There are, it seems, two types of religious experience. The two poles of the numinous experience might be compared to the double-helix characterizing DNA – they are not really separated in the numen, but rather fully integrated, complementing each other, presenting a good and even loving Deity.

As Heiler indicates (below) in his seven common characteristics of major religions, the supreme transcendent reality for all major religions is loving, and the Deity reveals this love within human beings.

When we combine the studies of Otto and Heiler, it is difficult to imagine that the numen is not in some sense personal.

Even if we concentrate on the mysterious, incomprehensible, and wholly Other characteristics (of the first pole) associated with some eastern religions, we still sense that the numen is making itself felt – inviting us more deeply into itself — and is not simply a passive depersonalized reality (like a metaphysical substrate) into which we are merely and ultimately assimilated.

The Numinous Experience - Types of Religious Experience

When the second pole (which includes a sense of goodness, love, comfort, peace, and joy) is considered along with the characteristics of the first pole, the personal element of the “wholly Other” becomes more clear, because the characteristics of the second pole are oriented toward relationship – and specifically, fulfillment and joy in relationship.

Understating the characteristics of the second pole generally leads to a diminution of the personal qualities of the numen.

There is one other observation that should be made before nuancing the feeling-content of both poles.

Otto believes that the first pole (the mysterious, powerful, and daunting pole) is the primary manifestation of the numen in the development of religious consciousness, and the second pole (which is always present but deemphasized in early cultures) becomes gradually manifest as history progresses.

The gradual manifestation of this second pole may be a major influence in the progress of culture throughout the world. It seems to come to light with specially inspired prophets, wise men, and enlightened individuals. These enlightened individuals – these external sources of inspiration — do not invent these positive characteristics of the Transcendent Reality, but rather point to It as the origin of their enlightenment.

Thus if Buddha, Ezekiel or Jesus speaks about the love of the Transcendent Reality, they are speaking about their experience of that Reality, and not about their theological speculations. We assent to their teachings, not out of blind faith in their authority, but out of an interior conviction that what they are saying resonates deeply with what we know to be intuitively true.

They are saying something that we recognize from our experience of the numen, and for this reason, people (both individually and collectively) are willing to allow their thoughts about the numen (at first sensed to be daunting) to evolve toward a fascinating, caring, and joy-filled Being. Otto puts it this way:

It may well be possible, it is even probable, that in the first stage of its development the religious consciousness started with only one of its poles – the ‘daunting’ aspect of the numen – and so at first took shape only as ‘daemonic dread.’

But if this did not point to something beyond itself, if it were not but one ‘moment’ of a completer experience, pressing up gradually into consciousness, then no transition would be possible to the feelings of positive self-surrender to the numen.

The only type of worship that could result from this ‘dread’ alone would be that of …. Expiation and propitiation, the averting or the appeasement of the ‘wrath’ of the numen.

A Numinous Experience

The emergence of the second pole in the evolution of religious consciousness is corroborated by the work of Friedrich Heiler’s seven common characteristics among the world’s major religions:

  1. The transcendent, the holy, the divine, the Other is real (from the first pole).
  2. The transcendent reality is immanent in human awareness (from the first pole).
  3. This transcendent reality is the highest truth, highest good, and highest beauty (from the second pole).
  4. This transcendent reality is loving and compassionate – and seeks to reveal its love to human beings (from the second pole).
  5. The way to God requires prayer, ethical self-discipline, purgation of self-centeredness, asceticism, and redressing of offenses (from mostly the first pole).
  6. The way to God also includes service and responsibility to people (from the second pole).
  7. The highest way to eternal bliss in the transcendent reality is through love (from the second pole).

The world’s major religions differ considerably on the interpretation of the above seven common characteristics, and in several cases, some of the characteristics are elevated above others or even mitigate others.

However, if one accepts at least traces or fragments of the above seven characteristics in all major religions, it reveals the presence of Otto’s second pole in the gradual evolution of religious consciousness, suggesting strongly that this pole is intrinsic to our common experience of the numen.

If the second pole were not present in our common experience of the numen, it would be difficult to explain how the third, fourth, sixth, and seventh characteristics became universally recognized and accepted.

The probable reason why early religious consciousness emphasized the first pole was because its characteristics are powerful and fearful, and like children, we pay most attention to what can harm or overpower us. As we mature and become less daunted by the overpowering and uncontrollable other, we allow the other’s more benign and compassionate qualities to be recognized — typifying Maslow’s need hierarchy.

In that theory, Maslow ranks basic human needs according to five levels –

  1. physical needs
  2. safety and security needs
  3. the need for love and belonging
  4. the need for esteem/self-esteem
  5. self-actualization.

Experiencing the Numen

Maslow contends that when needs on a more basic level are not met, we will not feel need on higher levels. However, when that more basic need is met, the next level of need emerges as important.

Accordingly, when religious consciousness is preoccupied with the daunting, mysterious, and uncontrollable qualities of the numen (safety and security needs), it is unlikely to experience a need for love and belonging from the numen.

However, over the course of time, it becomes apparent that the numen is not completely daunting in its interaction with us – and that the numen manifests graciousness and goodness – at which point, the need for security becomes much less important, and the need for love emerges.  At that point, the second pole of the numen’s feeling-contents becomes evident and desired.

As noted above, this is the first kind of evidence for our transcendence and relationship with a Transcendent Being.

When we combine it with the evidence from Eliade’s study of the sacred, and Kant’s and Newman’s study of conscience, our conclusion will gain in probative force, for it will be corroborated by four distinct kinds of data, all pointing to the same conclusion.

Next: The Intuition of the Sacred — Mircea Eliade

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