At nine-years-old, I started to fear going to church.
I didn’t mind going to Sunday School or Wednesday night prayer meeting. Rather, I was very specifically afraid of entering the sanctuary each Sunday morning at 8:00 a.m., as I’d done countless times before as the son of a preacher.
The feeling was new to me. Being a pastor’s son, I didn’t dare tell a soul. It was an incongruous emotion—why, now, after nine years of worship services, was I feeling trepidation as I sat beside my mother (a Sunday School teacher, herself,) in a hardwood pew?
I knew my locale had something to do with it. A year previous, my dad had accepted his new role as senior pastor at First Missionary Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and the change of scenery presented me with some elements of worship that I was previously unfamiliar with.
Though this new house of worship was within the same denomination as our previous church, there were still remarkably stark differences. Rather than singing “Shine, Jesus, Shine,” from slide projectors, we turned in our hymnals to “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” The worship leader might have mentioned the hymn number, but he didn’t need to; the congregants had already committed it to memory. Dark-stained pews and stained-glass windows lent a sense of reverence to the ambience of the sanctuary.
But over the last year, I’d noticed something deeper, somehow more surreptitious stirring below the surface each Sunday morning.
Why was it that I developed goosebumps on my forearms when the pianist thundered on the keys during “O, Holy Night?” How did the entire congregation know to rise to their feet at the exact moment the last verse of the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Händel’s Messiah began?
It seemed instantaneous and involuntary, like when each of the hairs on the back of your neck stand to attention on their own accord when you are confronted by the presence of something utterly terrifying.
I continued on with my predicament, unable to talk to anyone about this mysterious fear that plagued me on a weekly basis. I hadn’t a clue what caused it. All I knew was that I could feel the presence of something or someone during the crescendos of certain worship songs, Sunday after Sunday, and it petrified me.
I tried to steel myself against this overwhelming, awe-inspiring emotion, lest my cheeks flush with blood and my knees buckle. I tried my level-best, at nine-years-old to not succumb to the odd, preternatural combination of terror and mystery.
What would happen if I gave in, and allowed myself to ascend over the pinnacle of this rush of emotion? Surely, the air at that peak was too thin and rarified for the lungs of a quavering, scrawny 9-year-old boy. Doubtless, the breath in my lungs would be sucked out and I’d be undone.
One Sunday, in what felt like an even split between voluntary and instinctive, I let go, and in my spirit embraced this mysterium tremendum et fascinans, that is, the “fearful and fascinating mystery.” I surrendered to a sense of the presence of God in worship, and felt a sense of ecstasy unlike any other emotion I can describe.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that feeling I felt at nine-years-old, the terror and mystery and finally, sublime joy of the moment, was defined almost one hundred years prior by a German theologian named Rudolf Otto.
In Otto’s book, which, in English, is titled, The Idea of the Holy, Otto describes an insidious change that came about over the years in relation to the word “holy.” He posits that prior to the idea of the “holy” being defined only in the moral, good vs. evil sense, it also encompassed a feeling of uncanny wonder at something wholly beyond ourselves. What’s more, the earliest people to encounter God in the Old Testament, such as Abraham, knew very little of what God deemed right or wrong because so little of the Law had been given at that time. As such, their understanding of holy perhaps depended more heavily on this sense of ethereal reverence than anything else.
It is good and natural that our definition of “holy” evolved as the progressive revelation of God’s plan became apparent. However, Otto wanted to reclaim this other side of holiness. In order to do so, he needed to coin a new term. He created the word “numinous.”
Otto summarizes his new term in this way: “…it will be useful, at least for the temporary purpose of the investigation, to invent a special term to stand for ‘the holy’ minus its moral factor or ‘moment’, and, as we can now add, minus its ‘rational’ aspect altogether” (Otto 6). In his book, he goes on to describe the feeling of the Wholly Other, in which we as humans experience a sublime emotion that surpasses comprehension and fills us with a sense of wonder.
