Some Force of Love and Logic
As Christmas draws near, I am thinking, appropriately, no doubt, about awe. I happen to rather like awe and experience it regularly. I experience it in all the usual places—mountaintops, oceans, majestic cathedrals, spine-tingling music. On a perhaps less obviously inspiring note, after a third consecutive morning dragging myself out of the house in sub -30-degree temperatures I am currently experiencing awe at just how bone-crushingly cold this planet is capable of getting. But yeah, I am generally a big fan of awe.
I was nudged in the direction of awe via a podcast that referenced an article from the BBC called “The Upsides of Feeling Small” by Richard Fisher. There are, evidently, numerous benefits to be harvested from embracing the vastness of the cosmos and our laughably tiny place within it. Fisher enumerates a few of these:
Various studies have shown that experiencing awe can reduce stress, discourage rumination, and enhance well-being. It also fosters greater attention to detail, boosts memory and encourages critical thinking.
Then there are the pro-social benefits: people in awe are more likely to show generosity, become less individualist, and emphasise a greater sense of connection to others and the world… “Awe shifts us from a competitive, dog-eat-dog mindset to perceive that we are part of networks of more interdependent, collaborating individuals.”
This, we are told, just scratches the surface of the social and psychological upsides. Indeed. I suppose we should all dutifully roll up our sleeves and get busy with awe.
You will, no doubt, have detected a hint or two of sarcasm by now. At least I hope you have. While I have no doubt that awe can be linked with this laundry list of wellness benefits, I am more than a little dubious about the order of operations here. Awe is here presented as something of a means to an end. It takes its place in the increasingly bloated category of “wellness” products, techniques, and therapies. It sits there on the shelf beside “cultivating gratitude” and mindfulness and getting enough sunlight and sleep and eating a balanced diet and journaling and buying whatever slop Gwyneth Paltrow is now hawking and God knows what else. Feeling stressed? Struggling to concentrate at work? Marriage issues? A bit edgy and distracted? Have you considered a bit more awe?
Awe is not a technique. It isn’t something that can just be summoned and pressed into the service of ends of our choosing. It is less something that we conjure up than a response that comes upon us, washes over us, overwhelms us. The expression, “It took my breath away” gets at the idea that awe sneaks up on us, surprises us, shocks us into attentiveness to the staggering beauty and grandeur all around us, and the love that surrounds and sustains it all.
Speaking of a love that surrounds and sustains… There is also the question of whether awe actually has any kind of transcendent reference point beyond ourselves. If the universe is simply the result of time and chance, with no inherent purpose or meaning beyond what we attach to it, then awe starts to feel a little less awesome. It starts to feel something like, well, a wellness technique. A practice that we can cultivate to make our lives more bearable. Another example of a mostly secular culture rummaging around in its religious past for coping mechanisms that we weirdly can’t seem to do without. These things aren’t useless, I suppose. But they sure seem like a radical shrinking of what the word “awe” is or should be.
My wife bought my Bono’s memoir Surrender for our anniversary. I’ve read plenty of biographies of the man and the band (U2) over the years, but it’s been interesting to read his story in his own words. Unsurprisingly, he’s an excellent writer. At one point he reflects on an experience of awe on Christmas Eve in a cathedral in Dublin:
The poetry and politics of the Christmas story hit me as if I were hearing it for the first time: the idea that some force of love and logic inside this mysterious universe might choose self-disclosure in the jeopardy of one impoverished child, born on the edge of nowhere, to teach us how we might live in service to one another is overwhelming.
Its eloquence is overwhelming. Unfathomable power expressed in powerlessness. I nearly laugh out loud.
Some force of love and logic expressed in powerlessness. The self-disclosure of the God of the universe. Yes, this is the overwhelming eloquence of the Incarnation. It may or may not make me more prosocial. It might not even touch my stress or make me a better collaborator. I doubt it will make me pay better attention to detail. But it certainly calls forth my awe.
Much as I love Bono, his theology in the quote above is truncated. The God of heaven and earth did indeed come “to teach us how we might live in service to one another.” But he did much more than this. It was not just a pedagogical excursion that the Holy One embarked upon in Bethlehem’s manger. It was a soteriological one. Jesus came not just to teach but to save.
As I was writing this post, a Christmas-y song came through my headphones. It was Marc Martel and Leigh Nash’s version of Welcome to Our World which contains a verse whose lyrics express the project of God about as beautifully as anything I’ve come across:
So wrap our injured flesh around You
Breathe our air and walk our sod
Rob our sins and make us holy
Perfect Son of God
The image above is taken from the 2021-22 Christian Seasons Calendar. It is called “Good News Declared to the Shepherds” and was created by Jelena Eros.
It’s -30 here in Calgary. Today my wife and I will slip up Macleod Trail a couple Km’s to have one pricey dinner just because, well we are in awe that our marriage has survived 54 years! 😊👍 And also awesome gratitude for a fuel efficient little car still gets us there even in winter solstice. Nice article Ryan.