(“What a Wonderful World”: what whimsical words to write while waging war with influenza! Would that I win!)
I’m guessing most of you, if not all of you, have at least heard Louis Armstrong’s classic recording of the song, “What a Wonderful World.” Upon preliminary reflection, it seems to me that the song is, among other possibilities, a song about perspective: namely, the perspective we choose to take on our daily lives, and the attitude that accompanies that perspective. Will we perceive life as a gift with many goods, or as something always falling short? Perhaps choosing to see the world as wonderful can transform us.
Last night, propped up in a spare bed, battling flu symptoms and desperately hoping not to infect my wife and daughter, I watched a documentary (Take that, you stupid, vaccine-evading strain of flu!). It was a science documentary about …
… fossils. It was a 2016 National Geographic documentary about recent discoveries of human fossil remains.
Get this: A scientist (Lee Berger) in South Africa hired a fossil hunter (Pedro Boshoff) to explore their area for possible fossil-rich sites. (Africa has numerous sites where human fossils have been found.) Boshoff found an underground cave that he got two cave divers (Rick Hunter and Steven Tucker) to explore more thoroughly. Deep inside the cave, Hunter and Tucker found a large chamber with numerous fossils buried in sediment. They took pictures, which they shared with Boshoff. Boshoff, in turn, shared them with Berger.
Berger immediately began organizing a multi-week, multi-person (including multi-scientist) exploration of the site. To make a long story short, fossils of several (about 15) individuals were found, all judged to be members of the same species, and all belonging to our genus Homo, but of an extinct species. The discoverers named the species Homo naledi. You can read the Wikipedia article about Homo naledi here. You can read the first scientific report here.
At this point, rather than focus on the fossils themselves, I want to say that I found myself struck by how excited the participating scientists were about their work. They were filled with wonder before, during, and after the fieldwork, lab work, and reporting. The documentary’s first-hand footage of the expedition helps us viewers see the role of emotions in science. Scientists are human. In the documentary, you see smiles, laughter, tears, shouts, and hugs.
To be sure, there are other emotions to behold in the documentary — and in science as a whole, as evidenced by pushback against the discovery from several prominent scientists, reported in the March 2016 issue of Scientific American magazine (article “Mystery Human” by Kate Wong). From the article, I sense anger and irritation, for instance. But here I wish to focus on the wonder and joy.
To watch these scientists, you could tell that, in powerful ways and at least for significant moments, they loved what they were doing. The world was wonderful to them. Their work was wonderful. The fossils they found were wonderful. So much wonder. So much awe. So much appreciation for life, for curiosity, for unexpected discoveries, for shared (and sharing) experiences.
An Old Testament scholar, Bill Brown, has written about the experience of wonder that frequents, not only the work of scientists, but also the Old Testament Scriptures. In 2010, he had a book published entitled The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder. In short, throughout this 240-page, Oxford-published book, Brown argues that Old Testament authors and modern scientists alike see the world as wonderful.
In Brown’s view, the concept of wonder provides common ground on which Bible readers and scientists can meet to talk about each others’ views, beliefs, and work. That is, Brown is trying to promote peace, and he believes that our wonderful world itself has a role to play in bringing about that peace. Picture a scientist scraping away sediment from a fossil, revealing it more clearly, and smilingly exclaiming, This is wonderful! Now picture a Bible-believer reading a nature-psalm (e.g., Psalm 104), which exclaims, This world is wonderful! Thirdly, now picture a Bible-believer alongside a scientist exploring the world and together exclaiming, This is wonderful!
Brown does not think that wonder is a magical concept. Just getting two people alongside each other and saying that the world is wonderful will not automatically bring about peace between science and Christian faith. But if scientists and Christians alike — and I should note that there are many scientists who are Christians — can posture their relationship with each other based on their agreement that the world is wonderful to them both, then perhaps they will lower their guard enough to listen and share their wonder. Perhaps understanding will emerge, even if some disagreements persist.
As a Bible, theology, and ministry guy, I’ve seen (but also often missed) the nature-wonder throughout the Bible. Even so, I have experienced wonder in the natural world. And I have also shared time with a scientist (a paleontologist) who wonders at the fossils he finds and shares with others. In fact, I’m cleaning some fossil sea shells for him now. He puzzled excitedly over something I found, and his joy at my discovery made me happy — a contagion much more welcome than this flu virus. And that’s Brown’s point: wonder is a healthy contagion for Bible readers and scientists alike.
So then, what if we gave the song “What a Wonderful World” new lyrics for the science / faith relationship? How might they read? Could they, like Armstrong’s singing of the song, gently invite us to look at the world with resolve and intentionality? And do our own habits of talking about the world posture us to spread the contagion of wonder so that more and more fighters in the science / faith battle lay down their weapons and enjoy the world together? Perhaps choosing to see the world as wonderful can transform us.