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The Quest For Wonder

A SERIOUS a thoughtful man once had a singular dream . He dreamed that a race of men arose gifted with a strange power to experiment with the fundamental characteristics of the natural world. They could change the qualities of the soil. They could rearrange the laws of physics and chemistry. They could separate things which have always been united and unite things which have always been separated. They could take qualities fn the thing to which they have always belonged and give them to other things. Nothing was beyond the reach of their manipulations.

For a time this powerful race greatly enjoyed its unusual activities; but by and by it became evident that the new race was spoiling the world. The soil was tampered with until its fertility was affected. Rays of light were so treated that the illuminating and warming power greatly decreased. At last a new world was produced in which everything was haphazard. Men gradually adjusted themselves to a dwarfed and impoverished life. The race lost its power to experiment with nature and settled down to live in a dull, gray, hardly tolerable world, the product of its own mistaken energy.

Fortunately, such fundamental tampering with nature has never been within the reach of human power, though John Ruskin would probably have said that many a great city in its loathsome conditions represents very much this sort of thing. But what is impossible physically is quite possible intellectually. We live in the physical world God has made. We live in the intellectual world men have made.

Now, the actual meaning of human life as a personal experience is very largely determined by the mental outlook of the man who is going through the experience. What he believes, what he hopes, what he fears, what he unconsciously assumes the whole range of his thoughts about life make up the vital part of his world. The physical world is only a background, and for the purposes of the deepest meaning of joy and sorrow, hope and fear, often a very incidental background of the personal life.

This world of the mind men make and destroy and remake. They can manipulate it in all sorts of ways. They can make it good or bad, beautiful or ugly, glad or miser-able. And this is the world of destiny into which all of us are born. Superstition has filled air and earth with evil spirits. The fact that they had no existence save in the minds of those who believed in them, did not lessen the tragedy of believing in a devil-haunted world. Every religion had provided a mental environment for its worshipers. And thus many a religion has cramped and destroyed some of the fairest things of life.

Civilization is another name for the mental environment humanity creates as it moves onward for succeeding generations. You are born into its sanctions. They are offered to you as a suit of clothing you must wear if you are to have social relations with the men of your time. Of course you may refuse the suit of clothing. But you will become an outcast if you do. And we must frankly confess that the suit is not always made of the best material, nor is it always a good fit. The scholars and the philosophers and the great leaders have used their energies modifying the mental environment of the race, and often they have taken oxygen out of the mental atmosphere and have made it very difficult to breathe. There has not always been an adequate realization on the part of the intellectual leaders of the race of the fact that it is a very responsible thing to provide mental food for men.

To be sure, vast and wonderful are the achievements of the human mind. Splendid is the tale of human progress. But it is by no means a one-sided story, and the man who would make the most out of life as a personal experience must learn to be a critic as well as a disciple. He must enlist in the most subtle warfare in the world, the struggle for an intellectual background which constantly enlarges life and never causes it to shrink. The point of view which saps the vitality from existence has no right in the world, and the slavery to a point of view which dwarfs humanity is the most intolerable slavery on the planet.

In the light of these facts we want to make a survey of certain intellectual tendencies which have moved very deeply in the life of men. We want to see their strength and their weakness, their tragedy and their hope, and to reach some practical conclusions which a careful and analytical inspection will suggest.

The two fundamental characteristics of the mind are the desire for stability and the desire for wonder. To put it in another way, they are the desire for unity and the desire for diversity.

The Greeks found the two characteristics coming to clenched antagonism when the substance of the Eleatics faced the moving procession of Heraclitus. Whenever men become really reflective one of these desires is likely to become paramount. The desire for stability with one thinker casts out the desire for wonder. In another the desire for a world full of initiative and surprise and movement casts out the desire for a close and coherent and unified view of life.


There have been periods when men's view of life and the world has made full room for wonder and surprise, but has sadly lacked in making any provision for the intellectual stability of the world.

This is true especially of primitive and barbarous peoples. And this accounts for that naïve and beautiful poetry which is so characteristic of them. The Indian on the plain, the Negro in his cabin, the backward races of the world everywhere, live in a world with amazing and beautiful and torturing possibilities of surprise. The folklore stories of the world, the myths fresh from the child-like heart of humanity; the religions of nature with their astonishing reflection of the quality of primitive human experience and desire all these belong to the unreflective, believing, wonder ages of the world and the stages of human experience which correspond to them. At their best they represent the fine flower of the superstition of the world ; at their worst they represent a brutal and lawless and terrible expression of the most degraded and wildest things in human life. Hawthorne's Donatello in The Marble Faun lived in this world of nature's marvel and bewildering surprise until the shock of the awakening and disillusionment came.

