The Numinous

Many years ago, I read The Idea of the Holy by the Lutheran phenomenologist Rudolph Otto.  This book profoundly influenced C. S. Lewis, who writes about it in Surprised by Joy, and I have to say that it also influenced me. Touchstone Magazine has published a fascinating article entitled Surprised by Awe: C. S. Lewis & Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy  by Clara Sarrocco.

Otto was describing and analyzing a distinct kind of religious experience that he called “numinous,” from the Latin numen, meaning “divine power.”  It is the perception of awe-inspiring, transcendent mystery.   If  “mystical” experience means feeling one with God, the numinous is almost its opposite, the sense of coming into contact with some One “wholly other” than oneself.  It is overwhelming, effacing the self while also filling the self with ineffable joy.  The numinous goes beyond the rational, but Otto is careful to explain that it stands in relationship to objective religious doctrines. [Read more...]

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.