The Natural World and our Need for Wonder

When we perceive, at rare moments, that behind the natural world is a realm of the unknown and inexplicable, we attain awareness of holiness

Print this page Print this page

In that regard, the naturalists’ God, the God of the many and varied species, seems to work somewhat better. I myself remember visiting the aquarium in Eilat at the southern tip of Israel and seeing the astonishing variety of tropical fish swimming in those tanks -- fish in the shape of boxes, fish that looked like lions, fish that appeared to have been painted by Picasso -- and without consciously planning it, the words of Psalm 92, “How great are your works, O Lord,” came out of my mouth.

I suspect that if we lived less of our lives in urban settings, this religious perspective might speak to us with even greater power. Indeed, it’s likely that some of the fervor behind contemporary ecological concerns, as well as the interest people find in exploring the natural world though camping and hiking and wilderness programs like Outward Bound, may emanate from a secularized version of these deeper religious impulses.

What I do find compelling in the views of the physicists and the naturalists is that they both begin with a sense of mystery, and it is there that my earlier question about the personal dimension of religious experience begins to crystallize. For mystery is not only a matter of rational speculation about the origins of the universe or the variety of natural life, it is also a perception that is able to touch any of us at any moment. It is the sense that behind the natural world we deal with every day is a realm of the unknown, the unexplainable, that every once in a while will startle us into awareness, if even for an instant.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Barry W. Holtz

Barry W. Holtz is the Theodore and Florence Baumritter Professor of Jewish Education at The Jewish Theological Seminary. He was, for twelve years, co-director of the Seminary's Melton Research Center.? His books include: Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Text,Finding Our Way: Jewish Texts and the Lives We Live Today,and Textual Knowledge.