Moving from 'Awesome' to Awe

Awe is the missing ingredient in U.S. religion. Its absence has transformed faith and worship into feel-good therapy sessions.


There's an important element of the gospel narratives that we all too easily overlook. It is the reaction on the part of people who hear Jesus' teachings and witness the extraordinary signs or miracles He performs. In a word, that reaction is one of

awe

. It is a response of wonder, tinged with fear, in the face of what has been called the

mysterium tremendum,

the unfathomable mystery of divine presence and power.

In Christian experience, the wonder remains, but the fear is transformed into a profound reverence. When Christ heals people, the gospels tell us, bystanders react with "amazement." They are "astonished," sometimes even "overwhelmed," by what they see and hear. When the experience is powerful enough to plunge them into silence, it provokes feelings of awe. Like Moses, they take off the shoes of their soul, for they find themselves on hallowed ground.

This, in any case, is how it should be. In today's reality, awe has been reduced to "awesome!," a reaction that's just a notch above "cool!" We have so domesticated God that we no longer feel awe in His presence, we are no longer shaken to the bones by His overwhelming power and glory. Yet any God who is devoid of the capacity to evoke awe is no God at all. It is an idol of our own making, a pitiful caricature of all that is genuinely holy.

Awe is the missing ingredient in American religion, including Christianity. It is the absence of awe that has transformed traditional faith and worship into "American popular religion," with its feel-good therapy services offered up to a Big Buddy in the sky. For those who are looking for something else, something more, the question is: How do we recover an authentic experience of awe in the presence of the true God of infinite might and majesty?

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Often, it seems, we look for such an experience in the wrong place. We look in earthquake, wind, and fire, rather than in "the still small voice." To feel the deepest sense of awe, in fact, requires silence.
This was brought home to me in a very striking and marvelous way just a few days ago. I was finishing a three-week period at our seminary in Paris and planning to leave the next day for the States. On my last afternoon, I walked through traffic noise and mid-week bustle from the Latin Quarter across the Seine to the Right Bank, ending up near Les Halles in the very heart of the city. There, amid luxury apartment buildings and trendy shops, rose a magnificent medieval stone church, apparently of mixed Gothic and Romanesque architecture.

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