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Fear and Wonder: Ultimate Questions

Fear and Wonder: Ultimate Questions

Author: Ted Fairchild

This lesson discusses the fundamental fears and unanswered questions that spark the religious impulse.

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[THUNDER] Hello and welcome, to Fear and Wonder: Ultimate Questions. Most of us are familiar with that. We've heard it before. We know what it is. We are reassured by science. There's an explanation. But what about a child who hears that for the first time? This deafening, thunderous, cacophony outside of oneself, sense of something other. It must be horrifying or at the same time it could fill a child with awe.

In any case, the child needs reassurance. And what about primitive man? How did he reassure his child when he himself didn't know the source of this chaos in the sky? We're going to get our feet wet with questions like that, question that lead one toward existential, metaphysical and religious contemplation through fear and wonder. We'll look at two examples, one from the third century BC with Aristotle, and then we'll look at Giambattista Vico in the 17th and 18th centuries. Both examples will reflect a universal tension, not in a negative sense but as part of the human condition.

Aristotle was a student of Plato, a 3rd century Macedonian Greek philosopher who said that the beginning of philosophy and philosophical investigation is wonder, wonder and awe. The experience of wonder and awe motivate and move one toward the study of metaphysics, theology, and the intersection of the two. And what's behind that is this experience of otherness, this experience of something completely different and separate and overwhelmingly inaccessible.

In the example of the child hearing a thunder clap in the sky, a child need something to reassure himself, herself, so the child clings to the mother's arms, something to bind itself to, for security and understanding. In the example of the primal man, primal man in awe and wonder at this maybe not even a force of nature, something even beyond nature begins to seek understanding and explanation in the form of legends and myths and gods or God, the seeds and the material of religion.

The word religion comes from two Latin words, a noun religio, and that's taken from the verb religare, and that verb means to bind or connect. And the meaning of this verb also carries with it a sense of obligation. And the Romans paid allegiance to this power, this mysterious power in the sky, the thunderous noise that it didn't understand. And this is a source of piety, a sense of reverence and even awe directed toward the divine. For example, it became the Roman god Jupiter or Jove, also called Jove.

Giambattista Vico in the 17th and 18th centuries interpreted this experience of fear when confronted with otherness as a prompt or a motivation to do something or to create something with it. And in his book The New Science he says, "Jove, as the fear felt by the first man is imitated by them. They shake their bodies like the sky body of Jove himself. This primordial power of representation is slowly transformed into the world of human symbols, into the medium of language and cultural institutions in which all sensation is modified and given shape."

So here it's human agency rather than Supreme, supernatural agency. A bit of a paradox, in fact. In other words, trying to get closer to the source of fear, the better to understand.

And there's a quote in the Bible with respect to fear and trembling. "Wherefore, my beloved as he have always obeyed, not as in my presence only but now much more in my absence. Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling."

So regardless of who's behind the weather or who's reporting it, what it all points to is this human experience of a division, a separation from some vital non-material force that can't rationally be explained. Dependent on it somehow we are. One feels bound to this indefinable something, and what does one do with that?

Well this might inspire a search for meaning and answers, not only about God, nature, and divinity, but also about the essence of spirit that might be experienced individually. But who's to say it's a spiritual essence when the spirit is still so clouded in mystery?

So let's review. One of the key ideas we've been looking at here is the notion of otherness, a sense of something completely separate and different and outside oneself. We used the example of thunder and we looked at a child's and a primal man's response to it, either fear or wonder and awe. And we talked about Aristotle's notion of wonder and awe as being the ground for a philosophical, metaphysical, or theological exploration, investigation, philosophical speculation.

And we pointed out that it opened up the possibility of a non-human agency, and then we compared that with Vico's understanding of this experience of fear as being a motivation to create human societies and structures that I can sort of mediate the tension of that experience of otherness.

We talked about piety in terms of directing one's reverence toward deity, and we used the example of the Roman god Jupiter and Jove. We also looked at an example of piety from the Bible in terms of fear and trembling, and a relationship to something that is overwhelmingly incomprehensible. And then we concluded with this tension between the experience of matter and spirit and the different ways to search for meaning and understanding into the human spirit, individually and collectively.


Notes on "Fear and Wonder: Ultimate Questions"


Giambattista Vico quoted in Luft, Sandra Rudnick. Vico’s Uncanny Humanism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2003 (p.149).

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Terms to Know

That which is not the self, including both other people and the material world.


A sense of reverence and even awe directed toward the divine.