Matthew Hutson has done interesting research on the power of experiencing awe to make us more generous and content. I dislike the title of his book — The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane — and its insinuation that religious experience is magical and irrational. But I do appreciate and am intrigued by his findings that awe has the power to change our worldview — and for the better.
Hutson points out that Edmund Burke wrote about the sublime, Freud discussed the oceanic, and Maslow gave us peak experiences. In each instance, writers are describing experiences of such vastness (in size, skill, beauty, intensity, etc.) that we struggle to take it in. Thus, we adjust our world view to become more capacious. It could be relatively quiet (“when through the woods and forest glades I wander, and hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees”) or giant (“when I look down, from lofty mountain grandeur”). In either case, “then sings my soul” because we are encountering some Other which causes our ego to shrink and our sense of being caught up in something grand and glorious to swell. How great thou art, indeed.
And this is a very, very good thing. According to Hutson’s research, awe:
- Increases our generosity and our willingness to donate;
- Makes time feel more plentiful;
- Gives us greater tolerance for uncertainty, ambiguity, and the connectedness of all people and things (and thus a lower likelihood of being violent to others);
- Leads to a stronger belief in God or the supernatural.
Hutson believes that awe has been an evolutionary advantage for humans by keeping us from being paralyzed by a sense of our own mortality and tininess. I can go there with him, but where he leaves me cold is when he denigrates any sense of the supernatural as magical or irrational. Hutson — an atheist — starts with his pre-commitments to a world view that does not include God and thus tries to explain our undeniably religious encounters using nonreligious and condescending categories. “Religion” derives from the same word as “ligament.” It is ultimately a connecting force and, with no divine object or mysterium tremendum, our experiences of awe are ultimately self-referential and delusional.
Nonetheless, three cheers for genuine awe. Go for it wherever you find it; practice its presence however you can. You’ll need that practice, because if the book of Revelation has it right, our ultimate end will be an eternal experience of awe in the presence of the awesome God of Jesus Christ.