The Heresy of Wonder-less Theology

I wonder sometimes if the greatest problem facing the modern church is a lack of wonder.

When we were kids, all kinds of experiences brought wonder. Our first trip to the zoo filled us with wonder. The stick-figured, long-necked giraffe was fantastic; the bloated barrel-shaped hippopotamus was delightful (even the name hippopotamus was enchanting); and the shuffling, tuxedo-clad penguin was wonderful.

As teenagers, we became jaded; we lost our wonder. We’d already been to the zoo. “Big deal!” We’d already learned to ride a bike. “Who cares!”

Science’s turn

Science comes along and steals more wonder. It takes the human body, dissects it, and “explains” life with cold, clinical detachment. In talking about the meaning of life, one scientist wrote,

In reality there are no such things as human rights…. All we know is we are part of nature and there is no scientific basis whatsoever for thinking we are better than all the rest of it…. We have no more basic rights than viruses. (Robert Jarvic, Inventor of the artificial heart)

That’ll really get you up in the morning, won’t it?

The church and wonder

In the Roman Empire, Christianity grew largely through wonder. Downtrodden slaves were given the wonder of Sonship; oppressed minorities were shown the wonder of Freedom; widows, orphans, and the poor were offered the wonder of Hope.

Like jaded teenagers, though, the modern church has lost its sense of wonder.

Most preaching today teaches moralism or abstract doctrine. (And like the chicken and the egg, we’re not sure which comes first.) Conservatives teach us to be good little boys and girls, and Liberals preach tolerance. I recently heard two sermons on the Fruit of the Spirit. The Conservative pastor concluded with, “Go out and be good;” and the Liberal ended with, “Go out and Coexist.”

This is not the preaching that grew the early church. Imagine telling an oppressed Roman slave, “I have incredible news that will revolutionize the rest of your life: Just don’t be selfish!” Or the Liberal version, “I know your master oppresses you, but I have something that will rock your world: Tolerate those who differ from you!

Neither Conservatives nor Liberals preach wonder anymore. And then we “wonder” why the church has so little impact on the world around us.

Abstract, impersonal doctrine fails as well. So much is theoretical or informational. I once heard a sermon that conjugated the Greek verb agape. It was technically correct. We took notes like good little students. If tested, we would have answered correctly.

And at the end of the sermon I wanted to say, “So what!” and to ask, “What does that have to do with my life?”

Imagine a first-century, childless widow with barely two pennies to rub together. We say, “I have a something that will transform your poverty into riches: Here is the conjugation of agape.” No! Abstract theory didn’t change the Roman world.

Frankly, cerebral Christianity gives me a headache.

So what did Jesus do that was different?

The preaching of Jesus always went beyond mere morality or abstract theory. When Jesus taught morality, the listeners were astounded (Matt. 19:25) and when Jesus taught doctrine, the listeners were scandalized (John 6:61). Nobody said, “So what!” nor did they ask, “What does this have to do with my life?” They may not have liked it, they may have been angry; but Jesus always left them wondering.

Sure, but heresy?

Addressing the Will (moralism) produces proud Pharisees. Addressing the Intellect (abstract doctrine) establishes arrogant eggheads. Awakening the heart with wonder creates humble believers. Wonder leads to adoration, and adoration leads to worship of the One who gave up all for the joy of knowing us. And worship creates humility

Only wonder will change our behavior, our beliefs, and our hearts.

Near the end of The Lord of the Rings, Éowyn faces a hulking, Goliath-like Nazgûl. It threatens to, “bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured, and thy shriveled mind be left naked to the Lidless Eye.”

Éowyn responds, “Do what you will; but I will hinder it, if I may.”

Merry, the little Hobbit, sees Éowyn ready to die out of love for her king, and, “Pity filled his heart and great wonder, and suddenly the slow-kindled courage of his race awoke. He clenched his fist.”

That is what we need, “great wonder.” When we see Jesus not simply dying for another but for us—even as we disobey his commands and disbelieve his truth—then we will wonder. In our wonder, we’ll clench our fists, we’ll find belief in our hearts, and we’ll delight to do his will.

So what came first, the chicken or the egg? Neither. It was great wonder.

Sam

(See also, The Wonder of the Ascension.)

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28 thoughts on “The Heresy of Wonder-less Theology

  1. My favorite lines: Jesus always left them wondering. And Awakening the heart with wonder creates humble believers. Wonder leads to adoration, and adoration leads to worship of the One who gave up all for the joy of knowing us. And worship creates humility.

    May our eyes be opened!

  2. A sense of irony? Sam, did you choose the Lumosity ad, or did your web server paste that in? The five-sliced pie representing the unenhanced human brain is almost as bad as the radioneurophysiology papers seeking to reduce God to random discharges of neurotransmitters within our limbic systems.

