Two months have passed since I moved to Oxford to begin my studies, and this place is nothing short of enchanting. The streets, spires, bicycles, and books give Oxford its own unique style, one that is not easily emulated. A treasure trove of knowledge, Oxford has been around for nearly a thousand years. And it shows. To walk down a street where every building is older than the United States is surreal.
Living in such an amazing environment, infused with the spirit of learning, evokes a sense of wonder within me. As I engage in my own studies here, I am often left wondering about the things I’ve learned. Truths of Theology and Philosophy, the logic embedded in the universe, these topics leave me with so much to contemplate. This brings to mind a question: what is wonder, and what is the relationship it has with learning? In this latest installment of the “Hills and Valleys” column of The Standard, I hope to gain some ground on this question.
It seems that many educational institutions view the purpose of wonder in purely practical terms. Many schools, teachers, and administrators regard wonder as a helpful disposition that will motivate their students to learn. But this instrumental view of wonder is fundamentally incomplete.
First of all, wonder isn’t merely the bare desire for knowledge or truth. That kind of desire is more akin to curiosity, which is similar to, but not the same as, wonder. Curiosity is an avid desire to gather information and to understand. But wonder does not always seek to understand.
Think of it something like this: say you and a friend are looking out over the Grand Canyon. His response is to visit every visitor’s center, read every pamphlet, and memorize the entire Wikipedia page. He simply must know everything there is to know about how the canyon was formed, and what it can tell us about the history of the earth.
You may be very interested in all those facts, but unlike your friend, you do not seek to grasp the truth, you let it grasp you. Your soul is inextricably gripped by how amazing the mere sight of the canyon is. Learning more about the canyon only increases this feeling, it leaves you in awe, leaving you speechless in the face of something so much greater than you. You want to learn more, but you would be happy just basking in the wonder of the way the world is, in the way that God’s creation proclaims his name. Wonder like this can only be understood as an end in itself, an activity that is so meaningful all on its own that nobody should need any other reason to do it.
In this example, your friend would be best described as taken by curiosity. However, your attitude would not be one of curiosity, but of wonder. There are a few important takeaways from this: first, wonder isn’t really about acquiring knowledge as much as it is about appreciating it. Of course, wondering at knowledge may lead you to desire more of it, but it is not the same as curiosity, which is merely a desire to learn.
Second, wonder doesn’t have to understand everything to be in awe of it. Moreover, there’s something about wonder that is heightened when you don’t (at least completely) understand what you’re wondering at, when you feel as though the thing you are beholding is beyond you.
As I define it, wonder is a response of the self (perhaps it could even be said, the soul), to something meaningful beyond the human power to fully grasp. This is most naturally seen in connection with beauty. After all, beauty is a perfect thing to point to as a trigger for wonder, since by its nature it induces the sort of awe that wonder ought to be, a simple speechlessness in the face of something so great and worthy.
Another important way that wonder takes place in our lives is in love. When we love another person, wonder is there. Something about the nature of real love involves a deep recognition that our beloved is something beyond us, a person too complex and too beautiful to encompass with our knowledge.
Think for a moment about someone you love and care deeply about: a significant other, a family member, a friend. Now take some time to consider how truly incredible and complex they are, just because they’re a person. There’s something behind the eyes of every person that is totally beyond us; and in some unique way, its that part of someone that our love calls out to and stands in awe of. Love is built on the notion that the people we love are so unfathomably meaningful, they are worthy of our minds and our hearts.
This raises an interesting question: why is wonder such a natural and proper part of love? A sort of awe at “otherness” doesn’t seem natural to apply to a lover. In fact, a lover should be the opposite, held close, known as much as possible. Yet, wonder is natural to love.
How can this be? Can the one held so close to one’s heart simultaneously be inexpressibly distant? This must precisely be the case. However, the distance is in this case no detriment. Instead, it serves as a sort of essence of love, a sort of reaching out into infinity in a way that is both complete and incomplete, whole and yet only a part of something greater.
Perhaps, just perhaps, wonder’s place in love, as well as in the world, is a reference to a higher object of our wonder, an eternal and wonderful God. A being so beyond us, yet so near to us, that we can recognize His beauty in all things, for He indeed is beauty. He is one who is worthy of unending appreciation for His own sake, who as an object of our wonder is eternally satisfying to the wonderer.
This is why we feel comfortable in the midst of wonder, because the infinite and ineffable is also the God who is there, who is with us and in us at every moment. Wonder teaches us to approach the unfathomable God the way He is meant to be approached: with an attitude of adoration, not a desire for possession or comprehension. This is the meaning of true wonder. In the world we find God’s signature everywhere, and through the beauty He leaves behind we catch glimpses of His infinity.
This is what learning is all about, what it has always been about. Tasting and seeing that the Lord is good, that He is wonderful in the fullest sense. The more we experience, the more that we learn, the more that we can stand in awe before God and what He has made, at who He is, the Great I Am.
This is why the approach of many schools, teachers and administrators is fundamentally flawed. Wonder and learning are related and mutually motivate each other, but this is not because wonder is for learning. It is precisely the reverse, that learning is for wonder. Truth is useful, but it is worth seeking for its own sake because it takes its essence from the truth and being of the God who is.
No matter your role in life, whether or not learning is still a large part of your life, no matter if you’re in Oxford or in a small town that doesn’t even have a library, don’t forget the importance of learning. Because learning gives us a gateway to one of the most profound activities: we can see God through His universe, and glorify Him each day, appreciating Him through appreciating what He has made.
Proverbs 25:2 reminds us that “it is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.” God made us to learn, to see Him in all He has made, and there are few things more satisfying and fulfilling than wonder: taking a posture of humility, and gazing into the infinite.
Large portions of this article were drawn from my essay: “Wonder, Curiosity, and Studiousness,” written for Dr. Elizabeth Corey’s “What is Liberal Education?” Philosophy class.
Jonathan Perkins is an undergraduate scholar interested in "diving into the deepest riches of knowledge and discovering how to use them, both for our own good and the glorification of God." He is passionate about proclaiming what is Good, True, and Beautiful, and bringing the wonder of the world to those who have yet to hear