Awe—three letters that define the feeling of reverence as it intermingles with fear and wonder. In the simplicity of those letters is captured the emotion felt by all who witnessed the eclipse this August. It is difficult not to have been overtaken by the event: Joy and fear mixed into a single voice as the thousands of people around me began to howl and cheer at the sight of a blackened sun. A decidedly secular event marked by the smell of food and gasoline quickly transformed into a sacred and spiritual experience for everyone in attendance.
The Cosmos inspires religiosity. For as long as humanity has looked up at the stars, they have bowed down in reverence. There is a tale in Norse mythology about two wolves that chase the Moon and Sun. Ravenous with hunger, one of them eventually catches the Sun and begins to feast. As the light begins to fade, the people of Earth respond with a loud shout to frighten the wolf away (Hawking & Mlodinow, 2010). Such stories and reactions are found across all cultures, from the Ancient Chinese that would bang on pots to frighten the sun-eating Dragon, to the Hindus of India that would dip in the Ganges River to encourage the sun to fend off its attacker (Berkowitz, 2017)
It’s as if our brains are prone to spirituality. Even when the sun is rising, we can’t help but be overcome with its awe and majesty. It is a primal and visceral response that resonates into and out of every corner of our being. A desire to worship even when we know not what. Atheistic scientists are not exempt from this feeling. The late Carl Sagan wrote “when we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual (Sagan, 1997, p. 32).
Two researchers recently found that feeling “awe” increases a person’s belief in the supernatural (Valdesolo & Graham, 2013). They defined awe as “perceived vastness,” the sensation that there is more than enough time available. In their experiment, participants were shown one of three videos: a news clip, a comedy clip, and segments of vast landscapes from BBC’s Planet Earth. A survey then measured the participant’s sense of a greater power (gods, karma, etc.). Results showed that participants experienced greater spirituality after viewing the sweeping landscapes, as opposed to the other two clips.
In the face of overwhelming grandeur and mystery our minds incline towards reverence. We can look to all the world’s religions and see the results—man worships the creation rather than the Creator (Romans 1:25). Idols exists for every sun, moon, star and awe-inducing natural phenomenon in our universe. Even the nonreligious have simply swapped ancient idolatry for a new scientific spirituality. As the father of American psychology, William James, wrote over a century ago: “Science in many minds is genuinely taking the place of a religion. Where this is so, the scientist treats the ‘Laws of Nature’ as objective facts to be revered” (James, 1902, p. 49). Such a sentiment is demonstrated by the founder of The Skeptics Society, Michael Shermer: “Instead of fear and trembling, we feel wonder and gratitude in discovering that the author’s hand is nature’s laws and nothing more, but also nothing less (Shermer, 2014). Spiritual but not religious—that is their catchphrase.
Like John the Apostle, humanity has always quickly bowed at the feet of angels (Revelations 22:8, 9). How interesting that when the world embraces spirituality, Scripture warns us of it; to be aware of our unanchored emotions; to not be wrongly pulled by them. It cautions us of “great signs and wonders” that may “lead astray, if possible, even the elect”—as if knowing the weakness of our minds in the presence of such wonders (Matthew 24:24, ESV).
As I stood there in the presence of an eclipsing sun; as it veiled its face with the moon; as I saw my own emotions overtake me and the thousands of people around me; the following verses came to mind: “Beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, things that the LORD your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven” (Deuteronomy 4:10, ESV).
There is beauty in words. A sentence well written—a phrase that captures a thought and holds it for a moment—these are the moments for which readers search. But the nature of a sentence is a strange thing. Words by themselves are not bound by any ethics; they are empty vessels in which nothing but a single unit of information is contained. Claiming that the words “fruit” and “tree” are true or false is meaningless. However, the moment words are grouped together into a sentence, they gain a truth value. That is to say, a sentence has the emergent property of “truthfulness” not found in the individual nouns and verbs that compose it. Take, for example, the sentence “The fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree.” It makes a claim about the state of both the fruit and the tree, which can be verified by reality.
