The Mysterious Mysteries, or: Doing Right by Wonder

Today I was watching the episode, “Sunset,” from Breaking Bad, season 3. In one scene Gale Boetticher and Walter White discuss their mutual love of chemistry with hushed awe and Gale recites the Walt Whitman poem, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.”

For those who prefer to read the poem, here it is:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Whitman’s poem is such a beautiful reminder that the world we live in is wondrous and we must do right by that wonder when we study and describe it. Too often our descriptions of the way the universe works—or the way anything else works—sucks the wonder and mystery right out of the very thing we are discussing. In high school I was blessed to take biology from Nathan Whittington, a teacher whose love for the intricacies of life dripped from every lecture. His awe was contagious as he described the exactness of RNA replication. Many of my college professors of chemistry and biology never communicated that awe and would instead spend lectures describing the minutiae of their research. They were teaching how the universe works, how life develops, and yet they seemed to have lost their sense of wonder. When Mr. Whittington spoke about the cell, the whole world became larger and more amazing. When these professors spoke about chemical bonds, the world became thinner, colorless, reduced.

Whitman’s poem reminded me, however, that this tendency to lose our sense of awe is not only found in science lecture halls. We do this all the time in churches. Instead of walking together as a community, hoping to experience the presence of the God of the universe, we reduce God into a set of affirmations and propositions that any individual can easily digest. As one who has worked as a pastor of churches, I have made the mistake of thinking I should explain God in our worship service—such hubris—rather than humbly seek to create space where we as the community could encounter the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In reviewing a Sunday service, I would ask, “Did the sermon and music connect, were they relevant to us?” rather than, “Did we have an experience of the awesome and mysterious God?” I don’t think transcendence can be controlled or manufactured, but I do believe we can work with it, we can participate in it. We must kindle awe in ourselves. We must do right by that wonder. What could be more astounding and mysterious than the God of the universe? If Whitman poetically decimated an astronomy lecturer, the following quotation from Garrison Keillor should light a fire under all of us who call ourselves followers of Christ. It comes from an interview he gave to The Wittenburg Door years ago.

We don’t go to church to hear lectures on ethical behavior, we go to look at the mysteries, and all the substitutes for communion with God are not worth anyone’s time. . . .  If you can’t go to church and, for at least a moment, be given transcendence; if you can’t go to church and pass briefly from this life into the next; then I can’t see why anyone should go.  Just a brief moment of transcendence causes you to come out of church as a changed person.