Psychologists at Penn University have been studying something called the overview effect. The overview effect is the sense of awe and wonder astronauts feel when they see the earth in the distance from their spacecraft. The overview effect is said to change an astronaut intensely to the point where he or she experiences a life changing sense of connectedness to all of humanity. It elicits a sense of transcendence and a whole new way of perceiving existence on planet earth. Examples collected in this article say things like:
“I had another feeling, that the earth is like a vibrant living thing. The vessels we’ve clearly seen on it looked like the blood and veins of human beings. I said to myself: this is the place we live, it’s really magical. (Chinese Space Program Astronaut Yang Liu, as cited in Chen, 2012, p. 288)”
“You . . . say to yourself, ‘That’s humanity, love, feeling, and thought.’ You don’t see the barriers of color and religion and politics that divide this world.” (NASA Astronaut Gene Cernan, as cited in White, 1987, p. 37)”
“You’ve seen pictures and you’ve heard people talk about it. But nothing can prepare you for what it actually looks like. The Earth is dramatically beautiful when you see it from orbit, more beautiful than any picture you’ve ever seen. It’s an emotional experience because you’re removed from the Earth but at the same time you feel this incredible connection to the Earth like nothing I’d ever felt before. (NASA Astronaut Sam Durrance, as cited in Redfern, 1996, p. 1)”
While the article doesn’t claim this experience is supernatural or spiritual, I believe there is certainly a connection between the psychological elements leading to the overview effect and what happens when people reach a point of spiritual maturity or what’s often called spiritual awakening. Most striking about the findings in this article is after experiencing the overview effect many of the astronauts maintained their new perspective and lived changed lives. They felt a new sense of compassion for their fellow human beings and lived lives differently than before the experience by engaging in more pro-social activities. In many ways the overview effect reminds me of that point when we recognize the profound reality there is a God, he is a God who loves us unconditionally, and we have a new life because of the gift of grace he shares with us. Yet, like so many of us who simply look at pictures of earth in space never experiencing what it looks like from the window of a space craft, we never have that profound sense of awe and wonder at who God is.
After reading this article I began to ask myself, “Why is it so many people have turned the experience of God into a political agenda or a set of rules one must follow instead of an encounter with one who strikes awe and wonder in our lives.?” Basically I was asking why we can’t seem to have an experience of the overview effect when pondering the vastness and greatness of God. Awe isn’t something we only experience in space, there are other times awe strikes the human condition. While we may not experience the overview effect, many of us have seen something vast and immense such as the Grand Canyon, the pyramids, or any of the other great wonders of the world. Social psychologists view awe as an intense emotional experience resulting from being aware of the vastness of something combined with the need to mentally accommodate that experience. Often people have that experience when they see the ocean for the first time or look down upon the earth from the top of a high mountain. Why is it we seldom have this same experience of awe and wonder for God?
It’s my opinion this spiritual experience of awe and wonder has eluded us because we’ve become obsessed with the details of a life with God and have forgotten how to step back and view the vastness of God. The psalms do a good job at recognizing the hand of God in creation in a way that provides an overall big picture ignored so often in our spiritual experience of God. The vastness of God in the world is found in the words of psalms like those in psalm 19:
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
2 Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
3 They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
4 Yet their voice[b] goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
5 It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
6 It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is deprived of its warmth.
It’s in the heavens God is proclaimed. Time echoes the story of salvation; the story of a God who loves us and bursts into time and space as Jesus Christ to show us deep profound and abundant love. The presence of God strikes awe in our soul to the point no words are necessary and like a bridegroom the sun comes forth as a sacramental way of reminding us Christ, the bridegroom of humanity has come to deprive no one of his warming love. The psalms, when meditated upon, can strike awe and wonder in the human soul because they are intensely focused on God’s vastness and reframe our experiences to remind us how much bigger he is than the confines we place on our God encounters. The Psalms focus on grand experiences of encountering God as demonstrated in psalm 63:
You, God, are my God,
earnestly I seek you;
I thirst for you,
my whole being longs for you,
in a dry and parched land
where there is no water
It ‘s my hope that we can begin to develop a deeply profound spirituality by recapturing the vastness of God and I think a good place to start is by meditating on the psalms. At a time when we’re bickering about the minutia of the Christian faith we need to recapture the awe and wonder of God. You do that by having a personal encounter with the vastness of God and the profundity of what he has done. Remember what Astronaut Sam Durrance said about his encounter with the earth in the distance. He said, “You’ve seen pictures and you’ve heard people talk about it. But nothing can prepare you for what it actually looks like… It’s an emotional experience because you’re removed from the Earth but at the same time you feel this incredible connection to the Earth like nothing I’d ever felt before.” It’s this firsthand experience of being of the earth yet also disconnected from it that gave him this sense of awe and wonder. That’s the same experience we have with God. We’re deeply connected to him and in fact as believers he dwells in us. Yet, because of sin we feel his distance. His imminence and transcendence are always present as a type of spiritual paradox. If we believe this and allow ourselves to enter into this spiritual paradox, we can experience the awe and wonder of God.
The article explored how these astronauts had a personal encounter with something profound. We have that same opportunity. We can recapture a sense of awe and wonder for God when we simply step back, look at the created world, look at human beings and what they can accomplish, gaze into space, and in its simplest form, look into the eyes of a new born child. When we see God in all things we can have some sense of what the overview effect does to an astronaut. We can personally encounter our world in a way that speaks to the magnificence of God. To do so we must be willing to be vulnerable to a personal encounter with the greatness of God. We can’t protect ourselves by over intellectualizing the faith. While thinking about God is indeed a way of worshiping him, we must allow that personal experience of his vastness to overwhelm us first. If we never reach that profound sense of awe and wonder for God we can never fully appreciate the intellectual details of the Christian life. Without awe and wonder for God, the intellectual details become rules and dogmas never blossoming into intellectual experiences of the divine mystery. Christ asks us to have the faith of a child and perhaps by starting with that type of faith we can become enamored with the God of wonder and awe.