Sentences are the smallest grammatical units that can tell truth or lies.1 When the serpent spoke the phrase “You will not surely die” (Gen. 3:4, ESV), those words, arranged in that order, entered into the realm of meaning. They formed a proposition that could be falsified: mankind would either die or it would not. Thus, not until those handful of words were grouped into that complete and unholy sentence was the first lie ever spoken and the father of lies born.
Truth and falsehoods are ships in need of a language on which to cast anchor. Without a mode of communication, it would be impossible to deceive or apprise others. Perhaps that is the reason why the serpent first spoke: because without words, he could not deceive. In the United States Constitution, fraud and libel are not protected precisely because they undermine the whole purpose of free speech, which is to “seek and share the truth.”2 Yet, what about the sentences we don’t speak, those words we conceal within our minds and hide from the view of others?
“You also were with Jesus,” said an unfamiliar voice. As those words left the young girl’s lips and landed upon the ears of Peter, they kindled fear.
It always begins that way. Fear of embarrassment, or perhaps fear of consequences—that’s why we hide the truth. What were Peter’s thoughts in that moment? Perhaps he had none. Perhaps the same fear that caused him to look at the roaring waves beneath his feet, and plunge beneath them, also prompted him to look at the roaring waves of multitudes around the Messiah, and be pulled by them.
The social world around us is like a net that drags us along the ocean floor. It causes us to choose the wrong answer when we know which is right.
For example, imagine you are in a room with your peers. A professor raises a card with a single vertical line drawn on it and tells you it is the prototype. He raises a second card, this time with three unique lines, and asks the class which one matches the first. The answer is immediately obvious: the third line matches. What isn’t obvious is that your peers are really confederates of the study, actors paid to influence you. One by one the professor goes around the room. One by one each student says the wrong answer. It’s your turn. You question your sanity. How could so many be wrong? Do you trust yourself? Trust the group? Maybe you’re the gullible one falling for the illusion. The uneasiness of nonconformity is not promptly digested. Solomon Asch designed this famous experiment, and his results showed that 35 percent of the time you will—like Peter—deny the truth.
The Urge to Disclose
“You also are one of them,” said another voice. A little time had elapsed between the first and the second accusation. Why, then, didn’t Peter get away with his denial? Why did people become increasingly adamant that he knew Jesus? Simple: our brains are bad at possessing secrets. The harder we try to keep something hidden, the more likely we are to disclose it unintentionally.
Imagine sitting at a table, with a friend across from you. On the table are four cards with a specific shape on each. A circle is to your left, and a heart is on the right. The two in the middle are both triangles—one large, the other small. Only three of the shapes are visible to your friend. The fourth is visible only to you. Do you think you can keep it a secret?
When Liane Wardlow Lane and her colleagues designed this experiment, they came up with an intuitive way to gauge when people disclosed secret information. Researchers asked participants to describe the shapes to the person across the table—all except the hidden one. Interestingly, many described the visible triangle as the “small” triangle. Their use of the adjective “small” unnecessarily revealed important information. Two different cards show triangles, but the friend on the other side of the table doesn’t know that. By calling the visible triangle small, the describer was leaking privileged information—that there was a larger triangle hidden behind the partition.
Curiously, this unintentional confession occurred more often when researchers asked participants to keep the information secret than when they didn’t. It’s as if an attempt to hide the truth made people more likely to tell it.
With every denial, the thought of his relationship to Jesus pressed harder upon Peter’s mind. His own neurophysiology refused to side with his crime. His voice, the words he used to betray Jesus, now betrayed him and called attention to him. In fact, research shows that people experience a rebound effect after attempting to suppress thoughts. Participants report thinking more about the thoughts they were told not to think than about those they weren’t, creating a preoccupation with the suppression.
“Certainly, this man was with him,” said a third voice. Thrice was Peter asked, and thrice did he deny it. Our brains don’t like keeping secrets. Suppressing information has been shown to increase stress. For example, one study found that when participants were asked to write about a certain topic and then suppress all thoughts about it, there was a significant decrease in lymphocyte levels in their blood; in other words, their immune system was being compromised.6 It’s as if the stress of lying turns on the body’s defense mechanisms, shutting down the immune system in the way it does when we are trying to escape from danger. Stress levels began to increase in Peter’s brain, and he began to curse and aggressively deny all accusations; his fight-or-flight response had activated.
