Reverence and Astonishment

Isaiah renders a scene that often occupies my imagination. The holy council assembles in the temple before the massive glory (kabod) of the Lord. The hem of the Lord’s robe unfurls from an exalted throne and awes the seraphs as it fills the temple. None can withstand the weight of the hem and the Lord who sanctifies it: while a pair of angelic wings maintains each seraph above the throne, another pair shutters each face, and a final pair keep feet from desecrating the sanctum. Smoke envelops the space, which heaves with praise as the seraphs sing:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isa 6:3)

The prophet is summoned into the sanctum. He is reduced. He also cannot bear the massive weight of the hem, which is the unholiest segment of the Lord’s trappings for it descends to the floor. Reduced, then, the prophet receives a burning coal from a seraph before he accepts a commission to Israel.

Isaiah’s vision came to mind two weeks ago as I was driving my son around town. Jude is six months old, and he was struggling to fall asleep in the backseat that Saturday afternoon.  Sunlight swept the car. I feared sunburn and kept vigil with the rearview mirror. And there! Tears pooled. I was borne away. As the tearful pool swelled, so did my concern for Jude, for other drivers, and for many others—for all I could see and imagine. And later, as Jude accompanied my wife and me on a walk in Cornwall Park, I just … My wife and I couldn’t but rejoice in the colour of a Japanese wedding under the cherry blossoms and the beauty of a Samoan family and their laughter by tremendous oaks.

“The whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isa 6:3b)
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.” (Isa 6:3a)

In this essay, I want to offer remarks on the structure of wonder in general, and on the relationship between two different types of wonder: wonder as reverence and wonder as astonishment. If Isaiah’s vision is a paradigm case of wonder as reverence, that Saturday two weeks back is an example of wonder as astonishment. The two types are related to each other analogously. This means that there are similarities and dissimilarities between the two. I take wonder as reverence to be the “primary analogate”: astonishment at the “whole earth” is ordered to reverence before God. Where astonishment begins with “the whole earth is full of his glory,” reverence begins with “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.” Because “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (Ps 24:1), God is the primary reality rather than creation, though creation leads us into contemplation and worship of God, as the Psalmist attests and I experienced. I was astonished at Jude and at the interplay of trees and a wedding and a family, and I came to breathe, “The whole earth is full of his glory,” before I voiced, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.”

I attend to wonder as reverence and then turn to wonder as astonishment. I close with a brief reflection on beauty as that which summons wonder and leads us into goodness and truth. As I wonder, as I write, I invite you also to wonder at God and at his creation.

I. Wonder as reverence

The event of wonder wakes us and offers the prospect of reorientation. Not only do we regularly foster attachments to things that promise much and fail to make good on their promises, we can fail to promise ourselves in the first place—the promise which commits us one way or the other. The disciples fell asleep in the garden of Gethsemane when they were asked to sit near the Lord. Even those three close friends who were invited farther into the garden fell asleep rather than tend to the Lord in his “agitation” (Matt 26:36ff). Sleep, metaphorically, represents a tendency to “turn in on ourselves” rather than attend to the beauty, goodness, and truth of God and of his creation (analogously), which entreat us to decision and commitment. At least three features or “-isms” of late modern culture induce slumber: the unquestioned primacy of the individual (individualism), the centrality of the subject in questions of morality and knowledge (subjectivism), and the axiom of a self-sufficient “natural” world (immanentism). These three promise us true freedom while their alternatives are seen only to impose an alien will upon us and to constrain our choices, whether the alien will belongs to another person, a community, or God.

But wonder as reverence wakes us by interrupting the easy progress of our sleepwalking. In Isaiah’s vision we see how reverence rejects our late modern “-isms.” The prophet is radically decentred, and the weight of God’s glory undermines any ground for self-satisfaction. In fact, there is danger: niḏmêṯî (nidmah/nidmeh) indicates this—the prophet is imperilled with destruction (Isa 6:5; compare Isa 2:19). John Calvin holds Isaiah to be “reduced to nothing.” Other commentators elaborate on Isaiah’s condition: he is undone, stupefied, stunned, overthrown, awestruck. God’s effulgence is unbearable.

Praise and confession are appropriate responses. First, the “seemingly unending doxology of the divine choir” (Walter Brueggemann) extols the holiness, splendour, glory, and majesty of the ruler of the earth. Second, the prophet manages the words: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isa 6:5). At this point a seraph extends a burning coal to Isaiah’s lips, sanctifying the prophet and relieving him of guilt and sin. Notice Isaiah’s confession does not deprive him of freedom, but instead the act, by grace, renews the prophet. Isaiah is reduced and undone, lost, and yet his agency is established and not abolished, strengthened and not rendered obsolete. Only in confession is the prophet free to hear the Lord’s voice. The Lord issues a question and not a command: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”(Isa 6:8). Isaiah volunteers: “Here am I; send me!” (Isa 6:8). Isaiah is freed not only to hear but to respond, which he does by committing himself to the Lord’s service. How could this whole scene be anything but nonsense to that modern sensibility which finds security in the primacy of the individual and certainty in one’s own operations and experiences, and which attempts to make a home in the “natural” world apart from anything “supernatural”? And yet in the case of Isaiah, reverence evinces true freedom as the prophet takes the Lord’s word to Israel. Freedom, it seems, inheres in committed relationship and not apart from it.

