Arts and Culture

Experiencing Awe and Wonder

Gabriel Marcel (right, 1889–1973), was a French philosopher, playwright, music critic and Catholic
existentialist. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

At St. John’s University I start every philosophy course that I teach by encouraging the students to try to experience awe and wonder at some of the truths that we will uncover during the course.

I am aware that is not easy for undergraduate students. I was once an undergraduate. In order to provoke my students’ interest I introduce them to a distinction between problems and mysteries made by the Catholic-existentialist Gabriel Marcel, one of my favorite philosophers.

Marcel claimed that there were four differences between a problem and a mystery. He pointed out that a problem is always external to the self. For example a computer that does not work or an automobile that will not start or a roof that is leaking would be examples of problems. They are outside the person. They do not directly involve the person. A mystery always involves the self.

It is impossible for an individual to think about the mystery of death without thinking about his or her death. It is impossible for an individual to think about the mystery of love without thinking about his or her love relationships or lack of love relationships. It is impossible for an individual to think about the mystery of God without thinking about his or her relationship or lack of relationship with God.

The second difference between a problem and a mystery is that, at least in principle, there is a final answer to a problem. There is no final answer to a mystery but we can go deeper and deeper into a mystery and understand it better without reaching total comprehension.

A third difference is that a problem can be tackled by many but only an individual person can reflect on what a mystery means to him or her. The final and exceptionally important difference is that in dealing with a problem the mood is curiosity. An individual wants the problem solved. With a mystery the mood is awe or wonder and this is what I am hoping is experienced by students when they encounter great philosophical mysteries. I know that for undergraduate students busy with other courses, writing term papers, listening to lectures they might not find interesting and reading books they might not find enlightening, it may not be easy to experience awe or wonder. Still I hope awe and wonder happen.

During the pandemic, when people’s lives have been changed so dramatically, I am wondering if this might not be a graced moment to experience awe and wonder at the mysteries present in the Good News, the mysteries that are part of Christian faith.

In the center of the pandemic could God be present inviting us to a new appreciation of our faith? Could the pandemic provide a special light that breaks through what might have slipped to some extent into a somewhat mindless routine in celebrating and living our faith? Could the pandemic be looked upon as an important possibility to appreciate more deeply the awesome and wonderful truths of our faith?

As I reflect on how awesome and wonderful the love story between God and us is, I know that I could start to reflect on any Christian mystery and if I continued the reflection that mystery would probably connect in my mind with many other Christian mysteries.

Because of the limitation of space essential to a column or an essay I will suggest reflection on three mysteries that deserve the reaction of awe and wonder: the mystery of God, the mystery of self and the mystery of other persons. Christian revelation presents not just a God who is loving but a God who is Love.

No matter how long or how deeply we reflect on that beautiful mystery we will never appreciate it fully but to the extent that we grasp it, at least a little, it reveals our identity to us in a most profound way. We are being created and being loved infinitely by God who is creating the entire universe.

As I grow in my appreciation of how much God loves me, I can grow in appreciation of the beauty, goodness and even sacredness of other persons. How beautiful and good are other persons? The Son of God died for each and every one of them.

If you like sweatshirts that have messages on them every person could proclaim the most profound truth about themselves by wearing a sweatshirt with the following written on the front:

“Son of God died for me.” The love story involving us with God calls us into a relationship of love with other persons. The mystery of God and God’s love for all of us is awesome and wonderful.


Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.

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