My mystical experiences and some thoughts on religion
This is not something that I, as a pretty strong rationalist likes to discuss much, and it is rather personal, but some discussions on friends’ blogs make me wish to share some of them.
First off, let me say, that I have never had the sort of mystical experience where one sits and chats with the Gods, whether in dreams, visions, etc. Rather it is something more basic, a strong sense of the numinous and awe. The roots of Roman religion, for instance came in the sense of numina (one could say, “power”), sometimes the numina of a place, or an event, or a phenomenon…which eventually became personalized as the Gods. In Hellenic religion, the same thing happened with the growth of daimones into theoi, and even in Homer the Gods are referred to daimones. The earliest religious iconography comes from Sumer, in the form of votive offerings of human figurines, each with huge eyes…eye wide with awe.
All religion is rooted in awe. Even atheists often feel awe at the majesty and power of the universe, and formed Scientific Pantheism as a way to express their awe.
Religion contains a special domain of evaluation: the holy or the sacred. This category has two sorts of opposites and three forms of opposition. The opposites are the polluted or unholy and what may be called the common, mundane, worldly, or secular. The relationship between the holy, the polluted, and the common is similar to that between the beautiful, the ugly, and the plain in aesthetic value. There are no degrees of transition between the beautiful and the ugly. Something cannot really be both beautiful and ugly at the same time — except in different respects, as in a portrait of an ugly person, e.g. Socrates, that is nevertheless beautifully done or revealing of the beautiful soul, e.g. Socrates [note]. On the other hand, there are degrees of being beautiful or ugly, but both of them tend to the third pole, the plain.
Similarly, something cannot be both sacred and polluted at the same time, but there are degrees of sacredness and pollution, with each tending to the third pole, the common and secular.
Religious value is more complex than aesthetic value because three forms of opposition mark off each of the three poles of the sacred and its two opposites. Thus, there is a difference between 1) the sacred and the profane, 2) the clean and the unclean, and 3) the numinous and the mundane.
What is holy is therefore sacred, clean, and numinous. What is polluted or unholy is profane, unclean, and numinous. And what is common is profane, clean, and mundane. In many ancient religions, one of the most important oppositions is between the clean and the unclean. Many of the rules in the Old Testament concern pollution and cleansing; but cleansing, of course, does not make anything sacred, it merely makes it worthy of becoming, approaching, or associating with the sacred. In almost mathematical terms, nothing can exist on the track expressing degrees of sacredness without leaving the track showing degrees of pollution. The opposition between the sacred and the profane is often confusing because of the bivalence of the category of the profane. Webster’s dictionary has one definition of the profane that is mundane, “not concerned with religion or religious purposes: SECULAR,” one that definitely involves pollution, “serving to debase or defile what is holy,” and one that is mixed or the profane proper, “not holy because unconsecrated, impure, or defiled: UNSANCTIFIED.” “Unconsecrated” and “unsanctified” will mean simply the non-sacred, i.e. either unholy or mundane.
The third form of opposition, between the numinous and the mundane, is essentially between matters of religious concern and those that are not. Whether of the holy or of the polluted, religious valuation can be said to possess “numinosity,” an uncanniness, mystery, and power set apart from common, ordinary, worldly, secular, and mundane things. Holiness and pollution can both be dangerous, but the difference is that pollution is not sought for its own sake but is often acquired despite that (through spilling blood, having sex, menstruating, eating the wrong things, etc.). Ritual actions are required to remove pollution. Ritual actions are also required before dealing with holy things, in part to remove pollution but also to prepare for the dangers posed by holiness itself. There is nothing dangerous about the merely mundane. It is just a kind of emptiness in comparison.
