Has modernity taken the mystery, wonder away from life and God? - opinion

Science has deciphered too many of nature’s mysteries, thereby eliminating the awe we once felt at our vast, untamed world.

 ENDURING MYSTERIES envelop and captivate us. (photo credit: STEVEN WRIGHT/UNSPLASH)
ENDURING MYSTERIES envelop and captivate us.

In his final soliloquy, Moses recollected the divine providence that protected us during our journey through a blistering and arid desert. Miraculously, God drew water from boulders and delivered manna from the sky. 

In describing the heavenly bread, Moses emphasized that a spectacle of this nature had never before been witnessed. Neither the current generation nor its predecessors had ever encountered heavenly breadfall. They had beheld numerous water miracles, such as the conversion of water to blood in Egypt and the solidification of oceans into a solid seawall at the ocean crossing. Having already experienced these miracles, they weren’t amazed by desert water being drawn from boulders. Ready-to-eat bread descending from heaven, however, was completely unfamiliar to them, and for this reason it excited marvel and awe.

Anything familiar, even if supernatural, quickly becomes routine and is taken for granted. The familiar in life fails to astonish us and doesn’t stun us into disbelief. It is only the new and unfamiliar which dazzles and awes us. Where there is no mystery, there is no awe. For the heavenly manna to arouse wonder, it had to be fresh and mysterious.

In life, there are two different types of mysteries – temporary ones and enduring ones. Temporary mysteries can be considered “problems” that must be solved or “uncertainties” that must be clarified. For example, a crime is a temporary mystery, as initially we may not know who committed it. Gradually, we gather information, solve the mystery, and overcome our lack of knowledge. Temporary mysteries are merely barriers on the path to clarity and certainty.

Enduring mysteries, however, are never meant to be solved. Instead, they envelop us, and they captivate us. These deeper mysteries summon us to meanings that are larger than ourselves and connect us to the beyond. As Abraham Joshua Heschel (in his Who Is Man?) wrote, “Awe is an act of insight into meaning greater than ourselves.” By connecting us to larger meanings, deeper mysteries amplify our lives. Without awe, we shrink into indifference, and we fall into the apathy of sin.

 DOES GOD exist, and if so,  how does He interface with the universe?  (credit: (Davide Cantelli/Unsplash)
DOES GOD exist, and if so, how does He interface with the universe? (credit: (Davide Cantelli/Unsplash)

Coastal sands and rivers of stars

Introducing Abraham to Jewish destiny, God evoked wondrous scenes and dazzling metaphors. He portrayed Abraham’s descendants as the coastal sands silently bracing against the ferocious seas. He pointed to the endless rivers of stars in the sprawling heavens as a metaphor for the cosmic nature of Jewish history. God took Abraham on a journey of wonder, allowing his imagination to leap to the great beyond of Jewish history. Awed by the recognition that his decisions would shape Jewish history, Abraham’s own life became magnified.

God is the ultimate mystery, and our longing for that mystery is how we best discover Him. The unknowable mystery that is God calls us to a divine rendezvous beyond human experience, beyond human logic, and beyond human interests. Without marveling at the mystery of God, we cease to long for Him, and His presence slowly slips out of our consciousness. The pursuit of the elusive mystery of God sits at the core of religious identity.

A shrinking world

The expanding effect of wonder and awe is even more vital in our ever-contracting modern world. Ironically, as our world expands, human space shrinks.

Rapid urbanization has modernized our world, enabling greater pooling of resources and more cohesive sharing of creativity. But overpopulated cities suffocate us into congested living spaces. The contraction of our personal space causes wanderlust, or the overpowering desire to travel to faraway locations. If we felt more comfortable and more spacious in our homes and communities, we would not feel an insatiable need for constant travel. When our personal space shrinks, we seek breath and air elsewhere.

Not only are our living spaces shrinking, but our mental spaces are also narrowing. The Internet has exponentially increased our access to information, but paradoxically it also limits our exposure. Search engines have altered the rules of the game by providing direct access to detailed information. Searching for information was once a meandering and circuitous process. Entering a library in search of information, we combed through different rows of books, each representing a different field of knowledge. Likewise, we were forced to sift through different shelves until locating our desired book. To pinpoint the desired information, we leafed through the actual book. This meandering process granted exposure to a broad range of ideas and information.

Search engines have streamlined the process, and our desired results are just a click away. We receive contoured information, specifically fitted to our inquiry, but without any unforeseen exposure to unintended information. Additionally, social media filters the information and viewpoints we consume. Social media and Internet algorithms dictate our information flow and filter our exposure. Urbanization has robbed us of living space. The Internet has deprived us of imaginative space. We are shrinking, and we need the stretching effects of wonder and awe, of mystery and astonishment. Unfortunately, wonder and awe are in short supply.

We know too much?

Mystery is based on concealment and discovery. If everything is immediately known and every object or idea is transparent, there can be no mystery, no pursuit, and no marvel. It is true in every area of human passion. The less we know, the more curious we become, and the more we are drawn to a mystery.

For example, mystery is crucial for romance, and the loss of mystery in relationships is sabotaging romance. There is great wonder in discovering another person, their personality, their likes and dislikes, and in detecting their possible affection for you. Knowing too much about a person beforehand eliminates mystery, throttles our curiosity, and smothers any possible passion.

Just as we know too much about people, we also know too much about the world we live in. Science has deciphered too many of nature’s mysteries, thereby eliminating the awe we once felt at our vast, untamed world.

King David exulted, “How great are Your creations” (Psalms 92) and also reveled “How numerous are Your creations” (Ps. 104), reflecting on the sweep and variety of the universe. Gaping at the grandeur of the universe, with eyes wide open in astonishment, knowing there are no answers, King David lodged rhetorical questions. Rhetorical questions don’t yield answers but generate wonder and amazement.

Science has lifted the veil of mystery from our planet, allowing us to chart the inner recesses of human identity and to map the pathways of the heavens. We hardly ask rhetorical questions of amazement. Believing that we possess answers, we prefer to ask “why?” or “how?” But we rarely say “wow.” Under the influence of science, “why?” and “how?” have replaced “wow.” “Wow” is the voice of wonder and marvel; “why?” is the voice of expectation of answers. We need to say “wow” more and “why?” less.

Suspending disbelief

Additionally, we struggle to be awed because it expects us to submit to an unprovable mystery. Unfortunately, our age is too cynical for blind submission. Protecting ourselves against deceit and manipulation, we have barricaded ourselves in fortresses of distrust. Our only manner of defense against dishonesty and exploitation is distrust and disbelief. But awe demands the suspension of disbelief. Cynicism is contagious, and disbelief in people bleeds into disbelief in ideas.

Wonder expects us to surrender to a larger mystery. But we are too afraid and too guarded to surrender to anything.

Life is a mystery. God is a fathomless mystery. Live mystery. 

The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University, as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.