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The Beginning of Wisdom

O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder
Thy power throughout the universe displayed
Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to Thee
How great Thou art, how great Thou art 

-- Carl Gustav Boberg, “How Great Thou Art”

In Isaac Asimov’s novella, Nightfall, scientists on the planet Lagash wonder why their civilization has undergone sudden collapse at regular 2,000-year intervals. Eventually they figure out this periodic catastrophe coincides with the rare full eclipse of a moon that has gone undetected because it is never night on Lagash. The planet orbits in a star cluster made up of six suns that keep it in perpetual daylight, so its inhabitants never experience complete darkness.

As anticipated, the heretofore-undetected moon casts the planet into deep shadow, and the inhabitants are gripped by terror. They set fire to everything to ward off the darkness. Even the scientists are driven mad with fear. Although they had predicted the eclipse, they are unprepared for the emergence of stars in the night sky, thousands upon thousands of them, revealing for the first time that the universe is vastly larger than the six nearby suns in their star cluster.

Asimov was still a graduate student in chemistry at Columbia when he wrote his story for Astounding Science Fiction in 1941. He and the magazine’s editor, John W. Campbell, had been discussing a quotation by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God!” Campbell disagreed with Emerson’s assertion. “I think men would go mad,” he said flatly, suggesting Asimov use that as the premise for a story.

Emerson notwithstanding, fear of the unknown trumps awe any day, even if the unknown is no more threatening than a starry night experienced for the first time. Certainly there are many phenomena in God’s creation that might legitimately inspire fear – not the least God himself. The fear of God is mentioned some 300 times in the Bible, mostly in the Old Testament, where the reigning deity was known to visit mayhem on friend and foe alike.

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” it says in one of the Psalms, as well as in the Book of Proverbs. And yet, as Rabbi Abraham Heschel pointed out, the word translated as fear in these passages has a double meaning. The Hebrew yirah can mean either fear or awe; indeed, these emotions probably spring from the same source whenever we encounter something truly unfathomable.

Science and religion are our two principal methods for taming the underlying mystery of existence. Science seeks to replace mystery with an explanation, whereas religion seeks to worship that which cannot be understood. Each may prove to be an antidote to the other, and both tend toward their own brand of dogmatism. Science chips away at the mystery, regarding it as a problem to be solved. Religion tends to substitute ritual and doctrine for a close encounter with the numinous. Each hopes to keep terror at bay, but in doing so they run the risk of surrendering all sense of wonder.

Psalms 111:10, Proverbs 9:10
Abraham Heschel, God in Search of Man

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