Last week, I gave a brief review of a central concept of philosopher Henry Nelson Wieman, namely the Creative Self. This is a crucial component in his larger theory of Creative Interchange, that is, our capacity to interact authentically with an “other” or others, synthesizing our different perspectives in the hope of producing a creative result. Having just watched the clown show of the reactions during President Biden’s State of the Union address to Congress, Wieman’s proposal may seem like more of a pipe dream. However, in this time of mutual contempt, authentic, appreciative engagement seems more than timely than ever. It could be a matter of life and death. I signed a promissory note to spend my next several week’s worths of articles on this concept. Here’s my first payment.
To begin with, Wieman proposes that we are all intrinsically given the capacity to learn creatively at birth. We natively are endowed by our Creator with wonder and curiosity that propels us to explore our world. This is the Creative Self which is made for interaction with other people as we seek to collaborate in the living of our very lives. While we are blessed by this creative capacity, we are, at the same time, forced to encounter the socialization process of our parents, our culture, and our education system which is aimed more at control than creativity, resulting in the retraction of the Creative Self, and the resulting domination of the Created Self.
This short-circuits the natural process of creativity, intended for us by our Creator who has shared that spirit with the Creation. Rather than seeing our connection with the whole, we are literally schooled to think in terms of our individual self, the Created Self, thus losing our sense of connection, wonder, and mystery, as we fall into a rather pedestrian existence based on various metrics by which we measure our success.
It’s been a remarkable time of synchronicity in my life as I have been studying Wieman with a small group of colleagues, some who are long-tenured scholars of Wieman, and others, like me, who are new to this rodeo. My personal guide has been Dr. Charlie Palmgren, a fellow Episcopal priest, who introduced me to the discipline of Organizational Development (OD) in the late 80s as I was trying to understand the process of change, specifically in congregations, and precisely at the Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta where I was serving.
Charlie actually knew Wieman, having studied with him, and has tried to put Wieman’s notion of Creative Interchange into practice in the business world. He has provided me guidance as I try to work my way through Wieman’s books by sequencing my reading. But Charlie has also dropped other books on my head in the process. The most challenging book(s) has been the work of British psychiatrist, Iain McGilchrist. His two-volume book, The Matter With Things, has been following me around for the last quarter, giving me a run for my money as I try to understand his genius mix of psychology, philosophy, and spirituality. I am just beginning to ford the river of a section he entitles The Sense of the Sacred.
McGilchrist offers a healthy caution to those who see the pursuit of God as merely an intellectual endeavor of the mind, as we accumulate conceptions and propositions about the “Ground of Being”, an academic code phrase used for God. “The primary response is not intellectual. It is awe ad wonder- not mere curiosity, which motivates us to find out more information, more knowledge (valuable as that is), but wonder at the immensity of what we must recognize that we can never know. Yet that very wonder is what we increasingly lack.” It’s as if he is speaking directly to me, right between the eyes, which is where the brain is said to reside and have its being.
I am the product of the educational system which took my native sense of wonder at the Mystery that I encountered in Nature following a summer thunderstorm in the dawning of my adolescence. There on the top of my front yard hill, standing by two outcropping of granite, the sky crackled, with an orange tornadic color, the leaves of an oak seem to take on a vibrating, golden sparkle. The air was amazingly fresh and clean from from the rain. I knew that I sensed something, saw something, felt something in my budding adolescent body. I know that some of you will be tempted to postulate that it must have been a hormone-induced psychotic episode, but I will ask you to cut me some slack.
The words “awe’ and”wonder” come to mind, and align with my experience. It prompted my wondering about this God that I had heard about in evangelical preaching, but my feeling was not fear or terror, but connection and fascination. It prompted my interest in this thing called God, although the stuff I had learned in Sunday School did not make much sense to my natively tuned scientific mind. It became my undeclared quest and question: who/what is this Mystery that I encountered in the late-afternoon in East Point, Georgia, specifically, on Charles Drive? What is this experience that humans, and I, have with this Divine Presence?
As McGilchrist warns, I spent many years chasing “knowledge”, trying to accumulate an understanding of Scripture, mainly in the quest for the historical Jesus. In time, thanks to my Old Testament professor, John Hayes (who also pitched for my South of God softball team), I plumbed the Old Testament seeking to understand the native faith of Jesus and how it informed his views. I studied the early church, the development of creeds and canon, the rise of the Roman Church and its subsequent institutionalization, the reform of the Protestants, and the radical reform of my own Baptist tribe. In time, I even found a developmental psychology adapted by a Harvard theologian to provide the imprimatur of science to give my faith the veneer of science that I desired. I would have become what McGilchrist warned of except for three timely interruptions.
The first was a rock opera that appeared as I was in high school, Jesus Christ Superstar. Although it portrayed Jesus in a deterministic light, with his destiny planned by God, it did make the story, the drama, more accessible than the stained glass version that I was raised with. This was a very human Jesus, who could get angry, struggle with authority, religious and political, and be sexually engaged. As others were drawn to the Jesus freak route of simplistic apologetics, I was whisked into the deep end of the pool of philosophy.
