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Reflections on the Numinous
and our Predicament


Bernard Wall

Source: Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 8, No. 4. (Autumn, 1974). © World Wisdom, Inc.

IN a book I published a few years ago.[1] I used the word “numinous” and one reviewer took me to task. He asked who used that word except Otto. This was a mistake because it is much used by the popular writer, the late Professor C. S. Lewis. Lewis says:[2]

Now nothing is more certain than that man, from a very early period, began to believe that the universe was haunted by spirits. Professor Otto perhaps assumes too easily that from the very first such spirits were regarded with numinous awe. This is impossible to prove… What is certain is that now, at any rate, the numinous experience exists and if we start from ourselves we can trace it a long way back… Going back we get a very pure and strong example in Malory when Galahad “began to tremble when the deadly (=mortal) flesh began to behold the spiritual things. At the beginning of our era it finds expression in the Apocalypse where the writer fell at the feet of the risen Christ “as one dead”. In Pagan literature we find Ovid’s picture of the dark grove on the Aventine of which you would say at a glance numen inest—the place is haunted, or there is a Presence here; and Virgil gives us the palace of Latinus “awful (horrendum) with woods and sanctity (religione) of elder days”. A Greek fragment attributed, but improbably, to Aeschylus, tells us of earth, sea and mountain shaking beneath the “dread eye of their Master”. And far further back Ezekiel tell us of the “rings” in his Theophany that “they were so high that they were dreadful”, and Jacob, rising from his sleep, says, “How dreadful is this place!”

Nowadays our experience is as often as not unshared and I might think of other examples, according to reading or taste. Bergson said[3] that all mankind known to us had a religion, though it could well be repulsive to our minds. When I use the word numinous I am thinking of that sense of something that transcends what is visible or palpable to us, which arouses awe and reverence and—in the privileged few—passionate love. This awareness we express in signs, symbols or rituals. We are aware of multifarious religions and cultures, through history and archeology; and, when it comes to remote tribes today, through exploration. From what we know it seems a fair guess that man has always sought for the transcend­ent, beyond the flammantia moenia mundi, even in the remote mists of pre-history. In sacred cultures this was viewed as part of man’s essential condition of living, like food and drink.

But today we (that is, the human race) have perspectives quite unlike those of our ancestors. In our Western civilization secularism isn’t new. As Christopher Dawson wrote in 1935: “The sectarianizing of the Church [with the quarrels of the Reformation] led to the secularizing of the State and to the increasing subordination of human life to economic ends. By the eighteenth century the most active minds turned away in disgust from orthodox Christianity to the new philosophy of liberal humanitarianism… As in the days of ancient Rome a ‘leisure civilization’ has developed and ‘God’s face is hidden’”.[4] In the thirty-five years since those words were written the avalanche has grown in size and speed and now affects every aspect of our lives. The social, economic and above all technological developments dominate the whole world whether in West or East. If we blame Soviet leaders for government by Inquisition, our Western countries too, we must remember, live in a chaos of capitalism and the mass media. Both systems are materialist and both are in the grip of the technological revolution. We Westerners have the advantage of being able to protest but it is becoming more and more difficult to remain detached from the acceleration of the faceless machine. Marx spoke of the End of History. More and more people are coming to think and behave as though there were no history before our time. A new orthodoxy has grown up, not based on sacred books and rites but just as rigid as the old and woe betide those who do not respect its terms. An ever-growing mass of men (and now young women) are bound to the treadmill of non-vocational i.e. servile work, and we can hardly be surprised if relaxation be sought in drugs or obsessive sexual experi­ments. Roman slaves were allowed similar outlets.

As I see things, the decline of religiousness, of a feeling for the numinous, is bound to continue unless we can change our way of life in a far more revolutionary way than Marx ever suggested. Our lives have become longer and we have more material goods; but though our material horizons are much wider, this does not seem to apply to width of spirit. Religiousness, contemplation, the numin­ous aren’t the only victims of this way of life. The arts are casualties too. As Herbert Read once wrote:

A problem exists for the modern poet (in which term I include all those who use language as a symbolic process) which Mallarmé was the first to formulate and attempt to overcome—the evident fact that the language of our Western civilization has become too corrupt for poetic use. Corruption is perhaps not quite the exact word to describe a state of exhaustion or eviscera­tion, and the consequential resort, in any process of verbalization, to the cliché.