    As I contemplate the limbic system, or read Tolstoy or Shakespeare, it immediately becomes apparent that none of what we experience “just happens.” We live in the immediate, intimate presence of a God we can never begin to understand, but a God who invites us to know Him. The amazingly humbling thing is that as we gaze on Jesus, and as the Holy Spirit works within us, we perceive the process unfolding. As God opens our us to Himself, we realize more and more that we understand less and less.

    At some level Robert Jarvic intuitively understands that he is not the product of blind, dumb chance. If he were, his words would have no meaning, and he would have no basis for expecting us to attend to him. God really has put eternity into our hearts. We cannot escape or suppress it. The God who made us in His image endowed Jarvic with the capability to fashion the ventricular assist device, even though that original image has become clouded by the pervasive disease we know as sin. However, no VAD comes close to the wonder of the original equipment designed by the originator of all.

    Have a good evening.

    • Michael,

      I love what you say, and how you say it, like, “As I contemplate the limbic system, or read Tolstoy or Shakespeare, it immediately becomes apparent that none of what we experience “just happens.”

      WOW! You are a serious reader. I haven’t studied the limbic system in about 55 years.

      Thanks for the comments,

      Sam

  3. Wonder can be a catalyst for action. I “wonder” what God is up to that I can be a part of> I “wonder” as I struggle with personal and faith issues what has Jesus CALLED ME to do? On and on I could go. The fact of the matter is,… do I still wonder / appreciate the awesomeness of the living God and His impact on my live, right now, where I am at??? “Test the Spirit and know that it is God”. Lyle

    • Hi Lyle,

      I hadn’t thought of that, but yes, “Wonder can be a catalyst for action.” In fact, it is a key factor. Maybe a cure for our lethargy is to see some wonder.

      Thanks,

      Sam

  4. Well said Sam – though I might push your blog even one step farther. I think the reason so many pastors and churches fail to teach wonder is because they’ve never experienced any – or at least understood and embraced what little they may have experienced. Paul seems to make a similar point when says the gospel is not a matter of idle words but of power. When a congregation is left with the fact that there is little or no “power” or wonder really happening…then they have a rather discomforting debate to deal with. And precious fewer pile will take the side of that debate that says perhaps they’ve missed something because that would require the humility you so deftly point to.

    I think that’s the real cause of wonder less theology- pride.
    …how sad…

    • Chris, as always, you have great insights, really great. And I love your ending, “how sad!” Yes, how sad.

      But I think you are right. We don’t have power because we don’t wonder. Wonder is looking at things with God in mind; and when he is in mind, nothing is impossible. We can act.

      Thanks,

      Sam

  5. Liberals say we should tolerate those who are different from us, but Jesus goes one further – Love them and pray for them and bless them as our father in heaven does.

  6. Sam,
    I came to this from the link you provided in your essay about Sunday School and kids. You have a way of hitting the nail on the head for me!! I love God and was raised Catholic, but I struggle with depression, and then follows guilt because I think my faith isn’t as strong as it should be, or I wouldn’t be depressed! THANK you for your wise words…they are already helping me more than you know!

    • Hi Jags,
      I was raised in a christian home. My Dad was a Baptist preacher, and I wandered far from the faith until I was 32 years old. I also struggle with depression, and much of it has come from my not being able to live up to what I perceived as what God wanted. It’s only recently that I’ve come to realize that what I was struggling with wasn’t what God wanted, but what my folks interpreted as that, which usually manifested itself in a long list of don’ts. It’s a struggle, but I’m finally getting the point of the gospel, which is that Jesus died to save us, NO MATTER HOW BAD OR FULL OF SIN WE ARE. The real kicker is that our “badness” goes on and on, but God’s love continues. Do I go to heaven because of my efforts? Nope. I go because God chose me to go. On the topic of depression, by the way, I think we have to look at it as a disease like most others. It’s a chemically caused malady. I don’t think I’ll end up in hell because I have a cold every year. And the Bible says nothing about how depression will go away when you have faith.

      There! Another side of the Cap you may not have known. Hope you don’t mind the interruption/.

      • Cap! Thank you for sharing your struggles with me, and I appreciate so much what you said about feeling like you couldn’t live up to what you PERCEIVED as how God wanted you to be. I am sure my struggles are similar in that I judge myself so harshly, sometimes convinced that I can never be good enough for God. Your words also helped me, believe it! I need to remind myself as often as possible that the whole point of Jesus dying WAS to forgive and save us. Thank you also for reminding me that depression is not a sin or necessarily a sign of a lack of faith. Just remembering this already helps because I don’t have to feel a ton of guilt on top of the depression, and in fact I lately have been feeling just a tiny bit less guilt, which I’m sure will help lessen the bouts of depression in the first place. One thing I feel is that God pointed me to Sam’s article(s), and then your comment! I do not think that was a coincidence. Another thing you and I both know….music helps, and music, for music lovers, is a beautiful gift from God!! Thanks again!

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