Still Beholding Behemoths

What is it I’ve been looking for these past two years? /

‘I don’t understand the Behemoth,” I began this magazine by saying. More than two years and 56 issues later, I’m happy to admit: I still don’t understand the Behemoth. Not really. Not fully.

I still don’t understand fireflies, sloths, plankton, or butterflies either. I could tell you a lot more about them than I could when we started this magazine. I appreciate them much more than I did two years ago. I now also more deeply appreciate—even learned to love—awful Leviathans: hurricanes, forest fires, darkness, poisonous medicine, martyrdom. The Cross. But I’m far less likely to say that I understand them than I did when we started. And thank God for that.

Approaching awe

This magazine’s core biblical text has always been God’s reply to Job. When Job wants answers and assurances, God responds by directing Job to behold his magnificent creations, especially his wild animals. He doesn’t answer Job’s question, but he gives Job what he needs.

As befitting a publication that tries to behold those magnificent creations of God, we’re drawn to science texts, too. And there’s one science paper we’ve returned to time and again: “Approaching awe: a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion,” a 2003 article from the journal Cognition and Emotion.

“Two features form the heart of prototypical cases of awe: vastness and accommodation,” wrote social psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt. “Vastness refers to anything that is experienced as being much larger than the self, or the self’s ordinary level of experience or frame of reference. Vastness is often a matter of simple physical size, but it can also involve social size such as fame, authority, or prestige.”

But vastness isn’t enough on its own to inspire awe. “Awe involves a challenge to or negation of mental structures when they fail to make sense of an experience of something vast,” Keltner and Haidt wrote. “We stress that awe involves a need for accommodation, which may or may not be satisfied. The success of one’s attempts at accommodation may partly explain why awe can be both terrifying (when one fails to understand) and enlightening (when one succeeds).”

I’ve returned to that section several times, and it became part of my regular correspondence with this magazine’s writers. But it provoked some anxiety in me, too: What happens when your mental structures grow to accommodate that vastness? Can the Grand Canyon still awe its longtime park rangers? Can an entomologist still find awe in a caterpillar’s metamorphosis into a butterfly? More ominously: Is the theologian less likely to be thunderstruck by the Cross?

Keltner and Haidt note several “awe-related situations” that we often lump in with awe. Among them: admiration, surprise, deference, aesthetic pleasure, elevation (a warm response to moral beauty). But these emotional experiences don’t have the same kinds of effects. Awe makes you more likely to be generous and to help others. Amusement doesn’t. Awe makes you less impatient and more likely feel like you have available time. It makes you prefer experiences over material possessions. It makes you more satisfied with life. It makes you more likely to define yourself as part of a group than as an individual. It makes you more likely to believe in the supernatural and divine. It also reportedly makes us less tolerant of uncertainty—our brains push back against having our mental structures challenged or negated.

That what the studies say awe does. But awe does more than that. It reminds me that my Twitter feed isn’t an accurate picture of what’s happening in the world. It reminds me that there are countless yesterdays and infinite tomorrows. It quiets a pop earworm, then replaces it with a hymn. It drives me to repentance. It fills me with gratefulness. It keeps my phone off. It makes me hug my wife and kids. It makes me talk too much at the dinner table.

I want awe. But surely that can’t mean that I stop learning! I can’t worry that my mental structures will grow and start accommodating more vastness. I can’t stay in the shallows out of fear that the depths will become boring. Nor can I flit from subject to subject, gleaning tidbits of the sublime. Gorging on entertaining bonbons of “amazing facts” will only deaden me to real awe and wonder. (Trust me: I’ve tried it.) Awe demands slow and intentional beholding. It rewards patience. It often approaches in silence.

But ennui, apathy, and a litany of other evils have stalked me in deep, quiet places, too. I want awe largely because I dread those devils.

Grunt and squeak and squawk

If I want awe, I’m unlikely to find it in entertaining comfort. I’ll need to seek out the unaccommodating. How far must I go?

I’m chastened by two remarkably similar new books that tell of the authors’ efforts to negate their mental structures and live under radically unaccommodating conditions. Neither man transformed himself to experience awe. They did so to understand the world and themselves better. And to do so, each tried to temporarily transform himself into an animal.

Thomas Thwaites’s project was as much about the exit as it was the entrance. “The future of the world seems pretty worrying at present,” he writes in the introduction to GoatMan. “Wouldn’t it be nice to just switch off that particularly human ability [to worry] for a couple of weeks? … To have a holiday from being human? Escaping the complexities of the human world and living life with just the bare necessities. … Absorbed in your immediate surroundings, eating a bit of grass, sleeping on the ground, and that’s it?”

Thwaites’s earlier project was to make a toaster from scratch. That’s scratch scratch, smelting iron ore into steel, etc. In the GoatMan project, he created a series of prosthetics that let him walk and climb in the Alps on all fours, with a helmet to make up for a lack of horns, flexible neck, and thick skull. He created an external goat stomach that would help him to turn grass into something digestible. (When his plan to use a cellulase enzyme was called off as unsafe, he came up with a different plan: chew the grass, spit it into a bag that served as his artificial rumen, put it in a pressure cooker over a campfire, and baby, you’ve got a stew going.) Moving and eating like a goat was only part of his experiment. Much of his book is devoted to his meetings with (very patient) animal behaviorists, neuroscientists, and others to help him think like a goat. Which mostly meant thinking less like a human, with “our ability to imagine complex things and our tendency to yap about it.” He experimented with electromagnets on his head to disrupt his ability to speak.

