Many Geography students are used to hearing me say that they should “sit and contemplate their place in the vast and magnificent cosmos.” As with most true things, it’s not very original. I learned (stole?) the idea from my favorite teacher and mentor Dr. Peter Lawler. He mostly wrote about politics and culture, but during Advent he would always discuss his faith. His favorite Christmas carol was called “I Wonder As I Wander”. It goes:
I wonder as I wander out under the sky
That Jesus my Savior did come for to die
For poor on'ry people like you and like I
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.
“To be human is to wonder and wander,” Lawler wrote. “The being who wonders can’t be fully at home in the cosmos the scientists can otherwise, perhaps, perfectly describe.” This verb “to wonder” has two senses, both “to marvel” but also “to ponder in the mind”. If the otters, dolphins, or chihuahuas marvel at the Grand Canyon or ponder life’s biggest questions as they stare into the sky, zoologists have yet to see any evidence of it.
So we humans appear to be alone in our wondering.
That loneliness can be dreadful! Imagine being all alone in a universe where science can explain the movement of stars and atoms yet cannot explain why you keep saying mean things to your friends or feel misunderstood by your parents. Some of us don’t have to stretch our minds very much because that loneliness is exactly how we feel every day.
This leads us to wander. We drift through life from event to event, trend to trend, clique to clique. We seek solace in achievements, in athletics, in hobbies, in addictions, in relationships, or in affirmation from our social media followers. These things can temporarily numb us into forgetting how hard and confusing life can be, but they can’t erase that sense that we don’t belong.
So we keep wandering.
We are homeless in this world. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”
Many people assume that religion will fade away as technologically-advanced Western countries continue to develop. Sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Denton argue that American teenagers—even those who identify as Christians—actually believe in “Moralist Therapeutic Deism”. They believe in a God who wants them to be good, wants to help them if they’re in trouble, but otherwise demands nothing of them. There’s no room for the gritty Nativity of real Christianity. There’s no room for a teenaged peasant-girl giving birth in a cave full of animal filth. There’s no room her husband who married her in spite of the gossip in Nazareth. There’s no room for Jesus the Christ, born to die who chose to die, a man of sorrows and affliction.
How hollow do our consumption and our social media feeds seem when we stop to remember that this earthy and sometimes-depressing story is the meaning of the season.
“Why are distinctions based on wealth, status, and intelligence of no importance to the Savior?” Lawler concluded. “The truth is that [modern Americans are] in crucial ways more homeless and so more poor and ordinary or uncertain of our true significance than ever—even if we have lots of money and cool stuff.”
So consider, you who wonder and wander, that the God who made you came in mortal flesh to wonder and wander too. What does it mean that he knows you in your confusion, hurt, and displacement? And what does it mean that he died and rose again to take you to your real home one day?
Now sit and contemplate your place in the vast and magnificent cosmos.