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For me, it is waterfalls and cascading streams. When hiking along a mountain river, watching the water tumble and shape the valley, that is where I feel the awesome power of nature. So I get it when folks say being out in nature is where they feel closest to God. I’ve felt that feeling. Many a time.

But I’ve also had a wow! feeling in worship and in Christian fellowship. One of the most powerful times was during this spring’s BioLogos annual conference. Singing So Will I (100 Billion X) with several hundred science geeks and Jesus lovers was … well, it was wow!

That feeling of wow! is often called awe. And scientists have been trying to grasp its power for over a decade. So let’s take a closer look at the science of wow! as we consider notions of science and nature, wonder and beauty over the coming weeks.

The Science of Awe

Conceptual studies of awe note that it has its roots in “fear and dread, particularly toward a divine being.” But the common understanding of awe today is no longer fear of God but most often that feeling we get in an encounter with nature. The feeling can be both positive (sunsets) or negative (tornadoes)—or it can even be tinged with fear (standing at the edge of Niagara Falls).

Scientists suggest that nature and other people (a newborn, a hero or celebrity) are the most common sources of awe, but awe can also result from music, art, or religious experiences. Some even feel it in response to their own accomplishments.

So what does the experience of awe do to us (or for us)? This is where the research has been piling up.  Here are just a few of the many findings about awe:

  • It is believed to have fostered cooperation, leading to an evolutionary benefit that makes it a common human experience.
  • It feels good, but it is also linked with a number of positive emotions such as joy, gratitude, and generosity.
  • It is linked with better health, including reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, depression, and autoimmune disease.
  • It can bring people together.
  • It fosters critical thinking. It also encourages curiosity and creativity.
  • It has been linked to belief in God. Research correlates increased spirituality and religiosity after “awe”-some experiences.
  • It can make us feel diminished, which can help us gain perspective. It can also make you feel like you have more time and detach you from your everyday concerns.

However, negative awe—like fear of a wrathful God or the trail of a tornado—can do just the opposite. It can induce feelings of powerlessness without eliciting the benefits listed above.

Want some more awe? Scientists have figured out several ways to cultivate it. Greater Good Science Center provides a list, all of them easy and accessible—things like visiting a museum, taking in the wonders of nature, spending time with kids and seeing the world through their eyes, or reading an inspiring biography.

Speaking of Wonder

Some of the conceptual research on awe considers two aspects of it. The first is a sense of vastness—which gives us a feeling of smallness and/or the notion of fear. The second, less obvious, is often called accommodation—where an ‘awe’-some experience may require new conceptions to help us make sense of it.

Some would say the gap between science and religion is vast, though I don’t see it that way. But I do wonder if awe could be a new conception to help us build bridges between science and religion. 

How? It can motivate both scientists and believers. Many scientists experience it in their work of discovery and determining how nature works. Believers feel it in worship, in the inspiration of a waterfall or sunset, or even in human interactions.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see a study suggesting that lack of awe is a factor behind the “Nones” and “Dones.” They don’t experience God in church anymore. Rather, they head to the mountains or oceans, or even to a museum, to get that transcendent feeling. 

How can we change that? How can we use research suggesting awe as a link between science and belief to improve the effectiveness of our ministries? How can we help everyone experience the awesomeness of God, not just through creation, but through the worshipping body of Christ?

I don’t have any easy answers. But I do wonder.


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