Charles Foster’s Being a Beast is in one way almost the same book. He goes to ridiculous lengths to live as the wild animals in his neighborhood: a badger, an otter, a fox, a red deer. But the two books are radically different. Contraptions and prostheses are the antithesis of Foster’s project, not the focus of it as they are for Thwaites. “I want to know what it is like to be a wild thing,” he begins his book. “It is one thing to describe which areas of a badger’s brain light up on a functional MRI scanner as it sniffs a slug. It is quite another to paint a picture of the whole wood as it appears to the badger. It’s a sort of literary shamanism, and it has been fantastic fun.”

Yes, and it’s fantastically weird, too. Thwaites’s GoatMan had the feeling of watching someone make good on a bad bet, a gimmick that went too far but that he dutifully fulfilled because he got arts funding for it. Foster, meanwhile, is ever the true believer, fulfilling a lifelong dream. When I read, “I couldn’t eat what the red deer eat,” I thought, Finally! An area where Thwaites seems the odder duck. But then the paragraph continued:

But I knew well every plant that the deer like. I’d smelled them and pureed them and made soup from them and pulled them up with my teeth and chewed them and then tried to vomit them up so that I’d have the taste of a cudding (not a successful or popular activity). Indeed, I’d tried to belch more—to live with my food for longer; to revisit repeatedly, and well into the night, the lunchtime fish fingers and chips.

No thanks.

But at other times, he’s almost convincing:

When a badger goes out, its object is to bump into food. This system of incontinent collision with the food makes the badger more a creature of the wood than any other inhabitant. [My son and I] bustled and grunted and elbowed and pushed and pressed our noses into the ground. And even we smelled something: the citrusy piss of the voles in their runs within the grass; the distantly maritime tang of a slug trail, like a winter rock pool; the crushed laurel of a frog; the dustiness of a toad; the sharp musk of a weasel; the blunter musk of an otter; and the fox, whose smell is red to the least synesthetic man alive. But most of all we had what we clumsily called the earth: leaves and dung and corpses and houses and rain and eggs and horrors.

We got these things usually as single words, occasionally as short sentences. If we had noses like badgers’ they would have been intricate stories, weaving in and out of one another, punctuated by possibility and frustration.

The whole book is like that, at once repellant and attractive. Beautiful and disgusting. (Financial Times calling it “nature writing as extreme sport” doesn’t at all reflect the poetic writing style but is a fully apt metaphor for its vicarious pleasures.)

Since I’m a Christian who believes that humans are unique among animals in bearing the image of God, I’m sensitive to claims that there is a massive wrongheadedness about these efforts. This isn’t the first time I’ve read of someone who “ate grass like the ox. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird” (Dan. 4:33). Nebuchadnezzar wasn’t engaged in performance art; he was cursed by God.

But neither Thwaites nor Foster argues for living like an animal permanently—or even temporarily as they did. Both are physical thought experiments, immersive journalism into the lower branches of the tree of life. At the end of his book, Foster (whose earlier volumes on the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection and pilgrimage were published by Christian publisher Thomas Nelson) pulls back the curtain a bit. His book is driven, he explains in retrospect, by important questions: Are there any limits to our ability to choose? Do we each have an indestructible, authentic core of what it means to be ourselves? Are we alone in the world? Is otherness wholly inaccessible?

They are the reverse of my own questions. Foster and Thwaites want to experiment with (to borrow the language of Keltner and Haidt) how far they can “challenge or negate mental structures” in seeking something far beyond “the self’s ordinary level of experience or frame of reference.” I want to know where I can find the kinds of experiences that offer just enough challenge to open the door to awe. I’m a wimp, yes. But I’m also disinterested in the kinds of occasional heroics and drama that warrant book contracts. I want to live in awe—or at least live close enough that I keep running into it.

It’s remarkable how far Foster and Thwaites are able to go in their quests to become upside down Dr. Doolittles. They grow in their admiration, deference, pleasure, and surprise at what most of us accept as mundane. They see, hear, smell, taste, and touch experiences far beyond our ordinary level of experience. And they learn more of what it is really like to be a created creature. But the Otherness of the animal world is always before them—and far into the distance. To borrow from the evangelist’s old line, going into a hole in the ground doesn’t make you a badger any more than going into a garage makes you a car.

Our ineffable God has made a world at once knowable and unknowable. It will constantly challenge our mental structures if we let it, and we always see its vastness through a glass darkly. But we do see through that glass nevertheless. We can learn what makes our hearts beat inside us. We can view mountain ranges on distant planets. We know enough about each other to love and be loved. We can have both awe and love. Now we know in part; then we shall know fully, even as we have been fully known.

“Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,” Job finally replied to God. “Things too wonderful for me to know.” He knows more and understands more now, and I’m sure he is still filled with awe each eternal day.

Ted Olsen has been editor of The Behemoth and is tremendously grateful for it.

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Also in this Issue

Issue 56 / September 1, 2016
  1. The Biggest Behemoth

    A giant parasite has grown quietly, in secret, in a remote Oregon forest. It’s now the world’s largest creature. /

  2. Sleeping Willows

    How a big God works through small days. /

  3. My Father’s World

    The rarely seen full 16 stanzas of the hymn that has been a theme for The Behemoth. /

  4. Wonders Never Cease

    Issue 56 and beyond: Where we'll keep finding amazing stuff.

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