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Theology on a Tightrope: Nik Wallenda's High-Wire Walk and Our Longing for God

Theology on a Tightrope: Nik Wallenda's High-Wire Walk and Our Longing for God

Jun 22 2012
Why we can't get enough of death-defying feats.

When you live near Niagara Falls, as I did for 20 years of my life, its magnitude and mystique begin to stream through your lifeblood. My parents honeymooned there; in later years, we schlepped all of our out-of-town guests there upon request; and one woman's threat to jump with her child into the rushing waters led to that child's adoption into my extended family. In fact, plunges over the Falls (whether accidental or suicidal) are so common that only the very rare survivors make big news.

Needless to say, then, it was more than curiosity that compelled me to watch Nik Wallenda's historic high-wire walk over the Falls last weekend: it was my own history and heritage beckoning.

Yet, the sheer spectacle had a pull of its own, too, as it apparently did for the estimated 112,000 people who gathered to watch on the American and Canadian sides of the Falls and the 13.1 million who viewed the feat on television along with them.

Yes, we are a rubbernecking species, drawn irresistibly and inexplicably to the drama posed by danger and death. Whether our own or whether experienced vicariously in our role as voyeurs, our fascination with risky behavior is attributed to various possible causes: Freud's death wish, genetic predisposition, risk-taking personalities, the adrenaline rush, and simply the pleasure of relief that comes when we witness someone other than ourselves suffer.

But more than the psychological, sociological, and scientific explanations, I am intrigued by the aesthetic accounts of our infatuation with danger. In The Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, 18th-century British statesman Edmund Burke famously distinguishes between the beautiful and the sublime, linking each to a primal passion: the beautiful to love, and the sublime to fear. Burke defines beautiful objects as those characterized by small, smooth, and delicate features and defines the sublime as characterized by vastness, infinity, obscurity, and magnitude. In so doing, Burke expands on the classical Greek text, On the Sublime, attributed to Longinus, which states that the sublime "transports us with wonder." Burke further connects the sublime to "whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger … Whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror."

The sublime elicits a kind of controlled fear, which Burke says is accompanied by an inherent pleasure, a notion that the existence of every roller coaster, ski slope, NASCAR race, and horror flick would seem to confirm—along with the tourist industry built around Niagara Falls (once considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World), and the millions of eyes rapt upon Wallenda's treacherous walk over its vast abyss.

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