Revelation is a basic principle of many religions. It is generally understood to be some kind of communication between God and man. In some traditions a sacred book is the primary form of this communication. In others it might be a mystical experience or a dream. Still others rely on holy men and women to interpret the portents of nature. In short, there are numerous ways that we understand revelation.
That said, one aspect of revelation that often gets overlooked is the experience of awe. This may sound like a strange juxtaposition – revelation and awe – but in some traditions they are pretty much the same thing. Or maybe more accurately: awe is the expected form (or an expected experience) of divine communication.
For many of us, in contrast, revelation comes with a rational handle that we can mull over and try to understand logically. Perhaps the original divine communication was a mystical experience - like Moses on Mount Sinai or Abraham before the altar - but the transmission of these experiences has become codified in a way that may require no sense of the divine presence at all.
Sadly this is becoming less and less apparent. In a time when the word revelation is being used more and more commonly, the experience of awe is getting overlooked and even forgotten. When this happens we run the risk of misunderstanding a very significant part of revelation: the actuality of being in the presence of the Divine.
I don’t mean to downplay the informational content of revelation. After all one can make the argument that it is the informational content that justifies the revelation in the first place. The Ten Commandments, for example, have held significance across millennia and in the lives of billions of people. Certainly this has been more important than the awe-inspiring moments on Sinai, experienced by one man, when the words were first received.
But let me ask a more difficult question. How valuable would those ten commandments be if nobody took the existence or the power of God seriously? Remember that Moses’s experience of God’s presence was not a trivial thing - not just an inspired thought or a clarifying insight. After removing his shoes and seeing in vision the immensity of God’s Creation he was left with the stunning realization that “man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed” (Moses 1:10).
One might argue that this experience of revelatory awe is of little significance today. Such experiences were for prophets who lived and wrote in the past. Maybe we can occasionally wonder at the marvels of creation - perhaps being in awe of pounding surf or the strength of a summer storm. But this is not the same. Our world is different we say.
This is where I disagree. If we have lost this wonder - this Biblical “fear of the Lord” - it can only be because we have failed to approach Him in a credible way or with an understanding of His handiwork.
The most obvious example of this myopia is our modern view of the Creation, and our disregard for the myths of other more “primitive” cultures. Anthropologists have accumulated a vast literature - now over a century old and building - of these stories relating how divine beings exist in or somehow manipulate the forces of nature for their own ends. Sometimes humans themselves persuaded divine beings to affect natural changes on their behalf. James Frazer’s The Golden Bough is full of these kinds of examples.
One taken almost at random is of the Waganda of Central Africa that believed in a lake deity that would take up his abode in a man or a woman and change the weather. In other cultures the sun is revered as a deity and at times fires are highly regarded as charms from the sun. The Yakut, Omaha and other peoples believed that they could influence the spirits that cause the wind to blow. In the Hebrides (on the altar of Fladda’s Chapel, on the island of Fladdahuan) a moist black stone was used to summon favorable winds. And of course there are numerous examples of rain dances from culture around the world, as well as examples of ways to make the sun shine. Year-end rites are similarly ubiquitous as formal ways to start the cycles of life anew.
One of the most awe-inspiring rituals that I know of from earlier times was the Incan transport of purified victims (if I may use that term) to the top of mountains for sacrifice. These rituals were solemn events conducted amid the perennial snow and lightning storms of the highest peaks in the Americas.
Yet we tend to smile knowingly and roll our eyes at such stories, glad to be so much more enlightened than people who believe (or have believed) them. It would probably surprise many of us if we knew just how recently our own ancestors believed such things. It was only yesterday, for example, that crop-destroying weather was seen as a punishment from God. And the rainbow, so easily understood today in Newtonian terms, was for thousands of years a sign of God’s promises. When we insist on seeing the world only through the single-lens optics of science, we miss most of the beauty in the world and a great deal of awe-inspiring revelation.
It seems strange to us today that so many Victorians were fascinated with natural history. On weekends - especially on the Sabbath - the English countryside was filled with formally-clothed ladies and gentlemen out looking for natural objects of interest. Some collected shells or other marine remnants that had been washed ashore. Others gathered ferns or pressed flowers. Many people put up easels and painted landscapes or birds. Still others became experts in aquariums or terrariums - collecting fish, beetles, or other creatures that captured their imaginations. Interest in the natural order was many times greater than it is today.
The reason for this interest is a little surprising to us today at a time when natural history is primarily taught on televised programs and in museums, and capture only a fraction of its former audience. During the Heyday of Natural History Victorians believed they could better understand the Creator if they went outside and studied the Creation. Millions of them did so. This was a time when a clergyman could be a recognized authority on nature just as easily (and more likely) than anybody else. There are historians that find it odd that Darwin (the epitome of Victorian science) could have contemplated wearing the “cloth” as a youth. But such were the times, and Darwin’s interest was typical, not unusual, for his time.
That this natural history was meant to inspire awe is readily seen in much of the period’s poetry and painting. For example, William Wordsworth (a Romantic and a Victorian) in On Her First Ascent of Helvellyn wrote of the third highest peak in the UK:
Inmate of a mountain dwelling
Thou hast clomb aloft, and gazed
From the watch-towers of Helvellyn
Awed, delighted, and amazed ….
In America, The Hudson River School of landscape painting was also inspired by Romantic artists though prominent during the late 19th Century. Most of these works are depictions of majestic nature scenes. My favorites were painted by Albert Bierstadt, especially his Sunrise, Yosemite Valley and Sunset in the Yosemite Valley.
