wonder & imagination: part 1

by Zach Kincaid
Wonder and Imagination. What do these have to do with the Christian narrative, and how do these work into a life of compassion? The two authors I want to look to are maybe not the first picked out in a line up. C.S. Lewis, Kazantzakis, Dickens, MacDonald, Tolkien, Carroll might be candidates. Maybe not. But most of us would not turn to Abraham Joshua Heschel and Gilbert Keith Chesterton. My hope is that we’ll discover them a little bit over the course of several articles and that their works might guide us to a place of wonder about an almighty God and his call into our lives.

Wonder is not often talked about as a concrete idea. It’s a little out there… I wonder what would happen if… or, I wonder why, or who, or what… or it’s a wonder why I don’t… Hymns sometimes register this idea of wonder in a way that is helpful for our discussion.

O wonder amazing! At earth’s midnight hour
The ages are gazing in awe at its power;
The great secret telling, how anguish is stilled,
The evil dispelling: The Word is fulfilled.
(O Wonder Amazing, Frank Sewell, 1837-1915)

Father, how wide Thy glories shine!
How high Thy wonders rise!
Known through the earth by thousand signs,
By thousand through the skies.
O may I bear some humble part
In that immortal song!
Wonder and joy shall tune my heart,
And love command my tongue.
(Father How Wide Thy Glories Shine, Issac Watts, 1706)
This wonder struck the world amazed,
It shook the starry frame;
Squadrons of spirits stood and gazed,
Then down in troops they came.
("Behold the Great Creator", Thomas Pestel, 1639)

It’s wonder that is attached to awe and it is awe that is attached to faith and these are all wrapped up in hope – that this masked bandit that we know as God who plays hard to get so many of the times, will one day reveal himself ultimately. It is the hope that what we do and what we think and what we think about doing all find a place in the ear of the Almighty. It is the hope that we can pick up and rebuild small and large pieces of this fallen landscape like Nehemiah’s wall so that God’s kingdom can indeed breathe a little easier among the rot of sin and abuse. It’s this kind of wonder.

We first see wonder in the Scriptures referenced to Egypt and the plagues. God says to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do... [and] Pharaoh will refuse to listen to you—so that my wonders may be multiplied in Egypt.” (Exodus 4:21; 11:9) Then Job reminds us, “He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed, miracles that cannot be counted.” (5:9) And, “Do you know how the clouds hang poised, those wonders of him who is perfect in knowledge?” (37:16) The Psalms turn it into praise: “Show me the wonders of your great love, you who save by your right hand those who take refuge in you from their foes.” (17:7) “Many, LORD my God, are the wonders you have done, the things you planned for us. None can compare with you; were I to speak and tell of your deeds, they would be too many to declare. (40:5) “The whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders; where morning dawns, where evening fades, you call forth songs of joy.” (65:8) As the New Testament starts, Mary wonders about the angel’s news, the people wonder if the Baptizer is the Messiah, and at the tomb, the women and Peter all wondered about the missing Jesus. Acts presents wonder as well. Take for example the prayer of Peter and John while in Jerusalem – “Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus." (4:29) Stephen is said to have performed such wonders. Paul and Barnabas are given credit in a similar way.

So to wonder about God, to be in wonder for God and to perform wonders are all given to us. It is this idea of being in wonder for God that is our focus and as a consequence a certain wonder surrounding the deeds that we do – the compassion we show – that fire from heaven given through the hands of we, his followers. Jesus said they will know us by what we do. Why do anything outside of self-gain or that may damage our own self worth or image or lifestyle if there is not eternity pulsing through the tides of our temporal awareness? Wonder moves us into a search for God and is ever-present as we express it through our worship and the works of our hands.

And this, I think, is where compassion is its rightful companion. Wonder is that vertical arm to the heavens and compassion is the horizontal one that reaches to human beings in their suffering and delusion, both physically and mentally. “What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss to bear the dreadful curse for my soul.” It’s love your neighbor, feed, clothe, befriend the hurting. Give your life and all its ambition to, not only God, but to that vulnerable gap that Jesus fell into and died.

There is a lot to read from both of Chesterton and Heschel - about 35 volumes of Chesterton’s work recently brought together and re-published by Ignatius Press and 7 book length works of Heschel’s and many articles.

