Awe. The word comes to us from Old English. It meant then “fear,” “terror,” “reverence.” For the polytheistic Germanic peoples, it was something felt before the power of nature or before a powerful leader.
Later, as Christianity came into the picture, the word was equated with the monotheistic god.
Whatever you think causes it, the emotion is the same: “fear,” “terror,” “reverence.”
I grew up in the mid-South where tornados are a common occurrence. When a tornado comes close, awe — fear, terror, reverence — is guaranteed.
I lived for a time on the Gulf Coast. When a hurricane comes in, awe — fear, terror, reverence — is guaranteed.
Those are the natural occurrences of awe. But we go looking for it, too.
European Christians set about creating awe by constructing overwhelming structures called cathedrals. Since then, secular structures such as dams and skyscrapers have created awe.
The European Romantics of the nineteenth century went looking for it. William Wordsworth hiked in an awe-inspiring area along the River Wye to see some ruins of a twelfth-century abbey. He wrote,
William Wordsworth, in a poem he called “Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” wrote,
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns . . .
A favorite Romantic-era spot was Mount Blanc, in the Alps. Here in the US, Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon have been favorites.
But the first thing to remember is that awe is not tied to religion or art. It’s a human emotion . . .
Dr. Jesse Prinz, a professor of philosophy at City University of New York, researches awe and wonder. Prinz believes that art, science, and religion all have awe and wonder as a common root. These emotions encourage us to try to understand, and our attempt to understand is the source for religion, art, and science.
Dr. Prinz writes, “Atheist that I am, it took some time for me to realize that I am a spiritual person.”
Well, actually, Dr. Prinz, we’re all spiritual people.
The physicist Sean Carroll — who hosts a brilliant podcast called “Mindscape,” BTW — writes:
We talk about ‘awe and wonder,’ but those are two different words. I am in awe of the universe: its scope, its complexity, its depth, its meticulous precision. But my primary feeling is wonder. Awe has connotations of reverence: ‘this fills me with awe and I am not worthy.’ Wonder has connotations of curiosity: ‘this fills me with wonder and I am going to figure it out. I will take wonder over awe every day.
For Dr. Carroll, an atheist who calls himself a “poetic naturalist,” understanding more increases awe.
Here’s the thing: We are not locked in a zero-sum, either / or world where atheists can’t have mystical experiences or theists can’t realize the beauty of a completely material and observable set of physical processes.
Every human being experiences awe and wonder somewhere across the artificial boundaries of science, art, and religion. As Sean Carroll points out, awe and wonder are the driving forces behind creativity in science, art, and religion.
Which brings us to the “why?” of awe and wonder. Why? Self-transcendence. Getting out of the ego and into relationship with the planet and her people.