Wonder and Awe Aplenty—No God(s) Required, Thank You

An awesome god is too much trouble
My oldest brother, twelve years my senior, was a musical prodigy. Thus my earliest childhood memories include listening to the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts on Saturday afternoons. Our phonograph record collection—and I remember the introduction of long-playing vinyl stereo records—was opera, symphony, violin and piano concertos. This was my comfort music, in rural Indiana, mind you, in the 1950s. The “heavy” music of Richard Wagner’s massive operas—well, that’s all easy listening to me.

I am especially grateful that my brother introduced me to the monumental symphonies of Gustaf Mahler—on those ancient stereo records; I have them all on my iPhone now. From Mahler’s genius came thousands of pages of composition, and well more than a century later, highly skilled musicians create his sound-visions, brilliantly, all over again, evoking feeling of tenderness, sadness and exuberance. He had an utterly unique musical language that has enchanted me for decades. Our lives are enriched beyond measure by human creativity, which can be such a powerful source of awe and wonder.

As luck would have it, when we were in Amsterdam a few weeks ago, the Mahler First was being performed at The Royal Concertgebouw. We got seats behind the orchestra (in banks of seats flanking the pipe organ), so we saw the conductor as he faced the players. We were to the left of the timpani. In that magnificent concert hall, with the rich, enveloping sound, we were under Mahler’s spell. We felt the powerful music for 55 minutes…and then the thunderous standing ovation. Indeed awesome, and full of wonder.

So many versions of awe and wonder

Now, Mahler is my thing—and dozens of other amazing creators, from Caravaggio and Van Gogh to Shakespeare and, yes, J.K. Rowling. Everybody is different, of course, in what turns us on. Life is worth living because we all have identified geniuses that inspire and stimulate us—in all areas of human endeavor. We stand in awe of what they do, achieve and contribute to humankind. They may have countless human frailties, yet they qualify as our heroes. They have reached peak performance and we stand in awe.

And there are grand efforts that require thousands of top-notch minds working toward the same goal—with mind-boggling results…yes, that cliché applies: From September 2003 to January 2004, the Hubble Space Telescope was aimed at the constellation Fornax, and locked its gaze on a tiny patch of sky that looks dark to the naked eye—smaller than the size of the full Moon. Hubble found approximately 10,000 galaxies, some as distant as 13 billion light-years.

Hubble has actually revealed the human nursery as never before; through long processes of discovery before Hubble, it turns out that the atoms in our bodies were forged in dying stars. We are part of the cosmos in a way that even the cleverest ancient mythographers could not have imagined. And Charles Darwin brought his unique insights: He was sometimes observed, standing motionless, starring at a blossom for an hour. His keen powers of observation ushered humankind into a new era of understanding human origins.

But theologians, amateur and professional, can’t resist dragging us back to ancient superstitions.

What More Do We Need?

A case in point. In 2013, when Oprah Winfrey interviewed swimmer Diana Nyad, she was taken aback that the latter was an atheist who could—how was it possible?—be awed by the world. Oprah couldn’t let go of God: “I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder, and the mystery, then that is what God is.” Anything to avoid deletion of God from the equation.

We can’t feel awe and wonder without God? Is Oprah out of her mind? She's been talkin' to the wrong people. I agree with one anonymous observer: “Of course we are in awe and wonder of Oprah’s stupidity.” Why does “God” have to be evoked? Oprah went on to admit that God is not “the bearded guy in the sky”—well, thank you for that, but, to be sure, for most of the folks in the pews, God remains “the man upstairs”—with or without a beard. Even the most sophisticated theologians can’t let go of the idea that God is a self-aware entity who knows about humans, and acts in human affairs. They may ridicule bearded-guy-in-the-sky, but they’ve just deleted the naïve terminology, not the basic concept of a watchful authoritarian. Oprah plays with terminology to keep a grip on God, somehow, anyway—and so do the theologians.

