Signals From The Edge

coffee cup in the morningAre you ever suddenly surprised that there is something instead of nothing? Or that there is everything? Or anything at all? These things often strike me with an overwhelming sense of wonder. We are often just amazed over the smallest of ordinary experiences? Perhaps something from beyond the edge is suddenly present, peeking in, as it were, making silent announcement of something more than can ever be contained by the physical experience alone.

I was thinking about some of those ordinary moments: Early morning granola with fresh peaches out on the patio? How cool is that? How about an exquisite turn of phrase from a Psalm or a Shakespeare play or a Bach concerto or a Clapton riff? Or a short-lived deep connection with a child or a friend? Or a cool morning breeze before the warmth of a summer day? We all have our own list, but sometimes we are just swept into wonder in the moment.

And then sometimes we ask the inevitable question: Is there some hint here of something beyond the edge of the actual experience? Or not?

Answering that questions has been an ongoing debate since about, well, say, the early 1500s. In Sunday’s New York Times, for example, columnist Frank Bruni muses about Sam Harris’s new book Waking Up. Sam Harris, Bruni reminds us, is “one of the country’s most prominent and articulate atheists,” having stirred up all kinds of dust with his aggressive attack on belief and believers in his book The End Of Faith.

Harris apparently admits to an occasional experience of seeming spiritual wonder. Ardent secularists often do. But “the question is this,” says Bruni of Harris: “Which comes first, the faith or the feeling of transcendence?” That surely is the question, isn’t it? “Mightn’t religion,” says Bruni, “be piggybacking on the pre-existing condition of spirituality, a lexicon grafted on to it, a narrative constructed to explain states of consciousness that have nothing to do with any covenant or creed?”

Well, yes, that could be. But we are still left with the question of wonder: Is it genuinely spiritual, hinting at something beyond the edge, or is it simply and wholly physical, soothing perhaps, but suggesting nothing more? It’s just granola, after all. Get real. It’s just music, just a friend, just a cool breeze. Now get on with your life and stop fussing about all this nonsense of wonder coming from beyond some mysterious edge.

Think about an encounter with another person, even a momentary encounter. Scientists are constantly trying to map these encounters in purely physical terms. The optical part of our brain quite immediately absorbs the person: analyzing size, shape, the color of eyes or hair, and so on. On reflection, though, we are amazed at what we “see”: We may detect the mood of a person (happy, sad, aggressive, passive, open, closed); We may detect the need for sympathy or encouragement; We may detect joy in this person. All of these observations happen instantaneously. There is something much bigger going on in an ordinary encounter than can ever be fully mapped as merely physical. The map can never be the landscape. Ultimately the real thing, the ordinary human face we offer to the world, is a mystery.

The philosopher Roger Scruton says that our faces communicate from the deep regions of something humans have always called the soul. Our faces participate in mystery. Our faces dispel the common notion that everything is just physical, that we are merely wired. Think about smiling, looking, kissing, blushing, Scruton says. How do we explain them? Each is extraordinarily complex. Each implies something deep. To think through the meaning of these ordinary/extraordinary human gestures takes us out on “the edge of things.” It is a “mystery,” he says, not explained away in materialist terms.

Many in America, Bruni concludes, are “looking for a different kind of scripture, for prophets purged of doctrine, for guides across the vast landscape of faithlessness and piety, for recognition of this fecund terrain.” That surely is the case. But isn’t this “fecund terrain” there precisely because most of us often experience a surprising, startling wonder in the midst of the ordinary? Isn’t the search to put this into some kind of vocabulary of transcendence exactly why people turn to religion?

Isn’t this precisely what we learn when we hear those ancient and familiar words: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. In the beginning he called them extraordinarily good. Isn’t this why I think about God when I am swept up in the wonder of the moment early in the morning on my patio? Silly? Maybe. Profoundly moving? A window into something more?

We have spent a lot of time over the centuries trying to desacralize our world. This is when we began to lose our sense of wonder, to become disenchanted. But in these moments of wonder, we are offered a choice. It’s either quite silly–or it’s a window into God’s goodness. I am willing to take the risk that these ordinary things can be one step toward worship.