How Wonder in Speculative Fiction Helps Us Understand Religion

This is part of a series of posts about the value of speculative fiction in understanding religion.

Another reason why speculative fiction is cognitively valuable for understanding religion is that both have a strong connection to feelings of awe and wonder. We often construe the proper functioning of our cognitive faculties in an environment of no or little emotion, as if Spock were the paradigm of right thought. But beginning with the work of Antonio Damasio, research in cognitive science has painted a more favorable connection between cognition and emotion. Damasio showed that people with brain lesions that impair emotion also have impaired decision-making ability.

Wonder and the Numinous

But the more pertinent reason for the cognitive value of wonder in speculative fiction is that many people go to their religion for wonder. Rudolph Otto in his 1917 book The Idea of the Holy was the first to characterize wonder as foundational to religion. He coined the word numinous to describe religious emotion as different from everyday fear and pleasure. The numinous is a feeling of fascination, a “creature-feeling” or feeling absolutely dependent and abased in the face of a tremendous mystery. It’s a dread or awe associated with the uncanny, an awareness of unapproachability and majesty.

Otto’s notion that there should be one feeling or a set of feelings that are uniquely religious and set aside from everyday feelings like fear and joy is doubtful (Alas, he wrote when the academy had not yet outgrown structuralism). His theory may work reasonably well for the forms of religion that he discusses—primarily the Bible and certain forms of “primitive” religion—but he neglects traditions that engage with gods or spirits and the like collaboratively, transactionally, or on a deeply personal level.

Nevertheless, I think Otto was on to something when he picked out awe and wonder as religiously significant, so long as we take these terms in a broader everyday sense, that of surprise and admiration at the beautiful or unexpected, rather than as within the strictures of his term numinous. Consider hearing Catholic mass in Latin. Or the vast sweep of the Buddhist cosmos (especially starting around 12:40), populated by fabulous creatures like hungry ghosts, celestial musicians, and wrathful asuras. Or Ezekiel’s revelation of angels who have the heads of lions and oxen or are interlocked wheels with eyes. Or Hindu gods with many arms and heads.

We should also consider wonder, as Otto did, in its “negative” aspect, where the mystery seems much worse than imagined—wonder not as beauty but as terror or the sublime. Consider the excruciating torments of the Buddhist hells. Or the wrathful vision of Jesus in John’s Revelation. Or more subtly, certain sayings in the Talmud concerning demons, “They are more numerous than we are and they stand over us like mounds of earth surrounding a pit” (Berakhot 6a).

Of course, religion isn’t always about wonder no matter how broadly we define the term. Some people go to their religion only for practical purposes, like attaining a heavenly afterlife, for community with others, for political reasons, or for a clear closed conception of the world rather than the unboundedness that comes with wonder. But for those of us that have lived life in modern communities, we rarely view the world as enchanted, as richly populated by wondrous powers. Many Humanists work against this trend by drawing out wonder in the nature, human relationships, or in the elegance of the universe as understood by the sciences. Even so, many of us don’t view the world as enchanted, so it’s hard for us to understand those that do because of their religion.

Speculative Fiction: The Genre of Wonder

This is where speculative fiction comes in, especially if we understand the genre from a slightly different perspective than we have so far. Commercial fiction genres are typically delineated according to the emotions their works intend to elicit: thrillers, romance, horror, comedy—all aim at kindling particular emotions. What emotion does speculative fiction elicit? Dave Farland argues in Writing Wonder that its domain is wonder, and it achieves this by transporting readers to another time and place.

We recall panoramic views in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, but in speculative fiction, wonder commonly works through small gestures that serve to heighten mystery. Consider Tolkien’s aside in The Two Towers that “in past days [Gollum] had bowed and worshipped” the monstrous spider Shelob, the wardrobe to another world in The Chronicles of Narnia, and the plants that light up in Avatar. Or one of my favorites, Ray Bradbury’s description of a Martian couple in The Martian Chronicles: “Once they had liked painting pictures with chemical fire, swimming in the canals in the seasons when the wine trees filled them with green liquors, and talking into the dawn together by the blue phosphorous portraits in the speaking room.”

Wonder in Speculative Fiction and Wonder in Religion

This isn’t to say that feelings of wonder are interchangeable or that wonder in speculative fiction is always the same as wonder wherever it appears in religious traditions. Which raises the question: Why shouldn’t we consider wonder only insofar as it intersects with scripture and other religious sources (commentaries, theology, etc.) rather than going to speculative fiction, which has a much more casual connection to the actual happenings that produced wonder in religious sources?