David Jones expressed the anxieties of some of us already in the ‘thirties, when we were very young:

We saw, with varying degrees of clarity, the trend of which I have stated above. I mean the technological, scientific advances which, one way or another, and whether beneficient or otherwise, were destructive of immemorial ways of life, of rooted cultures of all sorts and of erosions too numerous to mention, at all sorts of levels. We saw also that there was an inevitability about all this. But… we felt that come what may our job, the making of things which were significant of something other, that is to say signs, was a job, an activity wholly in keeping with the kind of activity which had characterized man from his first emergence, whenever that may have been, and had characterized him at some periods and in some cultures to a superlative degree.

And in the same essay[5] David Jones went on to quote an earlier statement:

We who are of the same world of sense with hairy ass and furry wolf and who presume to other and more radiant affinities, are finding it difficult as yet to recognize those creatures of chemicals as true extensions of ourselves, that we feel for them a native affection, which alone can make them magical for us. It would be interesting to know how we shall ennoble our new media as we have already ennobled and made significant the old.

It’s impossible to mention the numinous in the West without some reference to Teilhard de Chardin. Teilhard did attempt to baptize and sanctify technology with his transcendent visions of Evolution, Progress, Convergence and a Christocentric universe. This is made even clearer in his private war diaries soon to be published in English. He himself was at home in “the eternal silence of the infinite spaces”. Some of us may feel that, in his optimism, he disregarded our earthly history. While he was dreaming of Progress and the goodness of man the Nazi crematoria were burning night and day with their human “waste products”, other millions of human beings were being murdered in Siberia and elsewhere, and Evil was stalking the world. Did he really humanize and naturalize technology? Though he wrote of the immense suffering Progress involved, was he aware in practice of the deadening labor involved in producing our mechanical wonders—as, say, Simone Weil was when she chose to work in a Renault car factory? How could spiritual progress be achieved in such circumstances? Even Bergson, to whom Teilhard in some rather obscured way owed a lot, observed that man “was being crushed by the immense progress” he had made. The vision of a Host shining forever in the midst of all being is true poetry— though Teilhard had little or nothing to say about poetry or the arts or world religions and their expressions. I can’t ventilate all my questions here, all the questions that Teilhard never fully answered. The ineluctable future of Energy is hidden from us and even in the last ten years the vistas of biology and mores have changed beyond recognition.

The new style of our life has affected Christianity not only from without but also from within. As I have already suggested, tech­nological Progress is something to which our beings and ways of thinking are now geared. We are in the midst of the process, it is us, and it is difficult if not impossible for us to judge it with a detached eye. What happens is that, often without thinking, we apply its standards to all things, including those on quite another plane. But neither religion nor the arts can be measured in this way. If we try to use our computer tape on them they cease to exist for us. No scientific criterion can tell us anything about El Greco or Bach or whether some given person today is “holier” than, say, a saint in the Middle Ages.

Does this explain one of the clichés about contemporary theology? The material Progress in which we live has rubbed off on it; it is thought to be inevitably more Progressive than, superior to, any other theology of a different epoch or culture; whereas the earlier culture may have had some qualities we lack. True, we may have “insights” lacking before, and the new wine in old bottles—granted the bottles are really old and not made of plastic—may be more drinkable for us. At least that is an argument. But even this raises problems, for Christianity claims that it transcends the world and therefore history too. The documents connected with its foundation are very old and belong to a holy, symbolic frame of mind —an offshoot of quite a different culture and forma mentis from ours. By and large, insofar as it is interested at all, the modern world denies the validity of those documents and says that they are not history because they are not history as we write it.

