Moving Beyond Awe

The nineteenth-century German theologian Rudolf Otto, in his book The Idea of the Holy, popularized the term “numinous”, an adjective describing the sense of mystery and wonder that purportedly stems from the presence of a deity. According to Otto, the sense of the numinous had two main characteristics: the mysterium tremendum, the sense of fear and trembling that comes from the presence of that which is wholly other, and the mysterium fascinas, the sense of fascination and curiosity that such an experience evokes.

Otto’s theology concisely sums up the categories of religious experience. But the problem with his conception of the numinous is that it lacks one very important quality – understanding.

For Otto, as for many theists, the numinous is not something we should seek to comprehend. We should cower in its presence, or chase after it, or both, but there is no mention of penetrating the mystery, learning what it truly is and how it works. There is no mention made of pulling back the curtain of our ignorance, nor of plumbing the depths of the strange and unknown until it becomes known and familiar.

This idea may seem sacrilegious to theists, but I answer that it’s what humanity has been doing throughout its history: piercing the mysteries that surround us, drawing them back one by one, and learning ever more about who we are and what our place in the world is. We are great solvers of mysteries; we have never been content to live in ignorance.

After all, to primitive people, the world was a strange and terrifying place ruled by forces they could not comprehend. To them, everything they encountered was a mysterium tremendum et fascinans: thunderstorms and lightning, sunrise and sunset, the cycle of the seasons, the fall of the rains and the coming of prey, the growth of crops and the bearing of children. Every one of these things, and many more besides, was once a religious mystery before which we worshipped in terror and awe.

But through science and reason, we have pierced the veil of these mysteries. We have learned that natural forces, which once must have seemed like mighty and capricious gods, were in reality grand clockworks, controlled by the predictable unfolding of the mathematical laws that govern the cosmos.

Thunder and lightning are not the spears of the gods, before which we cower in terror; they arise from the buildup of electric potential between cloud and ground, and the shock wave caused by the rapid superheating of air when that potential is discharged. The seasons come from the earth’s axial tilt as it orbits the sun. Fertility is no longer a compelling mystery, but a section of the evolutionary trajectory of life as it perpetuates itself. These mysteries and many more we have solved, setting aside primitive superstitions of ritual and sacrifice, and learning through reason how to use the laws of nature for our benefit.

What, then, of the numinous? Is every religious experience doomed to fade as our understanding grows?

I think not. Or, rather, I think the religious experiences of our childhood, born of superstition and fear, will die – but when understanding comes, they can be reborn in a stronger and purer form. Far from science robbing the world of awe and wonder, I think it’s only science that makes true awe and wonder possible at all.

I remember standing in the rain of El Yunque, touching the leaf of a plant and contemplating our kinship, our both belonging to that unbroken tree of evolutionary history that unites all life on Earth. My sense of the transcendent was not undermined, but deepened and magnified by that knowledge, the insight into the vastnesses of time and space and the twisting paths of contingency that led to we two living things side by side in the rainfall. I look at my hands with the knowledge that they are shaped from the dust of exploded stars, and that looking up at the night sky, I am looking at the place of my origin. Many more examples like this could be given, proving that true understanding does not diminish awe, but enhances it immeasurably.

The religious experience is, at best, a stunted variety of this feeling. Awe without understanding, or at least the desire for understanding, degenerates into mysticism: viewing a mystery not as a challenge to be solved, but something to be worshipped for its own sake. Mysticism states that ignorance is a desirable condition, a state we should glory in. This attitude only keeps us frightened and ignorant, and worst of all, robs us of the deeper and more genuine awe that comes with comprehension. I say, let us explore. There may be problems too high or too deep for us, mysteries we cannot penetrate – but so far, we haven’t found any, and if there are any, they will not need to be protected from our investigations.

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