Awe Demands an Awe-Giver
Materialists want to reap the psychological benefits of godly attitudes without entering the narrow gate properly.
New Scientist advertised a new YouTube video from Science with Sam titled, “What is Awe?” Interspersed with some awe-inspiring scenes of nature, Sam talks about the psychological benefits of awe: boosting creativity, lowering stress, and making us ‘nicer people.’ These benefits do not require religion, he assures his viewers (after all, this is “science”). Just look at something awe-inspiring, he advises, and the good psychological benefits will flow.
And although awe has often been linked to spiritual or religious experiences, atheists can feel it, too… By expanding our attention to see a big picture, awe can make us feel very small.
But is a true sense of awe free of religious content? Is it possible for materialism to account for the good vibes that awe brings forth in the soul? Just as gratitude requires an object (17 Nov 2014, 23 Nov 2017), awe requires a subject. The subjects that people characterize as awesome are often grand – a starry night, massive mountains, the Grand Canyon – but can be petite as well – snow crystals, a baby’s eyes, a butterfly on a flower.
Atheists unquestionably can feel awe. They can even practice it, as Sam advises, just like they can practice gratitude to enjoy its psychological benefits. The motives of an atheist, however, can be selfish rather than prosocial, and the effects opposite to those of the godly. Consider how “awe can make us feel very small,” as Sam points out. The incredible vastness of space led atheist Bill Nye to exclaim, with great passion, “I am a speck on a speck, we are specks, in the middle of specklessness… I, I, I suck!” (video). Pondering the same reality, though, can make one who believes in creation rejoice in awe:
O Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens….
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings[b]
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet. (from Psalm 8)
Eleven times, the Book of Psalms points to the awesome deeds of the Lord as subjects of awe as well. Observation and reflection of awesome works and awesome deeds point the God-fearing person to an awe-inspiring Being. He alone is the source of genuine awe: a real, living Creator who gave his Son to redeem us back into his family.
Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12:28-29).
For an atheist or materialist, by contrast, awe is very short-lived. It ends in the dust of a grave. For the godly, it is the beginning of an eternity of awe.
See also 30 June 2019.
This past week, many citizens were shocked to watch news reports of shoplifters in San Francisco walking into drug stores with garbage bags and filling them with anything they wanted, then shamelessly walking out in broad daylight without paying for them (video). Walgreens had to close 17 stores in the area because of lost revenue. Police were unable to stop the shoplifters because the mayor reduced the penalty to a misdemeanor and told them to stand down. Some of the criminals rationalized their behavior with excuses that they deserved the goods because they were somehow victims of deprivation, or that corporations could afford the lost revenue. Given the political climate, bystanders and even security guards felt powerless to intervene.
In a sense, the secularists like Sam who promote awe for selfish reasons are like the shoplifters, with one major difference: there is no price tag on God’s gifts. In Biblical theology, God extends his ‘common grace’ to everyone (Isaiah 55, Matthew 5:45, Acts 14:17). Because God is good by nature, he offers his benevolence to all, even to those who hate him. Why not, then, take a bag into the storehouse of God’s gifts and walk off with all the benefits one wants without even saying ‘Thank you’? The reason: God’s awesome gifts and deeds are pointers to himself so that we would draw near to him (Hebrews 11:6, Acts 17:22-31).
When I was young, I had a pet dog that would frustrate me at times. I would point her to a ball or frisbee to go fetch, and she would come and sniff my finger. She didn’t understand the point that I was making: we could play together and enjoy one another. People like Sam look at the signposts and admire them, but choose to ignore where they point. Like the shoplifters, they take all the goods offered by the Creator and walk out without paying even a bit of gratitude to the One who made them. The subjects of awe, including the wonders of our own bodies, are more than sufficiently evident to rule out material chance as causes of their existence. There is no excuse for failing to acknowledge God for the things that are made (Romans 1:20).
Most decent people would agree that failure to give thanks or acknowledge excellence is a grievous character flaw. Let us not practice “awe” for its own sake or for selfish reasons. Awesome works and awesome deeds in creation point us to a righteous, powerful and loving Creator. The way to give him thanks is to humble ourselves, repent of our sins, and embrace his free gift of forgiveness made possible through his Son Jesus (Titus 2:11-14, Titus 3:3-7). A life spent following the good Shepherd (John 10:11) will gain more than just psychological benefits: “The Lord is my shepherd…. my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23). That is truly awesome.
Resource: Creation Safaris, a California hiking club, uses AWE as their acronym for “Adventure, Worship, Education.” Click the bookmark to go to the site. When you click the front page, you can watch short videos to find out more about the benefits of A.W.E.