Awe and the Religious Life

Article excerpt

What's It All About?

A.J. Heschel, in his discussion of awe and faith in God in Search of Man, suggests that we have overemphasized the cognitive/doxastic in our thinking about religion. We have given pride of place to religious belief; we think of a deeply religious person as a "true believer." Heschel would have us shift focus to something more like a posture, a manner of carrying oneself, a way of facing life, the universe, God.

Heschel saw a distinctive and natural human responsiveness at the heart of the religious orientation.

Awe rather than faith is the cardinal attitude of the religious Jew.

In Judaism, yirat hashem, the awe of God, or yir'at shamayim, the awe of heaven, is almost equivalent to the word "religion." In Biblical language the religious man is not called "believer," as he is for example in Islam (mu'min) but yare hashem (one who stands in awe of God).(1)

In Woody Allen's movie, Crimes and Misdemeanors, someone says of a deeply religious person that his religious sensibility is a beautiful thing, "like having an ear for music." As with music, the most primitive form of awe-responsiveness is something that almost everyone possesses. The most advanced and heightened forms may require a certain aptitude and are the products of sustained attention, training, and nurture.

To say that we have undervalued awe and given pride of place to belief, or religious faith, is not to dismiss these latter concepts. Awe, you might say, is most fundamental, it is k'neged kulam, but it finds its completion in faith. We need to begin with awe, to provide it with sustained attention and nurture, to heighten our awe-responsiveness, if we are to attain faith.(2)

Awe

If we are to explore the idea that awe is at the core of the religious attitude, perhaps we should start with quite simple and ordinary cases of awe, experiences that are not religiously charged and that are available to all from time to time. Can we discern elements of the religious in such ordinary happenings?

Here are some examples:

1. Cases of awe at natural grandeur: the feelings of an astronaut standing on the moon, or someone powerfully moved by the night sky at the top of a mountain, or a similar ocean experience.

2. Awe at human grandeur. There are examples that seem available to everyone, given a certain openness and sensitivity: awe at the power of people to find inner resources in horrible circumstances, awe at human goodness and caring. Other examples require artistic and/or intellectual sophistication: powerful responses to great art of all varieties, or to great achievements in science, mathematics, philosophy.

3. Awe at the birth of one's children. Perhaps this is a compound of, or intermediate between, 1 and 2.

4. Even more sophisticated, more rare, are other sorts of combinations of 1 and 2. For example, one at the top of the mountain, awestruck not only by the overwhelming beauty and majesty of nature, but also by the fact that humans, constructed of the stuff of the mountain, can take in such a thing, and indeed that they can feel awe at it.

Of course, reactions to such events may vary from person to person. And even if we can agree that a sense of awe is neither idiosyncratic nor unusual in such circumstances, it may still be that what I feel at such times is not, and almost certainly not quite, what you do. Nevertheless, the sort of feelings and thoughts often engendered seem to me to have something importantly religious about them, as I will explain.

I begin with a curious duality that seems characteristic(3) of such experiences, a duality of special interest to religion. The two aspects to be distinguished appear in all sorts of admixtures, with one or the other getting the focus.(4)

In the face of great power, or majesty, or beauty, one characteristically feels a sense of humility. The more intense experiences may engender not only humility but a sense of being overwhelmed. …