Religion means "be careful"

In a discussion of how Roman Catholic church bureaucracy and the American Academy of Religion both try to keep the lid on supernatural experiences, the notable Lutheran sociologist Peter Berger cites some interesting etymology:

Sociologists who deal with religion often like to refer to the etymology of the Latin word religio. Supposedly it derives from the verb religare—to re-bind. If so, this points to a very valid insight, most fully formulated by the classical sociologist Emile Durkheim—namely, that religion provides the symbolic ligature that keeps a society together. I understand that Latinists reject this etymology for a different, and actually more interesting one: Religio derives from relegere—to be careful. In other words, the supernatural is a very dangerous reality—one has to approach it with great caution. This understanding was brilliantly formulated by Rudolf Otto, arguably one of the greatest twentieth-century historians of religion, in his book The Idea of the Holy. Religion is always based on an experience, on whatever level of intensity or sophistication, with a reality that is intensely dangerous. . . .

Otto coined the term “numinous” to refer to this experience. His German language too seems to break down, as he falls back on Latin to describe the numinous—it is a mysterium tremendum, both terrifying and alluring. It is totaliter aliter—totally other than the fabric of everyday life. Above all, it is extremely dangerous. This is why, in the Bible and in other sacred scriptures, the first words spoken by an angel to a human being is “Do not be afraid!”

via Defanging the Supernatural | Religion and Other Curiosities.

This, I think, is what is missing in so much of today’s Christianity:  the fear of God.  We have tamed our own religion.  We are no longer “careful,” and so we have lost the “numinous” and thus the sense of holiness.   I would argue that the historic liturgy and sacramental spirituality retain that sense, whereas so much of the trappings of contemporary Christianity, in its worship and art forms, have the effect of domesticating  the supernatural and rendering it banal.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://acroamaticus.blogspot.com Pr Mark Henderson

    I understand Otto went out of favour in academe for a few decades in the 2oth C. but is now apparently coming back into fashion. But whatever the trends in the academy are, I think he was on to something. My childhood visits to Anglican cathedrals certainly instilled in me a healthy respect, call it fear if you will, for God that thankfully has never left me. Of course, that experience of the mysterium tremendum needs to be given doctrinal content and context; paganism also knows of it.

  • http://acroamaticus.blogspot.com Pr Mark Henderson

    I understand Otto went out of favour in academe for a few decades in the 2oth C. but is now apparently coming back into fashion. But whatever the trends in the academy are, I think he was on to something. My childhood visits to Anglican cathedrals certainly instilled in me a healthy respect, call it fear if you will, for God that thankfully has never left me. Of course, that experience of the mysterium tremendum needs to be given doctrinal content and context; paganism also knows of it.

  • Larry Wilson

    Excellent point! One of which I need continual reminding. “Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name” (Ps. 86:11).

  • Larry Wilson

    Excellent point! One of which I need continual reminding. “Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name” (Ps. 86:11).

  • http://www.christlutheran.net Jeff Samelson

    Now, let’s relate these ideas to the modern/post-modern idea of being “Spiritual but not religious.”

  • http://www.christlutheran.net Jeff Samelson

    Now, let’s relate these ideas to the modern/post-modern idea of being “Spiritual but not religious.”

  • Tom Hering

    Berger: “But I do want to point out that these activities can also be understood as a peculiar form of exorcism – the supernatural is contained, is prevented from exploding the reality of ordinary life … Religious institutions have two functions: to preserve the memory of the [numinous] experience, so that it can be handed on to future generations who did not have it themselves; and to prevent the numinous experience from invading everyday reality in such a way as to make impossible the ordinary business of living. In this sense, every religious institution is an exorcism.”

    The above excerpts are the real point of Berger’s article, to wit: religious institutions limit our experience of the supernatural. I wonder if this is because most numinous experiences in this fallen world, while real, are not of God. I also wonder if Lutheranism, more than any other religious institution (in my opinion), tries to limit experience of the numinous/supernatural precisely because it places such a high value on ordinary life – on the ordinary business of living (vocation).

  • Tom Hering

    Berger: “But I do want to point out that these activities can also be understood as a peculiar form of exorcism – the supernatural is contained, is prevented from exploding the reality of ordinary life … Religious institutions have two functions: to preserve the memory of the [numinous] experience, so that it can be handed on to future generations who did not have it themselves; and to prevent the numinous experience from invading everyday reality in such a way as to make impossible the ordinary business of living. In this sense, every religious institution is an exorcism.”

