Abraham Joshua Heschel — argued that God turns towards humanity. (UCLA)

The Capacity for Amazement

Yme Woensdregt

When I was in seminary many decades ago, studying to be a minister and priest, one of the scholars we read was Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Heschel was a Jewish rabbi and Old Testament scholar. In his book “The Prophets”, Heschel argued that what sets Jewish faith apart from other religions is the understanding that God turns towards humanity. Whereas other nations have soothsayers and diviners who sought to discover the will of their gods, Hebrew prophets received what he called “the Divine Pathos”.

The word “pathos” comes from the Greek word for suffering. Heschel’s view was that the Hebrew prophets understood God as One who reacted in sorrow and anger to a people who had forsaken him. In Heschel’s view, the prophets did not so much speak for God as they reminded their audience of God’s passionate love for the voiceless, the poor, and the oppressed.

In another book, “Man is Not Alone”, he argued that since God has this kind of passionate love affair with the world, to experience God’s love would lead to a sense of radical amazement.

One of his quotes which has always stuck with me is this. “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement … to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

What a wonderful, open–ended way this is to approach what it means to be spiritual people. It strikes at the heart of every fundamentalism. The problem with every fundamentalist approach is that it acts as if the world is fixed.

Christian fundamentalists believe that all we need to do is accept Jesus as our personal Lord and Saviour and we’ll go to heaven. It’s the only way, they say. If you don’t do it this way, you’re going to hell. There is no other option, and the world becomes narrowed to this confined and restricted view of our relationship with God.

Atheist fundamentalists, on the other hand, say that there is no God. If you believe in God, you are an infant who can’t handle the complexities of life and have to find a helicopter parent to rescue you. Again, a constricted and cramped view of life.

Neither fundamentalism is true. Both treat the world as if it is closed and fixed, as if their opinion is the only one that counts. Neither fundamentalism is open to any other way of viewing the world.

But Heschel’s understanding of spirituality opens us to different and multiple ways of viewing life.

If we start from an openness to being amazed, we will look at life so very differently. As he says in another book, “God in Search of Man”, “Mankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation.

The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living. What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder.”

To be spiritual is to have the capacity for amazement and wonder. Spiritual people can appreciate and celebrate life. That kind of celebration is rooted in reverence and wonder. We pay attention to all the dimensions of life. We delight in the everyday, ordinary, actions: buds bursting forth on trees in the spring; the chorus of birds singing their praise; the sun rising in the morning; the sound of children laughing; the warmth which bathes us in the summer; the feel of cool water flowing over our feet as we walk in a creek; seeing a rainbow arcing in the sky; and so many more wondrous events of ordinary, everyday life.

We also remain open to wonder at those things which catch us by surprise—the first stirrings of love in our hearts; the ebb and flow of friendship; the unexplainable sense that something important is happening which we cannot yet name; the deep soul–knowledge that our actions have transcendent meaning; finding joy in the midst of suffering. I can’t help these days but feel that kind of amazement at the way in which nature is renewing itself as our human activities have had to shut down during this pandemic … clean skies in China and California, clean waters in Venice, being able to see the Himalayas again from northern India.

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It is this kind of wonder and amazement that makes my faith alive and real and hopeful. Faith is not a creed for me, or giving mental assent to a bunch of doctrines. Faith is a sense of a developing wonder in a relationship with One who is beyond me. It is a celebration of the compassion and love which I understand to be at the heart of the universe. It is about receiving moments of joy in the midst of sorrowful times. It is the gift of patience and kindness in the midst of indifference.

As I look back over my life, I gaze in wonder at the growth I have experienced. I have known moments of intense pain and sorrow and hurt. And I made it through. I have been strengthened by moments which could very clearly have brought me down.

I have learned to be grateful. I have learned to be amazed. I have learned to wonder.

And those learnings are what sustains me in this time of pandemic. Yes, I am sad aome days. I am bewildered by what is happening. I am anxious, and I am sorry beyond words for those who are directly affected and whose livelihood is up in the air.

At the same time, I have received grace upon grace.

And as I have received, I can return that gift of grace by sharing it with others. As Rabbi Heschel reminds us, “I would say about individuals [that] an individual dies when they cease to be surprised. I am surprised every morning when I see the sunshine again. … We must learn to be surprised.”

Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook

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