The ethnic religions had made it a point to preserve the reign of wonder. Often they have done it partly by means of the grossest and most vicious types of superstition. The wonder-world of the Arabian Nights is an illustration of what can be done when imagination is allowed to take long flights. If you do not like it, you can call it a gambler's world. But at least it is a world where lethargy is impossible. You are not likely to go to sleep or be bored in any of its scenes. Something is always going to happen, and you never know quite what it is. But not only Mohammedanism, but practically every ethnic faith has its throne of wonder surrounded by rainbow colors of astonishment and surprise.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Roman Catholicism has been the entire preservation of the reign of wonder. To dip into the life of a Roman Catholic saint is like suddenly dropping into another world where no one has ever heard of the reign of law. The marvelous lures and beckons and you live in a country where all the charm of fairyland is called into play as an asset of religion.

The limitations and inadequacies of all this kind of interpretation of life are clearly visible to the careful thinker. Wonder is preserved at the expense of rationality. Sur-prise and glamour and charm and the beating of fairy wings are secured at the expense of an ordered and coherent and lawful universe. This kind of a paradise of wonder is a paradise of the ignorant. Knowledge drives away the spirits and the fairies and the gnomes. You must pay for these, the experiences of childlike belief in the myths of many an ethnic religion, by remaining in some degree a barbarian at heart.

Then the reign of wonder in these realms is an unethical thing. A brilliant theologian once made an observation to the effect that whenever you have a profound belief in the supernatural without a deep and commanding ethical sense you have superstition. In the primitive peoples and religions and the survivals of the primitive wonder-feeling you have exactly that situation. And with all the subtle charm of many a bit of folk-lore and legend, the other side of the story reveals a capricious, lawless, undependable universe. You pay for your fairies by making room for demons. You pay for your endless miracles by accepting a universe which has no firmly grounded unity and consistency and stability. You pay for your glad surprises by the possibility of very deadly surprises. There is nothing you can depend on, and life is reduced in one way or another to a matter of magic and incantation. The wildly and terribly dramatic features triumph at last. The leering devils drive away the fairies, and one day you awake to find your religion a devil-worship. Thus it has happened in more than one ethnic cult.


There have been periods where men's view of life was based on the unity and coherency of the universe, when there was a firm intellectual stability in the interpretation of the world, but where the sense of wonder was all the while being driven farther and farther away. It is a great relief to turn from the futilities and absurdities of barbarism to the careful use of the inductive method of reasoning and the rise of modern science. At every stage of the process some hoary superstition has vanished. A thousand terrible and torturing phantoms have been driven away as the triumphant armies of science have moved forward. One realm after another has been invaded. Its materials have been analyzed and classified. All has been reduced to subserviency to the reign of law. Cause and effect have become the regal words of the language, and the widening ranges of the application of great scientific principles have been sources of delight to the investigator and to the man who was building large philosophic generalizations on the returns of science as they come in.

Now, it is easy to see that the superstitious religions of the world created an artificial and unreal universe. They tampered with men's thoughts about life, and in many cases caused them to inhabit a world made terrible and unhappy by thoughts which were the product of human imagination. The mental environment of the ethnic religions is a human creation, and to a large degree a creation having no relation to the reality of things. All this is quickly conceded. But now we come to another matter, equally true, and yet not nearly so easy to see or appreciate. When the reign of law was substituted for the reign of wonder, and modern science began to be turned into scientific philosophy, once more there began the creation of an artificial mental environment. The synthetic philosophy is as far from the reality of human experience as would be a philosophy attempting to include as real all the features of Arabian Nights. The scientific explanation of the universe has been so busy with things and forces that it has never faced the meaning of personality. It has been so busy with physical coherency and uniformity that it has never understood that freedom and initiative and movement which belong to the personal mental life. Barbarism made the mistake of attempting to explain all impersonal things in the immediate terms of personality. Much scientific philosophy has made the mistake of trying to explain personal experience in impersonal terms.

To follow the logic of the scientific appraisal when it leaves its proper task of being bookkeeper to catalogue physical uniformities, and puts out its sign as a master in philosophy, is one of the most disappointing things in all the world.

