Faith and the Scientific Senses: Awe

May 9th, 2023

This article is the fourth in a series of resources that seek to bring new angles on faith and science. You can read the others here. While such conversations have often focused on trying to bridge the space between faith and the ‘hard sciences,’ these resources are aimed at another purpose.

This series offers an experience for how scientific method and practice can become a renewing agent for our life together in Christ. In deploying the virtues of key scientific “senses,” we can discover a fresh resource for discipleship.                              

Here’s how to use these tools with an Action—Reflection—Action model:

First, Action: read through this article, together or ahead of time as a group. 

Second, Reflect: reflect as a group on how this particular “sense” is revealed here, and how you can collectively engage that “sense” in the week ahead.

Third, Reaction: more on this step at the end of this piece.

Because I believe science can be a resource for the Christian faith, it was fascinating to me to learn that scientists have developed a tool to measure “awe.” The Bible is filled with stories of men and women experiencing awe as a response to God’s presence: Moses and the burning bush; Isaiah in the temple; Mary at the annunciation; the Samaritan woman at the well; and Peter after the great catch of fish. Many of the Psalms (8, 19, 65, 66, 139) express a sense of awe toward God: “the whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders” (Psalm 65:8). In its description of the early Christian Church the Acts of the Apostles includes this line, “Awe came upon everyone….” But how can such an experience be studied scientifically? 

Researchers from Johns Hopkins University applied “factor analysis” to the answers of hundreds of questions about experiences of awe, which allowed them to create a psychometric scale to rate these kinds of experiences. This research was published in 2018 in The Journal of Positive Psychology.

The abstract describing the research says:

Awe is a complex emotion composed of an appraisal of vastness and a need for accommodation. The purpose of this study was to develop a robust state measure of awe, the Awe Experience Scale (AWE-S), based on the extant experimental literature. In study 1, participants (N = 501) wrote about an intense moment of awe that they had experienced and then completed a survey about their experience. 

The study of these responses resulted in the identification of six factors that were consistently present in the hundreds of descriptions of awe. Those factors are:

  1. altered time perception         
  2. perceived vastness
  3. self-diminishment
  4. physical sensations
  5. sense of connectedness
  6. need for accommodation

The Awe Experience Scale, or AWE-S, gives those of us working in the laboratory of the church a way to engage more deeply with experiences of awe, both in the Bible and in our own lives. 

Awe is the best way I know to describe my own experience of science. I remember feeling a sense of awe when I learned basic scientific concepts and performed rudimentary experiments as early as junior high school. In subsequent years, the study of biology, chemistry, and physics led me to an increasing sense of awe and wonder at the operation of the universe on both the microscopic and macroscopic levels.

To this day I am awestruck that sodium (Na) and chloride (Cl) combine to make salt. How can that be? Why should it be? And then there is the microscope. I remember looking at a single cell under a microscope. You could never see this cell with your unaided eye; but it is there. Not only that, the microscopic cell itself contains structures: a nucleus, mitochondria, and other cellular material. It seemed to me that there is a universe within a single cell, and that led to awe at the wonders occurring beyond the range of ordinary human vision.

In the study of botany I was again filled with a sense of awe as I learned about the energy factory that operates in every common plant. Astronomy challenged me to lift my vision to the sky and be awestruck by the magnitude of the universe and the dependable operation of the laws of the universe. Through the sciences, I came to experience what the German theologian Rudolph Otto has called “a sense of the holy” (Otto, The Idea of the Holy).

Science has had an evangelistic effect on my life by pointing me to the reality of a power behind the universe that is far greater than human power. The test tubes and experiments did not reduce life to a bunch of chemicals. Rather, the study of science gave me a sense of the holy that is all around us; such awareness leads to a sense of awe. I find that the six factors of the AWE Scale describe my own experience of awe through scientific study. 

Awe has long been part of the vocabulary of science. Many scientists are people of faith whose awe-filled sense of the holy in life drives them to want to learn more about the world and how it works. Isaac Newton, the father of classical physics and the inventor of calculus, was a Bible scholar. Gregor Mendel, father of the science of genetics, was a Catholic monk. In his book, The Language of God, Francis Collins speaks of the awe he has for the DNA molecule that carries the genetic information of our bodies. “As a chemist, knowing how extraordinary the qualities of DNA really are, I am in awe of this molecule. Let me try to explain just how elegant DNA really is” (101). He ends his description of DNA and how it works in our cells with “how marvelous and intricate life turns out to be!” (35) In the elegance of DNA, he says, he is more in awe of God than ever before. Collins also connects his scientific experience of awe with other experiences of awe much earlier in his life. 

As a boy of ten, I recall being transported by the experience of looking through a telescope...on a...field at our farm, when I sensed the vastness of the universe. At fifteen, I recall a Christmas eve where the descant on a particularly beautiful Christmas carol, rising sweet and true above the more familiar tune, left me with a sense of unexpected awe and a longing for something I could not name. 