Reverence has a basic pattern that is apparent in Isaiah 6:1-8. This is a pattern of worship: praise (vv. 1-4), confession (v. 5), forgiveness (vv. 6-7), and commissioning (v. 8). God’s holiness summons worship: God is “set apart” from what is not God; God is inassimilable to that which is “mine”—the world I have come to regard as “home.” In this way, worship is an encounter with God’s holiness where a rupture opens up between God and what stands “before” God and his sanctity (what is profane = pro-fanus = “before (the) temple”). The otherness of God awes us creatures who often sleep “before the temple.” As he gives himself to us, we are humbled and convicted. God, by his grace, crosses the interval created by rupture. In the vision, the seraph extends God’s grace to the repentant prophet, and the prophet volunteers his life.

This basic pattern appears as the Apostle Paul closes off the “doctrinal” sections of his letter to the Romans (Rom 1:15/16-11:32). Paul begins with “O the depth ( Ὦ βάθος) of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” (11:33). “O”( Ὦ) apparently springs forth with abandon since it “is a primitive use of the language where emotion overrides syntax” (Daniel Wallace). “O” is a reverential response to God and his providence. Paul marvels at how God, in Christ, has worked and continues to work salvation even if he is not entirely certain of how it will work out. Here Paul finds himself at a loss: such is the depth of God’s riches, wisdom, and knowledge, God’s judgments cannot be traced out nor his ways found out (11:33). This is rupture in the context of worship. The reverent “O” effectively provides breathless momentum that denies absolute knowledge and control to creatures and that culminates in a doxology at 11:36: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.” The doxology leads into worship that encompasses the whole self (12:1) in community (12:4ff), where love governs mutual service (12:9f).

Reverence at God is an appropriate response to who God is, what God has done, is doing, and will do. Reverence wakes us to God, and our waking involves rupture and renewal before we are able to promise ourselves. God’s grace underwrites our freedom to promise responsibly. At Romans 11:33-36, Paul wonders at God’s wisdom, vested in the gospel (see Rom 1:16; Rom 5-8), and the gospel is a greater grace than that of the seraph’s burning coal since God gives himself in seeking and establishing a transformational relationship in which knowledge as intimacy and reverence coexist. In this familiarity does not breed contempt: through Christ and in the power of the Spirit, we are adopted into the family of God and this familiarity, as intimacy (familiaritas), is endlessly wondrous. In contrast, our late modern “-isms” often serve a notion of knowledge as power, where if wonder has any place, it cohabitats only with ignorance. That is, wonder provides motivation to overcome our ignorance and to attain knowledge, which consists in the sort of certainty and security we achieve when we are able to reduce risk by manipulating and controlling our environment. Yet Isaiah is “profoundly at risk,” according to one reader of Isaiah 6. As Karl Barth puts it, theological wonder (reverence, to use our word) does not aim at domesticating God, but instead, as Eberhard Jüngel notes, wonder deepens with sustained attention to God. O! The Holy God whose wonders never cease!

II. Wonder as astonishment

What about more mundane instances of wonder? Recall that I label these “astonishment” (following William Desmond), while I began with an example of astonishment at my infant son. Desmond writes of the “shock or bite of otherness in astonishment.” I’ve known my son from the womb and from the operating theatre, and I’ve been up all night with him, and I’ve fed him, bathed him, walked with him in the front-pack, spoken with him and listened to him and read to him Guess How Much I Love You; I’ve also entrusted him to others and their cuddles, and all the while, I’ve watched him and my wife keenly. But I’m ever astonished at Jude and at my wife, whom I’ve known for years. It seems the more I know, the deeper astonishment bites. Astonishment does not simply lie in the extra-ordinary, but often and perhaps especially in the ultra-ordinary.

The mystery of being (of whatever has existence) helps account for our astonishment. Not all that has existence is given to us to know securely or even to know at all. Desmond notes the following: “Astonishment is aroused when there is, so to say, a ‘too-muchness’ about the givenness of something that both overcomes and fascinates us.” I was and am overcome by Jude’s “too-muchness.” Jude’s eight kilograms and 70 centimetres do not compass his dimensions. Jude withholds something from me and not just because he cannot yet speak, for my wife also holds out on me and not intentionally so. The gift of Jude and of my wife, and indeed of all being, harbours potential for astonishment, not just because I don’t yet know, but because it all possesses a “too-muchness” that is inherent not only in God himself but also in God’s gift of existence.

