When y’all were small we taught you that “God is a spirit: infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.” I regret it now- not because I think any of that stuff is wrong, but rather because taken together I think it gives the wrong impression. It’s too impersonal. Too…well, precise. I wouldn’t define any of you in that way. Maybe a tractor or a college course- but not a person. Instead I’d say “that one is charmed when it comes to animals. Why once she…” or “That one is too much like me; she…” You see, I’d tell a story.
Moderns (and I’m sure you know that’s not a category I want any of you to fall into) subscribe to the whole ‘reductionistic definition’ thing. They believe we understand something best when we’ve taken it apart and labeled all the innards. The problem with that approach is that you loose the thing you’re trying to get to know, and the sort of knowledge you end up with is of a rather limited kind.
If I were to gut your mother and analyze precisely her chemical makeup, I wouldn’t learn half as much about her as a trip to the beach would reveal…and I’d get to take her home afterwards, too. You can see the advantage. The definition of God up there can (I didn’t say must) give the impression that our God is a substance of some sort (maybe a giant glowing silly putty like blob of “BEING”) or simply the sum total of his various attributes. If it’s not possible to define your mother in that way, it’s surely not possible with your God.
You can see that there’s something else there- something beyond all the parts. Rudolph Otto has written the classic work on that “something.” His book is called The Idea of the Holy. C.S. Lewis listed it as one of the ten most important books in his life. In it Mr. Otto claims that the “something” is really the heart of our concept of the Divine. It, not the attributes listed above, is common to all the religions of man. He calls it the Numinous. I like that word. Numinous. Anyway, it refers to the mysterious, indefinable and overwhelming sense of power, unapproachability and raw energy of God. He is similar in some respects to his creation, because she was created to be so; but there is an unbridgeable chasm between the Creator and his creation. He is “Other”. He alone is God. People know they are in the presence of the Numinous by the effect it has on them. This effect has been called the mysterium tremendum . That’s a mouthful, so people have tried awe, dread and similar words to describe it. But they don’t quite do the trick either. When you’re in the presence of the Numinous you’re struck dumb in amazement because it is so different from what you expected to encounter, you shudder as this Absolute begins to touch the deepest points of your feelings, and there is a profound awareness of your creatureliness, our dependence, our vulnerability and sheer contingency before this Totally Other.
C.S Lewis illustrated it in the introduction to his Problem of Pain, “Suppose you were told that there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told “There is a ghost in the next room,” and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is “uncanny” rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread. With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous. Now suppose that you were told simply “There is a mighty spirit in the room” and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking–described as awe, and the object which excites it is the Numinous.”
Along with the mysterium tremendum comes an almost irresistible attraction. Otto called this the mysterium fascinosum. Here’s an observable distinction between animalistic fear and the mysterium tremendum. We long to get away from what we fear. We are drawn to that which fills our heart with terrifying awe. The traditional word for all of this is holiness. It’s not first and foremost about right behavior. Rather it’s about the “Otherness” that lies at the heart of our God. To be in the presence of the Holy is to be struck dumb, trembling and on our face. Witness St. John in his Revelation- the same John who laid his head on the Savior before- falling down speechless at the Holiness’ manifestation. It is terrifying to behold…and yet ecstatically beautiful and attractive. With sin, certainly, a new experience of fear began. But the mysterium tremendum is part of the Creator’s and his Creation’s relationship. It never depended on sin for its kindling. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom.” This was as true of unstained Adam as it was of David untold ages later.
If it’s true that Creation was meant to point towards it creator, if it’s true that we see his power in the sea, his care in a mother’s look, his beauty in a flower and taste his goodness in a nibble of stinky cheese, then where do we find creaturely images of his Numinance? This seems to me to be a very important question.
Lewis hinted towards my view in his comment about ghosts in the quote above. There are dark corridors that frighten and draw us, shadowy, solitary stands of trees that touch us to the point of shuddering as we contemplate passing through them. There’s Luna’s bright roundness flirting out the wolf’s lonely howl. We stop to look. We stop to listen and shiver at the thought. Could it be that certain creatures have been gifted with this particular “telling.” Is it coincidence that both Egyptian and Celt shuddered at the passing of a black cat? Or are there places and things that were “painted” just so to remind us that He is frightening because…well, like the face in the window He doesn’t belong- not to this world.
Creepy, Eerie, Uncanny, Disturbing, Awesome. Holy…Spooky. Amidst our overly familiar vision of a god who is little more than a “buddy from out of town,” don’t we need a better understanding of his untouchable otherness.
“You think that was something” we should say to our friends as we’re leaving this year’s most unsettling haunted house. “Wait till you meet my God.”