Research indicates that people have three “awe” experiences a week on average. The benefits make us less self-centered. But for most folks, even Christians, these experiences occur more in nature than in church. Why?
In the May 2015 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Paul Piff reports on how experiencing a sense of awe promotes altruism, humility, and generosity. An assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Irvine, Piff directed a team that ran experiments such as looking at tall trees for a minute. Those who experienced awe were subsequently more generous. Other experiences made people less self-centered and entitled. Still others exhibited pathos, sharing in the suffering of another person.
Awe is “a sense of wonder we feel in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the world,” Piff notes. Research indicates people most commonly experience awe in nature, but also feel it in art and music. Religion hardly makes the list, however, even for Christians. Why is this so?
In part, it’s rooted in the rise of Nature in 19th century America. As the novelty of early 1800s evangelical awakenings wore off, many luminaries went looking elsewhere to experience a sense of transcendence. This included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, William James, and John Muir. They found awe in capital “N” Nature.
In his 1836 essay Nature, Emerson wrote how, “In the presence of Nature a wild delight runs through the man in spite of real sorrow.” This essay sparked the Transcendentalist movement, which included Henry David Thoreau recommending spending more than four hours a day out of doors. William James turned to Nature as a young man after visiting a Christian camp, where he felt “the atrocious harmlessness” of the faith. He longed for an awe-filled world with its “heights and depths, the precipices and steep ideals, the gleams of the awful and the infinite.”1
The rise of Nature coincided with the emergence of expressive individualism in the United States. It meshed with the transcendentalists but messed up the church (c.f., Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart). Music became expressively individualistic (“I love you, Lord”). Recently, the novelty has begun to wear out for some Christians (c.f., Colleen Carroll Campbell, The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy). Recent findings from neuroscience tell us why this is happening.
Only the right hemisphere has direct contact with reality, such as in taking a walk in the woods. This produces many sensations, including an awe experience as well as a sense of pathos, or caring for others.2 The left hemisphere has no direct contact with reality. It can’t produce awe. That’s a problem, as the Western world, including the church, is ruled by the brain’s left hemisphere. This yields sermons and studies and singing—but no awe experiences. Furthermore, the left lobe exhibits “a craving for novelty and stimulation.” The absence of awe means churches have to keep ginning up novel acts to keep parishioners entertained. Still, over time, the novelty keeps wearing off.
I know this because I’ve experienced this. I grew up in a liturgical faith tradition. We didn’t practice the faith, however. Then I embraced Christ in college and jettisoned what felt like tired “traditional” worship for a hip, cool “contemporary” style. Over time, the novelty wore off. Today, my wife Kathy and I worship in a church that practices “thick” liturgies. We occasionally feel awe, similar to what we regularly felt during our trip to Italy last summer. I’m no great shakes when it comes to prayer, but we were spontaneously moved to prayer as we visited cathedrals. No hype. No hip music. Instead, solemnity. Pathos. It was a right-brained experience, often moving Kathy and I to tears.
God made the world—and designed the human brain—in such a way that people are very likely to experience awe in nature. We should also experience it in church as well. That’s more likely to happen as the church adopts more right-brained practices. I would recommend putting the sacraments at the center of the service. Touching and tasting bread and wine, products of nature, is right-brained. I’d also encourage imaginative sermons, metaphorically-based rather than information-stuffed messages. Who knows? Over time, parishioners might experience the numinous and slowly lose their left-brained craving for whatever is new and novel.
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1 Quoted in William Edgar, Taking Note of Music (London: Third Ways, SPCK, 1986), p. 18.
2 Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).