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On Wonder and the Search for Truth

January 25, 2019 by

This past December, my family spent Christmas Day with fourteen exchange students from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University – visiting scholars, they were called. Having recently crash-landed into Pittsburgh’s winter from sunny Uruguay where I’d been a foreign student myself, I felt strangely like I was on the flip side of a coin. My turn to host.

The scholars form part of the Pittsburgh Region International Student Ministries (PRISM), a campus-based program for foreign students. Every December, PRISM arranges for them to experience Christmas in a normal American home. It’d be a stretch to call this American home normal, but my parents had always invited lonely people into our home for Christmas dinner, so their decision didn’t surprise me.

table fellowship at Pittsburgh Bruderhof House

Most of the students were from China, India, and Saudi Arabia: worlds away in every sense. Since almost none of them knew the Christmas story, we decided to show them a live nativity. My sister and her husband were Mary and Joseph, my brother was a shepherd, and Baby Jesus was a doll. I was a graceful angel. At least my candle was graceful; with my winter coat on underneath an accommodating white gown, the rest of me resembled a marshmallow.

But in spite of us, awe glowed on the faces of our visitors as they edged into the pool of candlelight. Most of these scholars had never experienced the essence of Christmas illustrated like this. Neither had Baby Jesus been better documented – relatives in China and Saudi Arabia received live updates of our scraped-together nativity scene – but only after a long moment of wonder.

From my vantage point as an angel, seeing all those faces lit just by candlelight and a bare bulb, the wonder written in every eye caught my attention: academics, on the cutting edge of science and technology, looking on with the awe of children.

group of people holding candles

Wonder is a powerful thing. That night it brought together the biochemist from India and the Chinese scientist’s five-year-old daughter who both came forward to touch the baby. The doll’s face became real under the little girl’s gaze; the biochemist said “Hi Baby Jesus.” The moment was inexplicably beautiful, and it prompted me to look up a quote on wonder and truth from a favorite author, David James Duncan:

Wonder is like grace, in that it’s not a condition we grasp; it grasps us. Wonder is not an obligatory element in the search for truth. We can seek truth without wonder’s assistance. But seek is all we’ll do; there will be no finding. Unless wonder descends, unlocks us... truth is unable to enter.

These two, wonder and truth, are unlikely companions in society. The one seems to be the stuff of childhood, associated with innocence and vulnerability; the other, the prize of centuries of scientific and philosophical minds. And as Duncan says, they are not interdependent. But together, they are at the heart of faith in the Creator; faith that, having acknowledged reason and stepped beyond, wonders at the vastness of truth there.

The eye that looks with wonder sees a reality that truth alone cannot see. Looking at the night-sky without wonder is like taking out its third dimension.

The eye that looks with wonder sees a reality that truth alone cannot see. Take the stars: looking at the night-sky without wonder is like taking out its third dimension. You can see it, study it, and even admire its complexity and vastness, but without wonder it stays flat and technical, beautiful but explainable.

So why was there wonder on the faces of our guests on Christmas Day? Some may have not believed in Jesus, or professed a faith at all. What did they see then?

Maybe wonder grasped them because every heart is on a search for the truth that science can’t define. Maybe it grasped them at the thought that God would come down to man instead of man striving toward God. Maybe a wonderful truth touched that dimension placed by God in every human soul, regardless of background or profession. That’s the dimension that I want to see when I look at another person, because it’s the dimension that unites humanity, and that some day will bow every knee.


About the author

Nancy Clement in New York City

Nancy Clement

Nancy Clement is twenty-two and lives in Bogotá, Colombia, where she is majoring in literature at the Universidad de los...

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