Thursday, November 14, 2013

Awe and Intimacy

A Desert Sunset
-fierce beauty-

One hundred years ago, the renowned German theologian Rudolf Otto coined a phrase: "the numinous."

According to Otto, every human being has a "primordial" capacity for experiencing that which is far greater than one's self, that which goes beyond ideas and explanations. This "numinous" experience is  wholly beyond rational comprehension, it is an experience of the "holy." 

When encountering the "numinous," one is filled with a simultaneous sense of "awe" bordering on terror, coupled with a sense of fascination, irresistible desire and tender intimacy. 

Through the years I have read Rudolf Otto over and over again, and I have indeed had many experiences of the "Holy" in my life; but none more powerful than what I experience almost daily here in the desert. 

Anyone who has ever spent any time in the desert will tell you that the desert is a fierce place - it is uncontrollable, wild, untamed and expansive - so borderless that the rational mind has trouble taking it all in and figuring it all out.

When I sit in my garden and watch a desert sunrise or abide in the evening shadows, or when I gaze up at the cosmos ablaze in the nighttime skies, there really is a sense of something so big and so uncontrollable, so far beyond "me, that it fills me with both a sense of awe bordering on terror and at the same time with a sense of being so intimately connected to it all. 

Now that the winter months are coming, more and more clouds fill the once-cloudless skies of summer.  Yesterday there was this moment, only lasting a few minutes, when the sky was set on fire - with blazing shades of red and orange yellow.  In that "holy" moment it was as if time stopped as I was walking along the trail and saw before me a desert bush glowing in the fiery light. 

I was Moses on the wilderness mountaintop engulfed, swallowed up, by a Holy Presence manifested in a burning bush. 

For one brief moment I experienced an awe that bordered on terror. I was standing on holy ground. (Maybe I should take off my shoes?)

But it wasn't just awe. The awe was also accompanied by a powerful experience of intimacy, "fascination and irresistible desire."  It was a "numinous" moment for me if there ever was one.

One hundred years ago Rudolf Otto tapped into a great wisdom about our common humanity. It rings so true for me today as I live in this fiercely beautiful desert - such a "numinous" place.

I am more and more convinced that our contemporary culture has been duped -  seduced by the claims of the so-called "Age of Reason." We have been fooled into thinking that there is an explanation for everything.  Theologians offer explanations, academics and psychologists offer explanations, scientists offer explanations.

And so we are content to live in that tamed, controlled, rational world of explanations - a world in which a desert sunset can be explained by high pressure systems and water vapor. A world of "explanations-only" is dull, limp and devoid of passion. 

I love explanations. I embrace science. I have been an academic all my life. However,  I also know that there is so much more than that which can be explained away. We do indeed live in a world which is as mysterious as it is explainable. 

If we are only looking for the explanations, we will never walk through that ever-available door into the "holy" -into that uncharted fiercely beautiful world of awe and intimacy.


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