Over the last 300 years, ever since the period of the Enlightenment, Western society has lost its sense of awe and wonder at creation and taken on a mainly purely scientific rational view of the world. We explain life through facts, and in the process we lose the fact that a scientific rational view of the world is not the only view there is. 

If we are made in the image of God, then it follows that what St Augustine said is true: that humans are designed to worship God and we are restless until we find our home in God.

Spain Walker

A walker on the Camino de Santiago in Spain. PICTURE: Jorge Luis Ojeda Flota/Unsplash

For most of us, it doesn’t take much of a look inside to realise that our deepest desire is for love. Conversion has been described as a coming home. Everything we do in a sense is a search for the divine. From our attendance at a Bible study to doing the daily washing, we cannot but attempt to find meaning in everything we do. 

The sex act is probably the closest example we get to this. Why is it that the very act of continuing life on this planet is so intensely pleasurable? Could it be because there is a loving God who is so delighted in us that He wants to give us what is pleasurable? Even our distortions of it are still pleasurable (though ultimately less so and they lead to desperate loneliness). It is said that every man who walks into a brothel walks in there looking for God. Even our basest acts are a search for meaning.

"What the Christian faith calls sin is nothing less than a distortion of the good. Sin is good desires gone off the mark. So when we see sin, we cannot judge; we can only lament that the person committing the sin has lost their way and is really searching for life but is drinking from the wrong well."

What the Christian faith calls sin is nothing less than a distortion of the good. Sin is good desires gone off the mark. So when we see sin, we cannot judge; we can only lament that the person committing the sin has lost their way and is really searching for life but is drinking from the wrong well.

I've recently been listening to a book called Reframation: Seeing God, People, and Mission Through Reenchanted Frames by Alan Hirsch and Mark Nelson in which they discuss just that. Mark tells a powerfully moving story of some days spent on the Camino de Santiago in Spain where he got to know a woman named Alex. One night over a dinner, a group of them got talking, and Alex asked everyone what their favourite part of the day was, what the most beautiful thing they had seen was and how the Camino was going to transform them.

When it came to her turn, she interestingly started by saying “I don’t believe in God.” Then, as she talked, she described the sense of awe and wonder she felt out on the Camino, and that the beauty of creation she saw out there. It was a beautiful telling of her experience and explained why she wanted to walk the Camino.

The group then made their own way for a few days until Mark bumped into Alex again. He was intrigued about the conversation from a few nights before, and decided to ask Alex a question. He referred back to when she said she didn’t believe in God, and apologising for being blunt, said “you mentioned how you didn’t believe in God, but I don’t believe you. I think you do believe in something.” He then mentioned that he wondered if the God she didn’t believe in was one that he didn’t believe in either.

Later, as Mark finished the Camino and entered a beautiful big cathedral to signify the ending of the pilgrimage, he saw Alex in one of the pews, sitting by herself. He came up to her and noticed she was weeping. Something had touched her deeply about what she had experienced on the Camino.

In his conversations with Alex, Mark could have tried to prove the existence of God or told her the four spiritual laws or tried to convince her why the resurrection was true. Instead though, what the experience told him was that it is through mystery, awe and wonder that we mostly experience God and that this is what had happened to Alex.

The more we try to remove awe and mystery from life, the more we remove some of the life from our culture. We see this in our buildings. I’m not one for spending big on church buildings; I think the money could be spent in much better ways. However there is much to be said for the character of the old church buildings compared to the bland pieces of architecture we see in so many of today’s churches which are built for practicality and efficiency.

We see it also in our removal of the sacred from society. I am writing this on Good Friday in Melbourne, Australia. AFL football is well under way here, including on this most sacred of days. It is only in recent years that the AFL has decided to play football on Good Friday and I think it is a huge detriment to us all. The more we deny the sense of the truly sacred, the more we die as a society. I feel a sense this year that Easter is more distant than ever from our society. More than ever it comes across like just another holiday. 

Throughout history, the removal of the sacred has destroyed cultures. One of the main projects the Nazis undertook in World War II was to destroy the art work of the countries they invaded. They knew that when you remove the art from a society, you destroy their culture and come closer to sending them to a final death.

"Awe and mystery and wonder all evoke intense emotion. They are essential if our society is to survive and flourish. To do so, we must continue to tell our stories. This is how the Bible is best relayed to people: as the story that it is rather than a handbook of rules about how to live life."

Awe and mystery and wonder all evoke intense emotion. They are essential if our society is to survive and flourish. To do so, we must continue to tell our stories. This is how the Bible is best relayed to people: as the story that it is rather than a handbook of rules about how to live life.

This was the genius of people like CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien. Through their stories of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings respectively, they told the story of the Gospel. It is the power of story that touches the human heart, not the powerlessness of dry facts. The human heart needs to not just know intellectually that it is loved; it needs to feel it.

For too long, Western culture has downplayed the importance of emotion. I grew up with a faith that said that love is not a feeling but an act of the will. There is much truth in that, and if we rely purely on feelings we are in big trouble, but we do also need to feel love. To know only intellectually that we are loved is like eating dry toast; it helps, but we deny ourselves the richness and depth on offer in a genuine relationship with the divine.

To truly know God is to embrace mystery; it is to accept paradox and accept not necessarily knowing. Coming to terms with these truths will go a long way to restoring our sense of awe and wonder at the marvellous beauty of all that is around us.