The second interruption was also a drama, Godspell, which was a transposition of the Gospel of Matthew set in a hippie-like community of disciples, using the form of a musical. It was more about a Jesus who spoke of the radical demands of the Kingdom of God that is inbreaking. It showed a human Jesus who struggled with the cost of following his vision, even unto death. My own involvement in the play as a cast member brought it home even more profoundly as I experienced the awesome magic of a community, even without a thunderstorm.
And finally, my experience of getting to know a group of six Trappist monks made the reality of discipleship very real and alluring. Their very eistence and being confronted me with the possibility, and perhaps necessity, of a radical response to Jesus by the way one lived one’s life. As I have mentioned before, I was part of a group of Southern Baptist New Testament Greek scholars who met with the monks to translate the Gospels from the original Greek text. I had been invited by my pastor, which gave me an opportunity to experience the beauty of sacramental worship, which would become my pearl of great price as it afforded me an experiential way to connect with the Mystery. The monks also taught me a form of contemplative prayer that centered my frenetic life. That was almost fifty years ago and I am still close to two of those surving monks.
These three things helped to balance my academic training and gifted me with a continuing sense of the Mystery that underlies my intellectual props. McGilchrist quotes one of my favorite rabbi/scholars, Abraham Heschel, as he notes the decline of a sense of wonder in our culture:
Such decline is an alarming symptom of our state of mind. Mankind will not perish from want of information, but only from want of appreciation. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living. What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder. Awareness of the divine begins with wonder. It is the result of what man does with his highest incomprehension. The greatest hindrance to such awareness is our adjustment to conventional notions, to mental cliches. Wonder or radical amazement, the state of maladjustment to words and notions, is therefore a prerequisite for an authentic awareness of what is. (God in Search of Man)
The Creative Self has the native capacity to perceive the Mystery that surrounds her/him. The Created Self has learned to slice and dice experience and the world into the smallest pieces possible, in the promise that will yield a more adequate understanding of reality. In that reductionistic quest, the Created Self loses the capacity to perceive the connection that exists between the parts. While our culture has promoted the value of the analytic to the exclusion of wonder and connection, McGilchrist has noted the pressing need to recover the right brain’s gift of seeing things whole, connected at the heart of their being.
I have experienced that sense of connection throughout my life, with the thunderstorm being one of the most dramatic moments. But there have been others.
Sitting in front of the Tabernacle at the monastery, sensing Christ’s presence.
Listening to Barber’s Adagio on my headphones while walking through the dunes on Cumberland Island.
Watching someone pass from life to death while in a clliinical setting.
Eating a peanut butter sandwich from St. Luke’s Soup Kitchen, while a bottle of Mogen David wine is passed among the street people of Atlanta, in the woods off North Atlanta, while a man named Blood presided at this informal Eucharist.
Observing the solar ecliipse at my cabin on a white water river.
These are just a few of the moments of wonder that bob to the surface as I ponder my magical, mystical tour of this world.
And, justt today, another. From out of the blue.
I was leaving Atlanta for my trek to the Georgia coast. I had tried to load everything in my expedition bag, with wheels on the base, so that I could make it in one trip from my apartment to the car.. I had failed to calculate how heavy it would be when I got it ti my Tahoe. I remiind you that I walk with a cane which makes carrying any bag problematic. I was struggling mightily with the unwieldy bag, when an “angel” appeared out of nowhere to assist me. He is a resident of an adjoining building in our complex, and was already in his car, readying to leave for work. Instead, he saw me, got out, walked up the lot to inquire if I could use some help.
I will not publish my response but will merely say I was overjoyed by his kindness, his compassion. He got said bag into my car, and I thanked him, introducing myself. He said that his name was Haman. He looked to be Middle-Eastern, speaking with a slight accent. He quickly left, getting into his blue Mustang, and departed. I got into my car, paused as I considered his act, and broke into tears. It was a moment of wonder and awe.
The wonder continued for the rest of my trip. Watching the budding trees along the southbound highway, hinting at a coming Spring, a renewal of life. It’s been a long, hard winter.
Noting the “fall line” south of Macon, with the landscape change, the Ocmulgee River runs, as the piedmont stretches to the sea.
Sighting a patch of daffodils strangly blooming in the highway median, as if someone plopped them down from on high as a surprise.
The low country, with its unique look, the seductive mix of tidal marshlands, streams that seem to promise the ocean, and the smells pouring in with my windows down and sunroof open.
The joy of crossing the causeway onto my island, marking points in the landscape that hailed to me, welcoming me home.
Moments of wonder.
After a long, cold winter, it seems meet and right so to do: to tune my Creative Self to scan my environs, to catch a whiff of wonder, to grab a glimpse of awe. Maybe your Creative Self has been prompted to resuscitate in the time in front of you, this pregnant present moment.. Might a resurrection be in order?
My heart, which must be connected to my Creative Self, is strangely warmed, even though I am not a Methodist. But I am on the island where the Wesleys first landed. My first stop was their Christ Church, sitting on a bench in the amzing church graveyard. which paradoxically spoke to me more of life than death.
So how’s that for wonder?
2 thoughts on “I Wonder As I Wander”
You kissed Herman on the lips, didn’t you?