Awe was the focus of a Parade magazine article published in October.
The author, Paula Spencer Scott, describes how the emotion of awe is getting more and more attention from researchers.
“New studies show that it’s a dramatic feeling with the power to inspire, heal, change our thinking and bring people together,” she said.
Scott quotes Dacher Keltner, head of the University of California Berkeley’s Social Interaction Lab, who defines awe as this: “Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast or beyond human scale that transcends our current understanding of things.”
It is likely that all of us have had experiences of awe.
If you use Keltner’s definition, most, if not all, of our religious experiences include an element of awe.
After all, when you encounter God, you are encountering “something vast or beyond human scale,” something “that transcends our current understanding of things.”
Many of our reactions of awe are triggered by nature. It could be looking at the Milky Way on a clear night, watching a newborn fawn take its first steps, observing a sunrise or standing before a booming waterfall. God’s creation offers us a multitude of opportunities to experience awe.
The current studies on awe are revealing some interesting results.
One such result is that awe has a way of binding people together. In a moment of awe, we may very well come to realize that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves and begin to think more in terms of we than me.
Related to this, research indicates that awe makes us nicer.
In one study, a group of participants were divided up. One group was asked to spend a whole minute looking at an impressive stand of North America’s tallest eucalyptus trees while the other looked at a plain building.
It will come as no surprise that those who looked at the trees reported greater awe.
What is a bit surprising is something else that was included in this study. When a tester “accidently” dropped pens in front of the subjects, the awestruck ones helped pick up way more than the ones who had gazed at the building.
There is apparently some connection between awe and kindness. If this is indeed true, we would all benefit by seeking to bring more awe and wonder into our lives.
During the recent election season, I saw several memes on Facebook with the caption “Make America Kind Again.” I doubt that there is anyone who would deny that there is a shortage of kindness these days.
If awe can help make us kinder, we should take advantage of this connection and encourage others to do the same. If we know, for example, that awe is invoked by being present in beautiful places, we should seek these out.
Awe may likewise be sought out by listening to inspiring music or reading good poetry. It can often be found in personal and corporate expressions of worship.
We would do well to find ways to bring more awe into our lives. This will be good not only for our own soul, but also for others.
Hopefully experiencing more awe will, in fact, lead us to think more in terms of “we” than “me” and make us kinder people too. Hopefully, it will draw us closer to God.
Chuck Summers is a pastor of the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Henderson, Kentucky. He is also a photographer whose work has appeared in numerous national magazines and calendars; he has published three photography books. A version of this article first appeared on Seeing Creation, a blog that Summers co-authors with Rob Sheppard, and is used with permission.
Chuck Summers is a pastor of the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Henderson, Kentucky.