Throughout the Twentieth Century, a good deal of ink has been spilled on behalf of the numinous—and it has come from the pens of some of our greatest thinkers. C.S. Lewis, the renowned novelist and Christian apologist, wrote about the subject at length in The Problem of Pain. Conversely, referring to his experiences while under the influence of the psychoactive drug mescaline, Aldous Huxley wrote about a crude approximation of the feeling in The Doors of Perception. Carl Jung applied the same concept to his studies of the role religion plays in psychology.
During the course of my life, I, too, became enamored with the idea of the numinous, even if I hadn’t, at first, known there was a word for it. I delved into literature and found my favorite writers have always toyed with this concept. Scattered across their pages, this all-encompassing, nebulous sense of wonder was nearly ubiquitous.
Curiously, this is true regardless of genre. It can be found in Sci-Fi: among the pages of the novel Childhood’s End or in the short story “The Nine Billion Names of God,” by Arthur C. Clarke. It’s present in the Fantasy Novel A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. It can be found in the mystical poetry of Rumi, or even “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry.
Whatever the form or genre, authors have taken a long, hard look at the intersection between the Divine and the human for centuries. Sometimes, this comes through a scene depicting literal confrontations with God. In other instances, it happens in a more oblique way: through encountering nature, or marveling at the vast infinitude of space. In either case, the concept of the numinous has had a profound effect on human thinking since the start of recorded history.
It is my earnest belief that in terms of emotions, there is no feeling more noble or exultant than the numinous. In Scripture, before Samson, the judge, was born, the Angel of the Lord visited his parents to give them specific instructions regarding the boy’s life. Manoah, Samson’s father, asks the name of the Angel of the Lord. His response is a question in and of itself: “‘Why do you ask my name,’ the Angel of the LORD asked him, ‘since it is wonderful,’” (Holman Christian Standard Bible, Judges 13:18). The Hebrew word for “wonderful” here is transliterated as “pili,” which is also rendered as “incomprehensible.” It’s nearly always used with the connotation of a perception that is too lofty for humanity’s grasp.
I believe that this statement by the Angel of the Lord alludes to (among other things) this sense of the numinous—the grandiosity of God which can’t be measured or condensed into a mortal’s understanding. Similarly, it’s mentioned in Solomon’s writings that God “has also put eternity in their hearts,” (Ecc. 3:11). This hints at the sense of yearning for the infinite that humankind is endlessly fixated upon.
And so, I’ve found, that since my first brush with the numinous as a nine-year-old in the pews of the burgundy, brick church, I’ve been preoccupied with the numinous—not just as part of a worship service, but also as a means of approaching God through writing. As I sit down to write, I’m constantly trying to scratch away at a paper-thin wall between myself and my Creator.
What you’ll read in my work is the culmination of that pursuit of God. My hope is that those who read these poems, stories, and essays will encounter a sense of the numinous, just as I, the writer did, while writing them. This feeling is not the destination in and of itself, but rather it serves to point us to a paradoxically intimate and transcendent God.
My hope is that through the written word, you will find yourself grappling with ruminations on what it means to be human, with your relationship with God, and with your interactions with those around you. And perhaps, somewhere along the line, you, too, will glimpse the numinous.
4 thoughts on “A Case for the ‘Numinous’ in Literature”
My husband and I lived in Ft Wayne, IN, from 1977-1978 while my husband attended Ft. Wayne Bible College, which I think is now called Crown College. We attended a missionary church in New Haven, IN. The pastor was John Strubhar. We were from the C&MA, but we really liked the Missionary Church, for it was a lot like the Alliance.
I’m a pastor’s kid too…and what a blessing it is to be able to feel His presence at such a young age…so innocent and uncalculating. A part of me wants to go back, but a part of me doesn’t because, as I grow older, I become more appreciative of the moments I do feel His divine power. What an inspiring piece – I love this so much!
Thank you for your kind words!
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[…] L’Engle had a similar effect on me. I felt so indebted to Madeleine L’Engle for her numinous, soul-searching prose, that I named my only daughter […]