The Loss of Wonder

wonder, exclamatory prayer

Belief in God and religious practice have lost a lot of popular acclaim in our society. Although Christians still comprise the majority of the population, atheists and agnostics were never so prevalent a minority as they are now.  Something else that has declined progressively in our time is marriage.

By marriage I don’t mean a mere ceremony, though from what I hear even the ceremonies themselves have declined.  Rather, the kind of marriage I mean is a serious commitment, a commitment to love and cherish one particular person for all of one’s life. Though it might seem somewhat disjointed to connect the declines of religious practice and marriage, they are related in more than one way.

The more obvious proposition is that without God, people generally attach less importance to their earthly commitments and to love as a whole. While I certainly agree with this first correlation, weakening of the desire to love and commit to another has a second common link to abandoning God; namely, the loss of wonder.

Is the Universe Nothing but Coincidence?

First, there is the question of loss of belief in God.  If God does not exist, then the whole universe is nothing but a succession of coincidences.  Yet, from a purely logical standpoint, saying that every existing thing is a coincidence seems, at least to my accustomed-to-Catholicism mind, a bit simple considering how remarkable life is. Josephine Bakhita, in her slave days, without having been instructed in faith, used to look up at the stars shining in the sky and wonder who was master of it all. Even we who are already religious and believe in God should still have wonder at His works, His glory and mercy, even His very existence, since He Himself is greater than we can imagine.

Human Love Means Little Anymore

Now, picture the earthly scenario of a man and woman who love each other.  Love as a true commitment is a great thing. But, these days, rather than something that should last our entire lives, love is more regarded as something that lasts for about as long as the other person stays pretty or otherwise appealing.  But how important can love really be if it’s as passing as the latest fashion trend? There’s a reason why all the movies and music about love try to portray it as being forever—nobody wants to imagine a love that lasts for only three months or even three years.  Rather, forever is the ideal. But, almost no one wants to try to make “forever” work as my grandparents’ generation did. People keep searching for the absolute perfect mate, and when they don’t find him or her, instead of trying to commit to someone less than perfect, they generally choose to move on and “find a better one.”

In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis observed:

“People get from books the idea that if you have married the right person you may expect to go on ‘being in love’ for ever.  As a result, when they find they are not, they think this proves they have made a mistake and are entitled to a change—not realizing that, when they have changed, the glamour will presently go out of the new love just as it went out of the old one.  In this department of life, as in every other, thrills come as the beginning and do not last.”

From what I have seen, he is absolutely right.  Nothing in this world stays as wonderful and exciting as it starts, including the person one loves, and I imagine everyone who is honest with himself knows this.

Wonder Opens a Soul to God

Society doesn’t want to commit to God, even to the point of denying His existence, and similarly refuses to commit to each other.  The more obvious links between these two phenomena are first, that religious commitment can act as a conduit for taking marriage more seriously if one’s church encourages it.  Second, without a commitment and love for the most important Being in the universe, a person will have less reason to commit to and love even an equal, as in a marriage. The third, less obvious link is a lack of wonder.

To explain further, think again about rejection of God. This one is pretty simple—we men cease to wonder at our own lives and what we have been given, such as life itself, a planet on which life can be comfortably sustained, the company of others, and so on.  If we look at these things as mundane and ordinary, things that just happen to be there as part of our lives, then it becomes easier to ignore the possibility of the existence of God. If all the good things of life happen to be there by chance, then it seems there is less of a need for an intelligent creator behind everything.

If, however, we try to view reality while being more open to wonder, then the existence of God seems a much more likely possibility. While I personally do not think it’s a quick jump in logic from “We live in a wonderful world,” to “There is a god,” it is certainly an easier way to begin than from, “This world is a bunch of boring coincidences.”  Wonder in life could definitely be a primer for the soul to the ultimate wonder that is God.

Wonder Sparks Love…

Then, too, wonder is an important component of the love between a man and a woman.  Normally, the spark we all see in the movies is the beginning. The basic idea behind marriage, religious or not, is that love itself is more than a mere spark, but something that ought to endure for both persons’ lives.  For example, the Shania Twain song, “From This Moment On” contains the line, “I’ll never leave, I promise you this,” but in the end she and her co-songwriter husband got divorced anyway, just like so many others. Forever love is, again, modernity’s ideal, but, no matter what the songs say, it is now regarded at its core as more of an unattainable dream than reality, since the reality of forever would mean staying with someone who is imperfect.

…But Causes Something Greater

However, human love, in spite of the lowering it has experienced in society, still has an element of wonder at its heart.  Just ask a pair of young lovers. More than likely, one could say many different things about how much wonder he feels regarding the other.  Even from an outsider’s perspective, there is something extraordinary about a man and a woman loving each other so much that they decide to commit to the other alone for the rest of their lives, if the commitment stays as strong as it should, anyway.

Where modernity has gone wrong is in misidentifying the spark as love itself, which, in addition to cheapening the love, takes all the wonder out of it. After all, there is little enough that could be described as wondrous, or even unusual, about two people staying together as long as the other is interesting or useful or pretty enough.  Thus love and marriage are both cheapened.

Now, could I, one person, really propose a solution to this overall loss of wonder?  Not really—and even if I did, most of those reading this are probably already open to wonder in the seemingly ordinary.  Then again, perhaps those of us who already see it are best equipped to show it to others. If we take joy in our lives and persevere in our own commitments, we can help others better find joy in their own lives and show what true commitment really is.  It may be that the best way that individuals can share wonder is through example. After all, it is only through actually seeing the importance of wonder that others will realize just how necessary it is.

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5 thoughts on “The Loss of Wonder”

  1. Yes, it is in music, books and in movies, yet rarely do they get it right. It begins with, “I can’t stop thinking of you” and typically ends with a collection of spouses – like it is some sort of hobby! The problem is right there in black and white – WHO can’t we stop thinking of? A quick search of scripture will find the Lord, your God, describing Himself as “jealous” about 10 times, and He is described by others as “jealous” about 5 more times – maybe more – a quick search, but enough to know that we better be careful of WHO we “can’t stop thinking of”. Otherwise, your alter ego will becomes an alimony check. A happy marriages means putting each other SECOND.

  2. The Church itself has lost interest in marriage. I’m not sure what you mean by “from what I hear even the ceremonies themselves have declined” but any veteran priest will tell you that the number of Catholic weddings has plummeted in the last generation or two. Perhaps by 90%.

    That same veteran priest will probably tell you about how many weddings in years gone by, got their start through social events in their parish. These events died out in the 1980’s or so, single Catholics no longer have easy ways to meet and form relationships, and weddings have fallen to near zero. But no one really cares.

    That’s what I “wonder” about.

    1. Actually what I meant by “even the ceremonies themselves have declined” was in society at large, mostly outside the Church. I don’t know anyone like this personally, but I’ve heard a story or two of a nonreligious woman begging her boyfriend, “Please, can’t we get married?” and the boyfriend replying, “But what’s the point?” Alternatively, I know of multiple other couples where both choose to remain “life partners” and never get married.

      You make a great point about the decline of Catholic marriages. I also wish more Catholics understood just how important the Church intends it to be (e.g. not cohabiting and then having a Catholic wedding).

  3. Cecily, thank you for your insight and wonderful essay. In regard to songs, I think of R.E.M.’s song “Man on the moon”, which is nominally in reference to Andy Kaufman yet relates how a couple shares their apathy ever since they witnessed a man on the moon. In an age of supposed control through science, we need to regain our intuition of magic and wonder, and there is plenty to be found, as you wrote.

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