Learning and Living Through Awe

Photo by the author

In his recent article in Christian Scholar’s Review, Paul Waddell suggests that every human being is called to live wisely and well. In practical terms, responding to this shared calling means becoming “skillfully attuned, each day, to the myriad ways in which we are summoned out of ourselves in response to the beauty, loveliness, and goodness of the created order—as well as in response to its suffering and affliction.” To me, this sounds at once true, simple, and utterly countercultural, as perhaps simple and true things often are.  

Waddell’s account of growth in wisdom certainly runs counter to what many people these days expect a college education to accomplish. Professors and university administrators are asked by pundits, legislators, parents, and prospective students about placement rates, career-readiness, and trending programs, but not very often about what it means to live well. I personally can’t recall any conversations in which outsiders to the university have asked me if we give students the capacity to be skillfully attuned to beauty and suffering. And the truth is that in an atmosphere of precarity, many of us might prefer simply to focus on “giving them what they want,” which seems to be a clear and comfortable path to a lucrative credential.

Except that we do still talk about learning, and I want to propose that the necessary connection between learning and awe is the reason that college still can and should produce the kind of attunement to calling that Waddell talks about. In fact, if we do learning right, it must at least potentially give students the capacity for living wisely and well.

Every semester, I teach “Ultimate Questions,” an introductory theology course that all students are required to take. In my version of the course, we begin with a couple of class sessions about awe—what it is, its familiar effects on a person, and where and when it can be experienced and practiced. We read Barbara Brown Taylor, who writes about reverence as “the proper attitude of a small and curious human being in a vast and fascinating world of experience.” There is, then, a humbling dimension to awe. To be in awe of something, you must be aware that you did not author that something, whether it is a tree or a bird or another human face. Awe is a response to the existence of the world without and beyond your approval, which means that even the smallest fact of it, considered with due humility, is a miracle. To practice this response, you can start in familiar territory with sunsets and shooting stars, Taylor says, but eventually even a mosquito will evoke your awe: “Where in those legs is there room for knees? And yet see how they bend, as the bug lowers herself to your flesh.”

This is good preparation for thinking about divine transcendence, but that doesn’t mean the value of awe is restricted to any one discipline. In an old op-ed for the New York Times, Jamie Holmes makes a “case for teaching ignorance,” which highlights natural science professors’ frustration that students often come into their classes assuming that almost everything is known and that they are present simply to ingest it. Holmes explains that in such contexts, “focusing on uncertainty can foster latent curiosity, while emphasizing clarity can convey a warped understanding of knowledge.” Whether the class is theology or chemistry or computer science, then, there are learning benefits to immersing students in the realization that reality ultimately exceeds our knowing.

If we foster curiosity and growth by admitting that uncertainty and incompleteness characterize human knowledge, then humility seems the requisite attitude not only for the practice of awe and wonder but also for learning as such. When I said at the start that Waddell’s account of living wisely and well was countercultural, did I mean that our culture is averse to humility? If so, then what is the opposite of humility, and how might we clear it away as an obstacle to learning and growth in virtue?

This is where things get a little tricky because we assume that an aversion to humility must be rooted in pride, and that pride implies self-confidence. Yet our students arrive on our campuses and in our classrooms less haughty than scared. They experience so much upheaval in the transition to college. All their familiar anchors of support are gone. Sure, new ones are provided, but they are new, and it takes some acclimation for them to feel stable. So it could be dangerous to introduce students to humility if that implies taking them down a peg. They barely have a leg to stand on as it is.

Photo by the author

Our students, then, don’t need an experience of awe to teach them humility. Instead, they need reminders of awe to help them learn how to interpret humility and what to do with it. When I ask students if they already have any intentional awe practices, what makes them hesitate is not any prideful sense of certitude but rather trepidation about being seen as small and curious. Many already do have practices in their lives that reflect and cultivate “skillful attunement” to the world, but when they talk about them, they feel compelled to preface their comments with something like, “This is going to sound cheesy, but….”

I think this tells us something important about their (and our) cultural milieu. They have been told that any lack of certainty, or any practiced openness to everyday beauty, will reveal them as not yet properly grown up, not sufficiently complete and therefore not qualified. They have been humbled and yet taught that humility is shameful, something to be denied, perhaps via online self-promotion, which is often self-obscuration. A direct affirmation of their uncertainty and capacity for amazement as the beginning of wisdom can change everything. Awe is humility transposed into a different key. By calling us to alertness without first asking us how credible we are in the eyes of the world, how important we are in the various hierarchies with which we are afflicted, awe is nothing less than an affirmation of our immeasurable dignity, our worthiness to grow in wisdom. It transforms our smallness and curiosity into conduits for that noblest of summons—to live wisely and well.

For further reading on humility, see Practicing Humility in the Sciences by Rachael Baker and colleagues at Calvin University; Reaffirming Our Vocational Authenticity with Courage and Humility by Kathleen T. Talvacchia; and Rethinking and Unlearning: Imagining New Ways of Being in Community, an interview with Namisha Barton by Hannah Schell.

Justin Klassen is an associate professor of theology & religious studies at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky, where he also serves on the Mission Council. He is a NetVUE Faculty Fellow, and was a member of the 2021 cohort of the Faculty Seminar on Teaching Vocational Exploration. He is the author of a recent op-ed on the value and purpose of a college education.

Leave a Reply