The 1st Pole — Mysterium Tremendum in the Numen (God’s Presence to Our Consciousness)

The 1st Pole — Mysterium Tremendum in the Numen (God’s Presence to Our Consciousness)

The elements of dread, awe, dauntingness, and creatureliness are the most evident dimensions of the numen in the early stages of the development of individual and cultural religious consciousness.  Rudolf Otto calls this the mysterium tremendum.

Since this pole of feeling-content is manifest earlier in history than the elements of the second pole, it makes sense to address it first (as Rudolf Otto does).

However, by putting the mysterium tremendum in a primary position, we do not mean to imply that it is more important or powerful than the elements of the second (more positive) pole in a mature person or culture.

Mysterium Tremendum

Otto is in fundamental agreement with William James about the most basic appearance of the numen (though he thinks that James’ analysis is insufficiently nuanced), and so he quotes James as follows:

It is as if there were in the human consciousness a sense of reality, a feeling of objective presence, a perception of what we may call “something there”, more deep and more general than any of the special and particular “senses” by which the current psychology supposes existent realities to be originally revealed.

Otto concurs with James that the numen appears as an objective presence – and that it is distinguishable from every other object we experience because it is more deep and more general (all-encompassing) than all other objects.

However, Otto goes further than James, noting that this deep and all-encompassing objective reality appears to be very powerful and spiritual, causing us in our experience of the mysterium tremendum to be respectful, humble, and submissive before its presence.

Otto calls this reaction “creature consciousness,” and distinguishes himself from Friedrich Schleiermacher who implies that the self-conscious act of being a creature is primary.

Otto contends that the presence of the powerful and overwhelming numen is primary, and this causes us to react to it with a sense of reverence, humility, and creatureliness.

There are two special characteristics of the mysterium tremendum, this first pole of experience — overwhelming power and spiritual presence.

Notice that these two characteristics are categories of thought; Otto insists that such categories are not primary to the experiencing subject, but rather are derived from more primary feeling-contents.

So what are the feeling-contents that give rise to these categories of overwhelming power and spiritual presence?

For Otto, the first response we have when the numen as mysterium tremendum becomes present to our consciousness is fear – but not the fear we might have toward a natural object.

Rather, it is the fear we have toward spiritual presence – such as ghosts.

The fear of natural objects (that can threaten survival or safety) tends to produce a hyperactive state (induced by adrenaline) raising blood pressure, inciting panic, making us feel warm, and causing the face to flush.

The fear we feel when confronted by a ghost or spirit (or hearing a ghost story) is quite different – it makes us feel cold, causes our blood pressure to drop, the blood to drain from our face, and our flesh to creep or crawl.

Otto terms this special kind of fear toward a spiritual presence “daemonic dread.” “Daemon” here does not mean “demon” in the sense of a malignant or evil spirit, but only “spirit” in a general sense which can refer to a benign or good spirit.

When we feel the presence of a benign or good spirit, it evokes a sense of uncanniness, of being beyond our control or power.

Its other-worldly character makes it unpredictable and daunting.

Though the numen as mysterium tremendum does not present itself as evil, it does present itself as “beyond us” and capable of overpowering us.

We sense its’ overwhelming or superior power, even if it is manifest in a “gentle tide, pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship.”

Mysterium Tremendum

In his book the Varieties of Religious Experience, William James recounts a case study in which the superior power of the numen manifested itself gently and sublimely:

The perfect stillness of the night was thrilled by a more solemn silence. The darkness held a presence that was all the more felt because it was not seen. I could not any more have doubted that He was there than that I was. Indeed, I felt myself to be, if possible, the less real of the two.

This higher power carries with it a profound sense of mystery and incomprehensibility. Otto describes our experience of this incomprehensible mystery as “stupor” which he distinguishes from “tremor:”

Stupor is plainly a different thing from tremor; it signifies blank wonder, an astonishment that strikes us dumb, amazement absolute.

We are tacitly aware that we cannot comprehend this higher power, this mysterium tremendum, and so we view it as wholly Other.

In its overwhelming presence, we sense our creatureliness – what Otto and Schleiermacher term “creature consciousness.”

There is one additional element in the feeling-content of the mysterium tremendum – Otto describes it as “energy or urgency” which betokens passion or will within the numen.

The felt presence of the numen not only indicates spiritual presence, overwhelming power, and incomprehensible mystery, but also something personal and passionate in its energy. Otto states:

…and it everywhere clothes itself in symbolical expressions – vitality, passion, emotional temper, will, force, movement, excitement, activity, impetus.

Terms like “vitality,” “passion,” “emotional temper,” and “will” are concepts — what Otto terms “symbolical expressions” – representing our experience of the more fundamental feeling-contents within the numen.

So how does the numen appear to us through the feeling-contents of spiritual fear, dauntingness, overpoweringness, mysteriousness, and vitality-energy?

As mysterium tremendum, the numen appears as

  • a wholly Other, superior, incomprehensible, and mysterious power
  • with passion, emotion, and will
  • which elicits from us a sense of creatureliness, humility, submission, respect, reverence, and worship.

From Otto’s descriptions, we can infer four layers in our encounter with the numen:

  1. a fundamental layer of feeling-contents – spiritual fear, tremor, dauntingness, overwhelmingness, stupor, mysteriousness, and energy-vitality
  2. a layer of intuited appearance of the numen – as a wholly Other, spiritual, superior, incomprehensible power with passion and will
  3. a layer of reaction to the presence of this mysterious higher power — a sense of diminution, humility, respect, and creatureliness
  4. a layer of action following our reaction – reverence and worship.

This constitutes our initial or primary response to the numen.

Mysterium Tremendum

Some people, religions, and cultures do not move beyond this initial encounter with the numen (which Otto terms “the first pole”), but most major religions do move beyond it to the second more positive pole of feeling-contents.

This is borne out by the fact that most contemporary religions today share seven common characteristics, four of which are derived from the second pole.

Let's continue this discussion in part 2: The 2nd Pole: Fascination, Desire, Love, and Bliss in Our Experience of the Numen

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