Seventy-two years ago, on January 27th, 1945, the largest of the Nazi death camps (Auschwitz-Birkenau) was liberated. In honor of the approximately 6,000,000 Jews and 5,000,000 others murdered during the Holocaust, the United Nations General Assembly resolved in 2005 that henceforth this be an International Day of Holocaust Remembrance.
For Christians such as myself, Holocaust remembrance poses unique challenges. As religious studies Professor and Presbyterian minister Stephen Haynes puts it, “although Christian anti-Judaism did not by itself make the Holocaust possible… [it] could not have occurred without Christianity.”
The seeds for the Holocaust lay in the history of anti-Semitism, a strand of which has long been perpetuated in the Christian Church. For instance, in his book, On the Jews and Their Lies, Martin Luther encourages Christians to set the Jews’ synagogues and schools on fire, raise and destroy their houses, and take their prayer books and Talmudic writings. Such sentiments often were quoted and circulated in Nazi Germany as rationale for the Holocaust.
Indeed, the Holocaust sprang from a predominantly Christian part of the world. Many who declared Jesus as “Lord and Savior” were personally involved in the atrocities.
Auschwitz I, 2012
In reflecting on this painful history, it has been important for me to acknowledge that many of the same forces that allowed the Holocaust continue to exert themselves today – including in the Christian Church and in myself. For example, the indifference to diverse others’ suffering often showed by Christians during the Holocaust remains evident.
Despite their surge in popularity, many harbor deep reservations about the quality of online courses. There are several possible reasons for this, but perhaps most fundamentally are serious concerns about the experience of online students. In particular, many ask: can online courses provide the kind of experience crucial for students to develop critical thinking, curiosity, and creativity, consistent with the highest ideals of liberal arts education?
I have taught online for several years, and I have struggled with this question as well. However, new thinking and research convinces me that all courses – including those online – have the potential to elicit powerful emotions that can inspire long-term knowledge creation.
In his classic, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey encouraged individuals to “begin with the end in mind.” As a parent, I find this advice invaluable, as there are so many “ends” and methods of parenting available. Of course, there are many aspects of my kids’ development and behavior beyond my control. Still, to the extent I have any influence, it would seem best to channel it toward my deepest dreams for them.
So, what do I really want for my kids?
Many things, actually. But, what if I were to narrow down my dreams for my kids to a few? What is most important?
In this post, I want to reflect on the insights of a particularly intriguing parenting book called “Never Say No: Raising Big-Picture Kids,” by Mark and Jan Foreman (parents of Jon and Tim Foreman of the popular band “Switchfoot”).
According to the Foremans, the goal of parenting is not to keep a child safe (a goal that often seems most evident in my sometimes anxious parenting behavior). Rather, the goal of parenting, as stated by the Foremans, is to nurture “a big-picture child who loves well.” In other words, parenting ultimately prepares kids to contribute their gifts to a world in need. This positive frame of reference resonates with me as I think through what I’m trying to do as a parent.
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious… 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.” — Albert Einstein
Einstein suggests that awe, or wonder, may provide one of the richest experiences available to human beings. It is so elusive and complex that only in the past decade or so have psychological scientists started to study it seriously. Within the past few years, however, the research has made significant progress.
Kate Romero | Pexels
Part of the difficulty with awe is defining it. The clearest description that I have seen is from leading positive psychologist Barbara Fredrickson in her book “Positivity:”
“[A]we happens when you come across goodness on a grand scale. You literally feel overwhelmed by greatness. By comparison, you feel small and humble. Awe makes you stop in your tracks. You are momentarily transfixed. Boundaries melt away and you feel part of something larger than yourself. Mentally, you’re challenged to absorb and accommodate the sheer scale of what you’ve encountered… Although a form of positivity, awe at times sits so close to the edge of safety that we get a whiff of negativity as well. Awe mixes with fear… Awe, like gratitude and inspiration, is a self-transcendent emotion.”
Following are 7 recent studies that indicate something important about the experience of awe and its effects. I tend to favor experimental studies because they show a clearer cause and effect relationship.
This past Saturday, I participated in a 1-day webcast of a conference called “The Art and Science of Awe.” This conference was held at the University of California at Berkeley, and brought together leading scientists and artists to explore and experience awe. I will be integrating insights from this conference into this blog in coming months. For now, though, I wanted to share a youtube channel called “Shots of Awe” that was discussed by its creator, Jason Silva, at the conference. Here are three videos that I’ve found have the most to do with awe.
For the past several years, a collaboration between the Sierra Club and researchers at the University of California at Berkeley has explored the potential for awe to decrease symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
This research is preliminary, but shows that combat veterans suffering from PTSD showed a 30% reduction in symptoms after a whitewater rafting excursion. One week after the trip, relationships with family and friends continued to show improvements. Moreover, stress hormones, immune system functioning, and other brain responses showed significant positive changes from before to after the trip.
