Often reason and experience are pitted against each other in discussions of Christianity. Some Christians accuse others of merely intellectual Christianity, while others retort back about an overly emotional worship. Recently, I finished a classic work that, while arguing for the necessity of both, emphasizes the non-rational or experiential aspect of religion. In The Idea of the Holy, Rudolf Otto asserts that this non-rational element is a vital part of true religion. Indeed, this non-rational element serves as the very source of religion.
Otto focuses on the concept of “the holy” or holiness. However, the concept today has assumed an almost exclusively moral connotation. Otto wants to focus on the aspect of the term that was prior to and outside of moral goodness or rationalization. In order to convey this non-rational element, Otto offers the term “numinous” or “numen.”
The essence of a numinous experience is a creature-feeling, “the emotion of a creature, submerged and overwhelmed by its own nothingness in contrast to that which is supreme above all creatures” (10). This religious experience Otto further describes as the mysterium tremendum. The tremendum includes elements of awefulness, of majestas (overpowering), and of urgency (13-24), while the mysterium points to the transcendent character of the numen: “The truly ‘mysterious’ object is beyond our apprehension and comprehension, not only because our knowledge has certain irremovable limits, but because in it we come upon something inherently ‘wholly other,’ whose kind and character are incommensurable with our own, and before which we therefore recoil in a wonder that strikes us chill and numb” (28).
Since reading the book, I’ve been considering its relevance for evangelical Christians today. Otto was responding to what he believed to be an imbalanced focus on rationality in religion. However, the problem for contemporary Christianity is not an undue attention on the rational aspects of religion but a failure to cultivate the proper non-rational elements. The lives of modern Christians display very little sense of true holiness.
The loss of the sense of the holiness of God is perhaps most evident in the loss of the fear of God among Christians. Modern Christianity does not lack emotion. The problem is that the emotions among evangelicals stem from a sentimental view of God rather than a holy view. Worship is often trivial with little that reflects awe, mystery, majesty, or reverence. Much is made of God’s love, mercy, kindness, and compassion, but His incomprehensibility, wrath, holiness, and righteousness are not as prominent.
What is the solution to this problem? I think the answer lies in a proper understanding of the cross. The cross is the supreme example of God’s holiness, because it addresses that which prohibits man from rightly relating to God—sin. In the cross, God’s holiness is seen in the depths of agony that must be endured in order to provide atonement for sin. Further, His holiness is seen in the offer of righteousness given to sinners through the cross. These truths are revealed through the rational message of the Gospel, not through religious intuition.
As believers begin to understand what occurred at the cross, they will begin to cultivate proper feelings and experiences. Reflection on the cross both destroys the guilty dread of God’s judgment—because there is no condemnation to those in Christ Jesus—and cultivates a holy reverence. As Christians realize the cost of their redemption from sin, they will develop a healthy fear of God’s holy person, a dread of displeasing this holy God, a wonder at the mystery of the Creator suffering for His creation, an awe at the wisdom of God’s eternal plan, and a deep-seated joy at being able to call this God “Father.” Thus, the proper rational elements of Christianity, especially the theological work of the cross, must be grasped if the proper experiential elements are to flourish.
“As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, 15 but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” 17 And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, 18 knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. 20 He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for your sake, 21 who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.” (1 Peter 1:14-21)