God gifts existence to all that is not God, and he sustains it in being such that it bespeaks God where we have eyes to see, ears to hear, noses to smell, tongues to taste, and skin to touch. Astonishment therefore consists in a response to the gifts of creation, each of which dazzles in its particularity as it glorifies God in God’s particularity as its creator and sustainer. Creation is simply theophany. It is God “showing” (phainein) himself, or if you grant me licence, God showing off, even if we cannot see God in creation as a matter of course. By this I mean we cannot easily read off of creation all that God is and has done, is doing, and will do. Yet, when we take in the world from the perspective of reverence (e.g., Isa 6:1-8; Rom 11:33-36), creation shimmers with God’s glory. Creation is the theatre of God’s glory (Calvin). As Bonaventure once put it:

…open your eyes, alert your spiritual ears, unlock your lips, and apply your heart so that in all creation you may see, hear, praise, love and adore, magnify and honour your God lest the entire world rise up against you.

That God reveals his glory in creation was so obvious to Calvin and Bonaventure, and many of the psalmists (for example, Ps 92:4ff), that for them, foolishness consisted in ignorance of this fact. While Bonaventure thought that attentive senses perceive God’s glory in creation, another thinker, Hans Urs von Balthasar, glosses attentiveness as the “eyes of Christ” that, when combined with sanctity of life, alight upon creation in rich contemplation. With such vision, we also come to see how astonishment is ordered to reverence even if astonishment cannot be confused with reverence. Astonishment at the “too-muchness” of God’s created gifts faintly anticipates the overwhelming gift of God himself in Christ, through whom and for whom all things have been created (Col 1:16), though we can appreciate this fully only with the reverent “eyes of Christ.”

In both reverence and astonishment, something or someone eludes our knowing manipulation. Only “too-muchness” and the mystery it entails can save us from the poverty of knowledge as power. Both astonishment and reverence survive in a habitat of mystery where wonder takes flight within a vision of excess. D.C. Schindler helps us see the two dimensions involved in wonder: there is both a lack in the one who wonders, and an excess in the object that elicits wonder. Where the emphasis lies upon the excess of the object rather than the lack of the one who wonders, wonder will increase the closer one gets to its object. If this is true, knowledge is a form of intimacy, and it entreats commitment as a form of faith.

III. Conclusion

Ours is a time distant from Calvin and Bonaventure and even Balthasar, and the culture of our late modern world often precludes wonder. Sleep remains a perennial temptation, even if soporifics change according to time and place. The more things change, the more they remain the same. Balthasar, in particular, saw that beauty was at stake in the modern world. Modernity has forgotten beauty, and this amnesia undermines beauty’s “sisters,” goodness and truth, which Balthasar thought tolled and tolls catastrophe for the Christian vision, and the practices and forms of life that the vision licenses.

We close our reflection with beauty and its sisters because wonder as reverence and wonder as astonishment are fundamentally responses to God’s beauty and the beauty of God’s creation, respectively. Wonder responds to beauty’s excess, even that which overwhelms and sometimes terrifies. Beauty is therefore not merely a glittering surface, nor does it simply lie in the “eye of the beholder.” These opinions are conceits entailed by the late modern “-isms.” Instead, beauty calls us from without to attend to what is good and true, and it calls us ultimately to love. The following example suggests this order. Some years ago theologian Rowan Williams and the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, discussed a statue produced in Utrecht that, at large scale, renders Christ naked and bereft. The statue stood on exhibition with no access restrictions. The responses were “quite extraordinary,” according to MacGregor:

Several visitors actually put their coat around [the statue], to keep [Christ] warm – so moved, so feeling the need to make a gesture of compassion, which seems to me a proper response to this image. But very strikingly I received a letter from a woman who had seen it and been moved by it, and who had then on her way home met a beggar on the street and for the first time in her life had actually stopped and spoken to the beggar.

I’ve experienced the inter-play of beauty and goodness in a more mundane way. I’ve sat in the pews of Erfurt Cathedral and longed for another to share the experience with, and I’ve walked to the exit mindful, careful to hold open the heavy door for others on the way out. I even longed that more people would either enter or leave the great building so I could serve them in some small way. In the statue and the cathedral, or in any source of astonishment, let alone in reverence at God, there is “an extraordinary force of reality” (Joseph Ratzinger). Ratzinger goes on: “The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes ….” Beauty opens out onto goodness and truth, and if this is so, our knowledge consists in intimate “contact with reality” (Schindler) rather than, primarily, in an objectifying and pragmatic gaze.  In this connection, Balthasar often quoted a German poet, who closed a verse on beauty with the words: “You must change your life.”

In sum, where certain trends in modernity maintain us in slumber and thus from the reality of God’s world, wondrous beauty awakens desire and leads us into the goodness and truth of reality—most fully in the triune God who gives himself to us in the missions of the Son and the Spirit, and who desires our participation in his ever new but ancient love. Our God is qualitatively other than his creation, though both reverence and astonishment are nonetheless forms of wonder. Reverence in a way secures the depth of our astonishment at creation for it begins with and remains transfixed by the Holy God, while astonishment brings us ultimately to acknowledge, and so worship, the creator God who sustains whatever we wonder at. Wonder breaks open “our own little worlds” (Jerome Miller) and brings us to breathe the following words as it stirs us to that repentance that, by God’s grace, frees us for wholehearted commitment:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isa 6:3)

“The whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isa 6:3b)
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.” (Isa 6:3a)

(Image: “Broad Landscape”, Claude Monet, CC Zero)