In Pursuit of Wonder

From the mundane perspective of middle-age, it seems that very little contains even a modicum of wonder any more.  But it hasn’t always been so.  I remember as a child how everything was new and interesting.  The world was vast, life was unknown, its mystery a game.

I have often mused with my students about how the sense of wonder is vital to anyone interested in science, about how children possess it, but somewhere, some kill-joy element of growing up wrests it from our minds and very few retain any sense of it as adults.  And that is a down right, low and dirty shame.

Wonder is a supreme experience among humankind.  From the freshness of the observations of a baby just beginning to experience the world to the tiny but undeniable thrill of achievement when you learn something new, wonder is among the experiences that set us apart from the rest of the animal world.

In many of the more sedate churches, wonder is something that is more often suppressed.  It is given some lip service (the passing mention of the wonders of creation, etc.), but in reality, wonder may be construed as something that is too volatile to address.

The Bible is filled with the concept of wonder.  Certainly, the miracles are awe-inspiring.  But there are many examples of language meant to at once reflect and inspire wonder.  Perhaps the most succinct of these is found in Psalm 139.13-16:

13 For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.

14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.

15 My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

16 Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.

This passage has been used to support the theory of predestination, with which I admittedly have some trouble.  However, more fundamentally, this soaring expression of awe and wonder at the complexity of the human organism is one of the most beautiful expressions of praise for the creature as well as the creator.

Indeed, as a biologist, I am constantly in a state of wonder when I consider the precision with which life functions.  But I am also in a state of wonder at how life changes, and what may happen, whether good or ill, when those changes occur.

Consider one chromosome in the human set.  Chromosome 11 is a middling sized chromosome.  Everybody has a pair of them, one from your mother and one from your father.  If you reproduce, you will shuffle and rearrange the information from your parents to create unique combinations that will be passed on to your children.  Most of the time, everything is fine with chromosome 11 as with the other 22 in a haploid set.  But sometimes, a mistake occurs when the chromosome is being copied to make gametes—egg or sperm cells—and if that mistake is not corrected, it may lead to very distinctive changes in a child that is the product of the pairing of that “different” chromosome with a normal chromosome from your partner’s donation.

In particular, geneticists now tell us that there is some very specific information on chromosome 11 that affects the expression of things like autism and obesity.  Deletions from a portion of the short arm of chromosome 11 may include six important genes, two of which have information for neuron development and neurotransmitter receptor structure and function.  While our current understanding of autism encompasses a spectrum of disorders with what may be a plethora of causes, being able to locate such an important region may one day lead to new strategies to deal with those problems.

The wonder is not only in the remarkable expression of the normal, but in the complex expression of the abnormal, where such a seemingly small change can make such profound differences.  We cannot fully appreciate the beauty of the normal without there being something to compare it to.  Thus, one “imperfect” expression serves to demonstrate the perfection that is more common but too often taken for granted because of its commonness.

Continuing with the idea of wonder in scriptures, I often return to Job, where beginning in chapter 38, Job is questioned by God who rehearses a lengthy series of questions that explore the details of the creation process and the on-going function of said creation.

Job 38:1 Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: 2 “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 3 Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. 4 “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. 5 Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? 6 On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, 7 when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

The language is beautiful and poetic, but the images are those of wonders beyond the common man’s experience or ability to fully comprehend.

When I consider the natural world, I cannot help but wonder at it.  There is a thrill to learning more about it, understanding its complexity, revealed a layer and a hint at a time, each new bit of information adding to the picture like a single dot in a pointillist painting, an independent element in a rhapsody of color that is life.

Life, in all its complexity, could never be static and contend with a dynamic environment.  The on-going process of creation initiated and ordained by a wiser artist than any man is another unmistakable thumbprint of God, every bit as telling as the gravity waves at the edge of the universe and fractal geometry in the form of a leaf or feather or cloud.  It is not only we that are fearfully and wonderfully made.  It is everything that is, and everything that has been and everything that shall ever be in this tapestry of life.

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