Saturday, January 28, 2006

Man or Beast?

Ever since seeing Peter Jackson’s movie King Kong, I have been reflecting on the ways some human beings seem to be turning into beasts. For those who have seen King Kong (and I highly recommend it), think of the director depicted in the movie. Here was a man who, when faced with scenes of exquisite beauty, was numb to the beauty and wonder all around him since all he could think of was capturing scenes on film for his own utilitarian ends. In not being able to feel any sense of wonder, the movie director had actually turned into a savage, a beast, like the natives on the island. But then, on the other hand, contrast that with Kong - an actual beast - who becomes humanized through the sense of wonder that Ann awakens in him. One of the most moving scenes is where Kong watches the sunset, awakened to sensations that many human beings have become inured to. In a very real sense, Kong was more human than many of people. It brings to mind George MacDonald’s tale The Princess and Curdie, where everyone is depicted as being on a journey of either ceasing to be, or gradually become, a beast.

The sense of wonder is a more important aspect of our humanity than many may at first realize. I would want to suggest that just as the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, so the beginning of the fear of God is a sense of wonder. The Lord has saturated our world with emblems of His majesty, to orient us towards that sense of wonder that leads to a fear of Him. The sense of wonder that we feel in the presence of anything truly awe-inspiring, orients the cadences of our minds towards our Creator, even without our realizing it. This is why parents can cultivate the fear of God in their children by putting before the children art, music, literature that is awe-inspiring and wonder-filled. By cultivating a sense of reverence, awe and wonder towards the things a child can see and hear, the child can learn to reverence God whom they cannot see and hear.

One of the main factors in removing this sense of wonder has been the growth of technology over the past hundred years. Throughout the ages, writers and thinkers have unsuccessfully tried to remove the fear of God – ‘religious superstition’ as they called it - from the mind of the common man. In the end, their agenda was achieved not because the common man was persuaded to give up the fear of God, but because the mind is unable to feel fear of anything – except perhaps electrical failure - when it is submerged us in a sea of tantalizing triviality and terminal trendiness. And this is exactly what inventions such as the telegraph, radio, television and internet and computer games have gradually achieved. These inventions, which had so much potential for good, have largely been used to flood the masses with the waters of endless irrelevancies. The chief casualty in this process has been that the sense of wonder that is vital in distinguishing man from the beasts.

It is revealing that the term ‘wonder’ has been largely reduced to an approximation for curiosity, while it’s adjective ‘wonderful’ has been reduced to meaning simply ‘great.’ But if we want to get back to the original meaning of these terms, we need to observe little children. All children are born with this sense of wonder embedded in them. You just have to look into a baby’s eyes to see that sense of wonder. As the baby grows older, that sense of wonder is transferred to every object in his or her environment. But this ‘wonder’ is not mere curiosity; everything the baby sees, and especially everything it manages to get its hands on, is wonderful in the sense of being filled with wonder. Things that we would normally think of as being mundane, whether it be wooden spoons to saucepan lids, a baby will find simply magical.

But just as the sense of wonder transforms the mundane into something magical, conversely, without it, even the magical becomes mundane. And that is exactly what happens when the child’s original sense of wonder is stamped out rather than nurtured. Just as the sense of wonder is nurtured by saturating the mind in anything that is truly noble, beautiful and awe-inspiring (beginning with Nursery rhymes and ending with Oratorios), so it is stamped out by letting our children feed the infinite appetite for distractions bequeathed to us by our technological devices. It is stamped out by letting our children go to schools where they learn to despise what is noble and good. It is stamped out by letting television cultivate an enjoyment for what is trivial and irrelevant. Children grow up to be like beasts that are inured to being deeply moved by anything wholly other.

This threat to our humanity has come largely unchallenged because it has arisen from the last place we would expect. In Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, people were controlled by those who could inflict pain; who would have guessed that in our culture people would be controlled by those who inflict pleasure. Yet that is exactly what has happened, as people have been lulled into passivity by the endless potential for amusement. Our entertainment technologies work like a drug on the mind, convincing us that everything is benign, subverting our ability to love, enjoy and appreciate what is truly good and removing that sense of wonder that distinguishes man from monkey and distinguishes women from wildebeest.

It is only the Bible that can show us how to be truly human. The sense of wonder, or any aspect of our humanity, is not itself sufficient and can be turned into an idol when allowed to become autonomous and loosed from a genuinely Biblical anthropology. This is actually what happened when the romantic movement reacted to the dehumanising influences of the Enlightenment. The innately human sense of wonder, like all the factors which distinguish mankind from the beasts, can only be understood aright against the backdrop of the doctrine of the image of God.
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