The rise of modern science, to be sure, is like a sudden sunrise. The victories over hoary superstition are good to witness. Endless vistas spread out before us. New worlds lie all about us ready for the conqueror. This was the situation in the middle of the nineteenth century and for some time after. Then there came a strange change. A dull lethargy began to settle down upon the world. Doors were closing with a bang. Vistas which had seemed infinite contracted and disappeared. The spring and enthusiasm of the youth of modern science were transformed into a premature old age. The warmth and brightness of life began to wane. The new world, it began to appear, was not a world in which men could be happy. Matthew Arnold's Scholar Gipsy is a fair expression of the new mood. The wisest man takes his seat dejectedly upon the intellectual throne.

What has happened? Why this dullness, these heavy eyes, this lethargy which seems likely to become despair? The answer is that the men who by too hasty generalizations were transforming science into philosophy had tampered with the intellectual life of the world. They had built a system smaller than life. They offered a stone when personality must have bread and this quite literally for they were in fact attempting to reduce the organic to the terms of the in-organic. Men woke up to find that they lived in a world from which initiative and movement and freedom were gone. The wonder of the world had been cast out for the sake of uniformity. Freshness and surprise had been trodden under the foot of stability. The trouble with barbarism is that under its sanction anything can happen. The trouble with the scientific appraisals of which we are speaking is that under these sanctions nothing in a personal sense can happen at all.

This situation accounts for the wide hearing of the men who are crying out, "Back to the medioeval." Celtic romance, Gilbert Chesterton's brilliant paradoxes, all the cry for a return to fairyland these are the inevitable reaction from an interpretation of life which reduces the universe to a system of pigeonholes everything fastened so tightly that not even a worm could crawl from one hole to another. How new and different the intellectual situation is, is suggested by the fact that Newman went to Rome to find intellectual rest. Gilbert Chesterton finds the world of modern science so deadly dull and commonplace that he seems in a fair way to go to Rome to find excitement.

A new appeal of the Roman Catholic Church, of which farsighted ecclesiastics will not be slow to take advantage, is this preserving in a scientific age of an emphasis on that wonder of the world of which the human heart will not be robbed. The nineteenth century saw the maturity of a system of reducing all life to the mechanical on the side of materialism, which robbed the world of freedom and stir and wonder. So much was the net result at this point of the synthetic philosophy. It saw the maturity of an intellectual interpretation which reduced life to a mental mechanism and so destroyed freedom and initiative and wonder. This was the Hegelian outcome. In each case logic attempted to shut the door in the face of life. It would be the supreme delight of Rome if Protestantism should so completely ally itself with these forces of mechanical thought, or at least so imbibe their atmosphere, as to lose its sense of wonder entirely. A rationalistic Protestantism is the greatest hope of Rome, for, with all its faults, Rome has preserved the sense of freedom and movement and wonder in the world.

If it is true, on the one hand, that barbarism creates a false and deadly mental environment because it preserves wonder at the expense of stability, it is true, on the other, that much modern thinking has created a false and deadly mental environment by preserving stability at the expense of wonder. A universe of mere mechanical interactions is an impossible universe for a wholesome growing human life.


In this whole situation we can appreciate the quest for wonder as a fundamental characteristic of present-day life and thought. Very often it is a partly subconscious quest. Men are dull and restless. They feel cramped and hedged in. There is something suffocating about their mental atmosphere. Instinctively they begin to fight for room and space to breathe and for a larger life. Some men, in sheer despair, stop thinking and fall into physical indulgence. Here at least they find a counterfeit of that wonder their souls desire. If they cannot have a world of spiritual glow and freshness, they will at least have a world of physical sensation. To nobler spirits, of course, such an alternative is impossible. They live in moral loyalty to ideals which, so far as they can see, have no foundation in the system of things. They realize as they think more clearly and accurately that their view of life logically pronounces the death warrant of personal freedom and power of decision, of that personal initiative in God or man which makes wonder and surprise and freshness of life possible. They see at last that their point of view is incompatible with the validity of morals and religion. Their deepest intuitions are in direct antagonism with what they conceive to be the facts of life. Such a man as Arthur Hugh Clough felt the torturing pang of this dilemma, and to many a man of science whose thinking has moved along these lines the whole experience has been a personal tragedy.

But such a state of disillusionment developing into despair could not be the last word. The quest for wonder was bound to become more than a subconscious movement. Life, like a great river, was sure to rise and overflow the embankments of cold, hard logic. As a matter of fact this has already happened. The pragmatists in England and America are prophets of an interpretation of life where there is room for wonder, where in a fresh and vital way things can really happen. The pragmatists are sometimes superficial, and sometimes they seem to treat some facts in a cavalier fashion, and some-times they seem to mistake a method for a philosophy. But this is to be said for them: they have seen that life itself is more commanding than our thoughts about life. They have seen that our experience is more masterful than the logical systems by means of which we try to interpret it. They have declared in no uncertain tone that life itself has the right of way. And this declaration brings in again the wonder and the surprise of the world.

