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Overwhelmed by Greatness: The Psychological Significance of Awe in Christian Experience and Formation

Andrew Tix

Awe as a vital spiritual emotion

Instructor of Psychology, Normandale Community College / Blog:
October 26, 2015

Several years ago, my family and I had the opportunity to travel to the Isle of Skye, an island near the coast of northwest Scotland. Because it was dark when we arrived, I didn’t have any sense for the landscape. When I went for a walk the next morning, I was surprised to find myself surrounded by five stunning mountain peaks. There was a thick, Scottish mist in the air that seemed to affect the quality of the light coming from the sunrise. The wind gusted and blew dark, low clouds quickly by me. As I walked, I felt a tinge of fear and stopped. I suddenly became aware that I felt completely overwhelmed by the glory around me. I looked up and saw the moon. At that moment, I realized in a fresh way that the majesty I observed is only a small part of the grandeur of the entire universe. In retrospect, I believe that this incident opened me up to an entirely new, more experiential way, of approaching my relationship with God.

This story reflects a true experience of awe, and has proven to be one of the most profound moments of my lifetime. I am not alone. In general, awe may be one of the most spiritually significant emotions that humans experience. And understanding and cultivating awe may be one of the keys to Christian formation.


The Isle of Skye

Isle of Skye 02

The Isle of Skye

The Traditional Meaning of Awe

Despite its potential significance, awe may be one of the most misunderstood concepts in modern society. University of Virginia Psychology Professor Jonathan Haidt noted that the current use of the word “awe” has become “water-downed” to a meaning akin to the Orwellian Newspeak, “double-plus good.”1 Perhaps this is why Neil Pasricha, author of the popular blog, 1000 Awesome Things, can refer to experiences such as “kindergarten class photos,” “the three paycheck month,” and “putting a slice of lasagna on your plate and having it all stay together” as “awesome.” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel may have been on to something when he remarked that “the awareness of grandeur and the sublime is all but gone from the modern mind.”2

In contrast, the historical meaning of “awe” implies a potent emotional experience. The verb “to awe” stems from the thirteenth-century Old Norse word “agi,” which literally translates “fright or terror.” The most significant treatment of awe within Christianity is provided in the theological classic, The Idea of the Holy, in which German theologian Rudolf Otto develops the idea of the “mysterium tremendum.” According to Otto, this experience consists of two intertwined components. One aspect is a sensation of trembling, which comes from a perception of being in the presence of something uncanny, overpowering, and vibrantly alive. Second, there is mystery, which typically leads a person to fascination, a general term used by Otto to refer more specifically to feelings of being astonished, thunderstruck, transfixed, or dumbfounded.3

“[T]he Bible teaches that sensitivity to awe is a virtue that may be cultivated.”

It is clear from the above that there may be a complex relationship between “fear” and “awe.”  In The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis provides a potentially helpful thought experiment. To paraphrase, imagine that you come across a wild tiger. The likely emotion you would experience would be fear. Imagine now that you believed you were in the presence of a ghost. The feeling would be like fear, but it would be more eerie. Finally, imagine that you believed you were in the presence of a Mighty Spirit. The feeling you would have would be even one step more removed from fear, perhaps best described as awe.4

Biblical Accounts of Awe

An understanding of awe helps to shed light on many pivotal experiences reported throughout the Bible. For instance, the common thread of awe may be seen in the disciples’ feeling of being “terrified” after witnessing the transfiguration (Matthew 17:6), the women “trembling” and feeling “bewildered” after finding the tomb empty (Mark 16:8), the crowd feeling “perplexed” at Pentecost (Acts 2:12), and Paul’s companions feeling “speechless” after Paul “saw the light” (Acts 9:7). If one considers synonyms and other closely related words and phrases, there are hundreds of references to awe in the Bible, making it one of the most common themes. As Rabbi Heschel translated, “the awe of God is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10).

Psychological Research on Awe

Reflecting a shift in meaning that has occurred over the centuries, contemporary psychological scientists almost always tend to frame awe in more positive terms, such as when University of North Carolina Psychology Professor Barbara Fredrickson describes awe as an emotion experienced when an individual is “overwhelmed by greatness.”5 Guided by this conceptualization, an increasing number of psychological studies have been conducted on awe in the past decade or so. This research suggests that awe may be a key factor in in the formation of several key spiritual virtues and behaviors.

Experimental research on awe randomly assigns research participants either to a condition intended to evoke awe or some kind of comparison state(s) in order to determine how awe may promote important outcomes of interest.

Awe Journals: Awe Expands People’s Perception of Time, Alters Decision Making, and Enhances Well-Being

For example, in one study, research participants were randomly assigned to write about a personal experience involving either (1) awe or (2) happiness. Results showed that those who wrote about an awe experience reported feeling less impatient and said they were more likely to give time and money to a worthy cause, compared with those who wrote about a happy experience.6

Gazing at Trees and Buildings: Awe, the Small Self, and Prosocial Behavior

In another study, participants were randomly assigned to either gaze for 1 minute at (1) a grove of Tasmania eucalyptus trees (with heights exceeding 200 feet) or (2) a nearby science building. Immediately following this, researchers staged an accident in which an assistant dropped a box of 11 pens in front of participants. Those who gazed at the trees helped more than those who stared at the science building. In addition, in a survey completed afterward, those who gazed at the trees revealed greater ethical decision-making and lower sense of personal entitlement.7

Watching TV: The Effects of Awe on Religious Belief

In perhaps the most spiritually provocative experiment on awe, researchers randomly assigned participants to either view:

  1. a 5-minute video of the BBC’s “Planet Earth,” consisting of grand, sweeping shots of plains, mountains, space, and canyons;
  2. a 5-minute video of the BBC’s “Walk on the Wild Side” intended to be amusing; or
  3. a 1959 news interview conducted by Mike Wallace.

