In our last post, we touched on the first pole of the numen. Just as the first pole is marked by feeling-contents of dauntingness, overwhelmingness, mysteriousness, and energy-vitality, so the second pole elicits another set of feelings – we find the numen attractive, alluring, charming, fascinating, and enchanting. This is what Rudolf Otto calls the mysterium fascinans.
Otto phrases it as follows:
The mystery is for [the person experiencing the numen] not merely something to be wondered at but something that entrances him; and beside that in it which bewilders and confounds, he feels a something that captivates and transports him with a strange ravishment, rising often enough to the pitch of dizzy intoxication…
So what is so fascinating, alluring, enchanting, and even intoxicating in the numen? Why is there a mysterium fascinans?
It resembles what is fascinating and enchanting in the natural world – love, goodness, beauty, home, and the joy that arises out of them. These qualities are attributed to God in all major religions, and they are attributed to the experience of God in all major mystical traditions.
When they are experienced in the numen, they have a purer and more integrated reality than when they are experienced in the natural world. Otto states it as follows:
The ideas and concepts which are the parallels or ‘schemata’ on the rational side of this non-rational element of ‘fascination’ are love, mercy, pity, comfort; these are all ‘natural’ elements of the common psychical life, only they are here thought as absolute and in completeness.
In heightened experiences of the numen (such as mystical experiences), the characteristics of the second pole have an absolute or perfect quality which elicits ecstatic joy.
Interestingly, these characteristics are attributed to the transcendent or Divine Being by Platonists and other rational monotheists.
Plato not only attempts to prove the absolute and perfect one true good love, and beautiful, but implies that he and others can experience it through the contemplation of love and the beautiful in its highest form:
He who has been instructed thus far in the things of love, and who has learned to see the beautiful in due order and succession, when he comes towards the end will suddenly perceive a nature of wondrous beauty… a nature which in the first place is everlasting, not growing and decaying… but beauty absolute, separate, simple, and everlasting, which without diminution and without increase, or any change, is imparted to the ever-growing and perishing beauties of all other things.
Though Plato does not attribute this experience specifically to the numen (the presence of the divine within him), he associates perfect love, beauty, and goodness with the one God, and implies (in the above passage) that he and others have experienced it.
One of Plato’s most ardent followers, Plotinus (204-270 a.d.) sees the mystical experience of the numen flowing directly out of contemplation of the One which is good, loving, and beautiful. His disciple Porphyry indicated that Plotinus had reached “ecstatic union with the One” on four separate occasions.
Evidently, Plotinus and other neo-Platonic philosophers went far beyond the domain of rational philosophy into their inward experience of the One. This led to an experience of the One’s absolute goodness, love, and beauty, which they identify as “ecstatic union with it.”
Inasmuch as this Supreme Being has the qualities of absolute love and goodness, it must in some sense be inter-relational, and this implies personal qualities. Just as numinous energy and vitality (first pole) suggests personal attributes such as will and passion in the numen, so also the alluring, enchanting, and fascinating elements of the numen (second pole) suggests positive personal attributes of openness, love, and goodness.
The first pole elicits a relationship of humility, submission, and reverence while the second pole, the mysterium fascinans, elicits a relationship of closeness, familiarity, and friendship.
Both James and Otto pay close attention to the heightened or mystical dimension of the numinous experience. James describes several cases in which ordinary people (not monks or sisters in a monastery) experienced the numen in a heightened state. One case study described it as follows:
For the moment nothing but an ineffable joy and exaltation remained. It is impossible fully to describe the experience. It was like the effect of some great orchestra, when all the separate notes have melted into one swelling harmony, that leaves the listener conscious of nothing save that his soul is being wafted upwards and almost bursting with its own emotion.
One can see in James’ case study, the contrary elements of both calm and transport – a sense of peace and propulsion.
Otto notes that this peace-propulsion can be induced by the presence of the numen through many “gateways.” It can come from reading a passage of scripture, reflecting on a supreme truth (e.g. perfect goodness or perfect love), taking a walk in a natural setting, hearing a bird’s song, looking at religious art or architecture, hearing a religious hymn or glorious symphony, or simply sitting at one’s dinner table or desk.
In my case, it once occurred while giving a physics lecture. When the feeling of peace-propulsion occurs, it is generally accompanied by a profound sense of unity with everything which takes away alienation, and feels like we are perfectly at home with the totality.
This sense of being “perfectly at home with the totality” is frequently connected with spiritual joy. Otto puts it this way:
….in all these forms, outwardly diverse but inwardly akin, it appears as a strange and mighty propulsion towards an ideal good known only to religion and in its nature fundamentally non-rational, which the mind knows of in yearning and presentiment, recognizing it for what it is behind the obscure and inadequate symbols which are its only expression.
And this shows that above and beyond our rational being lies hidden the ultimate and highest part of our nature, which can find no satisfaction in the mere allaying of the needs of our sensuous, psychical, or intellectual impulses and cravings. The mystics called it the basis or ground of the soul.
In this remarkable passage, Otto describes three key characteristics constituting a heightened experience of the numen:
- The numen causes a sense of propulsion into itself.
- In this propulsion, we sense the numen as perfect goodness and a Supreme Being (known only to religion).
- Our temporary connection or unity with this Supreme perfect goodness reveals to us our highest transcendent nature – our soul which can only be satisfied by the Supreme goodness.
In Part II, we will discuss further the heightened numen experiences of many individuals from virtually every major religion and culture.