The Numinous and Numinosity – Seeing The Light Beyond All Lights


I can’t remember when I first encountered the English term numinous; most likely while reading a Jungian work or something by Carl Jung himself.

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Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung (1875 – 1961),
the founder of analytical psychology, circa 1960.

The word 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).”¹

The English form is traceable to Nathaniel Ward, who in 1647 wrote:

The Will of a King is very numinous; it hath a kinde of vast universality in it.²

Rudolf Otto

Most religion writers cite the German Lutheran scholar Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) who used “numinous” to describe experiences of spiritual power.

For Otto, the numinous originates not from corporeality, as so many reductive psychologists would contend, but from beyond the person. As a personal experience, however, one perceives the numinous psychologically.

If this is difficult to imagine, consider the analogy of wind. Only an imbecile would say that the feeling of the wind is literally caused by the skin. No. Something contacts the skin and is then interpreted by the body and brain. In a roughly similar way, the same could be said about numinosity or spiritual presence. It touches us. We have a direct feeling but also conceptually interpret what’s going on, usually afterward.

Otto believes the numinous takes many forms and is higher than the magical. Instead of homogenizing all spiritual experiences into a fake, politically correct sameness, Otto says the numinous has primitive, daemonic and dark aspects, as well as a noble, elevated and pure quality.

He calls the purest experience of the numen “The Holy.” Unlike the shady, dimmer aspects of the numinous, this highest aspect involves an experience marked by a feeling of “Awefulness,” “Overpoweringness,” “Energy” or “Urgency.”

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However, Otto is perhaps not always consistent. Sometimes he appears to imply that the numinous is alike among all religions. At other times he reveals a Christian bias, suggesting that numinosity experienced through the Bible and by various Christian mystics is ultimate and incorrupt.

By today’s standards, Otto’s definition of numinosity could be critiqued as unsystematic. But his work is regarded as a milestone and continues to influence depth psychology and comparative religion.

After all, we can’t really expect pioneers to get everything perfect the first time around. That’s like asking someone who has just developed the rocket to do a perfect Mars landing. It just doesn’t work that way. Not in outside reality nor in the internal realm.

Carl Jung and R. D. Laing

Carl Jung adapted the word numinous to depict spiritual experiences involving a “peculiar alteration” of ego-based consciousness, commonly called altered states.

Religious teaching as well as the consensus gentium always and everywhere explain this experience as being due to a cause external to the individual. The numinosum is either a quality belonging to a visible object or the influence of an invisible presence that causes a peculiar alteration of consciousness.³

Jung devised an entire psychological theory to account for the numinous and other supernatural experiences, like synchronicity. (Rather than summarize Jung’s theory here, I’ll just link to the related concepts.)

Image – pxhere

For Jung, we experience numinosity when an archetype of the collective unconscious is activated. Depending on the psyche’s overall condition, one’s ego stability, and the actual archetypal source, numinosity may be psychologically healing, destructive or, in a third case scenario, transformationally destructive.

When transformationally destructive, numinosity contributes to a breakdown which, some like R. D. Laing say, could be a precursor to a breakthrough. The rocky road to wellness and increased wisdom is often called a “creative illness.” By and large, it’s a dynamic more appreciated by gurus, shamans, and alternative healers. Not to say that all mainstream psychiatrists are out to lunch here. And psychiatrists may receive more acutely upset and downright dangerous clients than the average guru. But there’s arguably room for improvement on all sides.

Joseph Campbell and Mircea Eliade 

The American scholar of mythology Joseph Campbell says that numen finds parallel expression in the “Melanesian mana, Dakotan wakon, Ironquoian orenda and Algonquian manitu.” I like Campbell a lot but he tends to overgeneralize. Put simply, we can’t assume that different terms from various religious traditions denote identical spiritual presences and experiences. And quite often Campbell seems to be doing just that.

No wonder “The Force” in Star Wars is seen as a universal principle with just two aspects, the dark and light. Campbell was approached by George Lucas and had a hand in the development of the mythological and spiritual aspects of Star Wars. True, the hero cycle in Star Wars is effective. But the depiction of spirituality leans towards a reductive pantheism. Specifically, the idea of The Force ignores the cosmologies of several world religions where God is seen as wholly other but immanent. 

