The Power of Amazement

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I am not sure where David Brooks was going in his Jan 28th oped column about faith. He seemed to be saying that those secular folks who disparage the faithful do so because they do not understand what faith is all about. Not surprising to me because many among the faithful cannot explain what “faith” means. In spite of any vagueness, the column is worth reading just for two included quotes. The first is from one of the most human and articulate voices of modern Judaism.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described one experience of faith in his book “God in Search of Man”: “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement…get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal. …To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

And yet Heschel understood that the faith expressed by many, even many who are inwardly conflicted, is often dull, oppressive and insipid — a religiosity in which “faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion.”

His use of amazement helps me continue to understand what flourishing means, and also makes the importance of spirituality clearer. Without amazement, most of, if not all, of life becomes humdrum. The world just something that is out there to be factored into one’s daily routines—a source of whatever is needed at that moment or a nuisance that is getting in the way of what was intended. His words reinforce my sense that spirituality is as essential a domain of care as is all others, and perhaps, more important. But as Brooks says today, a majority of Americans scoff at those who include faith in their lives.

I need to make a warning here. Faith is a very troublesome word because it is poorly understood and can take on several distinctly different meanings. Heschel is clear that is it not the same as religiosity although religious practitioners can certainly have faith in their beliefs. He warns us that when faith is missing, religion turns into a empty repetition of doctrine and ritual.

At the end Brooks includes a famous passage from the writings of Saint Augustine.

If you are a secular person curious about how believers experience their faith, you might start with Augustine’s famous passage “What do I love when I love my God,” and especially the way his experience is in the world but then mysteriously surpasses the world:

“It is not physical beauty nor temporal glory nor the brightness of light dear to earthly eyes, nor the sweet melodies of all kinds of songs, nor the gentle odor of flowers, and ointments and perfumes, nor manna or honey, nor limbs welcoming the embraces of the flesh; it is not these I love when I love my God. Yet there is a light I love, and a food, and a kind of embrace when I love my God — a light, voice, odor, food, embrace of my innerness, where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is sound that time cannot seize, where there is a perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, and where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part. That is what I love when I love my God.”

I read amazement into this passage in the sense of Rabbi Heschel’s words. But Heschel’s notion of spirituality extends beyond God to life in general. Looking at the stars on a clear night is amazing. Feeling the warmth of my wife’s body in bed at night is amazing. Seeing my students’ eyes light up in class is amazing. Being surprised by a seal popping up a few feet from my boat is amazing. When we carefully examine the word, amazing, beyond its trivialized use along with awesome, its connection to transcendence becomes clearer. Our basic human tendency to seek explanations to what has just entered our consciousness is left hanging in these moments. The explanation is beyond our rational capabilities. It is more than just being stumped by an intractable problem.

Amazement opens up our consciousness to what we are immediately connected to. Our habitual life stops for the moment and fades into the background. It is the connectedness that is so important. Our habitual, normal actions are mostly carried out unconsciously. Our cognitive system, in a sense, is working without our noticing. Most of life is spent in transacting one’s “business.” Transactions, as defined, are activities that do need require the reciprocal recognition of the person at the other end. Just pay the bill and move on. There is little or no room for care here and similarly little possibility for flourishing.

Spirituality, as I interpret Heschel, is a class of actions resulting from one’s amazement. Amazement is a positive emotion, as opposed to, say, fear. We naturally seek to bring more positive emotions in our life so we return to those places where we have felt amazement even though we may not experience it every time we act. We, however, are likely to remember our sense of connection in an existential sense: as a human being, we are connected to the world.

Once this belief finds its way into our cognitive system, it will stay there waiting to jump into the causal chain in other domains of action. If we begin to feel and recognize our connectedness when we work or raise our families or join in other cultural events, what have been merely transactions may be transformed into caring actions. Connectedness is semantically close to relationships. Relationships always have two ends connected by caring actions. Perhaps this process could be speeded up if we introduce a new word, caraction, to replace transaction. Flourishing in the here and now depends on such transformation: from need that is served through transactions to care that is realized through caractions. A wakening of spirituality through amazement would be a powerful step in that transformation, but perhaps not enough. It might take, in Hershel’s word, radical amazement. I’m all for it.

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