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In Support of an Awesome God

November 26, 2013

I am a lover of words and have come to see myself as a bit of a “wordsmith” (I was surprised to learn that particular word is over 100 years old, imagining it to be of much more recent coinage).  As such, I have to admit it goes against the grain when someone uses words incorrectly.  But the misuse of certain words rips out splinters.  “Awesome” is one of those words. 


The use of this word has absolutely permeated the language, especially amongst young people (but increasingly amongst those older people who consider it “hip” to fashion themselves after the young).  If you were to ask someone what this word means, he or she would likely tell you that awesome means “hip”, “cool”, “amazing”, or “exciting”, or any number of like adjectives that are all frequently ill defined themselves. 


However you define it, the continued misuse and overuse of “awesome” has diminished it, detracted from its original meaning and eroded its power.  Consequently, the Urban Dictionary defines “awesome” as “something Americans use to describe everything.”  “Awesome” has degenerated into an almost meaningless catch-all.


So what did “awesome” originally mean?  Along with its sister word “awful”, its source is in an Old English word for “terror, dread, awe.”  When “awesome” made its first appearance in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1598, it described someone feeling awe, rather than someone inspiring it. But by the time Webster’s 1828 dictionary was published, “awesome” (and “awful”) had taken on its now traditional meaning, “That which strikes with awe; that fills with profound reverence; as the awful majesty of Jehovah.”


I wish to insert a caveat here.  Consulting my dictionary, I find that both “fear” and “dread” once implied reverence.  The Hebrew word in our Bibles often translated as “fear” does not connote the present day common understanding of fear, but rather awe.


Setting aside its modern vernacular usage, the theological understanding of awe has been corroded by the acid of philosophical and scientific consideration.  18th century philosophers moved the focus of the closely related idea of the sublime from Creator to creation.  Social psychology further cheapened awe, Robert Plutchik categorizing it as an amalgam of fear and surprise, and Gerrod Parrott not even according it the status of tertiary emotion in his classification.


But when one considers the Bible, a far different sense of the word “awesome” emerges, one much closer to the 1828 Webster meaning, but richer and deeper still.   As Robert Lane Green of The Economist put it, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was awesome.”  (Seems irreverent until you think about it a bit.)  The idea of awe is embedded in the Biblical tradition, a concept in which a sense of the sacred is inherent; awe does not exist apart from the sacred.  Neither is it merely something we feel.  It is the trembling in the spirit, the overwhelming amazement, wonder, gratitude, humility and love that fills the creature upon encountering the mystery of the transcendence and overwhelming holiness of the Creator.  It is the sense of unworthiness and limitation, the inability to fathom the greatness of what is encountered, and the privilege of being able to enjoy it. It is the self-forgetfulness that sweeps away personal fear and stands in its stead a sense of well-being and security that releases one to bask in divine love.This is the true meaning of “awesome.”


“You’re making a mountain out of a molehill,” you might say.  “That’s just semantics.  ‘Awesome’ can be used in a variety of contexts.  It’s no big deal.”  Really?  The way in which we speak, how we use words, is of utmost importance.  Psychological research has clearly shown that words shape how we think.  And our thinking has consequences for actions, the way we live.  And the consequences can be dire.


Albert Einstein once said, “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; his eyes are closed.”  It is a great gift to appreciate the wonders of God on display at every moment in everything we see and everyone we encounter.


I could not clarify this better than did the Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel in his classic God in Search of Man:


Awe is a way of being in rapport with the mystery of all reality. The awe that we sense or ought to sense when standing in the presence of a human being is a moment of intuition for the likeness of God which is concealed in his essence. Not only man; even inanimate things stand in a relation to the Creator. The secret of every being is the divine care and concern that are invested in it. Something sacred is at stake in every event….

There is only one way to wisdom: awe. Forfeit your sense of awe, let your conceit diminish your ability to revere, and the universe becomes a market place for you. The loss of awe is the great block to insight….


The greatest insights happen to us in moments of awe….


Awe is more than a feeling. It is an answer of the heart and mind to the presence of mystery in all things, an intuition for a meaning that is beyond the mystery, an awareness of the transcendent worth of the universe.


Perhaps as my brother says I am just getting old and grumpy, but I experience a twinge of grief when I hear “awesome” trivialized.  I believe our ability to experience both the Creator and His creation has been undermined and diminished.  Is it just me, or is the sense of awe becoming more and more a rarity?

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