The holy and the polluted pose a threat to each other. The concepts “defile,” “debase,” and “desecrate” reveal that even what is holy, as well as what is clean and mundane, can be damaged by the unholy. If the divine presence in a temple is of value to a community because of the protection that the god provides, the desecration of the temple may not harm the god, but it may certainly harm the community, as the means of pleasing and accessing the god is compromised. On the other hand, something may be so holy that it cannot be desecrated. Thus Alfred Kohlatch [This is the Torah, Jonathan David Publishers, 1988] quotes Rabbi Judah ben Bathyra as saying, “Words of the Torah are not susceptible to uncleanness.” Kohlatch adds, “No individual, not even one who is ritually impure, can defile a Torah by touching or handling it,” and “the Talmud states clearly that a Torah scroll cannot be made ritually unclean regardless of who handles it.” On the other hand, the holy is also definitely a threat to the polluted, as is well illustrated in the Biblical destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. …
Religion has its numinous character whether the principle objects of religion be immanent or transcendent, e.g. tangible fetishes, idols, places, persons, etc., even states of consciousness, or a supernatural God, heaven, etc. Religion possesses no special category of obligation (i.e. the rites and objects mean nothing to anyone outside the religion) but instead subsumes all the others, usually collapsing them moralistically into the ritual requirements of the religion. The “holy” is thus often equated with moral goodness or, when that sense isn’t so strong, with the beautiful or the sublime. Numinous value, however, is polynomicly independent of other forms of evaluation: religious practices may be repugnant, the gods (or God) may do bad things, or sacred objects may be ugly or repulsive. The cleansing of pollution and the preparations for sacred rituals may require moral rectitude or beautiful costumes, or they may require appalling mortifications, self-mutilations, blood sacrifices, etc. Ritual practices simply may not make any sense…
This polynomic independence occurs to us as the problem of evil. If God is omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent, then why does evil exist? He would know it exists; he would be able to get rid of it; and he would want to get rid of it. The problem of evil, however, is more general than a theological difficulty over a transcendent personal God. Even without God, as in Buddhism, there is still birth, disease, old age, and death. These were regarded by the Buddha as a problem. They still are, and we must still ask ourselves why the world often seems to be a “meaningless nightmare of suffering.” If religion offers consolation that the world makes ultimate sense and has a meaning or a purpose, despite all evidence to the contrary, it is holy things that present the tangible (or perhaps intangible) quality of that consolation.
Karl Kerenyi, in a book which only I have read, based on discussions of authors in various fora, entitled The Religion of the Greeks and Romans discusses this whole matter of numinous, profane, and mundane.
“The case is no different with the verb hazesthai which might seem of all words that most confined to the religious sphere. Its meaning is related to that of dedienai –‘to be afraid’ — and aideisthai — ‘to be ashamed,’ and it is used as absolutely sysnonymous with this later word, and what is immediate decisive, moreover, it is not at all confided to the religious sphere…the word means a respectful, but not a ‘religious’ behavior…Hazesthai is what Zeus himself feels towards the sphere of Night. He would not want to do anything which might displease this great goddess. And hazesthai in two important passages refers to a deity to whom the epithet hagnos — ‘pure’ — belongs, that is Apollo…in the Odyssey a priest of Apollo is an object ofhazesthaiaideisthai is used as a variant for hazesthai occurring somewhat earlier in the same passage…
“The verb hazesthaihagnos, epithet of the pure and purifying god Apollo…It can well be said that ‘it is used pre-eminently of the uncontaminated elements of nature. Yet the elements have in the world of men their deathly aspect as well. They form, like the gods, a boundary to human existence…
“The other adjective from this root, hagios refers more to the cult — ‘pure’ temples, uncontaminated cult statues, mysterious cult procedures…” (Kerenyi 1962 pp 106-107)
Further on, Kerenyi writes:
“A similar concept with the Greeks is hosion or hosia. In our texts the substantive hosia occurs earlier than the adjective hosios…
“Negative versions, like the quite general one that is not hosia to plan another’s deaths..
“…Plato treats of hosiotes (the state of hosia) in a sense equivalent to piety and religious purity in general. Yet he too starts from a case of murder…In general, in order to be hosios it was sufficient to live the Hellenic life as it was lived according to the nomizomena of the different States…
“The word hosios is used not only of the person who leads a ‘pure lift’ but of anything else to which purity can be applied, for instance a place where something goes on which is still permitted by the unwritten laws of life but would be forbidden by the laws of a stricter religious need…It is accordingly quite clear that the hosion occupies a middle position between the hieron and the wholly profane…
“..Hieros, the adjective for everything which belongs to the persons or presence of the gods, in Homer already has that radiant colour.” (ibid pp 108-111)
“It is clear that hagnos, hagios and hieron means Pure or Holy in various senses, and hosia is intermediate with Pure and Impure, i.e., it is Mundane or Clean and Profane. The Polluted, Unclean and Unholy would be something akin to hosios or miasma destructive of the Pure and Holy.
