Monday, November 3, 2008

What Do Narnia and Physics Have In Common?

A few years ago, I wrote a paper with my son-in-law, Austin, that we presented at a C.S. Lewis conference held at Belmont University. Though the paper is largely about education, our premise centered on the idea that learning of any sort must be preceded by wonder. As we are entering the time of year when thoughts quickly turn to wonder, I thought this might be an interesting read.

“Wonder rather than doubt is the root of knowledge.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel

Albert Einstein became the world’s most famous physicist because of a day dream. When he was sixteen years old day dreaming came more naturally than study, and he attributed his successes to the fact that he never gave up this propensity. The daydream came while he was reading Aaron Berstein’s Popular Books on Natural Science. The author asked his readers to imagine running beside an electric signal as it moved through a telegraph wire. It was a small leap for him to shift his imagination to something even more fantastic, running along side a beam of light.

This fantasy would preoccupy him through a number of alterations until the visions used him to incarnate themselves within mathematical equations, one of which is now as famous as any chant or incantation. “What would it be like to race a light beam?” This question does not exactly qualify as a scientific problem worthy of a hypothesis and study, but it is the very question that ended up toppling Newtonian physics.


Every educator dreams of igniting such dreams in even one student. It is the rare physics professor though who realizes such a lofty dream. Einstein was not intellectually conceived through the skills and disciplines of the field but rather through the flash of one powerful image in a moment of awe and wonder. In the beginning was the fantasy and the fantasy became flesh and dwelt among us. That is the path of all great ideas. The issue now is, from where will such ideas come in a world without wonder?

Knowledge after all is not a thing that can be possessed. It is a state of being. The moment a student comprehends a theory imposing order on a random string of information or grasps the essence of a particular object, she is wooed into an altered state of awareness. Like all altered states, the one provoked by a quest for knowledge is addictive to some and repugnant to others.

Thus, some seek for the minimal bits of knowledge needed for their basic survival but disengage from the quest as soon as possible. Others find themselves being seduced by the allure of the quest and find in learning a delight that rivals all physical joys. Education is the process by which this altered state takes place and through which a self becomes transformed.

C.S. Lewis understood that education was driven by wonder. He wrote on a wide range of topics with such a depth of knowledge that it is difficult for anyone to speak about his corpus as a whole. Many do not even attempt to find a single basic element in Lewis’ works. However, one basic element did inspire Lewis throughout his career and in all of his work—the ability to wonder. Awe united Lewis’ academic works to his fairytales and his faith to everything.
The Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel said,

“There are three aspects of nature which command man’s attention: power, loveliness, and grandeur. Power he exploits, loveliness he enjoys, grandeur fills him with awe. We take it for granted that man’s mind should be sensitive to nature’s loveliness. We take it equally for granted that a person who is not affected by the vision of earth and sky, who has no eyes to see the grandeur of nature and to sense the sublime, however vaguely, is not human.”

The world around us inspires awe and wonder, and the sense of the sublime and the feelings it inspired in Lewis became his muse.

--This was just a small excerpt of that paper, but I love the ideas that it presents. What things inspire awe in you? What brings you that incredible feeling of wonder? If you are busy in the activities of day-to-day life, you might, like myself, have a tendency to forget those awe-inspiring things. But it is important to remember and reflect. While we cannot always jump and act, we can always consider. Where would we be if C.S. Lewis had forgotten his sense of wonder? How much richer life is because he remembered!

1 comment:

Stargazer said...

I love this Pastor Dan! I love C.S. Lewis, and I am one of those nerds who gets excited about learning. The altered state I am in while comprehending something new or hearing an amazing piece of music for the first time beats any drug of any kind.

Brandon Palma