Saturday, August 22, 2015

How Biblical Worship is like Hearing a Good Ghost Story - Part 2

Part 1 here

Line drawings depicting various ancient Near Eastern divine beings.

A Strange Encounter

A woman approached him sheepishly after he delivered his talk in a church in Seattle. She asked if she could speak with him in private about something bizarre she had seen during the talk. Hesitantly, she reported that for half an hour she had clearly seen three angels surrounding him as he spoke--one to his left, one at his right and one of larger stature behind him.

J. P. Moreland, the professional philosopher who happened to be involved with my Biola program, reports this experience occurring to him in October of 2004.  He had flown in to speak for a weekend retreat at a noncharismatic traditional church:
"When she left, I asked four or five people, including the pastor, to tell me about the woman, and to a person they said she was probably the most spiritually mature woman in the congregation.  Still, I was skeptical of her claim, but I retained her testimony in my heart."[1]
Moreland returned the next few days back to his home in southern California and says he never mentioned this event to anyone. Fast-forward eleven months later in 2005. While praying on his bed one night over burdens in his life, Moreland asked God if He would send the three angels back, requesting that he might be shown them in order to be comforted.  It was the first time he had ever prayed such a thing.  He told no one about this prayer request, but within a few days he received the shock of his life:
"I received an e-mail (which I kept) from a philosophy graduate student named Mark who was taking a metaphysics class with me that semester.  Mark began saying that he had wanted to share something with me for a few days, but he wanted to process it with two or three other graduate students before he did. 
It turns out that a few days earlier during one of my lectures, he had seen three angels standing in the room (one on each side, a taller one behind me) for five to ten minutes before they disappeared!  I asked Mark to come to my office, and a few days later we talked further...[H]e began by saying that he would never want to say anything to me that he wasn't sure of, and he knew that the angels were next to me in the room and not in his head.  In fact, he gave me a sketch he had drawn from his angle of perception in the class, a sketch of me and the angels (which I kept)."[2]
When he was asked if Mark could have known about his previous angel encounter, Moreland responded that "there was no way this guy [Mark] could have known anything about that."[3]

Numinous Fear

If the spiritual visitors in this story managed to get any sort of emotional rise out of you, it was likely a sort of goosebumps awe.  In part 1, we saw that human beings possess a strange, dreadful awe of the Numinous.

For example, If you saw a ghost, you would feel fear and dread.  Like C. S. Lewis observed, that fear would not be grounded in natural, physical danger, since no one is primarily scared of what a ghost is going to do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost!  We also saw that this creeping flesh or Numinous fear feeling can be found in heightened expression in all religions since religion involves the worship of great spirits.

Why the Mere Existence of Numinous Fear is an Argument For the Supernatural

C. S. Lewis, himself a huge fan of Rudolf Otto, explained why this emotion is so special:
This Numinous [fear] is [not] already contained in the idea of the dangerous…[and no] perception of danger or any dislike of the wounds and death which it may entail could give the slightest conception of ghostly dread or numinous awe to an intelligence which did not already understand them.  When man passes from physical fear to dread and awe, he makes a sheer jump, and apprehends something which could never be given, as danger is, by the physical facts and logical deductions from them.[4]
Because the feeling of creeping-flesh fear does not arise from an aversion to physical danger, it’s inexplicable within a purely mechanistic scheme how man should have ever come to possess it—that is, how we should have ever come to be capable of a fear, the object of which, cannot be an elaboration of physical reality or physical preservation.

Most materialistic accounts of numinous dread thoughtlessly attempt to smuggle awe into the idea of physical danger; they presuppose what they are claiming to explain.  Scientists presuppose that fear of gods, angels and the dead is grounded in physical preservation, but if you consult your experience you know that physical attention to your body would not be your primary concern if you had encountered such a being. In that way, it's in a totally other dimension from an encounter with a lion, your boss or a rise in prices.
Navajo god Nayenezgani

Unless we are to conclude Numinous dread is a freak emotional capacity in man which has managed to develop despite having no correspondence with the facts of reality, it seems inescapable that the religious mind of man has veins drawing life from something lurking beyond the natural, and it is the very fact that you are even capable of feeling this emotion which whispers of at least one thing engraved in us that metaphysical materialism can never satisfy by definition.

I'm taking a lighthearted jab here at philosophers like Alain de Botton.  It seems their attempts to create a "religious atheism," as clever as they may be, will always fail to satisfy at least one universal and powerful dimension of human expression.

The "Man-Creates-God-in-his-Image" Objection:

If what I have observed so far lands in the ballpark of truth then we can infer from it that there is a very common belief held about the nature and origin of religion which seems false.  Xenophanes is famous for saying that if oxen could paint, they would depict their gods as oxen.  