More recently, for a scientist who occasionally is given the remarkable privilege of discovering something not previously known by man, there is a special kind of joy associated with such flashes of insight. Having perceived a glimmer of scientific truth, I find at once both a sense of satisfaction and a longing to understand some even greater truth. In such a moment, science becomes more than a process of discovery. It transports the scientist into an experience that defies a completely naturalistic explanation. (Collins, The Language of God, 36) 

And it is in that context that he then asks, quoting Annie Dillard, “What is the difference between a cathedral and a physics lab?” (Collins, 39)

Both inspire in us a sense of awe and the humble awareness that behind the observable universe there is a power much greater than ourselves. When this experience of awe is mediated to us through the study of science we can reply to Francis Collins’ question by saying there is no difference between a cathedral and a physics lab. We can find a sense of the holy in both places.

Why is the experience of awe so important to each of us? One excellent understanding of its importance is provided by seminary professor and Christian minister Craig Barnes: “We are dominated by an exaggerated sense of the self. We worry about my life, my kids, my health, my future, and when we’re stuck in traffic we ask, Why me?” Then he says: “By the time we make it to the church on Sunday we’re sick and tired of the self and ready to hear a better story, a glorious story revolving around Father, Son and Holy Spirit” (Christian Century, 2 Feb 2009, 33). It is this sense of the holy that carries us beyond the narrow limits of self-concern. 

While science teaches us that a laboratory can be a cathedral, might it also challenge us to see that a local church can be a laboratory where awe is recognized and encouraged within the life of the Christian disciple and the community of faith. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, thought just that way. Wesley was born in 1703 and died in 1791. As a priest in the Church of England, Wesley was concerned that people were leaving their spiritual lives up to chance, and the vitality of the Anglican church was at low ebb. He loved the church and wanted to be part of its renewal. He realized that a laboratory of renewal was needed, so he started small groups whose members met during the week for Bible study, prayer, and holding each other accountable for committed Christian living. These class meetings, as they were called, functioned as laboratories in which individuals were enabled to encounter the Holy and respond to it in daily life. Because they were so methodical in their meetings and their spiritual practices, these followers of Wesley were mockingly called “method-ists.” Rather than being offended by this term of derision, John Wesley embraced it, and the name Methodist was born.  

The men and women who participated in these class meetings were practicing what John Wesley called “experimental religion.” He meant that the class meetings created an interactive environment in which religion was not just discussed; it was experienced first-hand. This led to a tremendous sense of awe among the early Methodists as they marveled at the new power of the Christian faith in their lives. In the class meetings, Wesley provided a laboratory-type structure that gave people what they needed in order to foster continued growth in the faith.

I believe the experience of awe points to the way in which faith and science can be complementary to each other. Faith grows out of a sense of awe and wonder at the Holy that is all around us. Scientific inquiry itself can support faith by inviting us to experience the awe and wonder of the universe. Awe is not something we create; it finds us. It found me in the science laboratory as I marveled at the complexity of nature and the intricate fine tuning of the universe in physics. That same sense of awe found those early Methodists in their class meetings. 

The AWE Scale is an invitation to remember the experiential element that John Wesley and those early Methodists brought to the Christian faith. For it is in the experience of the holy that our little lives are lifted into the greatness of God, so that we can say with the poet,

Our little systems have their day;
they have their day and cease to be.
they are but broken lights of thee;
and thou, O Lord, art more than they.” (Tennyson qtd. in The Language of God, 146) 


Merciful God, accept the praises we offer You this day. Give us the joy of Your salvation, that with glad hearts we may proclaim Your Word so that the sorrowing may be comforted, the faint in heart made strong, the wayward restored to ways of life and peace, and Your saving health be made known to all the world; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


And now, the third step, Reaction

In this step, we will put this “sense” into action, critically observing at how reductionism operates in our lives individually and in our purpose together in church.

If you have the time/capacity as a group, go somewhere in your community where you can sit together and get an expansive view of your neighborhood. Maybe it is a corner cafe with outdoor seating, a rooftop restaurant overlooking the cityscape, or hilltop just above town where you can see the whole town easily.

As you reflect together, end by asking: 

  • Read Isaiah 6:1-8 together. How would you assess this experience on the Awe Experience Scale? What aspects of awe show up in this moment?
  • How does Isaiah’s experience of awe connect to his call?
  • Read Luke 5:1-11 together. How would you assess this experience on the Awe Experience Scale? What aspects of awe show up in this moment?
  • How does Peter’s awe-inspiring experience relate to his understanding of who Jesus is?
  • How have you experienced awe in your own Christian life and journey?
  • How do you see awe at work in the life of your church, in worship and formation?
  • What is one thing you all could take on or change in the church’s life to bring more awareness to awe?
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