Macro-Matters & Wonder

Our faith leads us to embrace the universe and hold sacred the person

“Philosophy begins in wonder.” So says Aristotle in his Metaphysics. Reflecting on this text, St. Thomas teaches that a goal of metaphysics is to establish the truth about the first and universal causes of things. If we achieve this goal, he writes, “there should be no wonder because the causes of things are known.”

Well, yes and no. While philosophy begins in wonder, it shouldn’t end there. Or so I told my students. And yet even if we know the causes of things, wonder does not end. Rather it grows. Thomas also teaches that chance is a kind of cause. Isn’t it probable, then, that there will be many improbabilities? On my view, that’s wonderful.

Of course, we have a yen for “closure.” We’re keen on resolving technical problems. We want scientific experiments that yield results. But philosophy opens doors, ultimately doors on the Divine. And here wonder becomes infinite. Say “Amen,” somebody!

But for many of us, wonder withers into a mild curiosity. Do we get bored so easily because we are boring? Is there an easy fix? Enter the factoid. Here’s one: Mississippi has the lowest rate of homelessness in the country. Some people wonder why. Plenty don’t. So, the pressing question remains: How to revive wonder?

Here’s a suggestion. Why not reflect on “macro-matters”? Think of the vastness of the universe. The Hubble Space Telescope helps get us started. It confounds us as well. How are we to react to its images of an expanding concatenation of galaxies? It won’t do, will it, to call them “pretty”? “Beautiful” isn’t much better. These images reflect the sublime, and this provokes wonder.

What if we turn from solar systems to the people of this planet. India has overtaken China as the most populous country. The figures are staggering. The UN estimates India’s population at 1.4286 billion against 1.4257 billion for China. Census Bureau figures put our population at “only” 335 million. It’s hard to fathom the aggregate of neurochemical brain events that we all generate. It is impossible to explore the thoughts that these events do not constitute but do correlate with.

But first comes the macro-matter of space. For some, the wonder of space brings a sense of utter insignificance. Are we, to borrow from Walker Percy, lost in the cosmos? If so, why not fiddle while the universe marches on its way? Golly. To borrow from the children’s books, there’s no point even to ask, “Where’s Waldo”? Waldo is not to be seen. For others, the wonder of space elicits resolve. Frank Ramsey, a friend of Wittgenstein, remarked “I don’t feel the least humble before the vastness of the heavens. The stars may be large, but they cannot think or love.” Ramsey, who died at 26, was an atheist. Supposing that his destiny was to be a bit of dust, perhaps his resolve was mere bravado.

The faith of Christians, neither a resolve nor a boast, is a gift. It leads us to believe that all Creation sings the glory of the Creator. It’s a joyful noise! That there is a universe at all depends on its Creator. Its existing, and its ever more amazing immensity, reflects the God whose being is to exist, Ipsum Esse Existens. The same God has become man, and so on the Feast of Corpus Christi we celebrate Christ as King of the Universe.

Next comes the macro-matter of the number of our fellow human beings and what we are to make of it. There are now well over eight billion of our lives in progress, some heroic and inspiring, some miserable and dispiriting, and all complex and mysterious. Has the population bomb already exploded on a perilously warming earth? Or is Mother Teresa right to insist that saying there are too many babies is like saying there are too many flowers?

The faith of Christians brings a vision of the person, each person, in the context of Creation. For St. Thomas “the person is that which is most noble and most perfect in all of nature.” Indeed, Jacques Maritain links this teaching to the rightful place of the person in the social order. “A single human being,” he writes, “is worth more than the whole universe of material goods…With respect to the eternal destiny of the soul, society exists for each person and is subordinated to it.”

That our faith brings us to embrace the universe and hold sacred the person is, for us, the good news of the Gospel truth. Down through the centuries, and never more than today, we find ourselves reaching out to the indifferent. But sometimes, too, we find ourselves in dialogue with those who do indeed wonder. Often they wonder how the Good News could be true. Can we answer them by living in its promise?


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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