Dan Popp
Awe
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By Dan Popp
May 22, 2012

The heavens are telling of the glory of God; And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. Day to day pours forth speech, And night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; Their voice is not heard. Their line has gone out through all the earth, And their utterances to the end of the world. (Psalm 19:1-4a, NASB)

This will be a more personal article than I normally write — more personal that I would like to write, to be honest. But maybe it will help some folks going through a spiritual crisis. My crisis came in 1988. I had been born again for about 13 years. And just then a lot of bad things were happening at once. My wife's father died. The "Christians" who had just hired me for an exciting new job admitted that they'd lied to get me there. We were a thousand miles from home without a way back. Suffice it to say that it was one of those times when a believer questions not only whether he's on the right road, but whether there is a road at all.

I did something I've never done before or since: I went camping by myself. Just to get away from all distractions and try to work out whether I'm a worthless, meaningless lump of matter, or the careful work of a Creator.

As I sat by the campfire that night, I looked up at the stars. It was a clear night, away from the city lights. And as I stared at the blackness punctuated by those uncountable pinpoints of white, I felt something. Nothing unusual, really. It's the same thing I always feel when I allow myself to enjoy this view. It's the same thing you feel. I realized at that moment that it's the same thing every human being since the beginning of time has felt looking up at the night sky.

We've named that feeling, "awe."

Now, I believe that awe is greater than just a feeling. When I listen to a beautiful piece of music, or wonder at the miracle of a baby, it feels like something deeper than emotion is happening. Aren't we, at those moments, hearing an echo of a voice outside our world; experiencing homesickness for a home we haven't yet known? But for the sake of this story I'll refer to awe as a feeling, only.

Back to the campfire. God, or no God? I tried to put myself in the mental shoes of an atheist looking up at that same expanse, feeling the same feeling of awe. And I realized that I had nowhere to put it. How can awe exist in a godless universe? (How could anything exist without a Cause? — but that's not the discussion I was having with myself.) The materialist believes that, though nothing has any purpose, everything has a function. As Aristotle put it, "Nature does nothing uselessly." This is a point of agreement, I believe, among theists and atheists — a starting point for reasoning. If a gazelle has long legs, it's because she has to run fast to escape tigers; if a tiger has stripes, it's so that he can hide in the grass near the gazelle.

But what is the use, the evolutionary purpose, of awe — this uncommon feeling common to every human being? Does awe help me find food? Does it keep me from becoming food? Will it impress the chicks and thus improve my chances of procreating? Does it help me find shelter? From a materialistic viewpoint it must exist for at least one those reasons. It must help my particular mutation to be the "fittest" so that my offspring can "survive." Yet awe is totally outside all these.

One possible objection is that awe is merely the result of chemicals interacting in our brains. But that only retreats from the question, it doesn't answer it. Why do those chemicals occur in our brains? Why do they interact in this way? Remember that there are no accidents in the accidental world of the evolutionist: awe, like every characteristic of every living thing, exists because it must exist.

As a very feeble explanation of this experience, we sometimes say, "I realized that I am a tiny speck in the vastness of the universe." But largeness and smallness are just mathematical relationships. I don't get emotional about any other ratios. And awe is not fear (which could be said to be necessary for evolution); there's way too much peace in it.

There are two things that must be true, no matter what your theory of origins: Awe is real. Every human being knows it by personal experience — it is not "hearsay," or "blindly following the superstition of your parents." That's the first thing. The second thing is, because it is real it must have a function. If Darwin was right, awe must be necessary for our survival. There must be Something that could cause the extinction of our species were we not equipped with awe.

Isn't that one way to describe God?

I've certainly had other moments of disappointment and disillusionment since that night under the stars 24 years ago. But I haven't been tempted again to believe that I'm a meaningless nothing, alone in a hostile world without help and without hope. The existence of awe demands the existence of the Awesome.



Atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning. — C.S. Lewis

If we discover a desire within us that nothing in this world can satisfy, also we should begin to wonder if perhaps we were created for another world. — C.S. Lewis

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed. — Albert Einstein

Man is an animal which, alone among the animals, refuses to be satisfied by the fulfillment of animal desires. — Alexander Graham Bell

For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made.... The Apostle Paul (Romans 1:20a)

© Dan Popp

 

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