    The above excerpts are the real point of Berger’s article, to wit: religious institutions limit our experience of the supernatural. I wonder if this is because most numinous experiences in this fallen world, while real, are not of God. I also wonder if Lutheranism, more than any other religious institution (in my opinion), tries to limit experience of the numinous/supernatural precisely because it places such a high value on ordinary life – on the ordinary business of living (vocation).

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    ties in well with the book I just finished reading “Worship as Pastoral Care” where the author maintains that in our effort to take the “bordeom” out of worship we have mistaken livelieness of life and “lit-orgy” for lit-urgy.”
    I begin to wonder if people aren’t maybe right for staying away from church when such shenanigans are passing as worship, where theology has been “demythologized” and practice as been “demystified.” Who can take it seriously? Who can honestly be blamed for staying at home?

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    ties in well with the book I just finished reading “Worship as Pastoral Care” where the author maintains that in our effort to take the “bordeom” out of worship we have mistaken livelieness of life and “lit-orgy” for lit-urgy.”
    I begin to wonder if people aren’t maybe right for staying away from church when such shenanigans are passing as worship, where theology has been “demythologized” and practice as been “demystified.” Who can take it seriously? Who can honestly be blamed for staying at home?

  • Porcell

    Dr. Veith: …much of the trappings of contemporary Christianity, in its worship and art forms, have the effect of domesticating the supernatural and rendering it banal.

    Yes, our forebears better understood the mysterium tremendumincluding the awfulness of its power. Richard Niebuhr captured the tendency of contemporary with his: A God without wrath brought people without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministry of a Christ without the cross.

    Of course, the power of the numinous needs to be contained within liturgical and sacramental form, which indeed the Lutherans do well, though, as in most aspects of life, one can be careful to the point of being dull.

  • Porcell

    Dr. Veith: …much of the trappings of contemporary Christianity, in its worship and art forms, have the effect of domesticating the supernatural and rendering it banal.

    Yes, our forebears better understood the mysterium tremendumincluding the awfulness of its power. Richard Niebuhr captured the tendency of contemporary with his: A God without wrath brought people without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministry of a Christ without the cross.

    Of course, the power of the numinous needs to be contained within liturgical and sacramental form, which indeed the Lutherans do well, though, as in most aspects of life, one can be careful to the point of being dull.

  • JonSLC

    Tom @4: Interesting thoughts at the end of your post. Yet one could also contend that emphasis on vocation actually brings MORE of the numinous into contact with people: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). “Glory of God” implies the numinous, and Paul is asserting that even in the mundane tasks of our vocations it is present.

    The point could also be made that Lutherans attempt to bring the numinous into people’s lives, but in a way that doesn’t kill them. If you want the living God in all his glory… be careful what you wish for! If God were to reveal himself in all his numinous majesty, he would kill us. So he “hides” his glory, but he does so in order to reveal himself to us. He “hides” under his Scriptures and Sacraments precisely to bring the numinous into our lives in ways that benefit us. (Harold Senkbeil makes this point well in Dying to Live.)

  • JonSLC

    Tom @4: Interesting thoughts at the end of your post. Yet one could also contend that emphasis on vocation actually brings MORE of the numinous into contact with people: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). “Glory of God” implies the numinous, and Paul is asserting that even in the mundane tasks of our vocations it is present.

    The point could also be made that Lutherans attempt to bring the numinous into people’s lives, but in a way that doesn’t kill them. If you want the living God in all his glory… be careful what you wish for! If God were to reveal himself in all his numinous majesty, he would kill us. So he “hides” his glory, but he does so in order to reveal himself to us. He “hides” under his Scriptures and Sacraments precisely to bring the numinous into our lives in ways that benefit us. (Harold Senkbeil makes this point well in Dying to Live.)

  • Ash

    It’s a nice point, and I’m all for more holy care in our religion, but if you’re using relegere as a root for religion, it’s more about ‘going over again, collecting again,’ being careful in the sense of taking care to get something right because it’s worth doing right and needs close attention, not necessarily because of fear or danger.

  • Ash

    It’s a nice point, and I’m all for more holy care in our religion, but if you’re using relegere as a root for religion, it’s more about ‘going over again, collecting again,’ being careful in the sense of taking care to get something right because it’s worth doing right and needs close attention, not necessarily because of fear or danger.

  • DonS

    This citation is talking about supernatural experiences, not necessarily the attitude of awe, fear, and reverence which should be our’s in connection with our Holy God. Supernatural experiences aren’t necessarily limited to the good, they can also involve satanic experiences, which we should definitely fear. In the Roman Catholic world, you might think of exorcisms, for example.

