Choosing Wonder

Overcoming the fear of mystery
can lead to the ecstasy of discovery

One of the articles in Earth & Spirit (IC#24)
Originally published in Late Winter 1990 on page 35
Copyright (c)1990, 1997 by Context Institute

We are creatures of earth, and our bonds to the earth are a much more direct experience of the divine than any disembodied system of belief. In fact, our beliefs may be part of the problem – as Danny Martin noted in
The Birth of God in this issue, the history of ideas has left Westerners with an anti-nature and anti-body bias. JoAnn McAllister writes here about spirituality – and especially a spirituality of the earth – as a way of healing that breach by embracing belief’s more beautiful sibling, faith.

JoAnn is a former assistant editor of Creation magazine, and she currently holds the position of associate director for the Center for Studies in Science and Spirituality at the California Institute of Integral Studies (765 Ashbury Street, San Francisco, CA 94117).

Almost forty years ago Alan Watts wrote a small book called The Wisdom of Insecurity. The title combines two words – wisdom and insecurity – in a paradoxical union that may make more sense in the 1990s than in any previous decade. It may also prove a better cornerstone for a postmodern faith than any of our explorations into spiritual traditions or scientific discoveries. This is a bold statement, so let me explain why I am so struck by Watts’ prescience.

Watts makes a distinction (as have others) between faith and belief. Belief, he notes, has at its root “lief,” which means “to wish.” When we believe something, we wish it to be the truth. Watts points out that this position is the opposite of faith, which arises from “fidere,” “to trust.” Faith requires openness and, often, the suspension of belief.

Now belief is associated with certainty – knowing what’s going on – which gives us a sense of security. This difference between faith and belief is at the core of Watts’ koan that there is wisdom in insecurity, in the absence of belief. The ability to adopt a stance of unbelief – that is, a posture of faith – must be at the heart of any earth-centered or cosmological spirituality. It may, indeed, be essential for the survival of our species.

Living without the security of belief in the things we wish to be true may be the most challenging evolutionary leap that human beings have yet faced. The work of Joseph Campbell, recently highlighted in the popular series of interviews with Bill Moyers on public television, has alerted us to the essential role of myth in all cultures. Wherever and whenever they live, it appears that human beings absolutely yearn to understand the world and their place in it. Morris Berman calls this drive the “cosmological urge,” a complex and passionate quest which includes both the intellect and the emotions.

Our awareness of cultural myths and alternate views of reality has been further heightened by the work of feminist scholars such as Marija Gimbutas (The Language of the Goddess), Riane Eisler (The Chalice and the Blade), and more recently Elinor Gadon (The Once and Future Goddess), whose investigations of feminine symbols tell different stories about our past than the ones we are accustomed to hearing. There has been a good deal of important work in recovering alternate worldviews out of Western religious tradition and scriptures, as in Creation Spirituality and feminist theology. And there has also been a hearty effort to derail the dominance of reductionism – the tendency to reduce the significance of phenomena to mechanistic explanations, which grew out of the 17th century’s scientific revolution – by popularizing the more organic perspective of contemporary science.

So the spotlight has been thrown on the past – but we have been unable to shield our contemporary myths from its glare. As we have become more aware of how we order reality through cultural perceptions, we have begun to understand that descriptions of reality are, in general, limited by time and place. While we may be comforted by core values and symbolic representations that seem to transcend time and place, we are also imprisoned by their metaphorical boundaries. As many spiritual teachers have observed, most of us live in a trance, barely awake to the larger realities of life.

We are also realizing, as Campbell said, that “we live in the terminal moraine of mythology.” In other words, we in the modern world subsist on the remnants of images by which people of other times and places tried to express the inexpressible. Our Western religious tradition, and the scientific framework that subsumed its claim to truth, bear the multilayered fossil record of our complex ideas about, and response to, the world.


We have always told stories – whether magical, redemptive, or mechanistic – to decipher the world and describe our place within it. We can therefore assume that we will tell ourselves a new story of reality. Whether it will fulfill the function of myth – restoring harmony between the human enterprise and the Earth – is the question. And since myth is not a conscious creation, we know not where the human imagination will take us, nor when we will wake up with the dream that will sustain us.

