There is a science to awe. Not “aw” as in “aw shucks” or “aw that’s too bad,” but awe, as in wonder or reverence or admiration or awesome. I always imagined awe as some sort of mystical experience that only happens in big moments, like standing on a mountaintop or visiting a beautiful cathedral, but awe is its own kind of emotion.
Apparently back in 1972, scientists identified six distinct emotions—anger, surprise, disgust, enjoyment, fear, and sadness—and awe wasn’t one of those, but now awe is on the cutting edge of emotion research. Dr. Dacher Keltner (DACK-er KELT-ner), a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, measures the way emotions affect our bodies, and he says humans experiencing awe have different physical responses than when they feel joy or excitement.
Dr. Keltner says the feeling of awe calms the nervous system, triggers the release of oxytocin—a hormone that promotes trust and bonding—and even impacts the brain’s function by deactivating the default mode network, which is the part of the cortex of the brain involved in how we perceive ourselves. In other words, in case you’re not a brain scientist: awe can silence that negative, critical voice that lives in your brain. Which means that awe could be healthy and even important.
In an article for the New York Times, Dr. Keltner said, “We are at this cultural moment of narcissism and self-shame and criticism and entitlement; awe gets us out of that.” He explains that awe gets us out of our own heads and “realize our place in the larger context, our communities.”
So this is great—awe sounds amazing. And maybe you’re thinking how can I get that? Okay, this article, written by Hope Reese, includes plenty of suggestions for cultivating awe, including mindfulness practice and meditation, taking time to notice the goodness of other people—even the ones you wouldn’t necessarily pay attention to, learn about inspiring people and study their lives, and experiment with novelty like taking a new route to a familiar place or trying different food or listening to new music.
Though you don’t have to do anything different, you can simply slow down and notice what’s around you. And here’s my favorite part of the article by Hope Reese, who writes this:
“When William B. Irvine, a professor of philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, wants to feel a sense of awe, he turns to science. “Science is everywhere, all of the time,” he said. An alluring object or part of nature, for example, is a “piece of an incredibly beautiful puzzle.” We often just think of the piece instead of the big picture, he said, “and that’s a pity.”
But once we think about the context, about what went into its creation, awe will follow.”
How do we begin again? Lutherans love questions almost as much as we love Jesus, and another thing we love is to take note of context. We don’t read the Bible as a book of magic spells for living a good life; we don’t study the Bible as a science textbook with formulas and equations.
Anytime I see a sign that says JOHN 3:16, I wonder what’s the message. Read this for instructions on obtaining eternal life? Get right with Jesus, or otherwise you can expect to perish? Some Christians call this verse “the gospel in a nutshell,” as if this is everything you need to know about Jesus. And that’s not bad or wrong, but I’ll tell you, John 3:16 didn’t really grab my attention or inspire awe until I noticed the context of where it shows up.
This isn’t in the middle of a sermon. This isn’t Jesus teaching in the synagogue. This is a late-night conversation between Jesus and a Jewish leader, Nicodemus, who maybe doesn’t want everybody else to know that he’s curious about Jesus.
Nicodemus doesn’t even show up with a burning question; it’s Jesus who starts talking about being “born from above,” whatever that means. And of course Nicodemus then has to ask: how can anyone be born again? How can these things be?
Jesus tries to explain about being born of water and Spirit, about the mysterious properties of wind, about the Son of Man ascending to and descending from heaven, and Jesus even references that weird story from Exodus where the people of God were camping somewhere in the wilderness and bunches of them were getting bitten by venomous snakes and some were dying so Moses had to put one of those snakes on a big pole and hold it up so that everyone who looked at the snake could be cured of their snakebites and live…
This is all part of how Jesus answers the questions of Nicodemus. How can anyone be born again? Well, it’s because God loved the world so much that Jesus came into the world, and not to condemn but to save.
How can anyone be born again? How does anyone get born the first time? Babies don’t really have any control over being born, do they? Babies don’t need to understand birth before being born. Babies don’t really do any of the work of being born, either. The labor, the birthing, all belongs to the mother.
Now anyone who has ever birthed a child would also tell you they don’t necessarily have a lot of control in the events of labor, either, and the whole birthing process is actually kinda dangerous for babies and mothers, and offering up your body and making such sacrifices and being that incredibly vulnerable, and really anyone who has cared for a child, including adoptive parents, they too can speak of the incredible vulnerability and the sacredness of that caring relationship, and the whole thing just makes you appreciate what an incredible miracle life really is…you know, you might even call it awe.
How can anyone be born again? Let birth happen, and trust in God, who’s actually the one laboring for you to be born, who’s actually doing the work of saving you and setting you free from all the nonsense and cynicism and hatred and violence that threatens to consume you. Let yourself be reborn in humility, in accepting the hand held out to steady you, in receiving the cup of cold water offered to refresh and sustain you, in welcoming the little ones and the least of these.
How do we begin again? God so loved and God so labored to bring this world to birth—all of creation, and even you. May God grant you the grace of finding your place in creation, your sense of belonging, and the awe that accompanies such grace.
 Hope Reese, “Delving Into the Science of Awe,” January 3, 2023, The New York Times, Section D, page 6. Found online on March 4, 2023 at https://www.nytimes.com/2023/01/03/well/live/awe-wonder-dacher-keltner.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share&referringSource=articleShare  Ibid.