    Were we each to have a knowing supernatural encounter with an angel, we would also appreciate the encouragement to not be afraid, I dare say.

  • DonS

    This citation is talking about supernatural experiences, not necessarily the attitude of awe, fear, and reverence which should be our’s in connection with our Holy God. Supernatural experiences aren’t necessarily limited to the good, they can also involve satanic experiences, which we should definitely fear. In the Roman Catholic world, you might think of exorcisms, for example.

    Were we each to have a knowing supernatural encounter with an angel, we would also appreciate the encouragement to not be afraid, I dare say.

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    Fear of God? Be careful? Huh?
    None of that is necessary, because Jesus is a friend of mine!

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    Fear of God? Be careful? Huh?
    None of that is necessary, because Jesus is a friend of mine!

  • Ryan

    In my opinion the combination of Belief yet no fear of God would be what the Book of Revelation refers to as ‘lukewarm’.

    I love to contend for the faith with an atheist or some other serious practitioner of their religion or brand of Christianity – the problem I most run into though is indifference , which is very difficult to combat – this ‘no fear of God’ angle may just be a key to explaining where this profound and growing indifference come from I find across the board in United States religion.

  • Ryan

    In my opinion the combination of Belief yet no fear of God would be what the Book of Revelation refers to as ‘lukewarm’.

    I love to contend for the faith with an atheist or some other serious practitioner of their religion or brand of Christianity – the problem I most run into though is indifference , which is very difficult to combat – this ‘no fear of God’ angle may just be a key to explaining where this profound and growing indifference come from I find across the board in United States religion.

  • Michael Schutz

    Two things come to mind as I read the quote and your questions, Dr. Veith. In terms of contemporary Christianity’s worship and art forms domesticating the supernatural, could it not be that form has followed function (or more accurately, followed theology) here? Could not this loss of awe have come first, and then the forms were developed that reflected that? (Of course, now the form is fueling it, so we have a cycle, and we may have a chicken-and-egg question about what came first.) I’m not sure that we can definitively say that the forms themselves have actually led to the poor theology that minimizes the supernatual.

    As well, I think that minimizing of the supernatural was especially prominent in the 1980′s and 1990′s. But I think we’re seeing much reaction against that in younger generations, especially as I look around at some of the younger Evangelical churches today. For example, much of the “new Reformed” movement (of which I’m not a part, but just an interested observer) is moving away from the humanistic focus of the 80′s and 90′s megachurches. Some are even discovering historic liturgy as a “new” and very meaningful form of worship for them.

    Secondly, as a Lutheran church musician who appreciates many different forms of music, I also think we need to be careful (see what I did there? :) ) to discern between the actual trappings of contemporary Christianity that are unhelpful and those that aren’t actually trappings, so that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Maybe it’d be helpful for me to know some more specifically what you see as trappings. I would agree that there are many examples of this banality (sermons turned into 17-point lectures on living your best life now, etc.) but I would argue that just because there are examples doesn’t mean it is impossible to be properly reverent and awe-struck within contemporary forms of music and art. (I’d also love to get into the question of how music specifically relates to the sense of “transcendence” and/or “imminence” within worship forms, but that’s another topic for another day. :) )

  • Michael Schutz

    Two things come to mind as I read the quote and your questions, Dr. Veith. In terms of contemporary Christianity’s worship and art forms domesticating the supernatural, could it not be that form has followed function (or more accurately, followed theology) here? Could not this loss of awe have come first, and then the forms were developed that reflected that? (Of course, now the form is fueling it, so we have a cycle, and we may have a chicken-and-egg question about what came first.) I’m not sure that we can definitively say that the forms themselves have actually led to the poor theology that minimizes the supernatual.

    As well, I think that minimizing of the supernatural was especially prominent in the 1980′s and 1990′s. But I think we’re seeing much reaction against that in younger generations, especially as I look around at some of the younger Evangelical churches today. For example, much of the “new Reformed” movement (of which I’m not a part, but just an interested observer) is moving away from the humanistic focus of the 80′s and 90′s megachurches. Some are even discovering historic liturgy as a “new” and very meaningful form of worship for them.

    Secondly, as a Lutheran church musician who appreciates many different forms of music, I also think we need to be careful (see what I did there? :) ) to discern between the actual trappings of contemporary Christianity that are unhelpful and those that aren’t actually trappings, so that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Maybe it’d be helpful for me to know some more specifically what you see as trappings. I would agree that there are many examples of this banality (sermons turned into 17-point lectures on living your best life now, etc.) but I would argue that just because there are examples doesn’t mean it is impossible to be properly reverent and awe-struck within contemporary forms of music and art. (I’d also love to get into the question of how music specifically relates to the sense of “transcendence” and/or “imminence” within worship forms, but that’s another topic for another day. :) )

  • WebMonk

    I wasn’t going to say anything because it has been a LONG time since I’ve attempted anything with Latin, and even back in the day I didn’t do much, but ….

