Christianity 201

March 5, 2014

Transcendence

Romans 8:18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.  (NIV)

I Cor 2:9 That is what the Scriptures mean when they say,

“No eye has seen, no ear has heard,
and no mind has imagined
what God has prepared
for those who love him.”[Is. 64:4] (NLT)

Isaiah 55:9 “For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways
And My thoughts than your thoughts.  (NASB)

Ephesians 3:20 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.  Amen. (NRSV)

Today’s reading delves into concepts considered part of the philosophy of religion. Inclusion of website links in this discussion does not imply endorsement of the sources or websites as a whole.

holy_spirit_-_pentacost_jwis

A long time ago in an environment far away from where I am today, I was a philosophy major at a secular university required to read The Idea of the Holy by Rudoph Otto. The subtitle of the book is An Inquiry into the Non Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational. (Today, the book’s marketing department would be looking for something more catchy.)

In the book, Otto introduced the idea of “numinous.” Sometimes when writers introduce terminology that is outside our normal frame of reference, we tend to be dismissive of its application to our particular brand of theology. But read this definition carefully and slowly:

Otto was one of the most influential thinkers about religion in the first half of the twentieth century. He is best known for his analysis of the experience that, in his view, underlies all religion. He calls this experience “numinous,” and says it has three components. These are often designated with a Latin phrase: mysterium tremendum et fascinans. As mysterium, the numinous is “wholly other”– entirely different from anything we experience in ordinary life. It evokes a reaction of silence. But the numinous is also a mysterium tremendum. It provokes terror because it presents itself as overwhelming power. Finally, the numinous presents itself as fascinans, as merciful and gracious.

Outline of Otto’s concept of the numinous (based on The Idea of the Holy. Trans. John W. Harvey. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1923; 2nd ed., 1950 [Das Heilige, 1917]):

Mysterium tremendum et fascinans” (fearful and fascinating mystery):

  • Mysterium“: Wholly Other, experienced with blank wonder, stupor
  • tremendum“:
    • awefulness, terror, demonic dread, awe, absolute unapproachability, “wrath” of God
    • overpoweringness, majesty, might, sense of one’s own nothingness in contrast to its power
    • creature-feeling, sense of objective presence, dependence
    • energy, urgency, will, vitality
  • fascinans“: potent charm, attractiveness in spite of fear, terror, etc.

~online notes by Joseph A. Adler, Professor of Religion at Ohio’s Kenyon College.

You’ll also see (above) that Otto used the term “wholly other.”  I’ve often thought the book could also have been titled, The Idea of the WhollyChristian Apologetics and Research Ministry explains this:

The term “wholly other” is used in Christian theology to describe the difference between God and everything else.  God, the Christian God, is completely different than all other things that exist.  God can be described by essential properties such as holiness, immutability, etc.  But we have to ask how we, as finite creatures, can relate to the infinite God.  It is difficult when he is “wholly other” than we are.  It means that we must relate to him by his self-revelation in the person of Christ Jesus, and through the Bible.

But the holy/wholly pun I suggest above is one you should not forget, especially if you’re more accustomed to using words like ‘holiness’ in terms of personal purity. The website, TheNewCreation.com explains:

The word holy is commonly understood to mean moral perfection. And when it is applied to God’s relationship to “sinners” it suggests that God has such a high standard of holiness (moral perfection) that he will not tolerate or forgive sinners until they are sanctified and made holy (morally clean).

But this is not what the Hebrew prophets had in mind when they cried, “Holy! holy! holy is YHWH Sabaoth.” The Hebrew kaddosh, has nothing to do with morality but means “otherness,”– Wholly Other. “YHWH is other! other! other!”

YHWH does not conform to, or fit into our concepts of deity. He can not be defined by our abstract theistic characterizations (omnipotent, omniscient, impassible…). YHWH is radically, transcendentally different (other) then the gods made in our own image: the autocratic and domineering gods that are the projections of our primate animal nature.

God is radical, uncompromising, unconditional, self-emptying love for the other–us and all of creation. It is this love that defines His holiness. A love so completely open to the pain and need of the other; so inexhaustible in its selflessness; so broad and deep in its scope; that is could never be defined by any abstract philosophical/theological propositions. It could only be expressed and made real in a living person. Only in one who is the fulness of the humane and compassionate Abba. Only in the Crucified One: Jesus Christ.

The other term we often use in this case is transcendence, the idea that God transcends anything we can fathom, as stated in the scripture examples at the outset of today’s reading.  The Religion Library at Patheos.com has a reference to Martin Luther that is appropriate to consider:

…Luther’s God is an all-powerful God.He stressed this idea in ways that may surprise people today.For Luther, God is wholly other than we are, and so we cannot rely on analogies from our own experience to understand God.We know about God only what God chooses to reveal to us.The picture of God in scripture is not uniformly comforting.God’s power and goodness are not constrained by human conceptions of power and goodness…

I want to leave you with another set of homonyms to sum up today’s thoughts. We talked about holy and wholly. Our reaction to all this should be aah and aweAah because it takes our breath away. Awe because we realize how great God is…and yet He loves us!

1 Comment »

  1. A most beautiful and easy to understand rendition of what is challenging to put into words. The Numinous. Thank You

    Comment by Phoenix — November 28, 2018 @ 8:46 pm | Reply


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