Two Kinds of Wonder

Frederick Buechner has written:
“There are mysteries which you can solve by taking thought. For instance a murder-mystery whose mysteriousness must be dispelled in order for the truth to be known. There are other mysteries which do not conceal a truth to think your way to, but whose truth is itself the mystery. The mystery of your self, for example. The more you try to fathom it, the more fathomless it is revealed to be. No matter how much of your self you are able to objectify and examine, the quintessential, living part of yourself will always elude you, i.e., the part that is conducting the examination. Thus you do not solve the mystery, you live the mystery. And you do that not by fully knowing yourself but by fully being yourself.”
There are these two kinds of wonder. One kind is the figure-it-out wonder. Figure-it-out, or look it up, or try it and see, or wait and see. Examples include:
  • I wonder what the 57th digit of pi is.
  • I wonder how long it would take me to learn to play the lute passably.
  • I wonder what the airspeed velocity of a swallow is.
  • I wonder what would happen if I stopped worrying so much about my kids.
  • I wonder if a double-reverse half-back pass would work.
  • I wonder if giving up caffeine will make me feel better.
  • I wonder how many square miles is 64,000 acres.
  • I wonder who will be the next presidential candidate to drop out of the race.
These are all in the first category, which Buechner calls “mysteries which you can solve by taking thought.” Some of them you just have to try it and see – or wait and see – and others are a lot easier to look up than to figure out from scratch – though some of them might be more fun to figure out yourself -- like the guy in a bookstore, who asks a store employee, “Could you tell me where the mystery paperbacks are?”

The employee says, “I could. But wouldn’t that spoil it for you?”

The thing is, there is a definite answer to all of these. And then there are the wonderings that don’t have a definite answer.
  • Who am I?
  • Who is asking that question?
  • What is this world?
  • What is matter? The more we attend to the details of what the physicists say about it, the weirder and more mysterious it gets.
  • Why is there me?
  • Why is there anything?
  • Why is there something rather than nothing?
  • Where am I – what is the meaning of this geographic location, or this stage in the arc of my life?
  • How do I understand my relationship to my family members? To my parents, or the memory of my parents? To my neighbors? To the dog and cat who share my house? To the squirrels in my yard? To the cow that could be on my plate? To the humans and other animals on the other side of the globe? To the soil beneath my feet? To the Atlantic Ocean? To the Indian Ocean? To the Catskills? To the Rockies? To the Himalayas? To the moon? To the sun? To the stars? How do I understand my relationship to anything, and how do I understand my relationship to everything?
  • What is mine to do?
  • Is there a plan for me? If so, what is it?
  • What is going on around me right now?
These are the questions that admit of no settled answer. You might have provisional partial answers, but it might be better to not even have that much. Just be in the mystery, without grasping after an answer. As Buechner says, “you do not solve the mystery, you live the mystery."

There are wonderings that have a definite answer, and that answer is the point of the wondering, and there are other wonderings for which a settled and definite answer is not the point. There are also wonderings that could go either way. "Does Brad really love me?" You might arrive at a settled definite answer to that question. Or you might take it as a mystery to be lived: what can we know of the mysteries of another person’s heart? Or, indeed, "Do I really love Brad?" What can we know of the mysteries of our own hearts?

Then there are questions like:
  • What sort of place is the universe?
  • What is life, and how does it happen?
  • What is consciousness, and how does it happen?
Scientists seem to have a lot to say about these, so maybe they are in the category of things to figure out. But on the other hand, what the scientists say doesn’t really quite seem to be to the point. When the physicists say that, you see, there are 11 dimensions, and billions of parallel universes made possible by different pathways taken by photons – or when biologists tell us about the chemical equations of the reactions inside a cell, reactions which, they say, constitute and define life – or when neurologists say that consciousness is an emergent property of 100 billion neurons firing across 100 trillion synapses – one may reasonably feel that such steps toward solving the mystery don’t really clear up any of the mysteriousness we must live.

Science gives us a story about things that has emerged from thousands of very bright women and men in the last 400 years running lots of experiments and trying to make coherent sense of all the results. Knowing the science merely gives us a particular sort of language for expressing what is, at bottom, the same wonder.

Before science, some of our brightest women and men devised elaborate theologies. From the standpoint of wonder, these were also rather beside the point. Saying, “God made it that way” doesn’t clear up any of the mysteriousness we must live either. Knowing the theology merely gives us a particular sort of language for expressing what is, at bottom, the same wonder.

From the standpoint of wonder, neither scientific explanation nor theological explanation does us much good because, again, explanation and answers are not the point. (When explanations and answers are the point, science is much better.)

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This is part 1 of 3 of "Wonder of Wonders"
See also:
Part 2: The Point of Wonder
Part 3: Wonder Hinders

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