The Paradox of Belief in a Higher Power

A look at the necessity and non-necessity of belief through L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”.

Lance Baker
Aug 6, 2019 · 10 min read

I’m read Lyman Frank Baum’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to my children. I’ve only ever known the 1939 musical film adaptation of the story, so I was excited to discover that there are many more layers and wonderful details in the original. The illustrations by Robert Ingpen only add to the whimsical and imaginative framework of the text.

The Journey

The whole story is built around the premise that the Great Oz will be able to grant the four travelers the things they desire most.

For Dorthy, it is home. For the Scarecrow, it is a brain. For the Tin Woodman, it is a heart. For the Cowardly Lion, it is courage.

In each chapter the characters encounter a different set of circumstances that they must overcome. At one point, they come upon large trench that divides the land in two. It is too deep to climb through and too wide to cross. For any ordinary traveler, this might mark the end of the road. For this band of travelers, however, their desire to reach the Emerald City and stand before the Great Oz propels them forward.

Despite his lack of bravery, it is the Cowardly Lion who offers a solution. He thinks the gap is one that he could leap over. The Scarecrow quickly offers to ride on the Cowardly Lion’s back first since he is much lighter than the others. Plus, if he fell, he couldn’t get injured since he was only made of straw. Dorthy might be killed in a fall and the Tin Woodman would be badly dented, he reasons. The Cowardly Lion is able to make the leap and eventually transfers the entire party to the other side.

A short while afterwards, they come upon another gulf in the road. This one is far too wide for the Cowardly Lion to jump across. The Scarecrow suggests that the Tin Woodman cut down a tree so that it falls across the ravine. This works and just as they are almost across, they discover they are being chased by Kalidahs which are terrible beasts with bodies like bears and heads like tigers. Just as they are about to catch up with the travelers, the Cowardly Lion lets out a great roar that momentarily halts the Kalidahs. This is just enough time for Scarecrow to suggest that the Tin Woodman quickly chop the other end of the tree so it is no longer connected to the bank. This collapses the tree-bridge and everyone is saved.

These are just a couple examples, but as the journey unfolds, we begin to see the Cowardly Lion do brave and courageous things. The Scarecrow is constantly coming up with great ideas and solving problems. The Tin Woodman is constantly looking out for his friends and even weeps with compassion when he steps upon a beetle. Dorthy slowly builds a family and becomes home for the people she meets.

Herein lies the paradox:

The belief in the Great Oz is the cause of the journey. However, it is the journey itself that grants them what they desire.

Behind the Curtain

By the time they finally meet the Great Oz, they mostly have what they were seeking — they just don’t know it yet. For this to happen, the illusion of Great Oz as the fulfillment of their desires has to be broken.

When Dorthy, the Tin Woodman, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion demand answers from the Great Oz, they accidentally expose the man behind the curtain. This is confusing and disorienting at first.

The Tin Woodman, raising his axe, rushed toward the little man and cried out, “Who are you?”

“I am Oz, the Great and Terrible,” said the little man, in a trembling voice.

Its not that the Great Oz never existed, he certainly did! The whole situation just wasn’t what they thought.

We see a similar thing happen in the biblical tradition. For generations people believed that God dwelt in the Holy of Holies — the inner sanctum of the tabernacle. This inner sanctum was separated from the rest of the tabernacle by a large woven curtain or veil. It was believed that if an ordinary person were to step into the Holy of Holies they would instantly die.

During the crucifixion of Jesus, the Bible reports that this temple veil was miraculously torn in two. If one were to peer into the Holy of Holies after the tearing of the veil for a chance to experience God’s presence directly, they would see that God was not there. This constrained idea of God had to be broken so the spirit of God could be universally available throughout the cosmos.

This, however, doesn’t mean that it was all a lie, its just that God’s presence is something other than what was originally thought. The Holy of Holies provided a sort of structure to channel people’s focus and energies, but it ultimately had to be split open so people could discover that God was not in a box behind a curtain — but that the Kingdom of God was within oneself.

Mystery Is Infinitely Discoverable

Higher powers take on forms unique to the individual. In the book, the Great Oz appears differently to each visitor.

“I thought Oz was a great Head,” said Dorothy.

“And I thought Oz was a lovely Lady,” said the Scarecrow.

“And I thought Oz was a terrible Beast,” said the Tin Woodman.

“And I thought Oz was a Ball of Fire,” exclaimed the Lion.

“No, you are all wrong,” said the little man meekly.

But they were also all right because it was the reality of what they encountered. If we were to interview everyone in the Emerald City who has gone before the Great Oz, we might be able to list dozens of different forms he appeared in. In this regard, the Great Oz is less of an individual thing, and more of a list of forms, appearances, and characteristics.

Similarly, throughout the Bible, people identify their experiences with the divine by using a name that describes the experience or role that the divine played.