I want to use this article as an introductory of their works and then move into Heschel and Chesterton individually in upcoming months. Each have a different style. Heschel is a philosopher formally and much more detailed and ordered; Chesterton is a journalist, fiction writer, and cartoonist and so too he’s less organized. Nevertheless, they are both stabbing at the same thing.

G.K. Chesterton
Born in 1874, Chesterton grew up in late Victorian England, which meant he was caught inside the expansive building of the British Empire fueled by the benefits of the Industrial Revolution and a growing humanism. Chesterton was the first of two sons. Both he and his brother Cecil ended up being journalists on Fleet Street, the London street where the press operated. Chesterton went to the Slade School of Art, but he dropped out to work for a publisher. In 1901, he married Francis (they never had children). During that same time, he started writing an opinion column for the Daily News. With few hiatuses, Chesterton delivered a regular column for about 30 years through employment at several papers.

He arrives on the literary scene about fifteen years prior to the Great War and around the start of a lesser-known conflict, the Boer War, which began in 1899 and lasted until 1902. The premise of the Boer War: the British decide to attack the tip of Africa; some say for gold mines and greed; some say for progress and to plant civilization in new soil. The war’s result: after only eight months, the British take possession of key cities and name the war over. The Boers don’t buy it. Through guerilla tactics, the Boers fight their invaders for two exhausting years until the final Boer militant leaves the bush in humility. This idea of imperial power and the rights of people and small countries – this idea of place and a certain abhorrence when it is misused or conquered is prevalent in much of Chesterton’s work and political theory.

G.K. Chesterton seemed to move backwards in time. From his stylized Victorian-like appearance of cape and swordstick to his longing to rekindle the romance in life and rid it of the preciseness of science, Chesterton was no modernist, that is to say, he was not one who believed in humanity’s ability to progress left to its own virtues and vices. In fact, he awards such belief with a confidence that it will land a person in a lunatic asylum with all the Napoleons and Caesars who likewise believed in themselves.

He was not afraid to let his contemporaries know his critique of modernity and his opinion of them. Heretics is entirely about just that – pointing out who and why their ideas are a fallacy. It was published in 1905. He explains that the world had changed –

"The word ‘heresy’ not only means no longer being wrong; it practically means being clear-headed and courageous. The word ‘orthodoxy’ not only no longer means being right; it practically means being wrong. All this can mean one thing, and one thing only. It means that people care less for whether they are philosophically right. For obviously a man ought to confess himself crazy before he confesses himself heretical. The Bohemian, with a red tie, ought to pique himself on his orthodoxy. The dynamiter, laying a bomb, ought to feel that, whatever else he is, at least he is orthodox." (40)

Modern thought rapes morality and replaces any convictions with a non-committal individualism, which suffers no dogma and accepts no mystery that cannot be answered within the natural world. It’s erasing God from the page and all the instrumentation that lies just behind what’s visible. He had choice words for these heretics.

One critic of Chesterton said that he would only worry about his own philosophy when Chesterton worried about his. In 1908, Orthodoxy became his response. It outlines why he had “come to believe.” “I wish to set forth my faith,” Chesterton says, “as particularly answering this double need, the need for that mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar which Christendom has rightly named romance.”

Other important books included The Man Who Was Thursday, a novel, the Father Brown short stories, Everlasting Man which was the book that inspired Lewis to faith, several plays, and several additional commentary on Catholicism, what is wrong with America, and about the works of writers like Stevenson and Dickens.

Chesterton is not only a valuable voice because of the amount of work he produced, but even more because his voice was counter to the trend in the West during the turn of the century.

World War I was 1914-1918 and as you may know it was hoped to be the war to end all wars. It was optimism, yes, but it was optimism that stemmed out of the claims of evolutionary progress (remember that Darwin’s earth shattering Origin of the Species was published in 1859 and he was on the scene until 1882.) And this sense of progress spun out modernism, which at its core is a dismissal of the traditional for the sake of the new updated version or philosophy. So, Chesterton enters the scene emptying out all the old crusted things pre-Victorian, pre-modern, pre-evolution with the candor and wit of a old time preacher, a political poet, and a beat journalist with the makeup of someone jutted forward in history- from the medieval times.