Henri Bergson, whose brilliant work at the Collège de France is known to all the world, is another prophet of the reaction from the mechanical view of life. The Creative Evolution is a sort of philosophers' Magna Charta of the wonder of the world. Freedom, vital movement, the full recognition of the place of the unexpected ; the glow, the freshness, the stimulus of living in a world where everything has not happened, and where the great unknown future beckons all of this is preserved and defended in masterful fashion in Professor Bergson's work, by an intellect of almost uncanny acuteness.

Professor Rudolf Eucken, at Jena, is another prophet of the reaction from the reign of mechanics in human thought. Not so brilliant as Professor Bergson, he has more spiritual depth, more richness of inner life, more feeling for the deep moral and spiritual meanings of experience. He has waged a long battle for a universe fit to be a dwelling place for a man with a soul. There is a vein of rich mysticism in his thinking, and the deep spiritual currents of experience are as real to him as any facts of life. In the name of the spiritual life, with its wonder and surprise and creative energy, he repudiates the reduction of the inner life of man to a subtle kind of chemistry. With him too life, the highest, most palpitating, most regally free life, has the right of way.

The whole pluralistic movement is a reaction from the unity of a universe which secures stability at the expense of movement and banishes the play of living and free energy from the life of the world. It would rather rest with unsolved mental problems than sacrifice the richness of life. It would be daring enough to accept a sort of philosophic polytheism rather than a lifeless universe which made real movement impossible.

All of these aspects of present-day thinking demonstrate that the nineteenth century has actually passed and that we live in a new world. There is much that is topsy-turvy about it all. Sometimes the quest for wonder seems the quest of an infant with no language but a cry. This infant, however, has good, strong lungs and it cries very lustily. The whole situation reveals a mass of seething forces very vital, very full of energy, many of them untamed but all zestful and eager and moving violently. One feels that it is good to be alive in such an age.

To be sure, such a period has its dangers. The passion for wonder, for richness of life, for movement may be a destroying as well as a constructive force. Elements in the Nietzschean view of life may work to tear down ancient sanctions of unspeakable value to the race. Panting for freedom, we may get too much freedom. Fighting for liberty, we may degenerate into license. The man who would revise the Ten Commandments and repudiate the sanctities of the home is the particularly dangerous devil of the new movement. The solid foundations of things may be tampered with by enthusiastic amateurs in the name of progressive thinking, and from the mechanical uniformity of the nineteenth century we may pass into a wild lawlessness in the twentieth. The syndicalist represents a spirit which does not promise good to the practical industrial life, and the brothers of the syndicalist are ready to speak in many avenues of modern activity. The danger is that from one extreme of the pendulum we will swing to the other.


The goal of our discussion is now in sight and has doubtless already become clear to the thoughtful reader. Stability without wonder gives us a dead and mechanical universe. Wonder without stability gives us a universe undependable, incoherent, at last chaotic. Somehow these two elements must be so combined that unity and movement, stability and wonder, simplicity and diversity are united in our view of life. In a larger and more adequate way the task of the old Greek philosophers of reconciliation is ours.

We may make a few suggestions as to the lines along which this philosophy of united stability and wonder must move.

1. It must begin with personality and not with things or forces. Ail the experience of which we know anything at first-hand is personal, and from this vantage ground we must survey the world. Such a survey will save us from all sorts of intellectual and practical confusions. It will assume freedom, initiative, and the power of personal choice and purpose. It will not attempt to make a recipe for freedom or to construct a formula for personal choice. It will under-stand that these things are beyond the reach of formulas, and that whenever a man tries to make a formula for personal activities he simply proves that he does not understand the problem. It is as if he would insist on knowing the color of one of Beethoven's sonatas, or the sound of one of Turner's paintings. He understands that personality as a matter of free movement in rational choice is not a conclusion but a necessary assumption. It is the major premise of the validity of experience. He does not try to go behind this necessary assumption. He sees that the inevitable result would be reasoning in a circle. Critical insight may discover what are life's necessary assumptions, but it cannot demonstrate them by formal logic. The task of philosophy is to see what tools must be used in life's activities and then to polish them. There will be many mysteries, but the tools can be made very sharp and effective.

2. It will be seen that all the impersonal activities and energies must be referred at last to a personal source, or they lose all genuine meaning. " A force or a law is only a figure of speech unless it is a description of a person acting. And you cannot explain anything by an empty abstraction. The whole range of uniformities in the universe must be referred at last to a conscious personal intelligence or they will hang empty in the air. This insight lifts the thinker from the thought of human personality, with which he began, to the thought of divine personality. He sees that the only way to give any definite meaning to an ultimate force is by seeing that it is the activity of an ultimate Person.

