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Reflections on Awe & Wonder...

I have always felt that God’s extravagant love for us is reflected in the universe he created. This is a world wherein we can flourish, thrive, wonder, and express our own Imago Dei creativity; not one wherein we can barely survive, with every breath possibly our last.

It seems to me that wonder, awe, inspiration and praise are inextricably linked. The night sky has always inspired awe and wonder in me, even as a young child, when my father would take my brothers and me outside on clear, starry nights to look at the moon, stars, and planets through his telescope. Growing up in a Christian home, and coming to faith at an early age, I always believed in my heart that God was the source of all that wonder.

When I was teaching astronomy to university students, I would frequently take my classes outside on clear, starry nights to look at the thousands of stars visible to the naked eye from earth. Gazing at the heavens, people - both young and old - inevitably start asking the same questions that have been asked through the ages:

o Where did all this come from?
o How big is it?
o What’s it all made of?
o How long has it been here?
o Was there anything before all this?
o Where are we going?
o How will it all end?
And, at least as importantly, the more personal question of,
o Why am I here?

These questions are not just questions for scientists, but for all of us who inhabit the earth.
For instance:
• Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, saying,
“The sight of stars always sets me dreaming.”
• Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn says, “We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened.”
• And King David wrote in the book of Psalms, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge”
(Psalm 19:1).

Starry nights do that to people – they make us think, and feel, and wonder about the big questions in life.

Scientists and other keen observers are perpetually amazed by the intricacy and complexity of everything we study, yet it all fits together seamlessly in a perfectly balanced, synergistic system. For example, one of our big questions has to do with the vastness of the universe. On the clearest night, we can only see about 2000 stars with the naked eye. But recent surveys now estimate that there may be 10 trillion or more galaxies in the observable universe, and an average galaxy may have about 100 billion stars, so the total number of stars would come to about 10^24, or a septillion stars in the observable universe.

The vastness of the universe is impossible for most of us to even begin to comprehend. The observable universe is thought to extend about 45 billion light years in every direction, or 90 billion light years across. And the whole thing (observable plus unobservable) might be 250 or more times bigger than that! And if this place is so big, that leads to yet another big question: are there other intelligent beings out there somewhere? But I digress.

Peter Nicholls, a literary scholar and critic, defines “awe” as a cognitive “paradigm shift” wherein we reassign a “previous narrative” to a larger framework or context. Kathryn Johnson, a psychology faculty member at Arizona State writes, “Any amazing or information-rich encounter that challenges one’s ability to comprehend can elicit awe… awe is an emotion that arises when we try to comprehend or accommodate new information that challenges, disorients, or overwhelms our existing knowledge structures.” Psychologists Dacher Keltner (at the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley) and Jonathan Haidt (at NYU) explain awe this way: “Awe involves being in the presence of something powerful, along with associated feelings of submission…a difficulty in comprehension, along with associated feelings of confusion, surprise, and wonder.”

From an evolutionary biology perspective, science writer and self-proclaimed bio-neer Adam Sinicki postulates, “You might… see how feelings of awe and wonder – which inspire a fair amount of fear and respect – could be useful for helping us to avoid potential dangers. We feel in 'awe' of lions and other animals that are powerful and alien to us, and this might be one of the feelings that helps us to avoid getting too close. We feel in awe of huge heights, and perhaps this is one of the things that prevents us from jumping.”

Bear in mind that our understanding of anything can be layered, with various explanations filling in pieces of the big picture. For example, the question, “Why am I here?” could be answered in various ways:
The scientific explanation might reference the union of ovum and sperm and physiological development of the fetus in a mother’s womb, while a relational explanation might reference a couple's desire for a child, and a spiritual explanation might refer to God’s purpose or calling for a specific individual. The “how” explanation of the process does not negate the “why” explanation of the higher purpose.

Furthermore, I would like to suggest that looking at the world with awe, wonder and curiosity led to the early Greeks’ practice of natural philosophy, which was simply the search for understanding through their study of the physical world. They believed that nature could be understood, and that the diverse behaviors observed in nature were held together in rational patterns. Over time, practice showed that inductive reasoning worked better than philosophical deduction in combination with empirical observations, and this then led to the establishment of what we know as modern natural science.

When scientists wonder about something, they make observations, formulate tentative explanations, make predictions, do experiments, and create models or theories to answer questions, all for the goal of obtaining a compelling explanation describing observed phenomena, which makes accurate predictions, and leads to a better understanding of the universe.

Proverbs 25:2 reads, “It is the glory of God to conceal a thing; but the honor of kings to search it out.” It is in our human nature to want to try to figure things out - to understand everything we possibly can. Again, bearing in mind that our understanding of complex concepts is layered, with various explanations filling in different pieces of the big picture, is it possible that awe and wonder, in addition to their evolutionary roles, are purposed by God to engage us in this interplay, to lure us into searching out not only the wonders of His creation, but also to beckon us to search out God Himself as the source of all creation, including our very selves? Perhaps this idea is what St. Paul had in mind when he wrote in Romans 1:20, “For since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made…”

Awe and wonder are a great starting place for inspiring us all to seek, learn and discover all we can about God and the universe we inhabit. As Albert Einstein wrote, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.”

Science is simply the tool we use for discovering God’s creativity and wisdom in the wonders of nature.

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