Leading researchers emphasize how awe reorients the way individuals think because of having their minds expanded by something vast – which most people interpret in terms of physical size or space. People sometimes say they are awestruck by the size of mountains, the ocean, or the night sky, for instance.
There are other kinds of vastness, however, that have the potential to elicit awe in us.
One kind of vastness that we often overlook in the midst of our busy lives is the stunning vastness in complexity all around us in nature.
Native to my area of North America, for example, is the perennial, Geum triflorum, sometimes called “old man’s whiskers” or “prairie smoke” because of the way the long heads of seeds extend outward from the plant.
Based on research showing therapeutic effects of nature – as well as her personal experience with a well-being decline after moving from a beautiful natural area to a nature-depleted city – Florence Williams describes in this recent TED talk how communities across the world are intentionally making “spaces of awe” for individuals to revitalize. There are lots of great examples here, including intentionally-created “healing forests,” “snorkel travel,” “low tide walks,” and “butterfly gardens.” It also is thought-provoking to consider how Finland recommends that residents spend at least 5 hours per month “taking in” nature to prevent depression. The full talk provides many more details, which you can access below.
Eastern practices – such as meditation, t’ai chi, and yoga – have gained great popularity in Western culture during the past several decades. Although these practices differ, they share a common goal in helping individuals to focus attention and be mindful.
As reported in an article published by the Washington Post last week, a newer Eastern therapy practice – Shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” as it sometimes is called – is starting to gain popularity as well. In fact, some have suggested this practice is on a trajectory to become “the new yoga.”
Literally meaning “taking in the forest atmosphere,” Shinrin-yoku originated as a formal practice in Japan in the early 1980s. Whereas other Eastern practices often direct attention toward the body, forest bathing encourages individuals to slow down and notice the beauty of their natural surroundings. In Japan, Shinrin-yoku now plays an important role in preventative medicine and normal medical practice. In some parts of the United States, guided trips are becoming popular, though of course individuals can practice on their own as well.
Many people assume that awe only is possible through direct, personal experience. Encounters with something vast and overwhelming in the natural world may come to mind as examples. There are many other ways to be awestruck, however.
For instance, some stories can create opportunities for awe, as they can transport us beyond our ordinary lives to other contexts.
One study conducted by Melanie Rudd and colleagues demonstrates this. Participants in this research tried to identify with what a main character felt as they either read about them climbing the Eiffel Tower to see Paris from on high or ascending an unnamed tower to see a plain landscape. Remarkably, those who read the passage about the Eiffel Tower felt more awe, believed that time was more available, and reported more satisfaction with their lives.
God may not be dead, but God does appear to be starting to fade, at least in the United States. And, it’s not just religiousness; for the first time, there is evidence that spirituality also may be starting to decline.
The latest report was released this week by Jean Twenge and colleagues. These scholars scrutinized data from the General Social Survey (GSS), a nationally representative sampling of over 58,000 American adults that can be used to examine social trends going back to 1974.
Consistent with other recent analyses, results showed that, by 2014, American adults were less likely to be religiously affiliated and to believe in God than they were previously. This study also breaks new ground in showing that Americans were less likely to attend religious services, pray, and report being spiritual. Millennials (aged 18-29) were especially likely to display these trends, with one out of every five reporting that they are “not spiritual at all.” The only exception to recent trends was an increased belief in the afterlife.
This is a question many people will ask themselves this week – even if only to themselves – as they go to church to commemorate Easter.
Religious beliefs and behaviors are changing. According to the most recent Pew Research Center Religious Landscape Study, the number of Americans who aren’t affiliated with any religion has grown substantially over the past 7 years, rising from 16% to nearly 23% of the population. Some of these individuals are disconnected from organized religion, while others are atheistic or agnostic.
It often is assumed that belief in God, or lack thereof, is based upon intellectual reasoning. For instance, some atheists argue that God is unlikely to exist because of Occam’s razor, a logical principle basically stating that, all things being equal, the view most likely to be true is the one with the least assumptions. Only in the past couple of years have psychological scientists turned their attention to non-intellectual factors that may influence unbelief.
We are in a season of mass media consumption. Super Bowl 50 occurs this Sunday, and is coming off the heels of the most watched Super Bowl (and television event) in American history. The most recent Star Wars release (The Force Awakens) grossed over $1 billion in a record 12 days, and is on pace to become the highest grossing film of all-time.
What explains why so many individuals are drawn to major productions such as these? Surely, there are many factors, which vary across events and people. One often overlooked explanation is the emotion of awe.
Psychologists refer to awe as an intense emotional experience that overwhelms individuals with a sense of vastness or greatness. It often transforms individuals’ sense of what is possible.