Along these lines, the Romanian scholar Mircea Eliade says numinosity exhibits diverse intensities, qualities and effects. Not just one kind with two ethical forms, as with the noble and fallen Jedi Knights.4

Immanuel Kant via Wikipedia

Sigmund Freud and Immanuel Kant

Sigmund Freud touched on so many issues and has been hugely influential in psychology, the humanities, and the arts. Not surprisingly, many seekers ignore his crude and backward looking approach to spirituality, but I think that’s a mistake.

Freud no doubt misunderstood the numinous by reducing it to early development. For Freud, the numinous is nothing more than remembering a unified “oceanic bliss” that every fetus (apparently) feels within the mother’s womb.

Sadly, the founder of psychoanalysis was not a mystic or perhaps unwilling to accept mysticism on its own terms.

Yet I think it is fair to ask – in a Freudian way – if some alleged religious experience is just emotional fanaticism instead of true grace—think of Super Bowl, Stanley Cup or international football fans and how they resemble some religious fanatics. The jury is out on this one, and it’s a complicated question. But I think Freud’s insights into psychological complexes could come into play with pseudo, emotionally based and also with low grade, oppressive and controlling numinosities.

Before Otto, Jung, Campbell, Eliade, and Freud, the philosopher Immanuel Kant spoke to a realm of the noumena. For Kant, noumena are objects and events independent of the senses. Kant claimed that we cannot know the character of a particular noumenon but he believed we may determine the sheer existence of noumena by virtue of the “intelligible order of things”—that is, by studying the observable world of phenomena.

Etymologically, the terms noumena and numinous are not directly related. This has led most scholars to dismiss any possible semantic connections between them. But even if two words are not etymologically close, their connoted meanings are not necessarily devoid of relationship. (Some run-of-the-mill academics probably wouldn’t consider this).

Kant’s noumena could, indeed, be at the root of some forms of numinous experience, especially in mystical schools leaning toward naturalistic pantheism, such as Zen Buddhism and maybe Taoism.

But again, the idea of numinosity extends well beyond this rather basic possibility.

St. Teresa of Ávila and John Milton

Many mystics from diverse traditions talk about different levels and classes of numinous experience. And even within a single spiritual tradition, descriptions of the numinous vary dramatically in terms of quality and intensity.

Consider, for instance, an ordinary Catholic versus a full-fledged saint like St. Teresa of Ávila. The one feels a solid, holy presence while walking into a church, maybe chats with her or his buddies after Mass. The other experiences a plethora of absorbing visions, revealed warnings and numinous raptures that literally floors them.

In Paradise Lost John Milton depicts Satan’s dismay when he sees the dismal, hellish gloom he’s confined himself to after forfeiting the glorious light of heaven.5

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?

Could this be a warning for some of us?

¹ 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.

² The simple cobler of Aggawam in America, cited in Oxford English Dictionary.

³ In Catholicism, devotional objects and images do not contain numinosity in themselves but rather aid in the reception of otherworldly graces. An important distinction that Jung glosses over here. See http://frithluton.com/articles/numinous/

4 See also Deidre Sklar, “Reprise: On Dance Ethnography.” Dance Research Journal, Vol. 32, No. 1 Summer, 2000: 70-77, p. 72.

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.

5 C. S. Lewis, Aldous Huxley, Ursula K. Le Guin and several others each have their own take on the numinous. See my highlights here http://lnr.li/sDdLz/

A sampling of material about numinosity at Earthpages.ca and Earthpages.org

 A Hundred Thousand Year Old Civilisation? (newdawnmagazine.com)

 This is what Happens when we Allow our Souls to Express Themselves. (elephantjournal.com)

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4 comments

  1. Numinosity cannot be defined in words. It is a felt experience of awe, a transpersonal consciousness of oneness, which defies definition. My e-book at http://www.suprarational.org quotes 90 mystics of five faiths, ancient to contemporary, who have tried to explain it to others in terms they might understand, while realizing that it is impossible to do.

    Liked by 1 person

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