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Belief Matters: Gobsmacking wonder, mystery, doubt and faith

I do realize that the 10 Commandments make reference, and for good reasons, about not coveting — that is, not wanting what someone else has.

I've never been good at it. One of the odder ways it strikes me is when another writer says something in a way I wish I would have thought of first. Here's an instance, written by Marty Kaplan, a Jew by tradition and practice, but not by conventional belief: "At my best, I'm spiritually gobsmacked by the mystery that anything exists."

"Spiritually gobsmacked." Dang, that's good.

Kaplan wrote the phrase in an article on a blog for Krista Tippett's On Being. To add a healthy shake of kosher salt to my covetous wound, the title of his piece was this: "Spiritual, But Not Religious, But Not Woo-Woo." Seriously clever.

The point of his post is that Jewish though his celebrations and self-definition is, he is unwilling to stake his claim on some of the most basic tenets of the faith. He's simply not comfortable about committing to something that is more mystery to him than certitude.

As he points out in his column, he's not alone. He points to the Pew Research Center statistics which show marked drops in religious affiliations between 2007 and 2014. In just those seven years, the percent of adults who self-describe as connected to a religious tradition dropped from 83 percent to 77 percent, and those who identify as not being connected to a religious tradition jumped from 16 percent to 23 percent. That's 'gobsmacking' in and of itself.

However, he points out that "the share of people who feel a deep sense of wonder about the universe at least once a week has been going up... from 39 percent to 46 percent between 2007 and 2014. Among atheists, it jumped 17 points, to 54 percent."

It reminds me of my father's tale about an eighth grade kid's outburst in his confirmation class. They were discussing the biblical creation stories, and that the order of events in Genesis 1 is very different than in Genesis 2, and that there are some fascinating parallels to Babylonian creation stories (you Trekkies might recall Picard reciting the Epic of Gilgamesh even), and the boy kept asking question after question until a girl in class finally said, "There are just some things God doesn't want us to wonder about." At that, the kid jumped out of his chair and hollered at his classmate, "Don't wonder?! Don't wonder?! I can't help but wonder! What am I supposed to do?!"

Wondering makes some nervous, because it seems to invite doubt, as if that's a bad thing. Instead, it could be — is even — an act of faith, of trust, of being wonderfully spiritually gobsmacked.

Kaplan's blog made me think again of another Jew, Nobel Peace Prize Winner Elie Wiesel. He wrote a column in the German newspaper Die Zeit in 2000 — I have the yellowed, tattered page taped on my study's wall. It was a regular column entitled "I Have a Dream," in which well-known people were invited to finish the phrase. After telling of his Jewish upbringing, and his wretched and wrenching experience of the Holocaust, and how he used to dream of his family and his friends and the Messiah coming to rescue them all, Wiesel wrote these devastating and beautiful words: "These days I don't dream anymore of the Messiah. He doesn't visit me in my dreams anymore. He didn't come when he was expected. So, he seems to have been held up. Doesn't matter. The Jew in me will continue to wait for him."

And in that last line, there you see gobsmacking wonder, and mystery, and doubt, and faith, the likes of which anyone could be excused to covet.

Anna Madsen is a "freelance theologian," living with her two children in Two Harbors. Through OMG: Center for Theological Conversation, she offers a place for individuals and groups, laity and clergy, to come for questions, conversation, and study, and she also regularly presents, blogs, and writes.