Here semantics and the impact of words plague us. Even in our daily society one and the same word may have different associations for different people, though they live in the same street. How much greater the problem of words when we are dealing with matters which by definition are mysteries. There is some parallel in art criticism. No words will bring a painting to us because words aren’t the same medium as painting—we have to see the picture. What words will bring a mystery to us? At best there can only be a hint of an explanation, perhaps by a numinous sign, symbol or parable. Dante, who was no mystic, saw this when he said at the end of the Paradiso: “All’ alta fantasia qui mancò possa . . .” (To the high imagination force now failed),[6] or: “O quanto è corto il dire e come fioco/al mio concetto” (How short and weak are words to convey my thought).

The famous crisis within Western Catholicism is surely not only a theological one. Semantics, or rather an inadequate attention to them, seem now to be plaguing the signs and symbols of ritual too and hence the idea of sacrament. New rituals can be understood by the people, yes, but what does the word “understood” mean? Other denominations in Christianity such as the various branches of the Eastern Orthodox have preserved rituals in languages only known to the learned; and Anglicanism has a slightly archaic form of English which is rich and strong. Arcane languages have been used to express mystery in non-Christian religions.[7] To many this may sound like an apologia for permitting superstition and mumbo-jumbo, but then to the same people ritual statements (in any langu­age) may come to seem mumbo-jumbo too. At least we can say that the “number” (obsessive statistics!) of people attending “new” rituals has not increased. For those who have some Latin, the old Western Catholic ritual and liturgy had advantages, especially when married with plain chant.[8] The language, though “dead”, had in fact been hammered out by numinous men over fifteen hundred years and more, and it bore their sacred stamp: Le style c’est l’homme. They composed, so to speak, on their knees. To achieve this over the ages involved twisting and torturing the classical Latin of Horace or Cicero to found forms of thought and expression quite unimaginable to the early Romans. A new langu­age was born with sacred and evocative symbols like a gothic cathedral. The liturgy itself, with its apparent monotony, was as it were a sublimation of the seasons of Nature, of spring, summer, autumn and winter, death and resurrection.

Now our contemporary languages are unable to attain this impact of the numinous for they are forged by secularism and technocracy. It is no accident that poets and other people whose job is the manipulation of words have complained about the language now used for the “Roman” Mass in England, France and Italy. “There is too much tinsel and Kitsch and it isn’t even the language we speak”; “There are clichés as in the newspapers”; “There’s far too much noise in an epoch of noise, too little contemplation of the ways of the Infinite”; and finally, “What is Catholicism? The versions of it are becoming further and further apart.” Such have been complaints and appeals. It may be that eventually a way of preserving the great monument may be found, though this may only be as a monument and not as something that lives and breathes. I am writing in France and perforce I think of the great cathedrals and the sublime Romanesque churches which have been restored by the Ministry of Culture, though perhaps they are more frequented by sight-seers than by those who indulge in what they were built for.

Christianity has had astonishing ups and downs in its long history, magnificent achievements and grotesque aberrations. No-one can dream of restoring tyrannies (altar and throne), rigid Roman (Imperial) legalism, the “closed” morality of “respectability”, the sectarian spirit. But many people protested against such divagations in their time, and they did so in the name of real humanism. In places the dichotomy between flesh and spirit attained a Manichean degree and Puritanism, Jansenism and other frames of mind gave us many Tartuffes. There was often, perhaps there still is, a sort of negation of sex, a big “Thou shalt not…” rather than an emphasis on love as a mounting, perhaps purgatorial, ladder.

Today the pendulum seems to have swung the other way. Churchmen are said to want at all costs to go out to meet the world, they want to play a leading part in every kind of energeticism even to the neglect of their specific jobs. Often there seems no confidence in the jobs, there seems that loss of nerve which Dr. Toynbee has described as a danger signal in a civilization. At times one gets the impression that the secularists and ecclesiastical spokesmen fail to meet—as they failed before—because their desires for fulfillment take forms which are the very opposite to those each felt in the past. The sacred Face may be hidden somewhere buried in man; yes, there is still a thirst for the numinous and I have come across many people who would like to move towards a purified and sacralised religiousness rather than have churchmen move towards them with all the dilemmas and agonies arising from the non-existence of any God.

