Silence and awe as the beginning of wisdom

In this recent post, I quoted Jason Derr suggesting that the word ‘God’ can validly be seen as a reference not to “a creature or being that sits outside of time and space” but to actions and experiences that express our highest ideals: love, mercy, justice, passion, joy, goodness. He then singles out awe as the experience by which we become aware of this God: awe at life itself, at living, at the growing world and the universe – and presumably at love, mercy, justice, passion, joy and goodness.

To stand in awe is often to stand in silence. In the BBC’s The Big Silence (discussed here), it was through silence that the participants each found a spirituality which, on reflection, sounds a lot like awe: awe at the natural beauty of life and the universe, discovered and experienced in the stillness.

There is genuine awe at the wonder of the universe expressed in Richard Dawkins’ poem It is raining DNA outside, posted here a few days ago. In his wonderment he even creates a theology: that the process he observes has a purpose, namely the spreading of DNA. (The spreading of DNA is a feature of the process; to call it the purpose of the process is to go beyond observation into personification, and thence theology. If there really is no God, there is no purpose, which is the point of Nietzsche’s famous “God is dead” speech, in this recent post.)

Proverbs 1:7 is often unhappily translated “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Any dictionary or thesaurus will show that the words awe and fear are closely related, even though awe may contain not fear but its complete opposite: a sense of being embraced and cherished by a wonderful universe. Fear never led to wisdom. Awe certainly does. So let awe be the beginning of wisdom. This section in God without God even shows that Yahweh, in the Old Testament, here translated as “the Lord”, means something like “the ground of all being” – so it is awe at the wonder of existence itself that is the beginning of all wisdom.

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