On one level, I don’t think it’s helpful to distinguish between wonder in scripture and in speculative fiction because, in an important sense, scripture is speculative fiction. This isn’t to say that scripture is false in the sense that fiction is false. Indeed, scripture is almost always meant to be true by its authors, which makes it nonfiction. But in terms of how we, as religious outsiders, receive and appreciate these texts, they remain speculative because our worldview is so at odds with that of the text and its author. We recognize a different authorial intent behind religious sources that are not our own, and it behooves us to suspend our doubts, but we can’t help but approach them as speculative.

Also consider those who honestly report their religious identity as Jedi. At one point, they approached Star Wars as speculative fiction or a cultural phenomenon, but eventually, the franchise became scripture to them. Others have moved away from a religious identity and now identify as fiction texts they once called scripture. At base, the distinction between speculative fiction and scripture isn’t objective. It’s a function of how readers and communities relate to texts.1

Reimagining Lost Wonder

Another reason is that many sources that have come down are terse and difficult to understand. This is sometimes intentional because small gestures can be more wonderous because of what’s left unsaid. But many were also written for communities with a wider oral tradition of storytelling and/or written commentary that helped elaborate the text. Because only the source text has come down to us, we don’t have the benefit of the wider tradition to help us read.

Consider Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. The Biblical Book of Acts recounts this three times (9.1-22, 22.1-21, 26.9-23), and on each occasion details are in flux—did Saul’s companions see the light?, did Saul see Ananias afterward in Damascus?, did he go blind?—but the climax of the story, the pronouncement from Jesus, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” is identical in all three accounts.2 These are marks of an oral tradition: the identity of the story isn’t verbal agreement or even sameness in content; the story is a sketch plus a small number of key events crystallized in the memory of storytellers.

Its triple appearance suggests it was of great importance to the author and some early Christian communities, but none of the tellings seem wondrous (at least to me) when read. I imagine they did to early Christians, but we don’t have the benefit of the wider context of storytelling and rumors that early Christians and Jesus followers had. Fiction writers that retell Saul’s conversion and thereby help us imagine ourselves into the headspace of those early communities would be serving a cognitively valuable function, no less than a historian does in taking fragmentary sources and reconstructing a plausible account.

I know of no speculative fiction about Saul’s conversion, but there are a variety of speculative works that take on the task of imagining the wonder of religious events, worldviews, or cultures.  Consider “The Tower of Babylon” by Ted Chiang, which tells the story of a days-long climb of the Tower of Babel, a journey immersed in Babylonian engineering and cosmology. Or “Hell is the Absence of God,” also by Chiang, which depicts angels as natural disasters that dispense miracles and destruction in equal measure.

Consider G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen, a cyberpunk/Islamic cosmology mashup, that briefly takes issue with some educated Muslims who won’t admit to believing in djinn, even though the Qur’an speaks of them candidly, but nevertheless believe harsh and obscure points of Islamic law should be followed literally (111). Wilson thereby encourages Muslim readers to appreciate the wonder in their own tradition. Her vision of a modern day Arab state that intersects with the hidden world of djinn allows readers of all religious identities to understand wonder in her tradition.


When researching in the humanities and social sciences, we must always ask whether and when we should emphasize similarities or differences. Out of respect for differences, we’ve said that it’s rash to assume that wonder is interchangeable. Experiencing wonder once doesn’t mean we’ve gained deep insight into all the world’s religions.

But we should remember that even people of communities far removed from our own have similar needs and similar neurology. We’re all still people. So out of respect for similarities, I’m willing to entertain the possibility that Otto’s structuralist approach to religion is of value because religion is grounded in human fundamentals just as its grounded in a wealth of differences instigated by all varied people that have lived throughout history. This isn’t to say that experiencing wonder in speculative fiction means we’ve understood something essential to religion. But having experienced wonder in speculative fiction, we’re in a better place to understand wonder in religious sources than if we go through life bereft of wonder.

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  1. W. C. Smith was the first to make this observation about how texts become scripture, although he didn’t approach the question from the perspective of speculative fiction. See Smith, Wilfred Cantwell. What is Scripture? A Comparative Approach.
  2. Dunn, James. Jesus in Oral Memory. See “The Synoptic tradition as oral tradition – narratives.”