Awe : A Common Theme Across All Religions

When last did you truly feel all-encompassing, invigorating awe? Awe is a large, boundless sentiment, but is something that is deeply ingrained in our human nature as a way of experiencing the world. In the eyes of a child, everything is worthy of awe, since everything is so new. But there are still plenty of reasons for us to feel awe as adults. Being in nature as well as travelling around the world can fill us with awe as we experience new cultures and new ways of living. There are many instances where we come across fresh discoveries from natural phenomena, science and the workings of the human body.

Religion and awe are closely related. Religious awe is seen across religions as an important part of spiritual experience, and various practices and teachings are provided to help cultivate reverence in the presence of the divine.

All religions encourage us to be in awe of God, to remember that there are wonders in the universe that lie far beyond our own capacities to control or comprehend it. Scholar of religion, Robert C. Fuller, in his book Wonder makes the case that the human capacity for experiences of awe and wonder is at the heart of all religions and indeed, at the heart of human ingenuity itself.

“Religion, through the ritualization of wonder, sustains cultural paradigms that establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations. Moreover, wonder continually revitalizes such paradigms by connecting them with belief in a general order of existence, a cosmic frame of reference. It is not just our appetite for wonder but also our ability to ritualize wonder that fuels humanity’s adaptive capacities.”

The ritualisation and cultural paradigms of religions have been shaped over time. But they are rooted in the original experiences of awe reported by the prophets who claim to have communed with God in some way. Religions also cultivate a sense of awe around the prophets themselves.

Consider the Abrahamic religions — Christianity, Judaism and Islam that share many of the same prophets and stories. The followers are taught to experience awe primarily through the lens of fear as a recognition of God’s power and majesty. The Bible encourages the faithful to worship God with reverence and humility and states that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge (Proverbs 9:10). In Islam, divine awe is associated with the God-consciousness or “taqwa” to motivate ethical behavior and strengthen one’s connection with Allah. In Judaism, the concept of “Yirat Hashem,” which is a sense of awe of God, compels Jews to refrain from sin and is intended to inspire humility and obedience.

Awe can inspire reverence and fear, but can also cultivate a sense of bliss. In Hinduism, for instance, one of the most sought-after religious experiences is “Darshan,” or having a direct vision of a deity. This can be positive and enlightening, often described as “adbhuta” or amazing, but deities can also have frightful appearances such as in the case of Goddess Kali. The Buddhist view of awe is deep devotion to Buddha and his teachings. It is a way of cultivating the knowledge that all beings are interconnected and realizing that potential for enlightenment resides within each and everyone of us.

Why the coexistence of awe and fear? Why are we supposed to fear a God that is all-loving? I believe this meaning is misconstrued.

What the prophets of the major world religions were meaning by awe-inspired fear is that their revelations would forever transform the world because they involved earth-shattering truths that were so far beyond people’s normal human experiences. These realisations, therefore, may cause fear, but in their disruptive nature hold beautiful implications that have the potential to make us into better people.

Surely, when one looks at anything with a sense of awe, there is an underlying realization that there is a larger, universal, more sacred pattern underpinning it all. This ability to implode divisive false beliefs and evolve our world view through the experience of true spiritual awe is still possible. The world is vast, we are interconnected and there are always opportunities to expand our consciousness.

For example, by allowing ourselves to explore unfamiliar religions, we can experience the sense of awe that comes from a direct connection with people we once saw as separate and different from ourselves and can inspire a sense of humility and respect for the sacred beyond specific religious beliefs. Such experiences are especially awe-inspiring when we realise how much we can learn from one another about the transcendent and mysterious universe. This kind of awe that deepens our understanding of our place in the cosmos and promotes acceptance, togetherness and cooperation can be a great tool towards building a more peaceful world.

Christianity

“As he traveled, he got close to Damascus, and suddenly a light from the sky shone around him. He fell on the earth, and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He said, ‘Who are you Lord?’ The Lord said, ‘I am Jesus, who you are persecuting. But rise up and enter into the city, then you will be told what you must do.’ The men who travelled with him stood speechless, hearing the sound, but seeing no one. Saul arose from the ground, and when his eyes opened, he saw no one.”

— Acts 9(3–8), A book in the New Testament

“Let all of earth fear Yahweh. let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him.” — Psalm (33:8), Christian text

Islam

“To Allah belongs whatever it is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. and We have instructed those who were given the scripture before you and yourselves to fear Allah.

— Qur’an (4:131), Islamic text

Hinduism

“If a thousand suns had risen in the sky all at once, such brilliance would be the brilliance of that great self [of Vishnu].”

— Bhagavad Gita, (11:12), Hindu Religious Book

Buddhism

“The true miracle is not walking on water or walking in air, but simply walking on this earth.” — Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist Monk

Baha’i

“O, would that the world could believe Me! Were all the things that lie enshrined within the heart of Bahá, and which the Lord, His God, the Lord of all names, hath taught Him, to be unveiled to mankind, every man on earth would be dumbfounded.”

— Adib Taherzadeh, The Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh v 1, (p. 29–33)

Confucianism

“The Superior Man stands in awe of three things: (1) He is in awe of the decree of Heaven. (2) He is in awe of great men. (3) He is in awe of the words of the sages.”

— The Analects (16:8), Confucian text

Point for contemplation: Where in your life can you cultivate more awe? How does your experience of awe differ from the experiences within other religions?

To learn more about other common themes across religions, visit us at uef.org/weekly-wisdom.

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