O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
When I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
(Psalm 8:1, 3-4 NRSV)
Three thousand years ago, the psalmist looked at the stars and was filled with awe and wonder. Throughout the centuries, many have shared this experience. Immanuel Kant declared, “Two things fill the mind with ever increasing wonder and awe – the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” Modern science has made known to us a universe filled not just with sun and moon, stars and planets, but also with nebulae and galaxies, quasars and black holes.
Science reveals a world filled with wonders and mysteries. Many scientists find that their work inspires in them a strong sense of wonder. Yet, as a pastor, one of my great concerns is that so many Christians nowadays seem to lack a lively sense of awe and wonder in their faith and life. “Been there, done that” seems to better express their feelings. The results are devastating. Without a sense of awe towards that which is greater than ourselves drawing us out of ourselves, our vision seldom goes much further than our own interests, experiences and struggles. Abraham Joshua Heschel said: “The surest way to suppress our ability to understand the meaning of God and the importance of worship is to take things for granted. Indifference to the sublime wonder of being is the root of sin.” Faith calls us to encounter the living God, Creator of heaven and earth, the Mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Without a sense of awe and wonder, without “the fear of the Lord’, faith loses depth; it is at risk of becoming a one dimensional caricature of itself.
I believe that one of the greatest contributions science can make to faith (although certainly not the only one) is to help inspire in us a sense of wonder and awe. It can help renew in us the thrill of mystery and the adventure of discovery. It can give us perspective on our life and experience. Albert Einstein said “The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as of all serious endeavor in art and in science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind.”
On the other hand, our experience of science and technology can also serve to diminish our sense of awe and wonder. Science can be pursued as a playful, awestruck adventure of discovery, or it can be pursued as a means to control and dominate. Technology can help open up to us the wonders of the universe or it can tend to obscure them, while soon becoming itself just one more thing to be taken for granted. As an amateur astronomer, I experience this graphically. Telescopes reveal the incredible beauty and majesty of nebulae and galaxies. City lights, however, can reduce the number of stars visible with the naked eye to an uninspiring few dozen.
The call is not that we should somehow try to capture or create a sense of awe. That would be pointless, since awe is experienced in encountering that which is greater than us. I believe, though, that we can learn to open ourselves to awe, to seek such encounters and respond to them so that we live standing in awe rather than sitting in apathy. We must also, by faith, take the step the psalmist took, from a sense of wonder at creation to awe before the Creator.
We can do this individually to enrich our own faith. I would also encourage you to look for opportunities to share with groups, in your congregation or on your campus, ways in which science has helped you experience awe and wonder. Reading the works of authors who express a strong sense of wonder helps greatly. Loren Eiseley is one of my favorites. Take time to experience the beauty and majesty of creation. If you live in the city and are traveling on a clear evening away from city lights, find a dark stretch of road, pull over for ten minutes and enjoy the dark sky with thousands of stars. In leading small groups, I have asked people to remember and share times they have felt a strong sense of awe and wonder. I have also handed out nature pictures (calendars are great source of pictures) and had people discuss their reactions to them. Clearly it is not enough to just present some “Gee whiz” science, but I think that for this sort of thing, we must do more than just talk about awe. We must do what we can to help people experience awe. This is an ongoing interest for me and I would enjoy hearing any ideas you might have.