Politically, he walked the center in a theory that he constructed with his brother Cecil and good friend Hallaire Belloc. The theory was called distributism. It kept the greed of capitalism and the power of socialism at bay by allowing every person to own property – what he believed was a central mark of democracy. “Property,” he says, “is merely the art of democracy. It means that every man should have something that he can shape in his own image, as he is shaped in the image of heaven.”

So, his defiance to accept the materialistic outlook of an overly confident modernity, his refusal to support the outward movements of the British Empire as a giant treading in small countries, and his political theories that center on property ownership are all layered into and connected to the strings of Christianity that pull and prod at these emphases in a way that worked out his salvation and hopefully will at least salivate our spiritual hunt.

Abraham Joseph Heschel
Abraham Heschel is Jewish and a philosopher by discipline. Reinhold Neiburh predicted Heschel would be an authoritative voice on Jewish theology but even wider, on religion in America. His voice began to be heard by many in the 1960s alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and the turmoil of race and morality.

God's tears lie on the cheeks
of shamed, weak people.
Let me wipe away His lament.

Heschel was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1907. He died in America in 1972. Born into a rabbinic family, he studied to carry on the tradition as one of the most influential families in the Hasidic world. He went to study at the University of Berlin and then at Higher Institute of Jewish Studies, also in Berlin.

He was named after his grandfather, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel – the Apter Rav – the last great rabbi of Mezbizh and he spent a good amount of time in Mezbizh growing up. Heschel says it is here that he became “enchanted” and where his “childhood imagination went on many journeys.” It was in Mezbizh that Heschel wrestled with two great Rabbis and their writings. One, Reb Menahem Mendl challenged him to never forfeit authenticity. The other, the Baal Shem, wrote of compassion through love and the mystery. Of the two, Heschel writes –

"Honesty, authenticity, integrity without love may lead to the ruin of others, of oneself, or both. On the other hand, love, fervor, or exaltation alone may seduce us into living in a Fool’s Paradise – a wise man’s hell." (A Passion for Truth, xv)

It was 1933 when he received his doctorate in prophetic consciousness. On January 30 of that year, Hitler became chancellor. On February 27 the Reichstag, where Parliament resided was burnt. The Nazi regime was in place by July 1933.

On October 28, 1938, Heschel was expelled from Germany with 18 thousand other Jews holding Polish passports. He then came to Cincinnati, to Hebrew Union College, arriving in 1940. He would say later, “I am a brand plucked from the fire in which my people was burned to death. I am a brand plucked from the fire of an altar to Satan on which millions of human lives were exterminated to evil’s greater glory.”

Heschel’s voice is prophetic. It is gargled in the blood of loss, grief, and strife and it looks from the other side of it and into the face of compassion. But it doesn’t spit back. Rather, it tells compassion to not focus on Jewish life as victim and lost in episodes of the past, but rather an active force to make right the world and, more importantly, formulate a path to God. “There is a war to wage,” he says, “against the vulgar, against the glorification of the absurd, a war that is incessant, universal… we may be able to make it clear that man is more than man, that in doing the finite he may perceive the infinite.”

By 1951, Heschel became an established name with the releases of The Sabbath and Man is Not Alone.

"The stirring in our hearts when watching the star-studded sky is something no language can declare. What smites us with unquenchable amazement is not that which we grasp and are able to convey but that which lies within our reach but beyond our grasp; not the quantitative aspect of nature but something qualitative; not what is beyond our range in time and space but the true meaning, source and end of being, in other words, the ineffable." (Man is Not Alone, 4-5)

He became a lightening rod in the Jewish faith and later outside it due to criticisms like this: “I have been in the United States of America for 13 years. I have not discovered America, but I have discovered something in America. It is possible to be a rabbi and not believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

He was most aware of the need to return to the halakhic way of life, which was not absorbed by law yet absorbed the Torah and the entire law. The halakhic way is translated as the way to go.

What creed is in relation to faith, the Halacha is in relation to piety. As faith cannot exist without creed, piety cannot subsist without a pattern of deeds; as intelligence cannot be separated from training, religion cannot be divorced from conduct… How [do we] live in a world pestered with lies and remain un polluted, how not to be stricken with despair, not to flee but to fight and succeed in keeping the soul unsoiled and even aid in purifying the world?" (Man is Not Alone, 176,179)

(September 2007 | Part 1 of 3)