Although they can be laced with fear, and thus may evoke an avoidance reaction, experiences of awe invariably also fascinate. People often seek awe experiences, and remember them vividly and powerfully. In fact, an emerging body of psychological research reveals that awe encourages a sense of personal well-being and promotes various prosocial acts.
Historically, the most significant sources of awe have come from religion and nature. However, other people also have the potential to inspire us with their skill in various domains. Furthermore, as technology has become more powerful, new sources of awe have become available, blending virtual reality with human ingenuity.
It is potentially enlightening to recognize how much the emotion of awe is involved with mass media sensations.
Sometimes, we forget how much our world has changed.
In a famous 2005 commencement address – later adapted for a video that went viral on the internet – David Foster Wallace details the emptiness that many people experience as a part of an ordinary adult day. As examples, he chronicles the routines of waking up, going to work, having to go to the supermarket, wait in line, and drive home in traffic. As Wallace notes, perhaps worse than anything, these activities recur, day after day, month after month, and year after year.
Often times, routines such as this can “crowd out” other possibilities. Other times, life can wear us down, and we simply don’t feel the energy to pursue anything greater. Yet, we still may wonder, “is this all there is?”
God, every night is hard.
Always there are some awake,
who turn, turn, and do not find you.
Don’t you hear them crying out
as they go farther and farther down?
Surely you hear them weep; for they are weeping.
I seek you, because they are passing
right by my door. Whom should I turn to,
if not the one whose darkness
is darker than night, the only one
who keeps vigil with no candle,
and is not afraid –
the deep one, whose being I trust,
for it breaks through the earth into the trees,
when I bow my head,
faint as a fragrance
from the soil.
~Rainer Maria Rilke, The Book of Hours II, 3
To me, this poem reads like a prayer. As theologian Miroslav Volf would put it, though, this is not a “thin” prayer; rather, it is “thick” in complexity, insight, and meaning.
I resonate with the struggle of the poet, as well as with the ironic reference to God being dark (as opposed to light). This reminds me of many of the Christian mystics, such as John of the Cross, who famously writes about the “dark night of the soul,” as well as Barbara Brown Taylor’s reframing of the benefits of darkness. Maybe I’m not the only one who finds God mysterious? As stated by Gerhard Tersteegen, “A God comprehended is no God.”
Alternatively to this, I love the idea of a God who is so comfortable with darkness that It can “keep vigil with no candle” and not be afraid.
In the midst of uncertainty, Rilke notes that he ultimately can trust “the being” of the deep one, as It manifests itself in faint and beautiful ways around him.
Oh, not to be separated,
shut off from the starry dimensions
by so thin a wall.
What is within us
if not intensified sky
traversed with birds
with winds of homecoming?
~Rainer Maria Rilke, Uncollected Poems
This poem of Rilke’s beautifully speaks to the mystery and awe of humanity, a source often overlooked in many individuals’ quests. Indeed, by writing about “intensified sky,” Rilke suggests that there is something even more awe-inspiring within us than the cosmos itself. This reminds me of a passage from Augustine.
I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.
I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?
~Rainer Maria Rilke, The Book of Hours I, 2
Maybe I’m the only one who doesn’t understand the word “primordial.” According to Merriam-Webster, “primordial” means “existing from the beginning of time, very ancient.” I wonder how many of us feel like we have been circling around God, “the primordial tower,” something ancient that has existed from the beginning of time? The reference to “circling” suggests to me a quest and a longing that remains unfulfilled even as the poet engages It.
In the midst of this “circling,” Rilke suggests self-mystery. Who are we as we circle the “primordial tower?” What are the implications for the “circling” and for living?
And, yet, even in uncertainty, the poet “give[s] myself to it.” Surrendering in mystery is what I often need to do as well.
I want to ask you, as clearly as I can, to bear with patience all that is unresolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves, as if they were rooms yet to enter or books written in a foreign language. Don’t dig for answers that can’t be given you yet; you cannot live them now. For everything must be lived. Live the questions now, perhaps then, someday, you will gradually, without noticing, live into the answer.
~Rainer Maria Rilke, July 16, 1903, Letters to a Young Poet
In my mind, this is Rilke’s response to the inevitable mysteries of life.
Rather than being closed, he encourages us to “love the questions,” with anticipation, as if they were adventures yet to be experienced.
The advice Rilke gives to “live the questions now” is the best I know for addressing uncertainty in my life. Many times, when I have been unsure what I believed or unclear what to do, I have remembered this advice, with profit. I try to “sit” with the questions, with the hope that they will teach me something significant, while I wait expectantly for acceptance or resolution in an unknown future.
During 2015, I started a new habit: Once a day (give or take), I read a poem from famed German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. There were times when this practice really uplifted me and caused me to pause and wonder.
Rainer Maria Rilke, 1900, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
As we begin 2016, I’m going to share my six favorite Rilke writings that relate to mystery and awe. The first is below, followed by a few of my thoughts.