of religious consciousness and the emergence of its principal vehicle, which is faith.

What, though, has all this to do with the business of the busy world? Is our world not already sufficiently turbulent without dropping “mystery” into the smoky cauldron? And has not science, once and for all, roasted the old witch over the Bunsen burner?

A Looming Shadow

It is rather strange that half a millennium after Galileo and Newton and, in our own times, Edison, Einstein, Henry Ford and the United Nations, we still find people in poverty, we are still distressed over the loss of everything from youth to global security, still haunted by the tangible nightmares of crime, terrorism and human torture; still dismayed by our growing economic disparity and dwarfed in the looming shadow of our inadequacy to do much about it. Most of all, we are still humbled in that bone-house of memory where our brightest and most noble efforts to end war and injustice lie, a mockery of their rhetoric, amid the footnotes to our failures. We are compelled to ask, “What have we done wrong—or failed to do?”

In one of his harsher poems, Wallace Stevens proposes that in confronting the challenges of nature and consciousness, “one must have a mind of winter.” Stevens’s dictum is addressed to the world of aesthetics, the world of art and music and literature, where, their adherents claim, human reality is addressed in a manner distinct from human thought and logic. Their claim is that through the sensible forms and elements of each medium, a work of art, when well executed, strikes a resonance that corresponds to some aspect or need of human experience. The result is not primarily conceptual, not a proof or a moral directive or a philosophical proposal, but rather a relationship realized in the very “action” (Aristotle’s term) of the poem, the dance, the sonata, the painting. One might say the communication of art at this level is ontological rather than conceptual, intuitional rather than informational. Though particular and concrete in presentation, a work of art is universal in its response to human experience.

To the extent that art on this level ignores the restraints of ordinary experience and thought, it may be said to share with religion some intuition of mystery, which, as we have said, is religion’s principal business. The creator of myth or fairy tale, though he “knows” beings like fairy godmothers do not exist, imagines these figures as able to convey, on many levels, both our longing for magic answers and our sad awareness that we must look elsewhere for them. This point underlies the extravagant claims of the poets Stevens and Williams cited above: What the arts—works of the imagination—strive to achieve lies outside the purview of ordinary thought or communication. As the instrument of aesthetic activity (both for performer and audience), the human faculty of imagination informs any assessment of experience or approach to it outside the empirical limits of science and the logical restrictions of human thought. The extensive relationship between religion and the arts in music, ritual, dance and the like clearly finds its origins in this shared grounding.

Louis Armstrong once said, “Jazz is what, if you have to ask what it is, you’ll never know.” Jazz aficionados do know. And their pleasure and judgment and convictions are not sprung from the premises and conclusions of empirical research, but from their formal attention to the music played. The same aesthetic pleasure pertains to one’s enjoyment of any art form, any athletic contest, any dramatic performance. The formal “attention” one brings to these things may even share something of the mystics’ practice of contemplation, where thought is seen as an impediment to pure engagement with God. I think of Simone Weil’s assertion that pure “attention” is the highest form of prayer.

But, again, what has all this to do with the perils threatening modern societies, civilizations and even the earth itself? May we justly modify Stevens’s wintery recommendation by arguing that in the fragile and volatile world of nuclear menace and mutual deterrence, “one must have a mind of mystery”? Furthermore, if mystery is, by definition, inaccessible to reason and science by themselves, and if imagination, rightly understood, is the instrument of aesthetic and spiritual engagement, may we not argue, with Wallace Stevens, that regarding imagination, “we do not have enough without it”?

The late Jesuit ethicist John Kavanaugh argued that “war is a failure of the imagination.” By imagination, I believe he meant what Coleridge meant when he distinguished the practical imagination, which engages physical and strategic challenges, from the aesthetic imagination, whereby one as it were “becomes” the object under scrutiny, so intently “attending” to or contemplating its subject as to achieve an inner “resonance” with it similar to what Satchmo’s jazz audience might realize in the dim, ambiguous light of an intimate pub.

No Escape

If paradox and irony spike our search for the peaceful kingdom with the bitter herbs of self-knowledge and the inconstancy of our species—if, in other words, we cannot escape our shadows in our search for light—how are we to reverse, in our own brief passages through time, the ineluctable tides that flood our noblest endeavors?

That all of our wars have not put an end to war; that the maturation of our young does not seem possible without a measure of rebellion, exposing the moth holes in our own fallible posturing; that virtue, of itself, lacks merit if not directed to goals beyond self-adulation; that all perception and subsequent judgment are qualified and limited by bias and angle of vision; that love, if it does not draw us through the dregs of our own vanity, must remain a shallow draft of thin wine; that we, in the end, must discover our meaning and our strength beyond the limits of our own gifts and character—what can we make of all this, what can we do about it?

Anna’s King of Siam says, “Is a puzzlement.” The mystic, “It’s a mystery.” Religious traditions, unfortunately, have a tendency to straight-jacket mystery by listing it as one or another item of belief. But belief is not faith. Belief can take form as assent to dogma without gaining anything spiritually from that assent—without the commitment that marks genuine faith. Mystery, on the other hand, requires not understanding so much as engagement—an existential reorienting of self toward what is not known but intuited, a turning of soul away from an assumption of absolute self-sufficiency in a gesture known as metanoia. The result is not so much what one will know, or even believe, but what one will become.