Then the rooster crowed twice. Some thoughts seem to just awaken in consciousness, while others seem prompted. A few hours prior, the disciples had sat together celebrating the Passover. Jesus had said something to Peter. In that moment, the sights and sounds of Jesus’ words activated a chemical cascade in Peter’s eyes and ears that streamed across his nerves and into his brain. Out of those perceptions a memory was formed, a memory he had subsequently forgotten, repressed by the chaos of the night.
Certain sounds and smells seem to take us back in time, to relive forgotten memories. We return to the very place where those memories first formed. Experimentation shows that retrieval cues aid our recollection. Then the rooster crowed again. In that moment, the sight and sounds of the rooster’s crow activated another chemical cascade that rushed across Peter’s nerves and into his brain. Aided by those perceptual cues, a memory was retrieved. Peter remembered the words Jesus had spoken to him, warning him of this moment. Scripture tells us that Peter immediately went out and wept bitterly.
Our brains were not designed to lie. We go contrary to our nature when we suppress the truth, deny our beliefs, and reject our high calling. In the case of traumatic events, studies show that not confiding them with another person can be more emotionally damaging than the events themselves.8 Ellen White paints that night of the crucifixion thus: “A tide of memories rushed over him. … Unable to longer endure the scene, he rushed, heart-broken, from the hall. He pressed on in solitude and darkness, he knew and cared not whither.”
We don’t know much of what happened after Peter left. But we have reason to believe that Peter’s brain gave him no peace— that sadness and guilt continued until his brain was given the opportunity to confess the truth he had denied so adamantly. Thrice did Christ ask if Peter loved him (John 21:15-17), and thrice did the repentant disciple say yes.
Neuroscientist David Eagleman gives us the following thought: “It [the need for disclosure] may similarly explain the appeal of prayer, especially in those religions that have very personal gods, deities who lend their ears with undivided attention and infinite love.” That hymn of old asks: “Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere? We should never be discouraged, take it to the Lord in prayer.” Like Peter, we too need to confess and to
tell the truth to someone. Our story began with the first recorded sentence, which contained a lie.
I said earlier that a complete sentence, not a standalone word, is the smallest grammatical unit that holds a truth value. I lied. One exception exists. It is not a phrase, nor a sentence, but a single word. A Word whose existence has been from the beginning. A Word that alone contains the entirety of Truth incarnate: Jesus.
Every story must begin somewhere. And this one begins on the seaside. Nature loves to hold on to mysteries, as if to disclose them meant she’ll lose a part of herself. For a long time, it was a mystery how turtle hatchlings found the sea. Perhaps the gentle sound of waves was calling out to them, saying “come, this is the way home.” But there is a stronger explanation. Not the call of the sea, but light from the moon glistening upon the horizon (Rivas, Tomillo, Uribeondo, & Marco, 2015). These turtles follow the moonlight as it reflects over the ocean. They keep their eyes on its glow, as they make their way towards the freedom that the ocean brings.
Seldom is victory gained at little cost, and us as humans have added many costly obstacles to their already rough path. Light pollution from nearby cars, streets, and buildings have begun to disorient these hatchlings (Howell, 2013). Their gaze once steadfast, has now been compromised by the multitude of brighter, and more attractive lights. Not only do these lights lead away from the safety of the ocean, they lead towards the dangers of streets and sewers.
We are not so different from these hatchlings. In our Christian journey, we hear the voice of One say, “Do you see yonder shining light? Keep that light in your eye, and go directly to it” (Bunyan, 1628, p. 11). There are a multitude of lights, attractive and distracting, that will divert our gaze. Like the atoms in a molecule, drawn together by falling to their lowest energy state, so too are we effortlessly drawn and attracted to the lowliness of the world. “If they kept their eyes fixed on Jesus, who was just before them, leading them to the city, they were safe. But soon some grew weary, and said the city was a great way off, and they expected to have entered it before” (White, 1915, p. 64). Like these molecules, it takes energy and effort to tear apart those bonds; to separate us from the world, and not be distracted by it. Yet the Light of Christ is soft and steady, and anyone willing to keep their eyes on it will—like the turtle hatchlings—find the shores of salvation. As it is written, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else.” (Isaiah 45:22, KJV).