Is awe the defining human passion?

Marc Lloyd writes: If the chief end of human beings is to ‘glorify God and enjoy him for ever’ (from the Westminster Shorter Catechism), it should come as no surprise if modern science finds us to be hard-wired for awe. This is indeed the claim in Awe: The Transformative Power of Everyday Wonder by Dacher Keltner (Allen Lane/Penguin, 2023).

Keltner is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. He has long studied the emotions and was a consultant on Pixar’s Inside Out movie. He focuses on teaching happiness and The Good Life, and has come to see seeking awe as key. 

In this study, Keltner seeks to consider awe scientifically, culturally and personally, particularly reflecting on the death of his brother. There are forty pages of end notes but they are not flagged in the main text. The book describes numerous scientific studies, many of which yield stories of awe. Sometimes you might feel the net has been cast rather widely or we have wandered from awe itself a little. I wasn’t bored, but neither did I think every section necessary. The book is less of a practical ‘how to’ guide than I expected. 

The Presence of the Transcendent

Awe is defined as “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world.” (7) Typically it is evoked by what Keltner calls “the eight wonders of life”: the moral beauty of others (their courage, kindness, strength or overcoming); collective effervescence (which Durkheim saw as the emotional core of religion, especially as expressed in collective movement e.g. in ritual dance or ceremony); nature; music; visual design; the spiritual or religious; birth and death; and epiphanies (pp 11-17).

Keltner recognises the etymological and historical connections between awe and the awful (p 19) but he tends to distinguish awe from fear, whilst recognising that some theologies and cultures may connect them more closely than the modern West. The biblical God evokes both awe and fear, for example. 

Typically we feel awe two or three times a week. Just a couple of minutes of awe a day can make us happier and healthier. Awe tends to make us more humble and self-forgetful, less neurotic, controlling and competitive, more open to new ideas and experiences, kinder, more generous. Keltner sees an evolutionary value to awe in promoting community and cooperation. There is a whole chapter on evolution as well as numerous other mentions of Darwin and his theory but creationists could ignore all this without losing much of the value of the book.

Religion and Awe

It will already be obvious that religious themes and practices are never far away from the surface here given the emphasis on moral virtue, shared experiences, music, life and death, and the mysterious transcendent. There is talk of the soul and reverence, angels and heaven, epiphanies and cathedrals. Christ, Mary, Job, Francis of Assisi, Teressa of Avila, Julian of Norwich and Dante are mentioned, although I suspect Keltner is most interested in Eastern and indigenous religions. He sometimes seems more negative about what he calls “the big God religions” (97), favouring an undogmatic and pluralistic spirituality. He implies some forms of Christianity need to overcome the sexist, homophobic and colonial. Keltner comments that “God so often appears in extraordinary stories of awe; we invoke the Divine to explain the sublime.” (76) He does not consider whether or not this widespread and persistent explanation might be true. 

This book could prompt Christians to seek awe afresh. Perhaps some streams of evangelicalism have tended to neglect it in favour of intellectual doctrines. Some of the insights of contemporary science we ought to have known better from the Bible and our own tradition. We ought to be experts in worship with good things to share with our as yet unbelieving awe-hungry neighbours. 

Keltner concludes that awe’s “unifying purpose” is to integrate “us into the systems of life—communities, collectives, the natural environment, and forms of culture, such as music, art, religion, and our mind’s efforts to make sense of all its webs of ideas. The epiphany of awe is that its experience connects our individual selves with the vast forces of life. In awe we understand we are part of many things that are much larger than the self.” (249-250)

A Defining Passion

Awe is “our species-defining passion, that enables us to wonder together about the great questions of living: What is life? Why am I alive? Why do we all die? What is the purpose of it all? How might we find awe when someone we love leaves us? Our experiences of awe hint at faint answers to these perennial questions and move us to wander toward the mysteries and wonders of life.” (250)

Christians can of course offer answers to these questions, and above all a reliable connection with God himself. We can go much further than Keltner’s general account of awe, religion and the divine. For example, our vision of moral beauty is well grounded and defined. For us, nature is not just awe inspiring—it is the creation of a wonderful creator, who is fittingly praised. Our worship connects us not only to one another but to him. Awe is not merely a self-help strategy for us but an expression of who we are and a response to the gospel of Christ.

Marc Lloyd is the Rector of three rural parishes in East Sussex.

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5 thoughts on “Is awe the defining human passion?”

  1. This is great, thank you. Artificial Intelligence can write a poem but it can never read one. And the danger of AI is not that it ends up thinking like us but that we end up thinking like it.

  2. Thank you for the article.
    As iss known the catechism is readily available on-line with scripture references.

    On an everyday level we marvel and wonder at nature, human endeavour, skill, artistry, intellect. It may be sport, and we may be in awe of the skill, ability endurance and more, that lead some to adoration and adulation,
    demonstrably worship in short, and may inspire others into discipleship, following in their footsteps.
    But where is God in all this, specifically, the Triune God of Christianity?
    As recent as the last article comments through looking up Geerhardus Vos and coming across a podcast discussion linked below,
    I was led afresh wonder and awe to just how infinitely sublime is the incarnation.
    The discussion range around the Godness of Jesus who even in is humanity, retained all the attributes of God, pre -incarnate.
    Awe and adore, transcendent, immutable, present and more.
    How small is our Jesus?
    Anything else is counterfeit, or in the words of The Who; Substitute
    Whereas John Piper sets it the right way up with this motif theology described as “Christian Hedonism”.

  3. Actually, I find this business rather worrying and disturbing. I’m aware that psychologists and economists are trying to quantify ‘awe’ and I recently saw a research proposal, connected with willingness to pay (which economists abbreviate as WTP) for some good things (such as preserving the rain forests), but also extending much further – economists have no compunction about extending it to bad things and neither do secular psychologists. In short, psychologists are studying how to quantify ‘awe’ (and if you tick the box suggesting that you are of a religious disposition then they’ll put you into the category of having a lot of it) – and this gives them information on how to target you and try to persuade you to part with your money.

    So my advice would probably be – don’t encourage the psychologists and proceed with extreme caution.

    • Awe is one of those things we instinctively know when we feel it. A moment’s thought surely tells us it’s an unplanned sense of humility which overwhelms us in the face of something that leaves no doubt about our own smallness in the great scheme of things.

      Some may see it as a throwback to childhood innocence; I would suggest it’s a sign that we are truly alive – to the world around us and, best of all, to the majesty of God. I’m not sure psychology has anything useful to bring to the party on this one; in fact I fear it might just drive it away!


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