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Fear and Wonder: Ultimate Questions

Fear and Wonder: Ultimate Questions


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

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Fear and Wonder

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Welcome to this tutorial on fear and wonder. Fear and wonder are among the motivating forces behind religion. The Macedonian and Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote that philosophy begins with wonder. That is philosophy is about curiosity mixed with a feeling of awe. We might say the same thing about religion and religious ideas.

The individual presented with the otherness of nature is led to wonder how nature got there, what it might have to do with humans, and why humans seem so small and insignificant by comparison. The concept of wonder has many different connotations, some of them more positive sounding and some of them more negative. So awe, admiration, curiosity, surprise, and astonishment; these are all ways that human beings express their curiosity and their awe at the natural world.

Moving on to Gaimbattista Vico, who lived in the 18th century in Naples. Vico said that the primordial fear of nature gives rise to religion. So for example, in ancient times when human beings heard a thunder clap, they naturally thought that this was perhaps the gods retaliating for something. So this primitive fear of nature gives rise to civil society, gives rise to religious piety, and really goes a long way toward explaining the religious impulse.

Another enlightenment philosopher, Rene Descartes, is famous for describing body and soul dualism. Or the dualism of mind and body. And we could say that may be religion is about reconciling this dual nature. And also from this dual nature that we are both physical objects, physical things, but at the same time, we have a mind or a soul, this leads to another process of wondering, a process of questioning. And we find ourselves looking for what this something is that separates people from other living things or from an inanimate objects. So religion is a part of this search.

So we might say that there's a sort of twofold approach to religion. One, looking outward. Looking out at nature, looking out at divinity, or maybe a personal god. At the same time, looking inward at the self, at the soul, at whatever might be the essence of the human. Looking into our own being. So these two process of questioning are always going on at the same time. We're always looking outward and looking inward at the same time.

And religion is an attempt to make sense out what it means to be human in the midst of the world and what it is that connects humans to God or separates humans from God. So we always want to be able to define the human essence. And yet, it's always difficult to do that. And so the questioning process goes on and on. And this is one of the driving forces behind religion.

Fear and wonder are motivating factors for the creation of religions. The Macedonian Greek philosopher Aristotle said that philosophy begins in wonder, that is with a kind of awe mixed with curiosity. And we might say the same thing about religion.

One of the things that confronts human beings is the otherness of nature. Human beings find themselves in the midst of nature, which seems somewhat indifferent to them. And religion is one of the ways to reconcile human nature with everything else.

The Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico said that religion is born of the primordial fear of nature. So things like thunderstorms and so forth that really frighten human beings can lead to piety and civil society. Human beings search for that something that makes them different from non-human animals and from the environment around them. And this is one of the driving forces behind religion.

We said that in becoming religious, human beings look outward at nature and divinity. But they also simultaneously look inward to the self and the soul or the essence of the human being. So our two vocabulary words are otherness, that which is not the self, including other people in the material world. And piety, that sense of reverence and even awe that is directed towards the divine.

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.