Many years ago I visited York Minster; the magnitude of scale and the sheer beauty of this wonderful cathedral inspired in me an unforgettable feeling of awe. I remember thinking how the people who had commissioned and built such extravagant temples must have been truly convinced that God would appreciate this magnificent manifestation of their faith.
Much more recently I’ve revisited this idea of the purpose of awe-inspiring works like this. Could it be that the idea was actually to overwhelm the senses in order to bring about conversion and to help retain those already in the church? I accept that this may seem like a cynical stance , but, of course, it takes nothing away from the splendor of mankind’s aims and achievements; I simply question the purity of the motivation.
We humans respond very favourably to such moments of awe: immersed in such splendour, we feel connected to something greater than our tiny selves, and so become less self-focussed and more in touch with a wider wonder. We lose ourselves in awe.
The downside is that any desirable human or spiritual experience can be re-purposed for manipulation. A person or group that can generate awe, or indeed any type of peak or euphoric experience, will automatically become highly valued. This desire to be highly valued can be driven by questionable motives.: this could be anything from a prospective partner who wants to appear awesome, to a group that wants to recruit members. Regular employers like to make their business and conditions seem awesome to potential employees and cults need to inculcate awe for their leader. At a more simple level, many drugs – both medical and street – can lead to awe-inspiring experiences, thus providing those who sell them with return business.
Of course awe is a uniquely ephemeral, fleeting and quickly-declining but delicious moment in our lives. We may be persuaded to seek more, fervently trying to repeat the initial circumstances, which of course will only provide diminishing returns. But we can be hooked on the attempts and live in hope of getting “that” feeling back.
So am I saying that awe is to be avoided? Definitely not. There are many aspects of nature which can lead to this amazing feeling. Could be a sunset, the night sky, a beautiful view or contemplation of the wonder of life itself. We just need to be aware of hidden agenda when humans set out to create such revelation.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about awe that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!