Professors of Religious Studies often say the term numinous was coined by the German Lutheran scholar Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) to describe personal experiences of spiritual power.
But as far back as 1647 Nathaniel Ward wrote in The simple cobler of Aggawam in America:
The Will of a King is very numinous; it hath a kinde of vast universality in it.¹
The term derives from the Latin numen, usually translated as “the presence of a god or goddess” or the “will, manifestation or power of a deity.”
The most ancient example is in a text of Accius cited by Varro: “Alia hic sanctitudo est aliud nomen et numen Iouis” (“Here, the holiness of Jupiter is one thing, the name and power of Jupiter another).”²
For Otto, numinosity originates from outside the self. But as a personal experience, one perceives it within the self. A higher process than the magical, the numinous takes many forms. Not one to jumble all spiritual experiences into an artificial homogeneity, Otto says the numinous has primitive, daemonic and dark sides, as well as an elevated, noble and pure character.
Otto calls the absolute and purest experience of the numen “the Holy.” Unlike the darker, dimmer aspects of the numinous, this apparently highest aspect involves an experience marked by a feeling of “Awefulness,” “Overpoweringness,” “Energy” or “Urgency.”
Sometimes Otto implies that the numinous is identical among all religions. Other times he reveals a definite Christian bias, suggesting that the numinosity experienced through the Bible and by various Christian mystics is ultimate and uncorrupted.
From today’s standards, Otto’s definition of numinosity might seem a bit vague and unsystematic. But his work is rightly regarded as a milestone and continues to have a profound influence on depth psychology and comparative religion.
For Jung, we experience numinosity when an archetype of the collective unconscious is activated. Depending on combined factors such as the psyche’s condition, degree of ego stability, and the nature of archetypal source, numinosity is either psychologically healing or destructive.
Joseph Campbell says that numen finds parallel expression in the “Melanesian mana, Dakotan wakon, Ironquoian orenda and Algonquian manitu.”
But it’s unwarranted to blindly assume that these terms necessarily point to identical spiritual presences and related experiences.
Along these lines, the Romanian scholar, Mircea Eliade, says numinosity exhibits diverse intensities, qualities and effects. And from the perspective of dance, Deidre Sklar adds:
While the experience alternately called presence, or unity, or numinosity may be the same across spiritual traditions, “ways of doing” are different. Presence comes in a multitude of flavors. “The virgin,” is different than “Buddha” or “God the Father.” Kneeling in prayer before the virgin is a different bodily experience than sitting cross-legged in meditation. Both the natures of the divinities and the ritual practices performed in their names are elaborated in distinct communities to do different work upon soma.³
Sigmund Freud reduced the numinous to a person recalling a unified “oceanic bliss” that every fetus apparently feels within the mother’s womb. Perhaps Freud’s greatest shortcoming was his inability – or perhaps unwillingness – to study spirituality on its own terms, at its own level of experience. This sad state of affairs has been repeated and reinforced by those who uncritically accept a materialist paradigm instead of looking at spiritual development with open eyes.
Before Otto, Jung, Campbell, Eliade and Freud, the philosopher Immanuel Kant spoke to a realm of the noumena. The noumena are objects and events independent of the senses. Although Kant claimed that we cannot know the character of a particular noumenon, he believed we can ascertain the existence of noumena by virtue of the “intelligible order of things” in the observable world of phenomena.
It should be noted that the terms noumena and numinous are not directly related, etymologically speaking. This has lead some scholars to dismiss any possible semantic connections between the two terms. But even if two words are etymologically unrelated, this does not necessarily mean their connoted meanings have no relation. In short, some believe that Kant’s noumena may be sources of numinous experience but are not the numinous itself. Examples could be found in religious schools (and their attendant mystics) leaning toward naturalistic pantheism, such as Zen Buddhism and Taoism.
But the idea of numinosity isn’t quite that simple. Indeed, mystics from various traditions write about different “levels” and types of numinous experience. And even within a single spiritual tradition, descriptions of the numinous vary dramatically in terms of both quality and intensity.
Consider, for example, the ordinary Christian churchgoer who claims to feel an invisible peaceful presence inside a Church in comparison to a full-fledged saint like St. Teresa of Ávila who describes a variety of all-absorbing states of numinous rapture.
In Paradise Lost the celebrated poet John Milton depicts Satan’s dismay when he sees the dingy gloom of hell that he’s confined himself to after losing the glorious light of heaven.
“Is this the region, this the soil, the clime,” Said then the lost archangel, “this the seat That we must change for Heaven, this mournful gloom For that celestial light?”
² Schilling, Robert. “Numen.” Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. Vol. 10. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 6753-6754. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Gale.
³ Deidre Sklar, “Reprise: On Dance Ethnography.” Dance Research Journal, Vol. 32, No. 1 Summer, 2000: 70-77, p. 72.
- An Outline of Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy
- C. G. Jung and Numinosity
- Celibacy, Sex and Spirituality
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