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Awe in Religious and Spiritual Experience

New research on an ancient connection

Several years ago, my family and I traveled to the Isle of Skye, an island near the coast of northwest Scotland. Arriving at night, I had no sense of the place. So, at the crack of dawn, I went out to explore.

A little into my walk, I was stunned to realize I was surrounded by five dramatic mountain peaks. I heard myself say “wow” out loud, and I physically stopped, transfixed, to take in the scene. I looked to the stars and was keenly aware in a way I never was before, how tiny I am in the midst of a vast universe. I felt a tinge of fear and my legs became weak. At the same time, I experienced a healing force pour through me. Any stress I had been feeling melted away.

Not only did this experience influence me psychologically; it also affected me spiritually, as long-held beliefs seemed to move from my head to my heart. The experience left such an impression on me that, since then, I have become fascinated by connections between spiritual experience and a new science: the science of awe.

In the past decade or so, psychologists have clarified the meaning of awe, found some intriguing effects of awe, and suggested strategies for how to experience more awe in everyday life. However, much of this work has neglected connections between awe and spiritual experience.

Yet, religious and spiritual traditions possess an experiential core often characterized by awe. For instance, in his experience with a “spirit [that] glided past,” Job was reported to respond with “fear and trembling.” His bones shook and the hair of his body “stood on end.” He left mystified (Job 4:13-17). Similarly, the women who found Jesus’ tomb empty were said to be “trembling and bewildered” (Mark 16:8). Finally, in his encounter with an angel on Mount Hira, Mohammed has been described by one biographer as feeling “utterly overwhelmed…by a force larger than anything the mind can comprehend.”

Indeed, some of the most insightful discussions of awe anywhere can be found in theology, such as in Rudolf Otto’s classic treatment 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.

Only recently have scientists tried to understand the connections between awe and spiritual experience.

For instance, in perhaps the most spiritually provocative experiment on awe, scientists randomly assigned study participants to either view (1) a five-minute video of the BBC’s “Planet Earth,” consisting of grand, sweeping shots of plains, mountains, space, and canyons; (2) a five-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. Perhaps surprisingly, after their viewing, individuals who watched the “Planet Earth” segment expressed a greater belief that the universe is controlled by God or other supernatural forces, as well as stronger belief in God more generally, than those in the other two conditions.

This study scientifically demonstrates how important natural beauty can be for spiritual belief. It also provides scientific support for the idea that awe precedes religious and spiritual experience. As theologian Frederick Buechner put it, “religions start, as Frost said poems do, with a lump in the throat, to put it mildly, or with the bush going up in flames, the rain of flowers, the dove coming down out of the sky.”

Karl Fredrickson | Unsplash
Source: Karl Fredrickson | Unsplash

In contrast, researchers in another study randomly assigned Christian research participants to either pray imaginatively for 30 minutes per day, six days per week, for four weeks, or to listen to lectures on the Gospels for the same amount of time. Instructions for the imaginative prayer condition were inspired by St. Ignatius of Loyola’s classic spiritual exercises, first published in the 16th century. Study participants were encouraged to use their imaginations “to draw close to God, to enter into the Scriptures, and to experience them as if they were alive.” They were taught to use all of their senses to do so. At the end of the four weeks, those who engaged in imaginative prayer more frequently indicated having powerful experiences during the time of the study, often of an awe-inspiring nature. Examples include episodes in which participants stated that “electricity’s going through me,” a presence “blew my mind,” and images that came to mind were “very real and awesome.”

Thus, not only can awe precede religious and spiritual experience, but this study suggests how religious and spiritual experience also can stimulate awe. As a religious and spiritual memoirist, Kathleen Norris stated, “The more I am aware of God’s presence in my life, and in the world, the more intimate this relationship becomes, the more I am in awe.”

Given this, some have speculated that the experience of awe may at least partly explain the finding that religious commitment and personal well-being are usually positively related to each other. A final study examined this possibility. Scientists investigated three general factors: how much church attendance helped participants understand their faith, how much it helped them connect with others attending with them, and the extent to which they felt several self-transcendent emotions during church. In the end, it was the self-transcendent emotions individuals experienced such as awe that played the biggest role in accounting for the positive link found between religiousness and well-being.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said that “the higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.” Yet, as the venerated psychologist, Abraham Maslow, speculated, religious traditions tend to lose connection with their experiential base over time. If religious and spiritual communities could return to their experiential core, and if they could do a better job of supporting individuals’ journeys to experience positive emotions such as awe in daily life, they very well may experience a real revival and return to a cultural center capable of nurturing well-being and peace.

Andy Tix, Ph.D., also often blogs at his site: The Quest for a Good Life. You can sign up to receive e-mail notifications of new posts at this site.

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