Knowing in Wonder


In his book, The Trinity and the Kingdom, theologian Jürgen Moltmann contends:

In the pragmatic thinking of the modern world, knowing something always means dominating something: ‘Knowledge is power.’ Through our scientific knowledge we acquire power over objects and can appropriate them. . . . The motive that impels modern reason to know must be described as the desire to conquer and to dominate.

For the Greek philosophers and the Fathers of the church, knowing meant something different: it meant knowing in wonder. By knowing or perceiving one participates in the life of the other. Here knowing does not transform the counterpart into the property of the knower; the knower does not appropriate what he knows. On the contrary, he is transformed through sympathy, becoming a participator in what he perceives. Knowledge confers fellowship. That is why knowing, perception, only goes as far as love, sympathy and participation reach.

Moltmann pursues the idea of knowing in wonder toward a more respectful knowledge of the mystery which is the subject of his book: the Triune God. I suggest that knowing in wonder is also the respectful way to know a person, a people, the natural world, and life itself. I’m not sure modern thinking “always” understands knowing in terms of dominating and appropriating, but I believe mastery is too much our goal and categorizing too much our method of reduction and control.

In last Sunday’s sermon, I said, “You are not a typical anything, because you are neither a type nor a thing.” People should be approached with a sense of respectful wonder. If I presume to label you as a type I understand without any need for wonder and humility before the mystery you are and will remain to me, then I do not know you at all but have substituted for you a false, straw person of my own making.

When my mother, of necessity, first took up residence in a nursing home, she and I were walking down the hallway where we encountered her newly assigned in-house physician. No sooner had I introduced her to him, then he remarked to me (as though she were not present), “Well, no mystery here.” I said nothing but thought, “You have no idea.” For him, it seemed, a degree of dementia had reduced my mother to a non-person. I doubt the physician realized he had diminished, not her, but himself.

How many times a week do we similarly diminish people by categorizing and labeling them as mere types? To what extent do we reduce learning to mastery, asking ourselves consciously or unconsciously, “What use is it?” where “it” may be a whole field of study, a living creature, a work of art, or even a person’s life? Are you no more than your usefulness to a boss or system that has gained a degree of authority over you?

I wonder, or so I say. But do I? Or do I think that I know and that knowing, I have mastered?