    I’m with Ash on this – relegere isn’t a “danger here so be careful” meaning, but rather a “carefully check and recheck”. Sure, you can apply relegere to a dangerous object, but by itself it doesn’t have any of the connotations attributed to it according to this article. His whole article is a big funky since he is using a false definition of relegere as the basis for his reasoning.

  • WebMonk

    I wasn’t going to say anything because it has been a LONG time since I’ve attempted anything with Latin, and even back in the day I didn’t do much, but ….

    I’m with Ash on this – relegere isn’t a “danger here so be careful” meaning, but rather a “carefully check and recheck”. Sure, you can apply relegere to a dangerous object, but by itself it doesn’t have any of the connotations attributed to it according to this article. His whole article is a big funky since he is using a false definition of relegere as the basis for his reasoning.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    Having grown up United Methodist, and having watched the tragedies of the ELCA and Episcopalians and other liturgical denominations, I’m going to have to suggest that retaining the historic liturgy and notion of sacraments is not exactly a cure for carelessness and a lack of fear of God…never mind the fact that most Catholics don’t hold to Catholic doctrine on any number of issues…thankfully the Missouri Synod hasn’t succumbed to the liberal theology pressures these other groups have, but if we look at the data, it would seem that preserving the liturgy serves to…..

    ….preserve the liturgy.

    I will fully grant that too many churches have lost the fear of God, and that all too many are careless in what they do. Sometimes holding to that older tradition helps, but sometimes it just becomes yet another meaningless tradition that gets forgotten after a generation or two.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    Having grown up United Methodist, and having watched the tragedies of the ELCA and Episcopalians and other liturgical denominations, I’m going to have to suggest that retaining the historic liturgy and notion of sacraments is not exactly a cure for carelessness and a lack of fear of God…never mind the fact that most Catholics don’t hold to Catholic doctrine on any number of issues…thankfully the Missouri Synod hasn’t succumbed to the liberal theology pressures these other groups have, but if we look at the data, it would seem that preserving the liturgy serves to…..

    ….preserve the liturgy.

    I will fully grant that too many churches have lost the fear of God, and that all too many are careless in what they do. Sometimes holding to that older tradition helps, but sometimes it just becomes yet another meaningless tradition that gets forgotten after a generation or two.

  • trotk

    The funny thing is that the etymology has never been settled. Cicero argued for relegere and Augustine and Lactantius for religare. Most Latin dictionaries that I have consulted (most notably Lewis and Short) believes that it is from religare. Building an argument off a shaky etymology is an exercise in speculation, even if the results seem right.

    http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0059%3Aentry%3Dreligio

  • trotk

    The funny thing is that the etymology has never been settled. Cicero argued for relegere and Augustine and Lactantius for religare. Most Latin dictionaries that I have consulted (most notably Lewis and Short) believes that it is from religare. Building an argument off a shaky etymology is an exercise in speculation, even if the results seem right.

    http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0059%3Aentry%3Dreligio

  • trotk

    The word the New Testament uses (threskeia – James 1:27) just means worship, but he equates worship with love. Should this enlighten us?

    Probably.

  • trotk

    The word the New Testament uses (threskeia – James 1:27) just means worship, but he equates worship with love. Should this enlighten us?

    Probably.

  • Arfies

    Jesus loves us and is our friend, but he is still God–still the Creator, even though he became flesh and shared our earthly life–still far beyond anything we have experienced or can experience in this life. If our love for God has no element of awe, there is something important that is missing. After all, electricity is our friend and our servant, but if we treat it carelessly, without respect, we quickly learn that we have erred. How much more does that apply to our God! As Dr. Luther tells us in the Catechism, we are commanded “to fear and love God . . .” as our response to him.

    As for “Do not be afraid” or “Fear not,” I have long thought that a better translation would be “Stop being afraid!” It makes sense to me, considering that immediate fear would the first reaction to a visit from an otherworldly messenger; and I believe there is good linguistic support for that translation.

  • Arfies

    Jesus loves us and is our friend, but he is still God–still the Creator, even though he became flesh and shared our earthly life–still far beyond anything we have experienced or can experience in this life. If our love for God has no element of awe, there is something important that is missing. After all, electricity is our friend and our servant, but if we treat it carelessly, without respect, we quickly learn that we have erred. How much more does that apply to our God! As Dr. Luther tells us in the Catechism, we are commanded “to fear and love God . . .” as our response to him.

