The Beginning of All Serious Thought

One’s every encounter with the world has always been an encounter with an enigma that no merely physical explanation can resolve. /

The sleeper, as he ascends from his dream toward the morning’s light, may momentarily drift back again more deeply into the illusory world—or half-illusory world—from which he is trying to emerge. He continues to hear his name called but still lingers at the boundary between sleep and waking consciousness. For a time, the figures of his dream retain a certain ghostly clarity, even as they have begun to melt away before the realities they symbolize, as though the dream were reluctant to release him.

In a few moments, however, his eyes open and the fantasy entirely fades: the tower vanishes amid the soft ringing of wind chimes, the windblown valley dissolves beneath the billowing of white cotton curtains stirred by the breeze, the murmur of the reeds along the river’s bank becomes the rustling of the leaves below the sill, and the voice that seemed so strange and faintly dreadful is all at once familiar and inviting. In the more vivid light of the waking world, he knows he has returned to a reality far richer and more coherent than the one he has left behind. Having, however, passed through distinct levels of awareness in his ascent from the twilight in that valley to the radiance of this morning, he might momentarily wonder whether even now he is entirely awake, or whether there remains a still greater wakefulness, and a still fuller light, to which he might yet rise.

The beginning of all philosophy, according to both Plato and Aristotle, lies in the experience of wonder. One might go further and say that the beginning of all serious thought—all reflection upon the world that is not merely calculative or appetitive—begins in a moment of unsettling or delighted surprise. Not, that is, a simple twinge of curiosity or bafflement regarding some fact out there not yet in one’s possession: if anything, it is the sudden awareness that no mere fact can possibly be an adequate explanation of the mystery in which one finds oneself immersed at every moment. It is the astonishing recollection of something one has forgotten only because it is always present: a primordial agitation of the mind and will, an abiding amazement that lies just below the surface of conscious thought and that only in very rare instants breaks through into ordinary awareness.

It may be that when we are small children, before we have learned how to forget the obvious, we know this wonder in a more constant, innocent, and luminous way, because we are still trustingly open to the sheer inexplicable givenness of the world. In the dawn of life we sense with a perfect immediacy, which we have no capacity or inclination to translate into any objective concept, how miraculous it is that—as Angelus Silesius (1624–1677) says—“Die Rose ist ohne warum, sie blühet, weil sie blühet”: “The rose is without ‘why’; it blooms because it blooms.”

As we age, however, we lose our sense of the intimate otherness of things; we allow habit to displace awe, inevitability to banish delight; we grow into adulthood and put away childish things. Thereafter, there are only fleeting instants scattered throughout our lives when all at once, our defenses momentarily relaxed, we find ourselves brought to a pause by a sudden unanticipated sense of the utter uncanniness of the reality we inhabit, the startling fortuity and strangeness of everything familiar: how odd it is, and how unfathomable, that anything at all exists; how disconcerting that the world and one’s consciousness of it are simply there, joined in a single ineffable event. When it comes, it is a moment of alienation from the ordinary perhaps, but not one of disaffection or loss; as long as the experience lasts, in fact, it has a certain quality of mystifying happiness about it, the exhilarating feeling that one is at the border of some tremendous and beautiful discovery.

One realizes that everything about the world that seems so unexceptional and drearily predictable is in fact charged with an immense and imponderable mystery. In that instant one is aware, even if the precise formulation eludes one, that everything one knows exists in an irreducibly gratuitous way: “what it is” has no logical connection with the reality “that it is”; nothing within experience has any “right” to be, any power to give itself existence, any apparent “why.” The world is unable to provide any account of its own actuality, and yet there it is all the same. In that instant one recalls that one’s every encounter with the world has always been an encounter with an enigma that no merely physical explanation can resolve.

David Bentley Hart is an Eastern Orthodox theologian and patristics scholar.

Excerpted from The Experience of God by David Bentley Hart. Copyright © 2013 by David Bentley Hart. Reproduced by permission of Yale University Press. All rights reserved.

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Issue 25 / June 25, 2015
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