atheism for lent, day 15: nod to the numinous
NOTE: none of the text for today, none of Rudolf Otto’s work, and none of my observations are in any way connected with or support “The Numinous Way” as conceived by (former?) neo-Nazi David Myatt. I firmly reject Myatt’s ideologies, his Antisemitism, his white supremacy, and his calls for violence and race war.
After yesterday’s encounter with music and light and rich darkness, today we’re back to readings, which kind of makes me sad. I want more of this exploration of mysticism in art! But I’m comforting myself by listening to Lux Vivens again as I explore today’s reading from Rudolf Otto.
Rudolf Otto (1869–1937) was a distinguished philosopher, Lutheran theologian, and comparative religionist. His work, especially on his concept of the “numinous,” hugely impacted religious thought in Europe in the 20th century.
Let’s take a look at this word “numinous.” As far as I can recall, Peter’s the first person I ever heard use it. And I thought he said “luminous.” And then I thought, “Hey, that sounds like ‘Númenor.'” And then I went to look it up.
“Numinous” arrives in English via the Latin nūmen (or noumen), meaning “nod of the head,” “divine sway or will,” or “divinity.” But it could also come from the Ancient Greek νοούμενον (nooúmenon), meaning “influence perceptible by the mind but not the senses”; this, in turn, is derived from νόος (nóos): “mind,” “thought,” or “purpose.”
So, this word “numinous” sadly has nothing to do with Lord of the Rings but means, instead, something like a nod to divinity, a nod of divinity, an ephemeral encounter with the mind of the ineffable Other.
Rudolf Otto considered the “numinous” to be that which grounds and sustains all being, something we cannot adequately capture in words or even as a concept held in our minds. To experience the numinous is to experience an “overwhelming saturation” of Tremendous Mystery. But it is different from coming into contact with the “holy” (as Otto defines “holy”). In his The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational (Das Heilige. Über das Irrationale in der Idee des Göttlichen und sein Verhältnis zum Rationalen), Otto argues that “numinous” is like “holy” but without any of the rational or moral baggage we attach to the word “holy.” The numinous is so wholly set apart as to defy description.
But we’re sure as heckfire gonna try to describe it.
The numinous, says Otto, rests at the core of every religion; a “religion” without the numinous at its core can’t legitimately call itself a religion. If I’m understanding him correctly, he also states that the numinous “looks” or “feels” different from one religion to the next — and from one person to the next. No two people experience the numinous in the same way; as personalities vary, so does the experience of the numinous vary. Furthermore, no one can teach us how to experience the numinous. Others can guide is and help us, offering various ways to awaken the numinous in us, but the guidance only goes so far.
That said, Otto insists that one particular feeling will arise in every person who experiences the numinous: a “creature-consciousness” or “creature-feeling.” When we find ourselves in the ephemeral presence of the ineffable Other, we gain the sense of being a lowly creation, a creature that is nothingness in comparison to this numinous that “is supreme above all creatures.”
This isn’t a feeling of humbleness and dependence in the face of “omni-.” This is an innate, instinctual knowing. I get the image of a rabbit, gone still and quiet, nose twitching, as it senses a Presence nearby. The Presence isn’t dangerous, and the rabbit isn’t frightened. But the rabbit finds in itself an awareness of Something Greater Than I, a Something That Simply Is without demand or expectation, threat or comfort. That ineffable Something is not wholly alien or cold, but Other.
What the rabbit feels in response isn’t utter dependence or fear but simple and complete overwhelm and awe, as well as a sense of “ahh, this is where it all comes from.” And, engulfed and saturated with the awe-ful awareness of “this is where I came from,” the rabbit knows: “I am a site where this Other is experiencing itself in reality.”
And so, Rabbit returns to her clover and revels in being exactly what she is, living with deliberateness and full intention.