3. This final commanding personality is not a caretaker in the palace of the universe. He is not a furtive servant in his own world. He is not the slave of the system of things. He is an imperial master and moves right royally through the world. He is the highest expression of freedom. He is freedom divinely alive. At this point the Calvinists had noble insight. They did not understand the freedom of man, but they did under-stand the freedom of God. They knew that an uncoerced Deity on the throne of his own freedom was the necessary background for all true meaning to life. This conception of divine freedom and personality and of natural law as just a name for the way in which a free person acts, secures for all time the wonder and movement and surprise which must be preserved in our thought and experience of life. If the ultimate fact is a free personal God, rigid mechanics are forever driven from the throne of the world. We are saved from the tragedy of a mental mechanism like Hegelianism. We are saved from the tragedy of a material mechanism like the synthetic philosophy. We live in a world where the freshness and the joy and the stimulus which only freedom at the heart of things can give are forever assured. A personal God lordly in liberty is the security of the wonder of the world.

This freedom, however, is an ethical free-dom. It is always mastered and dominated by the character of God. It is not the freedom of a superape. It is the freedom of a righteous and holy Deity. This is the basis of the uniformity of nature. God does not play tricks with his world. His universe is orderly because he is an orderly God. The stability of the whole vast system of things rests at last, not in any rigid or mechanical necessity, but on the character of the Almighty. At this point natural science and ethics meet and science is transfigured. The nineteenth century tried to bring ethics down into the categories of natural science. The twentieth is to lift natural science into the categories of ethics. Thus the very conception of a free personal God which secures the wonder of the world because of his character as a righteous and holy Deity also secures the stability of the universe. Unity and diversity have met together. Monism and Pluralism have kissed each other.

The character of God also secures wonder, while at the same time repudiating superstition. It is always an ethical wonder which is preserved. Thus with one stroke the crass and wild imaginations of the ethnic faiths and all the puerilities of Roman Catholic superstition are destroyed. Rome has paid a dreadful price for wonder by admitting superstition. The view we are analyzing admits movement, freedom, and wonder made ethical in such a fashion that the primitive gladness is preserved in the midst of modern knowledge, the childlike surprise is preserved in the intellectual life which is the highest product of civilization.


In conclusion some observations must be made about the relation of the Christian religion to these fundamental matters. Right on the face of our discussion it is clear that the God who is the synthesis of the two movements we have been discussing, who holds secure the unity and diversity, the stability and the wonder of the world, would have just the characteristics of the Deity whom Christians worship. Christianity is a religion which unites stability and ethical wonder in the interpretation of life.

To be sure, Christian thinkers have not always been conscious of the strategy of their position. But all the while the personal holy God revealed in the life of which the Old and New Testaments are the literary record, was the possessor of the characteristics capable of being made a solvent in respect of this most difficult problem of philosophy and life. And in a practical way Christianity has preserved stability and wonder in many an age when its own thinkers were not fully conscious of what was going on.

The philosophy to which our deepest needs will drive us is, then, in a very pro-found sense a Christian philosophy. What the Christian religion brings as a revelation, philosophy will translate into an interpretation of life.

But more than this. What philosophy can state as a matter of principles, Christianity translates into deeds. The incarnation of the Son of God, and his human life divine, are the very expression in concrete activity of that for which we have been contending. The mighty deed of sin-bearing, by which the Son of God in profound spiritual fashion took upon himself the burden of the sin of the world, is the very crystallization into one act of infinite significance, of that moral wonder and moral stability which are fundamental in God and in his ruling of the world, and must be made fundamental in the life of man. In all ages the facts of the Christian religion have been enriching the thought, redeeming, transforming, and enlarging the life of men, because Christianity is a religion of stability as complete and sure as the character of God, of wonder and surprise as amazing as his infinite freedom and his exhaustless love. Deeds speak more loudly than intellectual interpretation can ever speak. Bethlehem and Calvary are the security of the stability and the wonder of the world.

( Originally Published 1915 )

The Quest For Wonder:
The Quest For Wonder

The Preacher As A Student Of Philosophy

Bergson, As Seen From A Preacher's Study

The Religion Of A Scientific Man

The New Orthodoxy

Bushnell And 'the Vicarious Sacrifice'

Robert William Dale, His Theology, And His Theory Of The Atonement

The Theology Of Ritschl

The Eschatology Of The Book Of Revelation

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