When was the last time that you truly marvelled at something? Have that in mind while I tell you something about the beautiful Mömpelgarder Altar that can be found in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, one of the world’s greatest treasure-houses. It is a three part creation dating from 1540, containing the most panels of any altarpiece in the world it was intended to be a pictorial guide to the most important parts of Christian scripture. Most significantly the writing is in German not Latin so that the words and not just the pictures could be understood by anyone who could read.
Martin Luther would have been horrified to learn that what he instigated, namely making scripture intelligible to the masses, set in train a very slow rise in secularism. Much of religion’s power lies in its mystery. This is something the Orthodox churches have maintained by having their priests officiate from behind an iconostasis so that the priest is completely hidden from the congregation. Once you know and understand what the priest is reading from the big book you start to question and challenge. If the priest gives an unconvincing answer to your queries your faith is shaken and eventually you form the view that maybe religion doesn’t have all, or even any, answers.
The Enlightenment in the 18th century took a huge intellectual broom to the cobwebs of unquestioned religious belief leaving us with an inheritance of, largely healthy, scepticism. Events like the Hajj or the Kumbh Mela or indeed the Sistine Chapel are still capable of inspiring wonder but perhaps more by virtue of the extraordinary spectacle of countless humans engaged in the same endeavour in the same place at the same time or as an example of the zenith of man’s artistic capacity.
Richard Dawkins is in many respects the 21st century’s secular answer to Martin Luther. Someone intent on promulgating to the masses as accessibly as possible the rational supremacy of atheism over the superstition ridden mumbo jumbo of religion and cult. However Dawkins’ naked contempt for the faithful reveals a remarkable blind spot in his understanding and appreciation of human nature. Man longs for wonder and a sense of the numinous. Religion has since the beginning codified, structured and mediated this longing. But despite this longing organised religion has, certainly in Britain at least, increasingly losing its grip on the public’s imagination, Dawkins or not.
But it would be a terrible mistake to determine that because we do not go to church that we have lost our capacity, still more our need, for wonder. The modern world with its screens and its flashy distractions very often obscures rather than reveals what is wonderful about existence. One of the real blessings that children confer is that they can reinvigorate our capacity for wonder. The wide eyes of a baby remind us of a time in our lives when every sight and sound was new and surprising.
What we feel when we wonder is a sense that we are not the centre of the universe and that there are things that we do not understand but that this can be a source of joy not a reason to fear. Think of the pleasure inherent in a good magic trick, that simple pleasure is a momentary transportation back to the wonder of childhood. When we wonder we are taken outside of ourselves and this is a necessary to antidote to harmful introspection.
That money does not buy happiness is one of the most familiar truisms of all but it is also the case that there is no wonder in a £50 note. Taking time for wonder costs nothing and paying attention to the wonderful requires no money. We don’t know it all but what a terrible world it would be if we did.