But a story is already emerging from contemporary science which reveals the lineaments of the evolving universe, and the interrelatedness of all aspects of the Earth’s functioning. Thomas Berry, the preeminent teller of this tale, even titles his recent book The Dream of the Earth. This new story of the unfolding of the universe can be the source of both a perceptual shift in our views about the nature of reality and a spiritual path that unfolds organically from the deeper dimensions of the universe itself.

We can hope that, unlike the creation stories of our ancestors, this new story will not become the substance of belief, but the foundation of faith. We must resist the urge to cast in concrete the hypotheses and the mystical experiences that can be evoked by awakening to a world of wonder. Only by learning to trust the creative process in which we are embedded can we have what Berry calls an “original relationship” with the universe. As we know from interpersonal experience, our tendency to think we know everything about the other usually sounds a death knell to the flowering of love, as well as the creative possibilities that love inspires.

Our fear of mystery – whether it is the mystery of another human being, or the mystery of the universe itself – unfortunately leads us to create institutions for what I call the ecstasy of discovery. Taking a cue from Morris Berman’s work on the history of the body in the West, I have begun to see how religion has served to create dogma and certitude out of the ecstatic experience – our actual, embodied relationship with the divine. When people do have an immediate apprehension of the wonder and mystery of the universe, it is most often described as a “non-ordinary” state of reality. We all often do mistake the symbol for the reality it suggests, and this has been a common way to avoid, or explain away, this experience.

It has helped me to make a distinction between religion and spirituality, and to see my spirituality as a way of life in response to a direct or somatic encounter with the sacred. Religious apologists often cite the meaning of the root word of “religion” – “religare,” to bind back, or tie together – as referring to the positive potential of religion to connect individuals with the Source. But in practice people have been bound not to experiences of the divine, or the awesome wonder of creation, but to a way of thinking characterized by a yearning to escape “ordinary” reality for some promise of paradise. What we really need is a spiritual practice which brings us into a greater intimacy with our physical/spiritual nature, and helps us to experience the immediacy of the energy event in which we participate. This means we must embrace our own bodies, whose sacredness has been so-long denied, as the place where this relationship is realized.


To reclaim “spirituality” as a workable concept and language, we must strip it of the centuries-old veil of abstraction in which it is clothed, especially the split between spirit and body. Word origins are again helpful here: “spiritus” means “breath,” and breath, as we are well aware, is a bodily reality. Our bodies do not survive more than a few minutes without it. Similarly, there is a continuous pattern of energy that sustains all form and pervades the entire “body” of the universe. As we awake to our place among the remnants of the past and the uncertainty of the future, let us start with what the metaphor of the breath teaches us about spiritual practice: that it must be grounded in the present, and in the fact of our embodied experience in a living universe. Spirituality cannot be codified by creed, but like the air must flow through our lives as an awareness of our participation in the grand adventure of being.

Because we have been taught through the centuries that we need mediators to understand spiritual experience, we often doubt our own abilities. Fortunately, the capacity for mystical experience – for reordering our lives to acknowledge what is beyond our mental understanding – is a common human trait. Our ability to sense the numinous quality of existence derives from the psycho-spiritual qualities of the universe itself. “From its beginnings,” Thomas Berry writes, “the universe is a psychic as well as a physical reality.” We wouldn’t be “spiritual” if that capacity were not already part of the unfolding potential of the cosmos.

If we heed the new storytellers from ecology, physics, astronomy, and biology who tell us about the common origin and radical relatedness of all that is visible and invisible, we will come to agree with Berry that the universe is “the primary revelation of the divine, the primary Scripture.” We can then ask of the universe itself what shape our spiritual response should take and what values should characterize our social interactions. Berry has described three principles to guide us, through which the universe seems to express itself: differentiation, subjectivity, and communion.

  • Differentiation is that capacity of the universe to create “multiple modes of expression” – in other words, variety. If differentiation is truly valued by the universe, our attitude about differences must change. No longer can there be a hierarchy of value, but instead there must be a recognition of what Phyllis McGinley calls the planet’s “holy heterodoxy.” A deep respect for diversity would challenge common assumptions about power and worth.
  • Subjectivity refers to the numinous reality revealed deep within every being – the depthof reality. An awareness of the interior depth of any subject opens one to the mystery that may be revealed. To see the sacred dimension of the “other” is to abandon all projections. Reverence is the appropriate response to the sacred.
  • Communion expresses the unity that is the universe – a single, if multiform, energy event. To meditate on the “primordial flaring forth” which contained everything that now exists is to reclaim a lineage and a family long denied, to recognize the intimacy of our relationship.