God Is Actually in Trouble

Theists might say, “Well, don’t you see that all of this excellence, all of this creativity—all the wonders in the heavens especially—must be traced to God.” With no hard evidence for God at all, they stake claims against the evidence and critical thinking.

It was commonly said, for example, that my brother’s phenomenal musical talents were God-given. Of course, this follows the pattern of giving God credit for the good stuff. But this means that God tinkered at fundamental genetic levels to make sure that my brother’s brain was wired a certain way. This is extreme personal theism: God really involved in human affairs. It’s easy to slip into this kind of fantasy if you believe Jesus, i.e., that the hairs of our heads are numbered—and that God even knows when a sparrow falls to the earth. We read in Psalm 139:2, “O Lord…You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.” Nothing escapes God’s notice.

Problem Number One: God Is Negligent

But that means that God has to take some blame as well. There are thousands of genetic diseases, so while good Christian folks gush over a newborn baby—“a miracle from God”—just remember that the infant may be encoded with a ghastly genetic disease or two. What a wicked thing for God to do—surely a source of awe and wonder of another kind altogether. Maybe the better option is to confess that glitches in evolution can be blamed for genetic diseases. Just leave God out of it; he’s missing in action.

But hasn’t adoration of God been a major factor in the inspiration of artists—driving them to heights of excellence? Yes…but after you’ve seen the 350th depiction of Madonna & Child and the 100th rendering of Jesus being lowered from the cross, you have to wonder, “Why in the world did they get so stuck in this rut?” It’s such a relief that artists finally realized that there were many other sources of inspiration.

Naturally I stand in awe of the masterpieces, based on Biblical themes, by Michelangelo and Caravaggio: but part of the true glory of Caravaggio’s work is that he painted real, unidealized humans in his Biblical tableaus (check out his The Incredulity of Saint Thomas). He moved away from phony, contrived holiness. And no matter how fired up artists may have been by their faith, their talent for painting has far more complex origins.

What about the heavenly awe?

But how can we look at the heavens—as revealed by Hubble and Cassini, especially—and doubt the grandeur of God? God-the-Creator theology seems almost irresistible, at least for humans, who are experts at agency detection. And this is the theology that Christians get way with the most.

But God-the-Creator is an lame inference at best. Cosmologists have taken over the business of researching cosmic origins; they want to find out what really happened, in the wake of theologians reciting creation folklore and dogma for millennia. Notice one thing that Oprah said: “...if you believe…the mystery, then that is what God is.” That’s one of the most common theological dodges: Feel awe and wonder about the mystery, ‘cause God must be lurking there somewhere.

I recommend spending a few hours absorbed in Hubble's Universe: Greatest Discoveries and Latest Images (2017, Terence Dickinson). Don’t let your mind wander—under Oprah’s spell—to thinking that a god had anything to do with it. The Cosmos is spectacular; savor it. Every atom in your body will return to it someday—it was your past and it’s your future.

Problem Number Two: God Turns Out to Be a Narcissist

Actually, much of the mystery of God has been pushed aside, because the faithful have his role pretty much figured out. But it’s too bad that all the awe and wonder they aim at God degrade into silliness. According to Christianity Today in 2001, How Great Thou Art came in second as a favorite hymn (behind the wretched Amazing Grace). For some reason, Christians think that the Magnificent Creator gets his kicks being told that he’s such a great guy…and—are you kidding me?—loves it when humans sing to him. Here are the lyrics that the faithful love so much:

Oh Lord my God
When I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds
Thy hands have made
I see the stars
I hear the rolling thunder
Thy power throughout
The universe displayed
Then sings my soul
My Savior, God, to Thee
How great thou art
How great thou art
Then sings my soul
My Savior, God, to Thee
How great Thou art
How great Thou art

Is flattery really the highest form of piety?

I have zero awe and wonder for the absurd deity cobbled together from the defective theologies of the Old and New Testaments. We can derive far more meaning—and get a much greater rush—from so much around us that is authentic, tangible, and utterly amazing.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published by Tellectual Press in 2016.