by David Shirey
Pastor Central Christian Church, Lexington, KY
A Certified Green Chalice Congregation
The word is awe. When we gather for worship on Sundays are we mindful that, for the hour we are in the sanctuary, the roof is open, we are standing on holy ground, heaven and nature sing, and above and before us is none other than Almighty God.
Several years ago, two psychologists, Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner, wrote a piece in the New York Times titled “Why Do We Experience Awe?” (May 22, 2015). Theirs was a fascinating study of the dynamic of awe and, most interestingly, the consequences of experiencing awe and wonder.
For instance, the authors shared an insight into the phenomenon of goosebumps:
“In many nonhuman mammals, goose bumps — that physiological reaction in which the muscles surrounding hair follicles contract — occur when individuals, along with other members of their species, face a threat. We humans, by contrast, can get goose bumps when we experience awe, that often-positive feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the world.”
The authors conjectured that the experience of awe, the realization that we are part of something much greater than ourselves, “might help shift our focus from our narrow self-interest to the interests of the group to which we belong.” They performed a series of tests that supported their hypothesis:
“We found that awe helps bind us to others, motivating us to act in collaborative ways that enable strong groups and cohesive communities.”
“We found that participants who reported experiencing more awe in their lives, who felt more regular wonder and beauty in the world around them, were more generous to the stranger.”
“In other experiments, we evoked feelings of awe in the lab, for example by having participants recall and write about a past experience of awe or watch a five-minute video of sublime scenes of nature. Participants experiencing awe, more so than those participants experiencing emotions like pride or amusement, cooperated more, shared more resources and sacrificed more for others — all of which are behaviors necessary for our collective life.”
“In still other studies, we have sought to understand why awe arouses altruism of different kinds. One answer is that awe imbues people with a different sense of themselves, one that is smaller, more humble and part of something larger. Our research finds that even brief experiences of awe, such as being amid beautiful tall trees, lead people to feel less narcissistic and entitled and more attuned to the common humanity people share with one another. In the great balancing act of our social lives, between the gratification of self-interest and a concern for others, fleeting experiences of awe redefine the self in terms of the collective, and orient our actions toward the needs of those around us.”
In sum, awe inspires altruism. Generosity. Selflessness.
Which raises the question: Is the experience of awe and wonder a part of your life? What are some of the things that evoke awe and wonder in you, serve as reminders you’re standing on holy ground?
Nature. The arts. Words eloquently spoken or exquisitely written. Michael and Grant at the organ. The sights and feel of the church sanctuary. Human beings evidencing courage, grace, selflessness, kindness.
Worship inculcates a consciousness that life with God at the center is four-dimensional – is hallowed (halo-ed). People of vibrant faith have a sixth sense-- “eyes to see and ears to hear” that every Sunday and every day are filled with halo-ed moments.