But times change. The fascination with nature began to wane, and it is tempting to see this as just part of history’s ineluctable march. Europe was changing as was America and people had to adapt. But in at least one way this change was different. It came with a diminishing of the sense of divine awe. It’s true that the Heyday of Natural History occurred in a particular place at a particular time and can be roughly discerned as an historic period. But the habit of finding God in the manifestations of nature was always a part of human nature. It is only recently that we have wrung the divine out of the natural world. Is it any wonder that we are suffering so many ecological maladies as a consequence?
And yet if the toll has been great ecologically, what has been the spiritual cost? Are we expected to find spiritual satisfaction alone in texts? Is it right that we leave all discussion of nature to vivisectionists?
Medieval Catholics built immense cathedrals to lift the eyes and the minds of worshippers to God to inspire awe. Today most Catholics have little access to these historic remnants. Modern places of worship are often little more than meeting houses. In Europe most of these impressive churches have been converted to museums with fancy alarm systems and barred windows. Burglars are effectively kept out. Unfortunately so is Christ.
Latter-day Saints, by contrast, have never attempted to create buildings as magnificent as Notre Dame in Paris or the Dom in Cologne. Early buildings were often tasteful testaments of faith but the Mormon architectural preference (even in most temples) is for functionality. I know that there will be those who disagree with this, feeling that temples are beautiful structures (and I agree that they are). But Mormon buildings are really not created to inspire awe.
And in fact buildings were not the first place early Christians went to be elevated spiritually. Christ Himself went often to the wilderness – even into the mountains.
Latter-day Saint scriptures give other examples of finding God in nature. To the unbelieving Korihor, the prophet Alma (in The Book of Mormon) testified that the earth and all living things, as well as the planets and the laws that govern their regular form “do witness that there is a supreme creator” (see Alma 30:44).
Enoch (as recorded in The Pearl of Great Price) upon seeing a vision of God and His tears falling as rain upon the mountains was filled with wonder that such a being could weep. And as he looked upon the wickedness of man he “wept and stretched forth his arms, and his heart swelled wide as eternity; and his bowels yearned; and all eternity shook” (see Moses 7:28-41).
Again in The Book of Mormon (as recorded in the 9th chapter of 3 Nephi) following the many devastating events at the time of Christ’s crucifixion, the voice of the Lord was heard declaring that He had been the cause of the many natural disasters that had recently occurred. He had caused great fires. He had caused cities to be swallowed up by the sea. The cities of Gadiandi, Gadiomnah, Jacob and Gimgimno He “caused to be sunk, and made hills and valleys in the place thereof.”
This is a part of our Christian faith that gets conveniently forgotten – primarily because it doesn’t easily fit into our modern understanding of the natural world. It needs to be considered more seriously. When we lose sight of the majesty of the Creator in His Creation we are left with the second-hand interpretations of fallible men to guide us. And this is hardly a recipe for spiritual understanding.
That awe was a very real and important part of the faith of our ancestors is certain. Perhaps they were more simple-minded than we are. So be it. This hardly serves as a justification for letting reason rob us of our need to find God, as if only the simple might have faith.
In fact many of our wisest thinkers have never lost their sense of wonder in spite of their grounding in science. Galileo, Newton, Einstein were filled with wonder. A more recent example is Loren Eiseley who was willing to grapple with the mysterious universe even while holding prestigious professorships in Anthropology and the History of Science at the University of Pennsylvania.
His description of the surgical precision of a wasp that provisions its nest with cicadas is compelling. The insect prey is carefully paralyzed and buried in such a way that seems to transcend the possibility of its development by means of natural selection. Yet Eiseley concedes:
“I am an evolutionist”. but there seems to be “Nothing to explain the necessity of life, nothing to explain the hunger of the elements to become life, nothing to explain why the stolid realm of rock and roil and mineral should diversify itself into beauty, terror, and uncertainty.”
Why are we so hesitant to acknowledge the divine majesty of the unknown? Why is the word awful (literally, being filled with awe) used so negatively most of the time when it can mean great as well as terrible? Why have we forgotten that the powerful sense of awe can be a revelatory experience?
I don’t profess to have all the answers. But I do believe that a big part of the blame lies with our inability to negotiate the world of sophisticated technical knowledge with the divine reality of our true nature.
Irving Babbitt noticed this many years ago when he pointed out the natural tendency of wonder to lead to awe, if the beholder only seeks for a broad and meaningful understanding. “As a man grows religious, awe comes more and more to take the place in him of wonder.”
Babbitt then proceeds to show, however, that wonder does not always lead to a religious awe. In fact the beginning of the modern world contains many examples of the harm that can come from an apotheosis of wonder by itself, without God. For as Samuel Johnson pointed out wonder is merely the effect of novelty upon ignorance. And in a time such as ours with so many discoveries claiming our attention, one can’t help but be confronted with wonder - even on a regular basis.
But there is a big difference between this quotidian wonder and a profound encounter with the Divine. If our searching in the world of nature only surprises us with novelty even as it cures us of our physical ailments we will only manage to prolong our lives even as the spiritual vacuum that fills our lives remains intact.
The world and the cosmos are so much more than just interesting things - in spite of our many clever discoveries. They are not just items to wonder about. They are majestic, unfathomable and awful. They are also the workmanship, and home, of God. And they should help us get to know Him better.
My copy of The Golden Bough is a 1981 reprint from Avenal Books, New York. See Johan Reinhardt’s The Ice Maiden (National Geographic) for an adventurer’s account of the Inca mummies. The Hudson River School, American Landscape Artists by Bert Yaeger (Smithmark) has the Bierstadt paintings I mention. On Latter-day Saint architectural history see People of Paradox by Terry Givens (Oxford University Press). For Babbitt’s discussion on wonder and awe, see Chapter II in Rousseau & Romanticism (Transaction Publishers). My Eiseley quote is taken from Chapter 23, The Coming of the Giant Wasps, in All the Strange Hours, the Excavation of a Life (Scribners).