December 27, 2010

Non-Rational Ways of Knowing

Posted in The Mystics tagged , at 9:21 pm by tiffanyannbrown


One of my favorite books to-date has been German Lutheran theologian and scholar of comparative religion Rudolph Otto’s The Idea of the Holy.  The book defines the concept of the holy as that which is numinous. Otto explained the  numinous as a “non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self.” Originally published in 1917, I love the book because the author captures complex, hard-to-describe ideas in beautifully written—though difficult to digest—language. It’s the type of book you need to sit down and get comfortable with … steaming hot beverage in one hand, writing tool in the other.

A central idea in the book is the concept of “mysterium tremendum,” which is Otto’s attempt at describing the feeling that one experiences when enduring an encounter with “the holy.” Whether it be that heavy, looming feeling of something sitting right on top of your chest in a quiet room, or a peaceful wave of calm while enjoying a particular scene in nature – the feeling is not one to be denied. He writes:

We are dealing with something for which there is only one appropriate expression, ‘mysterium tremendum’. The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide, pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing, as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its ‘profane’, nonreligious mood of everyday experience. It may burst in sudden eruption up from the depths of the soul with spasms and convulsions, or lead to the strangest excitements, to intoxicated frenzy, to transport, and to ecstasy. It has its wild and demonic forms and can sink to an almost gristly horror and shuddering. It has its crude, barbaric antecedents and early manifestations, and again it may be developed into something beautiful and pure and glorious. It may become the hushed, trembling, and speechless humility of the creature in the presence of–whom or what? In the presence of that which is a mystery inexpressible and above all creatures.

Around the time I first read this book I made an interesting connection. While listening to a song called “Reflection” by the band Tool, I realized that the lyrics of the song were reflecting upon none other than a mystical experience with countless direct ties (almost line for line) to ideas that were touched upon in the book. It wasn’t a few days later that I picked up a book on Alex Grey at a Barnes and Noble (an artist who did the cover art for the band’s CD) when I noticed that on the inside front cover was a picture of Alex Grey with a copy of The Idea of the Holy sitting on his desk in the background. At that moment the ideas, the artist, and the music came full circle into a picture that more clearly defined the concept for me and also helped me to realize the permeating nature of the topic … the fact that these truths are all around us, but only until we tune into them do we begin to notice or acknowledge that they are there.

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