Thursday, June 5, 2014

Fear and Wonder

-Sunrise at the Desert Retreat House-

Yesterday at the gym I heard two young guys talking about their "awesome" new video game. It made me think about how that word "awesome" has been so completely trivialized in popular culture - the awesome new flavor of ice cream, the awesome new car someone has, it's awesome that the team won the game last night. 

Back 100 years ago, Rudolph Otto, the renowned philosopher of religion wrote his now-famous book, The Idea of the Holy, in which he talks at length about the "numinous" in our human experience.  A "numinous" experience is a "transcendent" experience- a sense of being connected to something or someone far greater than an individual. The numinous experience is an experience of a Holy Presence that cannot be rationalized or explained or even named, and the only response to the experience of this presence is "awe."   

For Otto, the sense of "awe" in the presence of the "numinous" is wonderful and terrifying both at the same time. It's an experience of an intimate beauty that is so intense that it leaves you speechless and makes you tremble. 

In the Hebrew Bible, the powerful story of "Moses and the Burning Bush" provides me with a wonderful icon and a perfect metaphor for what it means to experience the "numinous."  - it's one of my favorite stories. 

Moses goes up onto a high mountain.  He is a seeker after wisdom, searching for "God." There on the mountain he is given a great gift. He is flooded with light, engulfed in an ocean of "Holy Presence," symbolized by a burning bush, and there on the mountain Moses learns that the name of "God" is "Yahweh." 

Essentially there is no translation for that Hebrew word "Yahweh." The word is more like the expression "wow" - something you might utter when you see a sunrise so magnificent that it leaves you speechless and almost makes you terrified at its splendor.  

Moses on the holy mountain experiences a transcendent Holy Presence burning with a love so intense that all he could do was take off his shoes, fall on his knees and cry out "wow!"  Perhaps another word for "wow" is "awe."

Many people have turned away from religion in today's society and I can understand why. After all, far too often the religious institution has tamed and even trivialized this wild and fiery "God"- reducing  God to "a man in the sky" who can be explained with words and dogma and controlled by formulaic prayer and ritual. 

The fiery burning bush intensely burning a holy mountain has been covered over by churches and temples made of stone - filled with people who sit and say carefully controlled prayers while keeping their shoes on - devoid of mystery, little of no sense of awe.  

But that's not who "God" is - "God" is the "numinous." "God" is transcendent Holy Presence, wild, untamed, uncontrollable, "intimate and beyond" both at the same time. "God" is the energy of universal love flowing in and through all that "is" - burning so intensely that when you encounter this Presence it leaves you speechless and fills you with wonder and terror. 

And the only name for "God" is "WOW."



  1. It is so sad that these wonderful words (awe, sacred, religion) have become so trivial by recurrent misuse/improper use.
    R.Otto's book and the concept were to becom influential for great scholars in comparative mythology and religion like Joseph Campbell and Mircea Eliade. I hope that, before denigrating religion, God and religious metaphors in general, young students will go through theirs books first.

    1. Lucian I so agree with you. When I hear some of the limp and tired arguments coming out of the"new atheism," I cannot help but think that they would be so much better informed if they read books like Otto's "Idea of the Holy." We could have such a rich dialogue.