Put in our new sociological terms, one realizes that many changes must take place in the course of the ages, but now the “reforma­tion” has started, it will surely either fizzle out or be subject to constant and ever more critical adaptations. I use the word “socio­logical” because sociology, when more probing, looks towards the “future”, that golden age which always eludes us: just as in many cultures the golden age was placed in the remote past. The numin­ous spirit presumably consecrates the Now, says “ama et fac quod vis”. This superb attitude seems to be the lot of the very few. But great achievements are qualitative rather than quantitative—it is easier for us to think in terms of the latter.

There is a point beyond which learned but dehumanized dis­quisitions cannot help. Example is more attractive than theory. A “holy”, brave, integrated, secure person wins the respect of many, whatever his or her belief: no matter what origins socially or educationally the “holy” person may have. Prince Myshkin says far more to us than a dispute between two people who use long words and sound just a little like lawyers.

If there be anything in what I have said we might suppose that greater stress in times to come should be laid on Christian mysticism. There are signs of a change even in the youngest agnostic generation when strugglers find the visible, palpable world brings a surfiet, and they wonder about religiousness and the numinous. There is a long step between their attitude and the acceptance of any formal creed. But everyone is surely aware of the attraction Indian mysticism exerts in hippie or beat circles here and there. Indian intuitions of the divine in Nature must rank high in human history. So, in my impression, must numbers of early Islamic mystics.[9] But many of those impressed by the lore of India seem indifferent to the immense treasury of such experience in the Christian tradi­tion. There may be psychological explanations of this. Christianity is too near to us even now to call for the excitement of exploration: we want the “new things” of the Athenians. Very often people’s experience of Christianity in their childhood was disastrous; or else they think of careerist churchmen supporting some loveless or cruel Establishment—like Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor.

Apart from some remains of a culture we still share with Christian mystics, there may be another factor. At times India has produced a kind of Quietism: contemplation can neglect the earthly suffering neighbor or even look down on him. This is a danger in Christ­ianity as everywhere else; so is Pharisaism, the claim that one is just because one fulfils the law and others are of lesser breeds; whereas Mary Magdalene is an enchanting ghost. Great mystics in the Christian tradition have not been Quietists. The best principle has surely been contemplata aliis tradere, contemplation overflowing into poetry and its symbols or even into reform of the Establishment. This surely applies in supreme degree—one instance among so many —to John of the Cross. Something like “the participation in God’s love for all men”[10] could occur with a new form in our lonely and insecure World as the phoenix rises again from its ashes. This only has the value of speculation from the outside. Meanwhile what else can creatures whose feet are in the bog—which is always sucking—do but try “to keep the lines of communication open?”[11]

All I can say to anybody who raises such high and arcane matters is that all of us, with our weird inclination to birth, copulation and death, are in the same boat of travail and occasional joy. But perhaps it is significant that when Dante reached the point when words were like straw he still went on to grasp after something: “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars”. It remained an ideal for a man who was often angry, revengeful or embogged: someone whom only Corvo could canonize. Immense poetical impact and symbols apart, Dante encourages “comment” even now.


[1] Headlong into Change.

[2] In The Problem of Pain

[3] Les Deux Sources.

[4] Religion and the Modern State.

[5] The London Magazine, April, 1965.

[6] Binyon translation. But all translations of great poetry are only very approximative—semantics again!

[7] This whole question is examined at length by Prof. Elemire Zolla in his books, notably Che Cos’ e la Tradizione (What is Tradition) and his periodical Conoscenza Religiose. What I write owes much to Zolla, especially to his contrast between “Civilization of Comment”—the sacred conception—and “Civilization of Criticism”—our own. One wonders if criticism of criticism goes on until there is nothing left: and then some positive force fills the gap which involves a return to comment.

[8] Cf. Romano Guardini: The Spirit of the Liturgy.

[9] Cf. Massignon.

[10] Bergson, ibid.

[11] Again David Jones.

Original editorial inclusion that followed the essay in Studies:
The soul that enters into God owns neither time nor space nor anything nameable to be expressed in words. But it stands to reason, if you consider it, that the space occupied by any soul is vastly greater than heaven and earth and God's entire creation. I say more: God might make heavens and earths galore yet these, together with the multiplicity of creatures he has already made, would be of less extent than a single needle-tip compared with the standpoint of a soul atoned in God.