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In Search of the Marvelous and Why it Matters

In class the other day, I began my lecture by referring to something Aldous Huxley had written many years ago. It’s an observation that struck me as both poignant and prophetic, and certainly worth passing along to the forty or so freshmen who had signed on for Foundations of Catholicism, which is the course I regularly teach in the fall. Here is what the author of Brave New World, the celebrated dystopian novel of the early 1930s, wrote:

There was a time when I gazed upon the stars with great wonder and amazement. Now, late in life, I look up at the heavens in the same way in which I gaze upon the faded wallpaper in a railway station waiting room.

None of my students, of course, had ever heard of Huxley; nor had they even been inside a train station. As for stars, I suspect they’ve all seen a few but the experience must have left them underwhelmed. Perhaps it was light pollution. In any case, there I was, less than three minutes into the lecture, and I’d already lost them.

What will it take to awaken young people to a sense of wonder and amazement? When my wife and I were living in Rome and we’d just had our first daughter, I was invited to speak to a group of young people attending a high-end boarding school. The subject was marriage – about which not a single word I spoke made the slightest impression.

If it hadn’t been for little Margaret, who was for the most part quietly nursing in the back of the room, the whole experience would have been a washout. But all at once she began to emit these strange insistent cooing sounds that caught the attention of the class. They were entirely transfixed.

It was as if an otherwise boring discourse about the iniquities of birth control had come startlingly alive as this vivid and quite unexpected piece of evidence concerning the origins of life. So sex really is about babies? Good heavens, why hadn’t I known this before! Now I get it.

Virgin and Child by Dieric Bouts, c. 1600 [Metropolitan Museum, NYC]

That was a most salutary outcome. Never again would they imagine the birth of a child as anything less than stunningly – indeed, miraculously – beautiful. Nor could they ever again so easily countenance the separation of sex and love from – yes, that’s right –life. The birth of a child really is, as the American poet Carl Sandburg somewhere says, God’s opinion that life should go on.

And isn’t that what’s wrong with the modern world? That it simply will not accept God’s opinion about life? And so it lumbers about flattening everything like a giant bulldozer. Or as that old fraud Karl Marx said, taking modernity’s measure: “Everything solid melts into thin air.”

Modern life certainly has a way of doing that to people, of leveling everything in sight, reducing it all to a state of sheer boring uniformity. A perfectly predictable sameness, in other words, like all those Happy Meals you buy at McDonalds. What difference will it make where you eat the damn thing – Kansas, California, Vermont? It will always be the same.

Not a whole lot of awe or wonder to go around these days with reductionism so secure in the saddle. It reminds me of my old friend and mentor, Fritz Wilhelmsen, who often spoke of what he called “the poetry of the transcendent.” He never ceased to lament its disappearance from the modern world. Even as he kept it dazzlingly alive for whole generations of young people, who had the good fortune to take his classes at the University of Dallas where, for forty or more years, he plumbed the depths of being.

Why is there something rather than nothing? The darkest question in philosophy, says William James, and for us, heirs of the Christian metaphysical tradition, the only answer that finally satisfies is God. The sheer overflow of whose being-love not only brings a world into existence, but from moment to moment keeps it from falling back into nothingness.

Aquinas tells us in his Commentary on the Metaphysics of Aristotle that between poet and philosopher there is a pure thread of wonder before the real, before that which makes us marvel and take delight. The task of the teacher is to keep it alive. Do not kill or neglect it because once it is gone, once the marvelous has left the theater, the play is over. It is this capacity for delight that distinguished the medieval mind, while doubt is what characterizes the modern. And the end of doubt, if left to its own devices, is despair.

In the end, therefore, it is not how or what the world is that renders it so marvelously mysterious, but that it is. This is the insight we need to recover for our students. For their parents, too.

Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Author of a half-dozen books, including, most recently, Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He lives in Wintersville, Ohio with his wife and ten children.