Individuals who watched the “Planet Earth” segment revealed greater belief that the universe is controlled by God or supernatural forces as well as stronger belief in God more generally, compared with those in the other conditions. How much awe participants reported feeling during the experiment accounted for these effects.8

The Varieties of Awesome Experience: Assessing Whether Practical Wisdom and Awe of God Are Associated with Life Satisfaction

Another line of research has attempted to study individuals’ proneness to experience awe. The assumption in this research is that the tendency to be awestruck in everyday life may vary across individuals. That is, whereas some people may not experience awe very often, others may experience awe more frequently. For instance, researchers at the University of Michigan have developed a measure of the tendency to experience an “awe of God.”

Example items include:

  • “I am astonished by how little I understand about the universe and all that is in it.” and
  • “The ageless and timeless nature of God fills me with awe.”

These are rated on a 1 (strongly disagree) to 4 (strongly agree) scale. The researchers find that scores on this measure correlate with greater church attendance, practical wisdom, and connectedness with others.9

Cultivating the Virtue of Awe

Although there may be a sense in which awe experiences are beyond individuals’ control and involve an element of surprise, the Bible teaches that sensitivity to awe is a virtue that may be cultivated. For example, individuals are encouraged to “be stunned and amazed” (Isaiah 29:9) and to “stop and consider God’s wonders” (Job 37:14). There may be steps that individuals and leaders can take to encourage the experience of awe and, indirectly, its effects on key spiritual virtues and behaviors.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius

In his classic Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius taught individuals to use as many of the senses as possible when approaching a biblical text in order to more personally experience it. Rather than simply reading about the transfiguration, for example, a person could imagine the details of the sights, sounds, and smells of personally being there.

Stanford University Anthropology Professor Tanya Luhrmann has found that individuals randomly assigned to go through Ignatian prayer exercises in which they engage in this kind of imaginative prayer are more likely to report awe-inspiring mystical experiences than those assigned to listen to lectures on the Gospels.10 To apply this, individuals could try to pray more imaginatively or seek out Ignatian retreats on the Spiritual Exercises to learn how to do so. Christian leaders could encourage people in this kind of prayer or more generally engage individuals’ spiritual imaginations to a greater extent.

Practicing Awe as an Awakening in the Spirit

Rudolf Otto believed that awe may be “awakened in the spirit” in situations that are conducive to the experience.11 Some of the experimental studies discussed above suggest that even relatively minor exposures, such as watching a nature video or gazing at a tall stand of trees, can have a significant effect.

Stronger stimuli may have even stronger effects. For example, awe often may be elicited by vast, natural locations (such as the Grand Canyon); art of various kinds (Otto singled out architecture, such St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome); the presence or life stories of particularly virtuous people (such as Billy Graham or Pope Francis); or locations that have a sense of timelessness or significant history associated with them (such as the Holy Land). Individuals might intentionally seek out such stimuli as a part of their spiritual practice.

“Psychology Professor Barbara Fredrickson describes awe as an emotion experienced when an individual is “overwhelmed by greatness.”

Similarly, churches might intentionally sponsor events, such as trips, in which individuals could be exposed to such stimuli. In addition, churches could design worship services with individuals’ experiences foremost in mind. Prayerful music, meditative silence, and the intentional use of darkness and light all have the potential to stimulate awe during worship. Focusing the content of services on the mystery and awesomeness of God may have an effect as well.

Finally, as discussed above, research has found that writing about awe experiences has significant effects. Fredrickson advises individuals to reflect on previous experiences of awe by answering questions such as the following:

  • “When have you felt intense wonder or amazement, truly in awe of your surroundings?”
  • “When have you felt overwhelmed by greatness, or by beauty on a grand scale?” and
  • “When have you been stopped in your tracks, transfixed by grandeur?”12

In addition to encouraging personal reflection on such questions, churches could prompt discussions about such topics as well as the various ways in which God is awesome, beyond the scope of their comprehension.

Dangerous Wonder

Awe lies at the heart of traditional Christian experience and formation. Science is increasingly documenting the connection between awe and spiritual virtues and behaviors, including patience, generosity, compassion, humility, belief, and wisdom. As American Christianity continues to experience a decline in affiliation and influence, Christians might do well to consider how to nurture a sense of awe in the life of faith. As Michael Yaconelli stated in his book, “Dangerous Wonder:”

Tameness is not an option. Take surprise out of faith and all that is left

is dry and dead religion. Take away mystery from the Gospel and all that

is left is frozen and petrified dogma. Lose your awe of God and you are

left with an impotent Deity. Abandon astonishment and you are left with meaningless piety.13