Beauty will save the world #2: On regaining wonder

The second chapter of Beauty Will Save the World is about rediscovering the concept of wonder. Brian Zahnd writes: “We wonder at two things–the beautiful and the mysterious. A life stripped of beauty and mystery is a life barren of wonder, and a life without wonder is a kind of deep poverty” (33). Zahnd thinks that the greatest wonder of all is Jesus’ incarnation: the claim that “the Logos, the Word, the Idea, the Reason, the Reflection, the Meditation, the Self-Understanding of God became human flesh and blood” (40). The problem is that we’ve tucked the wonder of Jesus’ identity into systematic theological propositions so that His divine/human nature is something matter of fact rather than a cause for wonder. It becomes part of the formula that has to be fulfilled for God’s equation to work. But God’s truth is better captured in poetry than mathematics.

Perhaps wonder is the reason that Jesus tells us that we can only receive the kingdom of heaven like a child (Luke 18:17). Zahnd explains:

The tragedy of growing up is not that we put aside childishness, but that we lose the capacity for childlike wonder. As children we dream of finding our own real-life adventure… and we end up finding a job. Adventure is set aside for a career and wonder is the casualty… The loss of wonder is what we experience as boredom, and boredom is a real problem. 34

Pure wonder is the opposite of utilitarian. To allow ourselves to react with wonder upon seeing an object that is beautiful or mysterious means that we are not immediately trying to figure out how to use this object to our advantage. The reason that Christianity has lost its wonder in modernity is because it has been completely colonized by utilitarian thinking. We’re only interested in figuring out what we have to do/say/believe in order to be (or prove that we already were) saved. Salvation has become entirely a Christian consumer product; we cannot imagine the word having any other meaning. Contrast this with what Zahnd writes about the relationship between wonder and salvation which I’m sure would make a certain type of Christian bristle:

Recapturing wonder is part of salvation. We become jaded and bored because we mistakenly think there are no more mysteries to imbue us with wonder, but the Incarnation is an eternal fountain of mystery and wonder. In the mystery and wonder of the Incarnation is found the beauty that saves the world. 40

Zahnd is clearly working with a different, more expansive definition of salvation than many of us evangelicals are used to considering. I’m sure that some evangelicals who would call Zahnd a heretic after reading this passage because they do a word search for the magical phrase “justification by faith” every time someone claims to be talking about salvation. But why shouldn’t the mystery of Jesus’ nature be part of what brings us into a saving relationship with Him? And isn’t the unimaginativeness of sin part of what we are saved from? Sin happens when we substitute a cheap creaturely thrill for the sublime mystery of pondering our Creator (Romans 1:25). It is symptomatic of a life without wonder. Zahnd writes: “How much addiction is a toxic attempt to recapture lost wonder? How much reckless living is a dangerous bid to compensate for the creeping numbness of adulthood?” (35).

In any case, wonder matters. If we lack wonder when we’re singing at church even if we lift our hands high up in the air, then we’re not really worshiping but just putting on a good show for everyone else to see. The best thing about wonder is it only increases the more we get to know our mysterious, beautiful savior.