  • El roi = God who sees
  • El Shaddai = God the All-sufficient One
  • Yahweh = I AM who I AM or the Self-Existent One
  • The Lamb
  • The Shepherd
  • Faithful and True
  • The Living One
  • Redeemer
  • Brother

It quickly becomes apparent that the divine is not mysterious because it is unknowable, but is mysterious because it is infinitely knowable. We would need to go on naming the divine forever to comprehend it.

Broken Illusions Are Not the End

The Great Oz doesn’t become nothingness once the initial illusion is broken. We discover that he is actually a relatively well-meaning man from Omaha, Nebraska with an interesting story. He happened to loose control of his hot-air balloon one day and it carried him to this new strange land.

“It came down gradually, and I was not hurt a bit. But I found myself in the midst of a strange people, who, seeing me come from the clouds, thought I was a great Wizard. Of course I let them think so, because they were afraid of me, and promised to do anything I wished them to.

“Just to amuse myself, and keep the good people busy, I ordered them to build this City, and my Palace; and they did it all willingly and well. Then I thought, as the country was so green and beautiful, I would call it the Emerald City; and to make the name fit better I put green spectacles on all the people, so that everything they saw was green.”

After his illusions are exposed, he becomes less of a “god” and more of a priest, as we’ll see here next.

Symbolic Ritual

Despite the revelation that the Great Oz was just an old man from Omaha, the band of travelers still expects him to deliver on their expectations. Though he isn’t a wizard, he is wise and understands that this band of travelers needs help becoming aware of what they already have. He determines they need a rite of passage to help discover their new selves. He devises a set of rituals for them.

Oz stuffs the Scarecrow’s head with bran, pins, needles and straw. After stitching him up, Oz declares that he now has a brain.

“I feel wise indeed,” he [the Scarecrow] answered earnestly.

For the Tin Woodman, Oz cuts a hole in his chest. Inside, he places a heart made of silk and stuffed with sawdust.

“I am very grateful to you, and shall never forget your kindness.” [Replied the Tin Woodman]

For the Cowardly Lion, Oz pours a liquid from a small green bottle. He tells the lion that when he drinks it, courage will be inside of him.

“How do you feel now?” asked Oz.

“Full of courage,” replied the Lion

These rituals transformed their perspectives so that they could come into an awareness their true selves. They could finally see what they already had.

For Dorthy, Oz decides to build a hot-air balloon that he will use to fly her back to Kansas. However, just as they are about to fly off, the balloon breaks loose from the ropes before Dorthy could get it and Oz flies off alone.

Dorthy will have to find her own way home with out the Great Oz after all.

The Journey Home

At this point, the story takes a pivotal shift in tenor. The Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion’s actions are not driven by their lack, but rather out of their abundance.

Before reaching the Emerald City, they were driven by an inner emptiness and the belief that there was something “out there” that could fill that lack. The latter part of their journey is fueled by purpose and an understanding that they have something to offer the world. They begin leaning on their strengths for the benefit of others.

Their goal is to help Dorthy find her way home again. In the process, the Scarecrow takes over for Oz as the ruler of Emerald City. The Cowardly Lion becomes the King of Beasts by saving all the forest creatures from the monster spider. The Tin Woodman becomes the ruler of the Winkies.

They make their way through forests, fields, and many strange encounters to finally meet with Glenda, the good witch, in hopes that she can help Dorthy get back home again.

When they finally reach her, Glenda responds by telling Dorthy that she had everything she needed from the very start.

“Your Silver Shoes will carry you over the desert,” replied Glenda. “If you had known their power you could have gone back to your Aunt Em the very first day you came to this country.”

“But then I should not have had my wonderful brains!” cried the Scarecrow. “I might have passed my whole life in the farmer’s cornfield.”

“And I should not have had my lovely heart,” said the Tin Woodman. “I might have stood and rusted in the forest till the end of the world.”

“And I should have lived a coward forever,” declared the Lion, “and no beast in all the forest would have had a good word to say to me.”

If Dorthy had known the truth about her silver shoes, there would be no story. There would be no transformation.

The journey, initiated in pursuit of an answer, becomes the answer itself.


  1. The belief in a higher power, the Great Oz, summoned Dorthy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion to undergo a journey.
  2. The journey itself granted them what they desired, before even meeting the Great Oz.
  3. The illusion of the Great Oz had to be broken and a symbolic ritual performed in order for them to become aware of the gifts the journey granted them.
  4. If they never believed in the Great Oz, they would have never set out on their journey and would have never been transformed in the process.

We have to go in order to discover, but what we end up discovering is what we’ve had all along. The journey only brings it to the surface.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Join The Startup’s +792K followers.

Sign up for Top 10 Stories

By The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Subscribe to receive The Startup's top 10 most read stories — delivered straight into your inbox, once a week. Take a look.

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

Lance Baker

Written by

A fellow observer on the journey through life. Trying to cultivate a deeper way of being in the world.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +792K followers.

Lance Baker

Written by

A fellow observer on the journey through life. Trying to cultivate a deeper way of being in the world.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +792K followers.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store