There is wide agreement that awe and wonder occupy a central place within spirituality, particularly the spirituality of young children. The two terms capture something important about their curiosity and fascination with things, their extraordinary capacity to enter into fantasy and exercise their imagination, their intense awareness of immediate experiences and emotions, and their innocent raising of profound questions about the meaning of life. Yet the terms themselves are far from straightforward. It is not immediately clear what sort of responses they describe, whether these responses are natural or learned, whether they are essentially religious concepts, or what educational value, if any, they have. It is not even clear whether the two terms are synonymous.
Of the two terms, perhaps "wonder" is the more straightforward. It refers to a feeling of surprise and admiration, evoked by an experience that is in some way inexplicable or that surpasses expectation. We wonder at things that go beyond our finite selves, and the emotion thus reminds us that there is more to life than those things we can easily understand. We feel wonder not only when we are confronted with something exceptional or spectacular (like one of the "seven wonders of the world"), but also when we experience something of the mystery of life or when we suddenly achieve fresh insights into familiar things (like the color of a flower or the awareness of love). By reminding us of our own limitations, wonder may lead to humility, reverence, and an appreciation of things that are greater than ourselves. But it can also evoke curiosity and a desire to learn. Wonder may therefore be a starting point for both scientific and philosophical investigations, a point made by Aristotle in his Metaphysics.
Like wonder, the concept of awe includes feelings of solemn admiration and reverence, whether directed towards a superior or divine being or in response to something vast or splendid in the natural world. But in the case of awe, these feelings may also involve a sense of fear, especially the fear of something vaster than oneself that may impinge on one's life and leave one helpless. The intimate connection between fear and awe is illustrated by the fact that in many languages, including Hebrew and Greek, the same word is used for both concepts; recent English translations of the Bible (such as the Revised Standard Version) often use the term "awe" in preference to the Authorized Version's "fear" to describe the appropriate human response to God (e.g., 1 Chron. 16:25; Matt. 17:6; Heb. 12:28). Awesome fear may also be a response to the ravages of nature, to wanton destruction, or to death, loss, suffering, separation, and despair, especially where these are experienced by the innocent and the helpless.
At first glance, therefore, it may seem possible to construct a continuum of feeling in which "awe" occupies a central place, with "admiration" and "wonder" on one side and "fear" and "dread" on the other. But closer examination reveals awe as a more complex concept, inspiring wonder and fear, admiration and terror, at the same time. The experience of awe thus provides spiritual insights into the precarious nature of human life, human insignificance, and powerlessness, and the fact that our destiny does not lie entirely in our own hands. By providing a deeper understanding of the potential and limitations of the human condition, the emotion of awe contributes to our spiritual development.
For some people, such feelings may be shadows of the awe that is felt in the presence of God, the awe that inspired Carl Boberg to write
O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder Consider all the works Thy Hand hath made, I see the stars, I hear the mighty thunder, Thy pow'r throughout the universe displayed; Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to Thee: How great Thou art, how great Thou art! (Translation by S. K. Hine)
This emphasis on the importance of wonder, reverence, and awe as a response to the divine is particularly seen in the work of the theologian Rudolf Otto (1869-1937). He claims that all humans can experience a nonrational aspect of religion (the "holy") as a result of their innate capacity to respond to the "numinous" (or divine mystery).
If the emotions of awe and wonder contribute to our understanding of the place of humans in the broader scheme of things, they clearly have educational value. It is easy to encourage young children to be aware of jewels in a raindrop or the vastness of the night sky, to use fantasy techniques to become a bird soaring in the sky, or to see a flower as if for the first time. The telescope and the microscope both open up a range of experiences to which young children will naturally respond with awe and wonder. As they grow older, awe may also be inspired by an awareness of evil and suffering and the capriciousness of fate, and the study of tragedy (which according to Aristotle evokes awe and pity) is one example of a way of using this awareness to promote spiritual, emotional, and moral growth. Perhaps our current overuse of words like "wonderful" and "awesome" indicates a hunger for a certain kind of human emotion, a craving to probe deeper into the beauty, pain, and mystery of the human condition.