Disciplined Attention

If women and men of faith are to initiate the next phase of the kingdom on earth, it is this metanoia, this what-they-shall-have-become, that will represent an objective of first importance. This becoming will be largely the fruit of a growth in contemplative prayer, which through a disciplined “attention” will move us beyond petition to a relationship whose maturation will express itself in openness to ever-evolving revelation, in thanksgiving, praise and a simple and growing awareness of God’s presence infusing all creation.

Our failures to end war, injustice, poverty and violence have come at a time in the evolution of the cosmos that is most manifest, today, in both the blessings and the destructive capacities our technologies have made possible. We are darkly aware that these failures may put an end to us. As catastrophes of the practical imagination, of humanistic idealism unrestrained by historical memory, these failures urge upon us the truth that our institutions, resolutions and technological wonders have failed us and will continue to do so. More important, they tell us that it is we ourselves who must change far more than all our enlightened policies and their sophisticated instrumentalities. This change is pre-eminently a moral one—a change in the human heart, a metanoia transcending all purely human techniques and therapies.

High-sounding stuff, this. Mysterious, too. But when we tossed out myth with superstition; when we confined our sense of the infinite within the constraints of the microscope and the test tube; when we reduced longing to market allure, tragedy to pathology and love to sexuality; when we addressed the ageless evils of war and injustice as problems in strategy and use of force—we betrayed our sense of mystery, our sense of wonder over all we intuit but cannot know.

If we, indeed, must change ourselves before we can change a world in crisis, we can begin by recapturing our lost sense of wonder and mystery. It seems to me that the recovery of this sensibility is what Christ meant when he cautioned, “Unless you become as little children, you shall not enter the kingdom of God.” The recovery of this sensibility is, in fact, a recognition of and a response to the mystery that underlies the whole story of creation, the mystery that is the very first business of religion, the radical stimulus of the arts—and, indeed, the source of the wonder that forever drives science, once perceived as the foe of religion and myth.

As an early father of the church once said, “Nothing understands anything except awe.”

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Mark Anthony Vandayar
2 years 9 months ago
Dear John Savant, Just a short note of thanks for such an inspiring article "Back to Wonder". You have indeed given me plenty to further think about re the main line of thought through your article. Firstly, I was envious of such a hopeful piece of writing, envious because I have become just so tired and blind to mystery. Thank you sincerely for giving more to think about, and the changes that will need to happen in me. Thank you! Mark+
Lisa Weber
2 years 8 months ago
In caring for the seriously ill and/or dying, one encounters mystery repeatedly. Who comes for the person? I have been told that there were two angels by the door, and the patient was just waiting for the third to arrive and then she would go with them. She died about 6 hours later. Frequently, a day or two before a person died, "someone" would come and either stand at the foot of the bed or sit on the foot of the bed. This happened often enough that one of my co-workers commented, "I hate it when a patient asks me who is standing at the foot of the bed because then I know they are going to die." Not all people in healthcare have these experiences, but I have had more than a few of them. It doesn't depend on religious belief either. I had one fellow tell me "something followed me out of critical care" and he said he was not religious. He wondered what it meant. Being he was up and walking in the hall, apparently recovering when he asked me that, I didn't feel comfortable telling him I thought it meant he would die soon. He died the next day. Near death experiences get written off as a phenomenon of a lack of oxygen or of emotional stress related to the body shutting down, but a "visitor" coming for someone who is soon to die can come to a person who is up and walking, apparently quite well. It's a mystery.
Bruce Snowden
2 years 8 months ago
I must admit struggling through John Savant’s monument-like “Back To Wonder,” unable to read it through because of its out of the depths, its “De Profundis” texture. I mean its deep, ponderous flow, unfortunately ice-jammed in the chill of my ignorance, not a bad thing to be reminded of. And as happened reflectively, it allowed moments of liberating light, understanding, to seep through John Savant’s display of scholarly acumen, bonded to the mystery of mysteries called God. I mean the breathtaking conglomerate of physical creation which “Back To Wonder” addresses. When God “breathed” structure and life into the existing innate nothingness of Divinity’s primordial scaffolding, he really breathed deeply! That breath still swirls throughout an unfinished creation. Who but a wonderous, a wonderful, in Jesus a “Wonder Man” could with such intricate intent, with a sense of humor too, pack into a seed weighing 1/5000th of an ounce everything needed to produce towering Sequoias that live a thousand or more years? Only an infinite God who spins universes on his fingertips and who Jesus says likes to be called “Father” or using St. Paul’s “Abba” meaning “Daddy” roughly translated, could do that! Thank you Mr. Savant for your essay. I have to read again, to benefit more completely.
Bruce Snowden
2 years 8 months ago
On second reading I think I get It! "Smell the Coffee!" as they say. Slow down! See the world in slow motion, watch for example a bud opening, awed at its intricacy, its perfection, its mystery, its wonder and with eyes wide open in awe as a child on Christmas morning uttering over and over, "Wow!" don't say "God?" say with certitude, "God!"


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