As Plato thought that the love of wisdom began with the love of the kind of value we can see, beauty, now we can say that beauty most concretely contains the promise of what is not merely of this life and this, phenomenal, world. This is ironic, since mere beauty can be regarded as one of the most superficial and trival things in life, with no necessary connection to virtue or morality. Indeed, beauty sometimes seem positively adverse to virtue and morality. When the Greeks, of course, said “good and beautiful,” they meant nobility as well as good looks, or even, as with Socrates, nobility without good looks. At best, beauty often seems inert and dormant. On the other hand, beauty has other permutations. The sublimely beautiful displays active and even fearful power. While one tends to think of wind and lightning in this respect, erotic beauty is just as much an expression of it, with a fearful power that disturbs and unsettles, even frightens, many, even as it drives a great deal of fashion, entertainment, and daily life, often threatening loss of control, both personal and public. The sublime and the erotic bespeak hidden power that is only latent in the merely beautiful.
While the numinosity of the sacred and holy is sometimes said to merely be a form of the sublime, there is considerably more to it than that. Where the sublime is powerful and even fearful, the numimous is positively uncanny and Other — supernatural rather than natural. No longer an inert and dormant beauty, numinosity seems to have broken free from objects altogether, feeling like an intrusion from reality beyond phenomena, whether of divinities, spirits, or any other kinds of paranormal powers. This can still have its erotic aspect, as we see in the divine sexuality of Babylonian temple prostitution, or the pornographic sculptures on Indian temples. This certainly gives us another case of the difficulty of pinning down a construction of transcendent objects, since a religion like Christianity seems to construe the hereafter as devoid of sexuality. It is India that ironically combines the most austere ascesticism with the most explicit eroticism. …
It appears, then, that what we need to know are the values of the phenomenal world. Since we are not now living or operating beyond that, our doctrines and speculations about it end up being paradoxical and self-contradictory. Yet the values of the phenomenal world are themselves not truly of it, and present us a clue that there is more to things than what we see. The ultimate clue, though also the most tantalizing, is the sense of the numinous, in which we seem to glimpse an unaccountable majestas in the transcendent, whether we think that this is the God of Abraham and Isaac, the Existence, Consciousness, and Bliss of Brahman, the wonderful, cosmic Buddha-dharma, or even the Form of the Good…It is only a matter of concern when we want more, when the undeniable randomness, senselessness, and unfairness of events moves us to yearn for some way in which it will all make sense — when the shortness and imperfection of life means that we want reunion with our loved ones, to enjoy moments that in fact were all too brief or that in our folly we did not appreciate enough at the time.
The numinous is the uncanny, powerful and awesome.
From Kerenyi again:
“The life of the hosios is a normal life, pleasing to the gods after the Hellenic style. The characteristic of it is not a negative behaviour, but rather a laissez-faire, a carefree piety. A way of life distinguished by a special regard for the divine is called by the Greeks eusebia. Its root is the Greek verb expressing the highest form of worship —sebein,sebesthai…The etymological root meaning is on the face of it fairly clear and certain. Sebein, sebesthai originally meant something like ‘step back from something with awe.’ The simplest translation of sebasis ‘awe.’ This is confirmed, too, by the meaning of another verb derived from the same stem, sobeo — ‘I drive away.’ This etymology does not require us to call in aid the mana-taboo kind of interpretation. The origin of the awe is no more expressed in sebas or sebesthaisobein….
“To arrive at a real understanding, therefore, we must start not from the bare etymology of the words but from the whole phenomenon, an account of the experience, that is, in which its cause too is given…In the Odyssey there occurs in four different contexts the sentence: ‘Awe took hold of me at the sight.’ In no case can there be the slightest question of a mysterious secret force. The sebas is everywhere occasioned by something becoming manifest and present in an actual form, something which by its visible appearance is able to excite such awe. Thus sebas was excited in Telemachus by the radiance of the royal palace of Sparta; by the pleasing presence of Telemachus himself in the old friend of his father and in Helen, who discovers the form of Odysseus in the form of his son; and finally in Odysseus by the divine beauty of Nausicaa as it appears before his eyes. Gods and men alike feel sebas at the view of an appearnce such as the narcissus, the wonderful flower which the earth goddess cunningly caused to grow for the enticement of Persephone and to oblige the god of the underworld — ‘a Sebas can be excited not only the beauty of an appearance, but also by a picture of horror, when it is imagined as if before one’s eyes. Thus Achilles must picture to himself the dreadful state of Patrocles’ dead body…When it is the horrifying condition of a slain man or a dishonoured corpse which is being imagined, the atrocity itself need not actually occur. The awe of it is in the soul.” (Kerenyi pp. 111-113)
The sense of awe against the beautiful or powerful…and aginst the horrible and terrible can also be seen in the following passage.