The Hebraic God of the Old Testament inhabits the world as shekhinah, the dwelling or presence of God, especially in the Temple of Jerusalem; we have a sublime witness of this in the prophet’s recounting in Isaiah 6: “And one cried unto another, and said, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.’ And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke.”
While this presence can and must be appealed to and praised, it cannot be seen lest its seer die, witnessing something too strange and terrible and awe-some for radically limited humanity. This, in essence, is Otto’s conception of numen, of holiness made manifest in creation. Both the idea that God is present everywhere, that God is present wherever we are present, and the idea that God is particularly present in particular times and places are as old as Abrahamic monotheism itself.
There can be, in fact, holy ground.
There are ‘thin places’ where the holy is especially present and especially terrifying and especially fascinating. These are the places of Otto’s numen, and the numinous affects us as radically dependent and contingent creatures. In the face of the numinous, our own createdness rather than our own self-sufficiency becomes markedly apparent. As the prophet of Isaiah continues: “Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.”
The human is unable or unworthy of speaking the glory of the holy and the holiness of God. The human can describe creation because creation has characteristics discernible to reason, analogy, and other human faculties. The numinous lacks, or more precisely overwhelms, such characteristics precisely because it is the irreducible reality upon which created characteristics depend.
The numinous is the theological noun; all else is merely adjective.
It is not simply a feeling of dependence so much as it is the experience of dependency itself. The numinous transforms human consciousness to creature consciousness, and the experience of it realigns the self from being like God to being like creation and all its analogues. If human is ‘like me’ then the numinous is ‘not me.’ The numen is the experience of God as wholly other. The experience of God as shekhinah, then, by being the experience of self as created, is also the experience of God as creator.
Yet the advent of the numinous is not the destruction of creation or any creature; rather it is their energization, as we see superbly, again, in Isaiah 6: “Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged. Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me.”
The majesty of the numen is such that rather than annihilating the human, the numen transforms and empowers the prophet in love, which is in Otto’s sources the energy or fire of quenched wrath, the native powers of God turned toward filling creation rather than destroying creatures as such. Luther’s fear of God becomes Luther’s love of God. In the numen, God’s wonder-fullness becomes as overwhelming as God’s awe-fullness, and this tension is the fount of our fascination, just as the ‘not-creation’ is the fount of all that is, without which there is nothing.
The numen, the fire that does not consume, by being the end of anything that can be said, is the beginning of all there is to say.
The silence of the theological noun provokes the liturgical, prophetic acclaim of its creational adjectives. Analogies are simultaneously distinct from, implied by, and dependent on the transcendent realities they fail to describe but cannot fail to point to. The fire that does not consume compels. Such is the passion of creation for its creator. And such is its fulfillment, when the numen wears creation as its cloak, and creation becomes, not the denial of the holy, but indeed its very sign and signal.
The advent of the numen, the discovery of the holy, recalls the human into our ‘always already’ mission as creature to witness to and identify the wholly loving otherness of God.