Awe and Wonder: Whither Theological Education?

By: Nimi Wariboko
Friday, April 4th, 2014

aweAn important dimension of any religion is the feelings of awe that arise with encounters with the holy and the beautiful. Otto Rudolf in his 1917 book, The Idea of the Holy, argues that the experience of the numinous, the sacred, the holy is the ineffable core of religion. When persons encounter and experience the sacred they develop a sense of dependency on something objective, external, and greater than them. The experience of the numinous takes two related forms: (a) terrifying experience of the “wholly other,” and (b) fascination. Where can we encounter these experiences?

Recently, scientists have discovered that encounter with nature engenders and promotes awe, fascination and the feeling of being in presence of something greater or outside the self. Scientific researches have demonstrated that connection with nature facilitates not only awe, but also feelings of closeness with others, thus increasing or activating generosity and the propensity for connections and connectedness vital for the functioning of human coexistence.[1] Urban designers are increasingly focusing on building biophillic cities (cities that love and care for nature). Biophilic cities as places that move residents into deeper connection with the natural world promises them access to the awe and wonder (self-transcendent emotions) in their lives that comes from contact with nature.[2]

Social scientists are also focusing on awe. Actually this is not new. The literature goes back to Emile Durkheim on the experience of awe in religious gathering or what he calls collective effervescence. Collins Randall argues that human beings are emotion-seeking beings. He writes about the sociology of emotional entrainment— interaction ritual chains and emotional satisfaction— as key to understanding how groups whether in sports stadia or at religious gatherings function.[3]

Many pentecostal churches are adept are translating and transforming the worship service into integrative modes of action where every participant acts in common, feeling intense religious energy. The worship is a social drama that turns persons into a community and communitas, generating a space for the emergence and experience of awe and wonder. In Nigerian pentecostal parlance, the event “dis na church” happens when a worship service renews faith, revitalizes human spirits, strengthens common bond, and invigorates moral identity. “Na church” means the worship service engenders and promotes awe, fascination and the feeling of being in presence of the Holy Spirit. Church occurs when the worship service generates and mobilizes experiences, emotions, and meanings necessary for surviving, striving, and flourishing in the world. 

The science and theology of awe can also shed light on the nature of personhood, the “notions of the self.” We can incorporate awe as a basis of understanding being as communion or being in communion (as per John Zizioulas). Awe activates or facilitates feelings of closeness and the propensity for connections and connectedness. Social identity, complex emotions, and habits of closeness, connections and connectedness are key parts of any understanding of the social relational notion of personhood. I think that the self-transcendent emotions of awe and wonder, fascination and feeling of being in the presence of something greater are important for any rigorous study of personhood and human mutuality. It will be exciting to explore how access to and experience of awe in nature and worship services strengthen personhood or even help us to better understand the theological-ethical concept of personhood.

The study of awe may also enable us to further explore ethics as a search for alternative worlds. One of the important lessons of ethical study is an orientation to alternative realities to ongoing social practices that create injustice. Ethics trains a certain disposition in students to doubt the world as they ordinarily see it, believing that human beings can always strive and work for a higher level of co-flourishing. Awe can be an “assist” in this regard. Awe not only presents us with the beauty and complexity of the seen world, but also provokes the imagination of alternative worlds, hidden realities, or the not-yet.

Most of American seminaries do not have programs and courses that foster religious wonder and fascination among their students. Many churches instead of experiencing awe in their worship services are suffering from awe deficient disorder, for lack of a better term. The questions that arise from the foregoing analyses are these: (a) how can seminaries foster or teach their students to experience of awe and to lead their future congregations to moments of awe? (b) how can nature be integrated into church buildings and liturgies to foster wonder and fascination of that which is greater than the consuming individual in this age of late capitalism? This is to say how do we build biophillic churches and create biophilic liturgies? And (c) what will an awe-philic seminary, theological education, or ministerial formation look like? These are just some of questions we need to ponder as we meditate on the possible impacts of charismatic renewal on theological education.

[1] Melanie Rudd, Kathleen D. Vohs, and Jennifer Aaker, “Awe Expands People’s Perception of Time, alters Decision Making, and Enhances Well-Being,” Psychological Science, vol. 23, no. 10 (2012): 1130-1136; Patty Van Cappellen and Vissilis Saroglou, “Awe Activates Religious and Spiritual Feelings and Behavioral Intensions,” Psychology of Religion and Spirituality vol. 3, no. 3 (2012): 223-236, and Michelle N. Shiota and Dacher Keltner, “The Nature of Awe: Elicitors, Appraisals, and Effects on Self-Concept,” Cognition and Emotion vol 21, no. 5 (2007):944-963.

[2] Timothy Beatley, Biophilic Cities: Integrating Nature into Urban Design and Planning (Washington: Island Press, 2011).

[3] Collins Randall, Interaction Ritual Chains (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).

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Nimi Wariboko
This entry was posted by on Friday, April 4th, 2014 at 6:28 am and is filed under Education, Faith & Culture, Holistic Formation. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

One Response to “Awe and Wonder: Whither Theological Education?”

  1. Ulbe Slim says:

    The question about how awe can be structured within church and seminary is threefold. First, there should be a relationship between theology and the expression of art, in many forms available. Secondly, the God experience should be wholesome, not just theology for the mind and spirit. Thirdly, seminaries and church should embrace the mystical experience more openly; prayer is not an after thought, it is the breath of life for daily renewal.