These principles, which reflect the functioning patterns of the universe itself, can undergird our intentions and actions to restore human and earth to harmony. The ecological consciousness inherent in this new story must be articulated clearly, for it is both the model for personal transformation and the analytical framework for social criticism and creative change. If respect, reverence and relationship – values suggested by the universe’s own process – become the guiding principles of the human’s further development, a new chapter in our lives may be opening.

But how do we as individuals respond to such a story? What roles to cast for ourselves in this drama? What skills to develop?

First, we need to become cosmic storytellers: we need to begin to tell this story in whatever profession or role life has given us. This also involves creating a language in which to talk about unimaginable beauty and unfathomable grace to people who have been numbed by the “technological trance” of the last two centuries. Can we do this? Berry says that we can, because we are “that being in whom … the universe reflects on and celebrates itself in conscious self-awareness.” This is our story. We have the capacity to tell it and the depth to hear it, if we will.

Secondly, we must live it. We must become conscious of what it means to be that part of the universe which “reflects on and celebrates itself.” How does this awareness change our individual response to life? What does this story say about our choice of occupation, leisure, patterns of relationship and consumption, and the order of our inner life? It helps to have the earth do something to make you take notice, like the earthquake that we San Francisco residents experienced last October. While we are retraining our senses in the more subtle nuances of being earthlings, such dramatic gestures can remind us that we are not in control, that our vulnerability is real and can be a gift in assessing our choices.

Thirdly, we must act on behalf of life wherever its integrity and wholeness is jeopardized. Many people have already responded out of spiritual values shaped by a truly ecological awareness. Those who sat at lunch counters for civil rights, those who marched against the Vietnam War, those who worked to get the Clean Water Act passed and the Environmental Protection Agency established, those who today work with AIDS victims, or block munitions trains, or risk their lives in tiny boats to protect whales, do so out of an intuitive understanding that we are one, and that each unique manifestation of the creation is sacred and worthy of respect. This is the real political work that the new story of the universe suggests, and we can never forget its claims.

Some believe that events in Eastern Europe are the harbingers of a new era of democracy, and while the complexities of political and economic order will take time to evolve, the fall of the Berlin Wall is a signal that the old ways of thinking are passing. Democracy is not, however, just about the way we order our social lives. It also applies to our spiritual lives. Since the stories by which we have lived those lives are crumbling as well, an era of spiritual democracy may be aborning. Like political democracy, spiritual democracy requires personal responsibility and a commitment to question, to experiment, and to change. The shape of the future will remain a mystery, but we can choose to participate in the larger reality of the universe by bringing our zest for life and the attention that any challenging adventure requires to the task.

When I was a little girl, I experienced the sacred in the ecstasy of crouching next to my Dad in the garden, digging holes for the snapdragons, marigolds and stalks we planted all around the house. The seedlings came in little peat pots, and as I gently rested them in the rich black cavity, my Dad would say, “Push down around the roots real good.” This dirty-hands relationship with the Earth has always anchored me, and, especially at tough times, moved me to crouch down again and again to push against the roots.

Recent scientific discoveries of cosmic evolution have given us a better empirical picture of our roots – and opened our eyes to even deeper realms of mystery. If we are to continue to plant flowers in this earthly garden, we must be ever mindful of these roots. When we listen to a scientist describe the precise conditions that permitted life to arise and flourish on this planet, we know that our lives are part of an incredible story. Like the medieval mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, we can exclaim, “we were loved from before the beginning.” This is the love that can allow us to trust in the mystery of the universe, and to be faithful to the promise which our own lives bear into the world on the miraculous journey of being.


Morris Berman, Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989.

Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth, San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988.

Joseph Campbell, conversation with Bill Moyers, PBS.

Phyllis McGinley, “In Praise of Diversity” (poem).

Brian Swimme, The Universe is a Green Dragon, Santa Fe, New Mexico: Bear and Company, 1985.

Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity, New York: Vintage Books, 1951.

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