As a freshman in college during the late 60’s, I was a young alienated intellectual, raised in a liberal Protestant tradition, but who had lost belief in God and religion. Wars, the Holocaust, materialism, hypocrisy, racism, religious factionalism, cruelty, the degradation of nature, churches preaching judgment and damnation, or functioning as little more than watered-down social clubs and places to ritualize holidays and major passages in life, all seemed to spell to me a world without a spiritual basis. That year, however, I attended a lecture by the Jewish theologian, Abraham Heschel, and that night was a turning point in my life. A person in the mostly Christian audience wanted Heschel to comment on the meaning of sin in relationship to fulfilling religious commandments, and he answered, to my memory, approximately, thusly:
He spoke about how, of course there are the commandments and the laws, but that he could imagine situations in which he would have a difficult time calling some acts which violated commandments a sin, such as stealing to save your family from starvation. “No,” he said to the assemblage, to him, more important than the action was the intent and attitude behind an act. He said he believed that we begin to create the conditions for sin when we are in “denial” of what he referred to as “the sublime wonder of life,” when we experience life as made up of objects for our use and manipulation, rather than seeing everything and everyone as the sacred manifestation of God and Creation. He said that sadly, this denial had become the dominant paradigm of humanity and that we do this with nature, we do it in our dealings with people, and we even do it with the people we love. He said that when we reduce life and people to objects for our use and manipulation, we can justify doing terrible and, yes, sinful things, and that the root of sin was to be found in this “denial of the sublime wonder of life.”
Those words were like a spiritual thunderclap to me. “Denial of the sublime wonder of life.” This is the fall from Eden! With those words, Humanity’s place in the spiritual universe made sense to me. We have a choice. We can be in harmony with Creation, or egocentric and out of harmony. Much that was in the Bible that had made little sense to me or served only as moralistic platitudes began to fall into place. Heschel was implying that the experience of wonder, “sublime wonder,” is both the vehicle and the result of viewing our lives, all life, and the Universe as a harmonious and sacred whole, a Divine Creation. In such moments, spirituality is not a theoretical concept; nor a matter of faith, but rather, it is a direct experience that opens us into “radical amazement” (another of Heschel’s phrases), an expansive non-dualistic presence in life, as opposed to religious sanctimony that closes us off from connection, from transformative loving, compassionate Beingness.
Heschel was articulating the essence of the mystical spiritual perspective, and as I, then with wondering curiosity, explored other religious traditions, I discovered that they all began in mystical experience. They all originated in the experience of infinite wonder, while an individual becomes aware of standing within the Universe – an expression of the Universe – in love, ecstasy and deep compassion. I realized how with time and absorption into some social/political context, these mystical revelations then had been buried under religious dogma, commandments and ritual until the original transcendent experience that gave deep wonder and meaning to life became lost. Heschel gifted me with the realization that we live in a state of constant choice. We can live from the experience of wonder, or we can deny it. This is the fork in the road of spiritual experience.
When I took Heschel’s words and brought them out into the world, I found something wondrous. How obvious! When looking through eyes of wonder, I saw a luminous world of endless interconnectedness and interdependence, a wondrous dance unfolding moment to moment within the fabric of Life, and I had very little sense of my separate and anxious self at all. On the other hand, when looking at the world from my own ego, my psychological conditioning and personal interest, everything was just objects, just stuff. We even experience ourselves as an object in our minds measuring our adequacies and inadequacies in self-judgment, sometimes shame. Likewise, other people are objects – there to make our life good or bad, easy or hard. And of course, we are filled with the impulse to manipulate all this stuff to our advantage and there is an overwhelming preoccupation and insecurity with ourself.
I realized that when we are in this “object” consciousness, the world collapses down to me and my agenda, very small. And the stage is set for doing harm, for sinning, if you will. Our concern in life becomes – what are the rules and what and how much can I get for me? Now the “what?” and “how much?” varies from person to person, but there is always a manipulative quality to it. The centerpiece issue is “me.” However, from the perspective of sublime wonder, from the total openness of curious respect and undivided attention, everything becomes quite beautiful, meaningful and valuable. The experience of the moment expands; it is no longer “self” centered, but rather wondrously centered in the connection of my experience of self with the person or circumstance I focus upon in heightened awareness. I began to understand the meaning of the phrase, “looking into the face of God.” I knew what Jesus meant when He said, “The Kingdom of Heaven is spread across the land, but people do not have the eyes to see it.” The eyes that can see are the eyes of Heschel’s “sublime wonder.” The centerpiece is Life – bigger than me. “Me” dissolves into Life, some would say, into God. Zen says, into the Universe unfolding, into the “vastness of existence.”
As I studied other cultures, I discovered there were peoples that had held to wonder as the centerpiece of their lives. I learned of Native American and other aboriginal peoples, and of mystical traditions within mainstream religions around the world. I learned that clearly there is, on the one hand, conventional religion, and then there is true spiritual experience where the active experience of sublime wonder, of the connectedness and sacredness of Life, comes alive. I learned that wonder is that moment when you realize that what seemed outside of you is not, that there is a wholeness and connectedness. I learned that what can be called God is present, always, everywhere, manifested in Life itself and human consciousness.
I learned that mysticism seems to be a middle way between traditional religion and aboriginal spirit living, a way that carries the direct wondrous experience of primitive nature-based peoples that can be applied within civilized cultures. Over time, my own expression gravitated to Zen, a mystical offshoot of Buddhism that teaches that wonder is to be found in the cultivation of full presence, if when listening, we really hear, if when doing a thing we fully experience it, and when with another person, we are wholeheartedly present. This, then, is the focused yet expansive awareness that Zen teaches, and I learned that this perspective is completely compatible with contemporary living. One doesn’t even have to be a Buddhist, and certainly not Oriental, nor follow Oriental rituals to live it (although practicing meditation and mindfulness and studying Buddhist philosophical and psychological teachings do greatly enhance it).
If the primary intent of religion is the cultivation of morality and compassion, as you walk the world with the eyes of sublime wonder, you will notice that you automatically begin becoming an increasingly caring and compassionate person. You naturally begin to do less harm in the world. In Buddhism, an important principle called “Interbeing” teaches the experience – deepened through meditation and mindfulness – that everything is interconnected, interdependent and impermanent, and it brings with it a natural resulting compassion, as understanding takes hold that these are the conditions, along with the problems of ego and conditioning, which you share with the entirety of humanity.
You begin to experience a sacred wonder, a “sublime wonder,” and a bond with all beings and aspects of the world, and begin walking with a little lighter footprint, doing less harm if you can. You might say you begin to sin less. When I let go of my culturally conditioned ego-centered attitude and opened to, rather than denied, the possibility of sublime wonder, it was as if I discovered what the concept/experience of God might really be. I wasn’t an alienated intellectual anymore. I found that the infinite and sacred were everywhere. This was the great gift Abraham Heschel gave to me, opening my nineteen-year-old eyes to the miracle of “sublime wonder.” Try it – as my gift to you. Perhaps it will be a turning point in your life – and – if enough people were to discover real spirituality through cultivating the perspective of living in “sublime wonder,” it might be a turning point for this whole “sinful” world.