Knowing: Reason and Wonder

"The stirring in our hearts when watching the star studded sky is something no language can declare.  What smites us with unquenchable amazement is not that which we can grasp  and are able to convey but that which lies within our reach but beyond our grasp - the ineffable."*

I remember first hearing about the Grand Canyon as a kid watching the Brady Bunch - the two-part episode. Remember?  Between the Brady’s, a Bugs Bunny cartoon and some eighth-grade geography, I knew about the Grand Canyon.   An interesting little factoid: Did you know, in places, the Grand Canyon is a mile deep!

Two years ago, we visited the Grand Canyon.   I figured we’re going by, may as well stop.  As I walked to the rim of the canyon, I wasn’t expecting much - I’d seen canyons before - seen one hole in the ground, you’ve seen them all.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.

As I reached the rim, my field of vision was filled with this wonder of the world, and I found myself literally speechless!  It’s one thing to be told it is a mile deep; it is quite another to stand at the edge and look down at the canyon floor a mile below!  It one thing to see pictures, but it is another to see the canyon change before your eyes as the clouds move overhead and the sun moves across the sky.  Watching the Brady’s play in the canyon was no substitute for feeling the gritty stone on my fingers, the searing summer heat or experiencing the vastness of the canyon in contrast to my small-ness!  The experience with the Grand Canyon enlivened my knowledge about the Grand Canyon.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel suggested there are two ways of knowing and responding to the world: the way of reason and the way of wonder.  He suggests that reason seeks to control the world and eliminate mystery, while the way of wonder accepts the mysteries of life and responds with a sense of awe.  While I believe he is probably accurate, perhaps rather than seeing reason and wonder as polar opposites, perhaps we can consider the different sides of the same coin.

To enlightenment thinkers, which most of us are products of, anything that can be known is knowable by reason.   However, some today are discovering there is a more full way of knowing.  Many are becoming disillusioned with the enlightenment style of knowing and understand that it still seems to fall short despite the many positive things that have come about.  It doesn’t do well with mystery or things that are outside its working model of “knowing.”

“Taste and see that the LORD is good,” the psalmist encourages in Psalm 34.  Jesus spoke in parables, in stories to help us know the Kingdom more deeply.  Jesus and His disciples performed miraculous signs and wonders beyond reason or an epistemological way of knowing.  Jesus invites us into an experience with the invitation for us all to join Him in the sacrament of bread and wine.  These examples, along with others such as prayer,  worship, art and music, can be powerful tools for experiencing God, knowing God beyond enlightenment style reason. We also know it is not wise to jettison in a wholesale fashion. All we have learned about knowing from the rational perspective.

In this regard, David Benner comments in a number of his books, most recently Soulful Spirituality: Becoming Fully Alive and Deeply Human: “Reason and wonder are not mutually exclusive - just distinct.”  We can use both in such a way that honours both and know in ways which neither can know independently of the other.   To this end, reason can inform our experience; and experience can enliven our reason.  This provides us with a means of knowing, which is both reason and experiential but transcends them both and presents for us a deeper way of knowing.

As we learn to recognize and understand our experiential ways of knowing, as we learn to trust our “gut” informed with reason without rationalizing them out of hand, we begin to engage life more fully.  Living life takes on a new dynamic. We add the dynamic of experience with wonder, intuition and feeling, learning that God can and speaks to us in other ways besides propositional truth and apologetics.

Wonder in Real Life?

  • A posture of wonder and awe adds colour to life.
  • Wonder is a valid response to mystery.
  • Wonder accepts something for what it is without an attempt to control it.
  • Wonder can be informed by reason but not controlled by it.
  • It can help us see a situation from a fresh perspective inspiring innovation, creativity, compassion and passion.



* Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion. (New York. Farrar, Straus and Young 1995. 1951

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