The Not So Great Indoors: Losing our Wonder

Feast of the Theophany of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ 

Cosmos_Square.jpgWHEN THE MIND contemplates heaven and earth, it marvels and is filled with wonder and rejoices with inexpressible gladness for having such a God and Lord who created with such ease, such beautiful and wise and great and marvelous creatures. So we are moved to say with David: "I praise Thee for Thou are beautiful and wonderful. Wonderful are Thy works" (Ps. 138.4, LXX).   Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain

Where did almost all of the major moments in the life of Jesus take place? Where was he baptized? Where was he tempted for forty days? Where did he go to pray early in the morning? Where did he preach the Sermon on the Mount and teach the Lord’s Prayer? Where was he transfigured and crucified? Where did he rise from the dead and ascend into heaven? That’s right: all of them took place outside.Where do we spend most of our lives? Where do we sleep, wake, bathe, eat, travel, work, play, worship, and pray? The answer is obvious. It’s the very opposite from the life of Christ. Most of our lives in the twenty-first century are spent inside. This is not without consequence.

In his book The Luminous Dusk, Dale Allison suggests that our modern tendency to disbelieve, in contrast to the medieval tendency to believe, might be explained better by turning away from debates and ideas and looking instead at our environment. For example, ancient Egyptians lived in an environment that was orderly and reliable with the predicable rhythms of the Nile. Consequently, they viewed themselves as important members of the universe and regarded the gods as benevolent. The ancient Mesopotamians, on the other hand, lived in an unpredictable environment with random flooding from the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers and unpredictable dust storms and torrential rains. Consequently, they did not think highly of themselves and viewed the gods as malevolent. Nature clearly shaped these two cultures’ religious orientations in dramatically different ways.

There is nothing new under the sun. Environment shapes our religious orientation today no less than it did that of the Egyptians and Mesopotamians over five thousand years ago. How so? According to Allison, the more we live indoors, the less we are inclined to believe. Or more specifically, the less inclined we are to wonder.

Wonder, according to Socrates, is the foundation of philosophy. In other words, the love of wisdom stems from wonder. As we have moved our lives indoor, however, we have cut ourselves off from what Aristotle considered to be the prime objects of wonder in the heavenly bodies: the sun, the moon, and the stars. If you don’t regularly hike a mountain, camp in the Flint Hills, or visit an observatory, the heavens are rarely in view. We are inside when the sun sets. We are asleep indoors when the sun rises. And even if we are out-side at night, the city lights hide the heavens from sight. According to Allison, this “retreat of the stars has not been trivial.”

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Allison suggests our hearts are different from those before us. Our separation from the heavens has cut us off from one of the primary sources of wonder. Our disconnect from the natural world has cut us off from millions of other sources of wonder. When is the last time you spent more than a second or two contemplating the intricacies of a spider web, or the beauty of a butterfly that emerged from a caterpillar, or the melodious chirping of birds singing in the morning? How can we cultivate wonder when we’re inside 95% of the time?

This lost sense of wonder, however, is not the only consequence of our move indoors. Allison notes at least two others. First, our increased mastery over nature leads to a sense of self-sufficiency. We have a collective sense of independence instead of a sense of deep dependence on God. The terrified cry out to God; the self-sufficient have no need for God. And second, our indoor lives make the outdoor life of Christ, and hence much of Scripture, more difficult to understand. Allison ponders:

Is the story of Adam and Eve not less memorable for people who have spent almost no time in real gardens? Is it not likely that the rhetorical resonance of Jesus’ agricultural parables is dulled for readers who require every detail about planting and harvesting to be explained? Can those who run to sturdy shelters when tornado sirens sound fully appreciate the terror of the disciples on the waves of a stormy Sea of Galilee? Can people who do not know the difference between a sparrow and a starling have any deep emotional response to Jesus’ command to ‘look at the birds of the air’ (Matt. 6:26)? It is hard enough – or rather, close to impossible – to cross the chronological and geographical spaces; but when we have also quitted the natural world, is it not harder to feel sympathy for the characters in the Bible and to identify with their stories?

If our move into the (not so) great indoors has stolen our wonder, destroyed our sense of dependency on God, and complicated our comprehension of Scripture, how should we respond? If Allison’s conclusion is right – that religion without wonder is dead – what are we to do? Are we supposed to move back to the cave? Burn our homes down and pitch a tent? By no means! But there is no easy, clear-cut answer. There is no three-step plan that will solve the dilemma.

We live in an era unlike any other age in history. But we are still called to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world. How then shall we live in this secular age? We’ll have to attempt a response in a future post. In the meantime, let us all begin by heeding the wisdom of King David the Psalmist:

O give thanks to the Lord of lords, for his steadfast love endures forever; to him who alone does great wonders, for his steadfast love endures for ever; to him who by understanding made the heavens, for his steadfast love endures for ever; to him who spread out the earth upon the waters, for his steadfast love endures forever; to him who made the great lights, for his steadfast love endures forever; the sun to rule over the day, for his steadfast love endures for ever; the moon and stars to rule over the night, for his steadfast love endures for ever.   Psalm 136:3-9

Erin Doom is the founder and director of Eighth Day Institute. He lives in Wichita, KS with his wife Christiane and their four children, Caleb Michael, Hannah Elizabeth, Elijah Blaise, and Esther Ruth.

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  • Daniel Brake
    commented 2015-01-11 22:19:22 -0600
    I love this post. Thanks. There is so much to consider here, that it will tame me a long time to absorb it all.