If our eyes do not remain closed, Christmas is a season associated with wonder. Do we ever stop to pause from our busy lives to sense the sheer astonishment of simply being here, that we are beings who are even capable of wonder: the wonder of the world, the wonder of the Christ child, the wonder of any child, the wonder that we have a welcoming home in a small corner of our most amazing and abundant cosmos populated with more than a trillion trillion stars?
Can science and Christmas have anything in common? To my mind, only if they both can become cognizant of the essential ground, or “logic” behind all things, the Logos that speaks the cosmos into being and renders it intelligible. In the infant Jesus, God and the world touch in a most remarkable way: the Reason behind the possibility of any science at all lying in a manger, utterly dependent on others for his survival and upbringing as a human child. The wealth of divinity intermingled with the poverty of dependence common to all infants; with the further poverty ahead of a Roman cross to be completed by the wealth of Resurrection and Ascension.
But come to think of it, is not any child–each of us, in fact–born in wealth and poverty? Even in being born–in being permitted to be– we have already received from the wealth of the world, which was here long before: the chemical elements that make up the composition of our bodies, the information in our genome reaching back through countless generations, the generative and receptive love of our parents, the potential for a life well-lived. But yet in being born, are we not also born into poverty: the poverty of utter dependence that we share with Mary’s baby, the poverty of experience and knowledge of the world yet to be filled out, the poverty of the limited particularity of finite being?
It is a wonder that any of us is here at all: to know ourselves, to know one another, to know the world. But we must ask: is wonder only for a child, to cease as we become more “scientific” and “realistic” in our knowing of the world (as Descartes thought at the dawn of modern philosophy )? Should we outgrow such a childish thing? Or can it be always there, as a frame around even the most learned of our accounts of the world?
To recall the quote from Alfred North Whitehead from our previous Advent post: “Philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best the wonder remains.” Remember, philosophy is just serious thinking about the world. What we now call “science” was once called “natural philosophy.” Philosophy’s linguistic root is “love of wisdom,” and love implies desire. Do we truly desire wisdom? Can we fulfill our desire? Can “science,” as we usually do it, lead to wisdom? Is there a fruitful path to fulfill desire by putting together heart and head, love and knowledge, such that both the beginning and the end provoke wonder?
One of the most potent destroyers of wonder is to say “nothing but:” the attempt to strangle wonder within our human schemes of knowing. For example, some may say that a child is “nothing but” a chance collection of chemicals without meaning. Yet can science even say “nothing but” in the first place? Is it not unwise to stake out such an absolute and dogmatic nihilism? Is not wonder deepened once we know that the highly complex molecules and well-ordered structures in our cells and bodies enable our being here to give rise to wonder in the first place? Perhaps wonder can open us to the Reason for wonder.
Is not the greatest source of wonder that act by which our mind, correlated as it is with the embodied structures of our brain and body, renders our sensible intake of the world intelligible? The very act of knowing by which we come to know a thou that is not the same as myself, but is another? The infant comes to know her mother; the mother comes to know her child. We come to know our friends and the world around us. We come to know God. That we know anything at all is so ordinary, so taken-for-granted, that its sheer incredibility is so easy to overlook.
That there are scientists to know how the world works is perhaps the greatest miracle of all. My career is science only leads me to be continually amazed that science is possible. We will continue to explore such themes in the new year. Meanwhile, may all our readers experience the wonder and blessings made manifest in the first Christmas.
- René Descartes in The Passions of the Soul (1649), II.76, expresses a modern opinion: “Excessive wondering can entirely block or pervert the use of reason. It is good to be born with some inclination to wonder, because that increases scientific curiosity; but after we have acquired some scientific knowledge, we should try to free ourselves from this inclination to wonder.”
- The figure is taken from Raphael’s Madonna di San Sisto (1512).