I wonder how many of our problems today are linked to the loss of our sense of wonder.
I had a client this morning who was lamenting his inability to be playful with his wife and kids. His is a common story of a work-from-home, self-employed parent and spouse who has a difficult time separating work from homelife. Always in project-mode, work is never totally put away and gets psychologically mixed in with everything; always a lingering deadline, always a weight and a measure trespassing on sacred ground. His wife recalls his once playful and fun-loving nature, but he has since become a crank.
As we spoke, I asked him if he was game for seemingly random question. “Shoot,” he said. So I asked: “Why is there something instead of nothing?”
“Yah, that’s pretty random,” he said, and with a quick “I don’t know” suspected the matter was settled. I asked, “Does this question ever occur to you when you walk outside in the morning?” “Never,” he replied, “I remember as a kid thinking something like it, but nowadays it never comes up.”
I explained to him that this very question—why is there something instead of nothing?—is the fundamental question of classical metaphysics. The greatest minds in history have worked on it, though it is manifestly a child-like question. It expresses a wonderment not at this or that thing in particular but at existence as a whole—with being. It is the question to which every other question eventually turns back; and the direction one decides to take with it will determine, in some measure, almost everything else he does and experiences in life.
After a bit more discussion the client seemed to have a mini-enlightenment. As he pushed into the question of existence and began experiencing his immediate surroundings anew, his lost sense of wonderment began to make its way back into consciousness.
He discovered that the question does not deal only with existence—on material being—but rather ventured into a place that modernity has by-and-large forgotten: the question of being turns into a question of Being.
“Why is there something…” is not, strictly speaking, a scientific question. It is not concerned with natural physics, quantum or otherwise; it is concerned with meta-physics. Meta, a Greek word meaning “away over something,” or “over beyond,” mixed with phusis, a Greek word literally meaning “what is,” taken together make for a concept much deeper in meaning than what is usually understood today.
Martin Heidegger in his book “Introduction to Metaphysics” gives an extended explanation of this, but in brief, when the ancient Greeks discussed phusis they were not only concerned with physical nature but with Being itself. That is, the Being which gives existence to beings; that which allows for the “emerging and standing-out-in-itself-from-itself; and the “event of standing forth, arising from the concealed and thus enabling the concealed to take its stand…” (Heidegger).
If this sounds confusing that’s because it is, particularly for modern ears which are in the habit of associating “being” with all that exists in the known universe.
Even for many Christians this is confusing, which should not be the case. Christian theology teaches that God is not another being among the total aggregate of beings in existence. He is the one who IS; the One from whom all things exist and have their being.
It gets a little complicated after this point, but the historically informed Christian is not content with this either, that ‘God is the One from whom all things exist and have their being.’ Rather, God is beyond Being. To go further than this and attempt to define God’s “being” with words and concepts is something neither scripture nor the Church Fathers attempted.
But I digress.
The question inherently pushes one into a deeper awareness. It pushes us beyond a strict scientific take on existence, a take which is mechanical and void of intrinsic meaning. If “Being” is limited to the phenomena in the mechanical universe—known only by the scientific intellect—yet goes no further, then the question leads to nihilism. In Heidegger’s words, it leads to a “spirit falsified as intelligence” and is the spirit’s “disempowerment.” If, however, existence has a sufficient “why” then existence itself is made into a wonderland—a portal into a great beyond; not one that diminishes this temporal, transient existence, but one that infuses all temporality with infinite meaning.
Lest the reader think I’m overdoing it, listen to Heidegger’s powerful question taking the issue from the other end: “Is Being a mere word and it’s meaning a vapor, or does what is named with the word ‘Being’ harbor the spiritual fate of the West?”
So powerful is this understanding of Being that Heidegger is convinced the very “spiritual fate of the West” rests on it. After some discussion he then states, “asking the question of Being, is then one of the essential fundamental conditions for awakening the spirit.”
There is, however, an obvious problem. Recognizing that Being is now an empty word and carries little or no relation to it classical meaning, this “essential condition” for spiritual awakening is out of reach for our contemporary world.
Returning to the beginning of this article, is it then even possible to regain our sense of wonder? I’m not sure that I have done a good job connecting wonder with the fundamental metaphysical question (it’s easier to demonstrate it than to talk about it), but I hope that one point is clear: without an expanded understanding of Being our sense of wonder—our spiritual awakening—is not likely to take shape.
The Christian message itself is severely handicapped without it.
Why was it that Christianity had no problem growing rapidly throughout the ancient world? Because from the ancient Near East to the Greek speaking West, ancient man’s concept of Being was multilayered, which allowed for their sense of wonder to remain no matter how brilliant, how grown up, how intellectual they became.
But nobody today talks about modern wisdom. We might talk about modern knowledge, but never wisdom. We seem to understand that wisdom is something the ancients had and passed down to us. How is it that they were so much wiser than us when we possess so much greater access to knowledge than them?
My theory is that with their superior understanding of Being they were able to retain their sense of wonder, and were therefore (taking Heidegger’s lead) far more spiritually awake, hence wiser, and happier. Nihilism was not major issue in their world (so far as I have been able to glean) not because they were ignorant of mechanical nature, or because they were more terrified of death than we are, needing a mythological, religious crutch to hold onto. Nihilism simply does not survive in a wonder-filled environment. There are no nihilistic 5-year-olds.
And though it is certainly true that it’s not looking good for our civilization in terms of returning to wonderment, the individual is by no means a lost cause. Just as my client was able to temporarily resurrect his sense of wonder using simple awareness tools, anyone can do the same. But even better, anyone can become aware of the wonder of Being by opening their minds to the basic understanding with which the ancients were well-acquainted. Don’t wait for universities to reopen their programs in metaphysics. It’s never going to happen. Your’s will likely be a solo journey, but it will be a wonderful one.