Nov 14 2012

“The Root of Religious Experience”

A couple of nights ago I had the privilege of sharing the stage with Dr. Matthew Fox at the University of Pikeville.  Since the subject of Fox’s presentation was  “Creation Spirituality” I was asked to do a multimedia program featuring images of nature I have taken over the years.  Considering all that Matthew Fox has done to help people connect Christianity and Creation I felt it was quite an honor to be part of the program.

More than once during the course of his lecture Matthew mentioned how awe, wonder, mystery and gratitude are the root of religious experience.  When he said this it helped me realize why I feel so close to God when I am outdoors enjoying nature.  All four things he mentioned are common occurrences when I go out to hike or photograph.

I could not begin to count the times I have experienced awe in God’s Creation.  I felt it as I viewed the northern lights for the first time in Alaska.  I felt it when I first gazed down into Bryce Canyon.   Every time I have watched a glacier calve or a humpback whale breach I have known awe.  I could say the same thing about my first glimpses of the giant sequoias and redwood trees of California.  Time after time my jaw hasdropped as I stood in awe before the handiwork of God.

I have likewise experienced the kindred feeling of wonder.   Seeing things like the majestic formations in Carlsbad Caverns, the great sand dunes of Death Valley and the lava flows from volcanoes in Hawaii have left me feeling wonderful or, more accurately, full of wonder.    I have likewise felt full of wonder as I’ve watched a newborn fawn take its first steps, seen thousands of snow geese rise simultaneously at Bosque del Apache or caught a glimpse of the moonbow at Cumberland Falls.

There is much in God’s Creation that I find mysterious.   Simply looking at the Milky Way on a clear winter’s night I sense the mystery of both life and Creation.  Even the transformation of a caterpillar to a butterfly is full of mystery to me.   The same can be said about the way many plants and animals adapt to and thrive in conditions that would not seem conducive to life.  I often find myself scratching my head in amazement at the mystery that surrounds us every day.

Finally, all the experiences of awe, wonder and mystery that I’ve enjoyed have led me to a profound sense of gratitude.  I feel so incredibly blessed just to be alive and to be able to see and hear and smell and taste and touch all the wonders of God’s Creation.  Such experiences cause people everywhere to feel grateful and to express thanksgiving.  Those who are wise know Who to thank.

In God’s “Other Book,” Creation, we are introduced to the Creator.  In His written Word we come to understand even more fully just how awesome, wonderful, and mysterious God is and why it is so imperative that we move on to the practice of gratitude and worship.  The Psalmist said, “Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker,  for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.”  (Ps. 95:6-7) Once you’ve encountered awe, wonder and mystery how can you not do just that?   Fox is right.  These things truly are the root of religious experience.


(I took the top image at Bosque del Apache NWR, the middle image in Carlsbad Caverns, and the bottom image at Bryce Canyon National Park.)


Aug 14 2011

The Royal Road

Over the years many have commented on the importance of wonder in our lives.  In one of his recent books Sam Keen wrote: “Wonder is the alpha and the omega of the human mind.  It stands at the beginning and end of our quest to understand ourselves and the world.  Aristotle said philosophy begins in wonder.  It is the most primal of emotions, at once ordinary and disturbing.  As the sixth sense, the natural religious sense, wonder is the royal road that leads us to the other elemental emotions, and thus to a renewed sense of the sacred.”

I like Keen’s description of wonder as “the royal road” that leads us to a renewed sense of the sacred.  It rings true to my experience.  And nowhere has wonder raised its wonderful head more often for me than in the world of nature.  There are so many things I have seen that have left me breathless, so many things I’ve experienced in Creation that have left me feeling humbled and aware of the greatness of God.

It has happened as I’ve watched humpback whales bubble feeding in the Inside Passage, as I have peered down into Utah’s Bryce Canyon, as I have stood beneath the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, and as I have watched the northern lights in Alaska.  I have experienced deep wonder observing a meteor shower late at night, and while watching a glorious sunrise early in the morning.  I have stood in awe and wonder before calving glaciers, erupting geysers, soaring eagles and foraging bears.  I have experienced wonder watching thousands of snow geese rise suddenly at one time in New Mexico and while observing fascinating formations deep within a cave.  I will never forget how looking at Saturn through a small telescope in my youth made my heart skip a beat.  Even the beauty and intricacies of tiny flowers and insects have moved me in wonder.

I know that my experiences are not unique.  Countless others have had similar experiences.  Even the Psalmist wrote of this.  David said to God, “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8: 3-4)   The world God has made is wonder-full.  Everywhere we look there are things that provoke wonder and move us toward the Creator.  I’m convinced this was God’s intention from the beginning.  Since God is Spirit and we cannot see Him He chose to make it easier for us by placing within His Creation countless things that will move us to a “sense of the sacred.”  He has provided a “royal road” that will lead us to Himself if we will follow it to its end.  Just the fact that God would do this leaves me full of wonder.  How about you?


(I chosen three images to illustrate some of my moments of wonder.  The top is Grand Geyser erupting at Yellowstone NP.  The middle image is an “explosion” of snow geese at Bosque del Apache NWR in New Mexico.  I took the bottom image at Bryce Canyon NP.)

Mar 3 2010

The Wonder of It All

“The world will never starve for want of wonders, but only for want of wonder.”                                                          G.K. Chesterton

leaf on ice 605This past weekend we took our youth from church to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.  On Saturday we spent a number of hours at a tourist attraction called Wonder Works.  Since it is housed in a gigantic upside down building I figured the whole thing would be hokey.  I was wrong.  Wonder Works is committed to exposing people to the wonders of nature and science in a fun, hands on, sort of way.  I’m glad such places exist.

 Studies have revealed that a child’s creativity, which includes wonder and imagination, diminishes by 90% between the ages of five and seven.  When adults gets to be forty, they have only about 2% of the creativity they had when they were five years old. This is tragic for a number of reasons.  For one, wonder lies at the heart of worship.  For another, wonder adds much joy to life.

 In his book Real Worship Warren Wiersbe writes, “True wonder reaches right into your heart and mind and shakes you up.  It not only has depth, it has value; it enriches your life.  It is an encounter with reality—with God—that brings awe to your heart.  You are overwhelmed with an emotion that is a mixture of gratitude, adoration, reverence, fear—and love.  You are not looking for explanations; you are lost in the wonder of God.”

Wiersbe goes on to note that wonder is born of knowledge, not ignorance.  He says, “The more a truly reverent person knows about a flower or an insect or God, the more overwhelmed he is.  …truths give to the reverent saint a burning heart, a thrilling encounter with God.”

 I believe Dr. Wiersbe is on to something here.  All of us need more wonder in our lives.  It is, in fact, critical for our spiritual lives.  And I know of few things that will move us toward wonder better than spending time in God’s Creation. 

 If you are experiencing a shortage of wonder and awe, now might be a good time to head to the mountains, the dessert, a river or lake, or some quiet spot outdoors closer to home. Or as Rob has reminded us from time to time, enjoy the wonders of your own back yard.  Wherever you go, take in the wonder of it all and let your hearts be lifted in praise to the Maker of heaven and earth.


 (I spotted the beech leaf pictured above hanging on to the ice on a rock across the street from my church office. It caused me to wonder…)