Thursday, October 06, 2011


When I teach classes about the idea of "deity", a word always comes up as a description: "numinous". I think it's fairly meaningless to most of my students, or really, to anyone. It's something they might write down on an essay test, or jot down in their notebook after seeing me write it somewhere.

Like a lot of psychological ideas, they really don't mean much to anyone. The description doesn't invoke any sense of what the word means. And yet all our lives are constructed around the numinous--either rigorous exploration of it, or hell-bent avoidance of it. You might call that the "purpose" of our lives.

So, what is it? It's probably best understood through example. I am not alone in my interest in the paranormal--our curiosity about life after death, ghosts, and other such related phenomena represent our curiosity about the numinous. I don't want to give the impression that this is "all" the numinous is about. It's really about anything we can't explain--things that are out of step with what we gauge as our "normal" perceived existence. It doesn't have to be anything as strange as a ghostly encounter. The "numinous" is anything that hits us out of left field. What I went through with my parents' house last week could be described as numinous--walking into an unexpected disaster, something out of my control. The numinous can make you feel very small, suggests that you are not as in control of your life as you think you are.

There are really two senses of "numinous". One is just as I've explained--encountering the unknown. It doesn't have to be negative; sometimes our lives change very suddenly in a positive way through totally unforeseen circumstances. Our human habit is only to remember the negative, unless the positive experience truly made us a new person. The other sense is that of the "weird". Stephen Carter (author of "Culture of Disbelief") noted that if you walked into a bar and started talking about your religion, people would find you...well, weird. When something happens for which ordinary explanations are not entirely satisfying, we find it "weird". Sometimes we laugh and marvel at the strangeness, other times we are "freaked out". In either case, it disturbs our ordinary vision of the world.

Horror writer Arthur Machen equated this second aspect of the numinous with what we often perceive as "horror" or "terror" in his story "The White People" :

"What would your feelings be, seriously, if your cat or dog began to talk to you, and to dispute with you in human accents? You would be overwhelmed with horror. I am sure of it. An if the roses in your garden sang a weird song, you would go mad. And suppose the stones in the road began to swell and grow before your eyes, an if the pebble that you noticed at night had shot out stony blossoms in the morning?"

Machen also notes in this story that "sin" is the "taking of Heaven by storm". Chaos, the disruption of what we perceive as the natural order of things. H.P. Lovecraft's horror is so successful not because he is writing about some religious battle of good and evil (in spite of any pleading by August Derleth), he is writing about the "acausal"--when the indifferent forces of the universe run ramshod over us, for absolutely no reason at all. It reminds us that we are at the mercy of something much larger than ourselves. Everyone senses this; the only difference between a religious man (in the Western sense) and the atheist (in the broadest sense) is that the religious man wants to believe there is something in the numinous that cares about him, while the atheist is certain that there is not.

We deal with the numinous in various ways. Many of us like to keep busy all the time, and like to always have company of some sort (even if it is in an online message or chat). We do not like long periods of doing nothing with much silence. The numinous fills that silence, and unless we are practiced meditators, that fills us with dread. Those are the times when we start imagining all of the potentially negative possibilities of our lives and others. That is when we hear the voices that remind us of our weaknesses. The numinous doesn't "cause" this, it's our reaction to it. How many people can't wait "to get back to routine" after a long vacation? Vacations are often anything but restful, if that is their intention.

We can be "victims" in the face of the numinous, or we can be "ship captains", and it's really a question of attitude. When the mystical religions talk about "surrendering", they mean accepting the numinous for what it is. Most of us cannot do that--we have ambitions and plans that we don't want to see wrecked. At least one principle of Chaos Magick involves never getting into set patterns, because then we fall into that trap of believing that we are in control of everything. But rather than go mad or go to pieces in the face of that lack of control (or get frozen like the schizophrenic), we should learn how to steer through uncharted waters--hence the "captain" metaphor. A ship at sea does not know what kind of weather it will encounter--there could be still waters that are a bane to sailboats, there could be violent storms. The captain is trained to deal with either situation appropriately, and has also amassed the correct tools for navigating the seas. Similarly--we have our metaphorical tools that provide us with guidance, and our negative experiences should teach us how to react to whatever comes our way. I say "negative" specifically, because if you are sheltered from such things your whole life, you will go to pieces when you're actually confronted with the experience, and no one really escapes it. The compass you have is your instinct--and hearing your instincts clearly all the time requires an uncluttered mind.

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