Sometimes you just need to put the book down, step away from the computer, and give yourself some space to be awed again by how amazing God is.
As Walt Whitman said in his famous poem about astronomy and the wonder of the universe:
When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
……………..~Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1900
Whitman is, of course, talking about the danger of focusing so much on the data of science that we miss the mystery and wonder of the universe itself. How much more is this true for those who seek to know God himself.
Take this as a timely reminder to let yourself be awed by him today.
At the same time, though, I would like to offer a couple of cautions about this poem and how I’ve seen it used in relation to knowing God.
First, don’t use this to denigrate academic biblical/theological studies. Just because there is a time and place to step away from academic pursuits, don’t draw the unwarranted conclusion that there is something wrong with the academic task itself. Knowing God through academic study is an act of worship itself. Granted, it’s a different kind of worship, and we need to balance it with others, but don’t allow anyone to suggest that there’s anything wrong with seeking to know God through careful thought and study. That is part of being who God created us to be.
Second, when you do need to step away from the academic pursuit and be reminded of God’s mysterious awesomeness, don’t think you need to do it alone. Or outside. Whitman’s poem resonates with the individualism and romanticism so common in American religiosity. If you want to find mystery and wonder, go for a walk in the woods by yourself. And, to be honest, that often works for me. But so does worshipping with God’s people on Sunday morning, serving alongside God’s people to care for those in need, or any of a number of other ways. If the academic mistake is in forgetting that rigorous intellectual activity is not the only way to know God, Whitman’s poem risks exactly the same mistake by suggesting that individual experience is the only true path to mystery and wonder.
If you’re an academic, or anyone who regularly pursues knowledge of God through intellectual study, feel free to use this poem as a reminder that sometimes you just need to step away from it all for a moment and wonder. But don’t go too far. Done right, the academic task is worthy and worshipful. And stepping away should include walking into the fellowship of God’s people far more than drifting into the loneliness of individual experience.