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.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

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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).

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7 Responses to “As The Novelty Wears Off”

  1. Barnabas says:

    Seems contrary to Romans 1:20 For ever since the creation of the world His invisible nature and attributes, that is, His eternal power and divinity, have been made intelligible and clearly discernible in and through the things that have been made (His handiworks). So [men] are without excuse [altogether without any defense or justification], (Amplified)
    Surely revelation is not limited to the confines of a building. The Celtic church is clear evidence of this. The Whitby Synod, however imposed institutional and structural constraint (left brain dominance) As did the Roman and greek alphabets. Studying the Hebrew roots of the OT, greek roots of NT while being amongst nature considering the birds of the air and flowers cannot but cease to bring awe a sense of the wisdom of God. Unforced rhythms of grace

  2. Barnabas says:

    It is the ‘sin nature’ of man ‘the flesh’ that creates disgrace from grace.

  3. Barnabas says:

    Received on the same day

    http://godspace-msa.com/2015/06/22/meditation-monday-pope-francis-and-climate-change/

  4. Alan says:

    Our faith journey seems to have mirrored that of you and Kathy. We find ourselves loving the “thick” liturgy of the orthodox Anglican Church. We are in awe as we watch the procession of the Cross, as the Word is lifted up before the people, and as the Sacrament is made central in the worship experience.

  5. David Greusel says:

    Resolved: That religious architecture, done properly, should inspire spontaneous prayer.

  6. Greg says:

    You bring up an interesting point that you grew up in a “liturgical faith tradition”. I on the other hand grew up in a less liturgical tradition with a lot of outside the church bible studies and contemporary services. I now attend a a very liturgical based church and long for the “awe” of a more contemporary service from time to time. Perhaps it is as we get older we are drawn to the faith of our youth.

  7. Brad McDonald says:

    In most sermons through which I sit (and I do feel like I’m “sitting through” them) as soon as (if) the speaker starts a story, the whole atmosphere of the congregation changes; I can sense – “we’re back, he got our attention with the story.” So, metaphors and stories – Yes, that’s the way to go if you want awe.
    I have a training business. When I’m “lecturing” nobody’s listening; when I’m story telling, they’re locked on and tracking. So – no lecturing for me, just stories and questions.
    Thanks for making the connection between AWE and metaphors and the brain.
    McDonald

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