I’ve always had a soft spot for magic tricks, or rather, illusions. Card tricks, disappearing acts, rabbits in the hat—if you promise sleight of hand, smoke and mirrors, and a little misdirection, I’m sold. I relish the feeling of being amazed.
I grew up in the 80s, and my earliest experiences of wonder came via the dark and mysterious—though in retrospect garishly shoulder-padded—David Copperfield. I actually saw him in person at the Lexington Opera House when I was 8 or 9 years old. I even got an autograph. Far from the kind of self-serious and quasi-occult magicians that rose to fame in the 2000s, Copperfield did serious magic, but with a sense of humor. His sets were laced with ducks and witty one-liners, a comedy version of a legit illusionist but with real chops.
The trick I remember—and still to this day think about with surprising frequency—featured Webster the bow-tied duck and his girlfriend, a hen named Consuelo. Copperfield cues up an oldie with a jaunty rhythm section and doo-wop harmonies, and then proceeds to yank the duck’s head clean off. Same with the hen. Then, somehow, he swaps them and voila! A duck with a chicken’s head.
For some reason, this image was seared into my childhood memory. It seemed to break the laws of biology. There was no blood, and even a kid knows that popping off a duck’s head would be messy. Plus, surely you can’t just screw the duck’s head onto a chicken’s neck like a light bulb. I loved it. And I absolutely do not ever want to know how the trick was done. There’s an enchantment to being confronted with the unbelievable, and it’s a shame to dispel the feeling. This, I think, applies beyond magic shows.
In this present age, secular as it is, our experience of the world is becoming pretty cut and dried. There’s a prevailing belief proclaiming that nothing transcends the measurable, verifiable fact. If you ask me, the motivation here is that if we know something, then we feel as if we control it. There is an onward march in this camp to give everything an explanation that can be written down and settled. It’s a shame because such work dis-enchants the wonder from our thinking.
Surely you can’t just screw the duck’s head onto a chicken’s neck like a light bulb.
Secular people may argue that they haven’t lost wonder, but I would counter they’re actually talking about awe. We might still look at a mountain peak or a newborn baby and feel awe, but our experience stays within the realm of explanation. Tectonic forces and biological process—awesome though they may be—still sit well within our mental grasp. Wonder, though, is the sensation of encountering the inexplicable. It exceeds us.
When it comes to the wonders of God, we can’t help but engage. It’s the natural result when creatures like us experience a being like Him, because He is, by definition, transcendent. He is real, yet He is immeasurable, relatable yet unknowable. That can be a threatening combination. Some respond by denying the transcendent outright. But even believers can be tempted to squeeze God into a rational box, which diminishes the need for faith.
Think about it this way: God’s character and the history of His work in creation are filled with apparent contradictions. Try giving a perfect summary of the Trinity sometime—so, there are these three separate beings, but they’re all one, but not like three fractions of a greater whole because each is the whole, but each is also a part. 300% = 100%. You talk in circles without landing anywhere, but that doesn’t make the idea of God in three persons rubbish—it makes the idea literally superhuman, beyond human. Which is precisely what God should be!
If we let God be God, we can embrace teachings that seem to contradict yet are true all at once.
Consider that once there was nothing at all, and still God was there existing, yet predating existence as we know it. Or that God is at once universal and all-knowing, yet personal and deeply invested in you Perhaps best of all, remember that the most significant and powerful act in our faith happened when a homeless man rode into a big city on a donkey and was murdered. The empty tomb was the greatest disappearing act of all time: the disappearance of a dead man and death itself along with Him.
Like a great magician, but better because it’s reality, God breaks the apparent logic of our world and performs titanic wonders. If we really press into these things, if we take them seriously, we come right up against the plain truth that we are smaller than God and not as smart. That's the threat of wonder. The paradoxes cannot be ironed out, and such a conundrum can lead us to doubt their truth, if we insist that faith must be completely explicable in order to be true. But if we let God be God, we can embrace teachings that seem to contradict yet are true all at once, because they open up vast expanses in our faith and lavish us with delightful wonders to explore.
“Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!” (Rom. 11:33).
Of course, up until now we have been talking about paradoxes that don’t involve much trouble, just puzzlement. As with my son nailing together bits of scrap wood while I build a bookcase, our play at embracing the wonder of God has a serious purpose. Eventually, we come up against contradictions that are not fun. God is infinitely good and infinitely powerful, yet suffering fills the Earth. If we can learn to accept and even enjoy curiosities—such as how exactly the Trinity works, or how it can be true that God and nothingness existed at the same time—then that practice can train us for the real work of faith: endurance. Submitting in joy while God carries out plans for our good, even when we can’t imagine them not being harmful. We can embrace the fact that death is the path to life, that our pain disproves neither God’s love nor His power, and that the inevitable snowdrifts of sorrow accumulated over the course of life cannot diminish the joy set before us—namely, our eventual reunion with Jesus.
It’s fun to celebrate that God is often inexplicable. But, to finish the race, wonder will also be essential.
Illustration by Jeff Gregory