    As for “Do not be afraid” or “Fear not,” I have long thought that a better translation would be “Stop being afraid!” It makes sense to me, considering that immediate fear would the first reaction to a visit from an otherworldly messenger; and I believe there is good linguistic support for that translation.

  • trotk

    My other issue with weak etymologies used as arguments:

    relegere doesn’t mean to be careful. It means to read again. If you read the passage out of Cicero that supports religio being derived from relegere (not religare), it is about reading and rereading.

    Obviously someone who rereads is being careful. But it is about a reading a text!

  • trotk

    My other issue with weak etymologies used as arguments:

    relegere doesn’t mean to be careful. It means to read again. If you read the passage out of Cicero that supports religio being derived from relegere (not religare), it is about reading and rereading.

    Obviously someone who rereads is being careful. But it is about a reading a text!

  • trotk

    The point about being careful with the numinous still stands. You just can’t make it from the word religion. Nor should you want to, because religion is a Latin word that the Biblical writers didn’t use.

  • trotk

    The point about being careful with the numinous still stands. You just can’t make it from the word religion. Nor should you want to, because religion is a Latin word that the Biblical writers didn’t use.

  • Tom Hering

    JonSLC @ 7, yes, Moses was placed in the cleft of the rock and covered with God’s hand as God passed by. To keep Moses alive.

    It seems that God, in this age of the Church, wants to reveal Himself to us under the appearance of common things. Word, water, bread, wine. So are awe or transcendence what really He wants us to experience?

    Well, they certainly are things we ourselves want to experience. Things a good many of us will go to any length to experience. Which is how too many of us go astray.

    DonS @ 10, I agree that Berger is talking about supernatural/paranormal experiences. Though he’s also talking about the Holy. It isn’t always clear to me which he means.

  • Tom Hering

    JonSLC @ 7, yes, Moses was placed in the cleft of the rock and covered with God’s hand as God passed by. To keep Moses alive.

    It seems that God, in this age of the Church, wants to reveal Himself to us under the appearance of common things. Word, water, bread, wine. So are awe or transcendence what really He wants us to experience?

    Well, they certainly are things we ourselves want to experience. Things a good many of us will go to any length to experience. Which is how too many of us go astray.

    DonS @ 10, I agree that Berger is talking about supernatural/paranormal experiences. Though he’s also talking about the Holy. It isn’t always clear to me which he means.

  • Gil Franke

    Reflection on your post, Dr. Veith, and on Peter Berger’s article, seeded my annual Christmas poem for 2010.

    The Word a World Forgot

    The shadows of the evening brought to mind
    still darker demons lurking on the hill
    outside of Bethlehem that night. Behind
    each rock the shepherds felt an evil will
    and cloaked themselves with chant and spell
    to fend the spirits from each heart and soul.
    They dared not cry to heav’n for fear of hell,
    for well they knew their sin would pay its toll.
    But from the sky the angels cried, “Fear not!”
    Now God has cloaked His love in human flesh
    and comes to speak the Word a world forgot:
    the cross is hidden in the manger creche.
    The holy One whose birth the angels sang,
    in death has broken sin and evil’s fang.

    – Gilbert A Franke, 12/01/2010

  • Gil Franke

    Reflection on your post, Dr. Veith, and on Peter Berger’s article, seeded my annual Christmas poem for 2010.

    The Word a World Forgot

    The shadows of the evening brought to mind
    still darker demons lurking on the hill
    outside of Bethlehem that night. Behind
    each rock the shepherds felt an evil will
    and cloaked themselves with chant and spell
    to fend the spirits from each heart and soul.
    They dared not cry to heav’n for fear of hell,
    for well they knew their sin would pay its toll.
    But from the sky the angels cried, “Fear not!”
    Now God has cloaked His love in human flesh
    and comes to speak the Word a world forgot:
    the cross is hidden in the manger creche.
    The holy One whose birth the angels sang,
    in death has broken sin and evil’s fang.

    – Gilbert A Franke, 12/01/2010

  • http://caughtnottaught.blogspot.com ED…

    I’d be interested to read you more on the subject of “the Fear of the Lord” if it takes your fancy to expand on what you have written in this post.

  • http://caughtnottaught.blogspot.com ED…

    I’d be interested to read you more on the subject of “the Fear of the Lord” if it takes your fancy to expand on what you have written in this post.

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