Our age is one in which usefulness is thought to be the chief merit of nature; in which the attainment of power, the utilization of resources is taken to be the chief purpose of man in God’s creation.
On some days, I think the greatest challenge for faith is to re-humanize us. Abraham Heschel, who wrote the thoughts on our age quoted above (God in Search of Man), summons us to return to awareness of the grandeur of the world around us. If we can answer that call, maybe we can also rediscover something of the wonder within us, the wonder we are in the midst of God’s creation. But do we even know what Heschel means by grandeur? Do I?
Everything these days is “awesome!” Do we know how awe feels? In common usage, something is awesome merely by exceeding that to which we have already grown quickly accustomed. A video game becomes awesome by attaining new levels of blood and gore, a movie by spectacular special effects, an online comment by smacking down the opponent spectacularly (which may mean no more than rudely and crudely, with no special insight). It seems awesome has come to mean spectacular, and so grandeur is reduced to spectacle that surprises or startles.
In Affect-Script Psychology, the surprise-startle affect is identified by Silvan S. Tomkins as the affect system’s reset button. Think of an unexpected gunshot, even when it comes only from the starter’s pistol at a swimming meet when a swimmer has made a false start. The shot gets everyone’s immediate attention. Surprise-startle suddenly clears away all interest, fear, distress – all other affect across the board – so the person is ready to respond to a new (possibly dangerous) situation. Video games and movies have made surprise-startle their affect of choice, eliciting the, “Holy . . . !” response and clearing away all emotion or feeling without then adding anything new of either empathy or insight. Bang, bang, boom. Something pops up or jumps out at the player, triggering startle. Pow, pow, pow. The threat is destroyed, blood spatters everywhere. Then on to the next startle.
Repeatedly clearing the affect system seems to me a way of relieving sensibilities, temporarily dismissing anxieties, but also separating the gruesome from any emotion it might normally elicit from us. The overuse of surprise-startle neutralizes any empathy or even horror a human being would feel at the sight of carnage. So, blowing someone apart becomes “awesome!” Have we added a new “drug” to our medicine cabinet for avoiding our anxieties and the thoughts that feed them? Surprise-startle makes one feel neither better nor worse but only suspends emotion so one can respond quickly to the new situation, whatever it may be. There is no interest in surprise-startle, just a reset, which I suppose is the reason such video games and movies are so boring to the observer (me) who does not “get into” them enough to be startled. Missing the “Holy . . . !” moments, I find myself left with nothing but dullness.
Back to Abraham Heschel. He writes further:
The Greeks learned in order to comprehend. The Hebrews learned in order to revere. The modern man [human, person] learns in order to use. To Bacon we owe the formulation, “Knowledge is power.” This is how people are urged to study: knowledge means success. We do not know any more how to justify any value except in terms of expediency. Man is willing to define himself as a “seeker after the maximum degree of comfort for the minimum expenditure of energy.” He equates value with that which avails. He feels, acts, and thinks as if the sole purpose of the universe were to satisfy his needs. To the modern man everything seems calculable; everything reducible to a figure. He has supreme faith in statistics and abhors the idea of a mystery.
I’m glad the intent of this blog is pondering, because I am left with my questions. Is our dissatisfaction with seeing the natural world as nothing but a warehouse of resources for our use and consumption the reason cuteness appeals to so many? Do we counter the coldly utilitarian with overdoses of sentimentality – our “Aww!” moments over the cuteness of fuzzy animals? Is “Aww!” all we have left of awe?
What is it that Heschel means by grandeur? What was “wonder” before it was reduced to meaning, “I don’t know yet, but I’ll find out”? Has Googling taken the last bit of wonder out of life by putting seemingly endless information at our finger tips? Or is there something in grandeur, awe, and wonder – something much greater and more profound – to which we might try to find our way back?