Surely, it is true that man is often compelled to depict his gods with human characteristics simply because human beings are the highest expression of personality that we may look to as a reference in nature. But, in the sense that the statement implies humans created the gods, and later God, merely from a desire to project what was familiar to us, Xenophanes’s claim seems false. The gods do not emerge from the familiar but the Strange.

Probably the majority of gods in history are described as intentionally uncanny (strange or mysterious in an unsettling way) to express this. I named examples in the last post, but it is worth considering more. In Hinduism this uncanniness is conveyed through the multiplying of heads, arms, strange colors, fascinating eyes, tongues and grafted animal parts.  Again, look at Arjuna’s encounter with the transfigured Krishna. The flavor may remind you of John's vision of Jesus in Revelation 1:14-17:

"Your great form of many mouths and eyes, oh great-armed one, of many arms, thighs and feet, of many bellies, terrible with many tusks—seeing it the worlds are shaken, and I too…seeing you my inner self is shaken, and I find no steadiness or peace…Oh Visnu,...of awful form, homage to you.” (source)

Some early explorers mistook the Meso-American gods as Indian in origin. They abound in ghastly skeletal chthonic deities, fantastically spliced animals with shadowy human visages.  The fascinating gaze of the serpent enchants heavily here and it is curiously difficult to find a culture in the world where serpents are not referenced in expressing the uncanny. 
Israelite seraph seals:  Benjamin Sommer points
out that number 273, shown with two serpents
 flanking the symbol for God, states it belonged to
Ashna in King Ahaz's court.  "It is inconceivable
that Isaiah and Ashna did not know each other."

In Egyptian religion our torch light flickers again on fantastic animal-headed deities cloaked in esoteric hieroglyphs; in Israelite religion we see the snake-bodied Seraphim and the four-headed Cherubim.  The Biblical authors usually appeal to anthropomorphic theophanies when describing visions of their God, but we are assured no man may behold His true glory and live.

Credit: מוזיאון ישראל ירושלים these 9,000 year old masks discovered in
Israel are the oldest in the world.  It is speculated they represent
spirits of the dead.
In the Ancient Near East we encounter the fish-man Dagan, the world's oldest masks--ten eerie faces exhumed from the Judean desert, the winged bull-men of Babylon and multiform deities star-sprayed in eyes.

I have read within Lafcadio Hearn’s accounts of old Japan that the Far East is no exception, but excels in pervasiveness of strangeness with its ancient gods, goblins and ghosts.

Though many citations in Greek literature would support a numinous experience, if the Greek, Norse or Roman gods were, for the most part, merely familiar projections of man, then they seem exceptions in the history of religions; but even this seems unlikely.  Otto argued that whenever the Greek gods became all too human in their familiarity belief in them waned, creating a vacuum quickly filled by the exotic deities of the East and Egypt in which Numinous strangeness was more palpable.[5]

Perhaps the domestication of the Greek pantheon was not the height of religious achievement it is classically interpreted to be, but the very indication of Greece’s waning religious vitality.

Conclusion: The Numinous and us

It appears to me this Numinous dread I have been describing is hidden from (or by) American Evangelicalism.  Gene Veith at Pathos agrees, and I strongly suspect this is obvious to others.  We have comparably little art or music, worship or interpretation which expresses it. I can even remember one of my first theology professors marking down one of my papers once for stating that the fear of God is something one ought to continue feeling post-justification.

Do you think, like the Greek pantheon, our angels are too Victorian, our demons too vestigial, our seraphim and the seventy בני האלהים (i.e. sons of God) too obscured from their Israelite origins? Do you suppose we demythologized our God too much when we were domesticating Him?


[1] This story is recounted by Moreland in his co-authored book In Search of a Confident Faith: Overcoming Barriers to Trusting in God (USA: InterVarsity, 2008), 155-6.
[2] Ibid., 156.
[3] Taken from this interview with Moreland:
[4] Lewis, The Problem of Pain: How Human Suffering Raises Almost Intolerable Intellectual Problems (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 20.
[5] Quoted by Todd A. Gooch, The Numinous and Modernity: An Interpretation of Rudolf Otto’s Philosophy of Religion (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2000), 116.

1 comment:

  1. Great article! One thing I would note is that the region of Arcadia in Greek mythology is always home to the more "weird" gods, spirits, and demigods, and is considered to have some of the more ancient (and therefore, weird) rites. I think it's Pausanias who discusses this (I could be wrong), but he says that there, the gods are still worshiped in theriomorphic forms. What's telling, then, is that Pausanias finds this fascinating because the rest of Greece has lost "the weird" when it comes to religious observance (and of course, Pausanias is writing in the Roman period, allowing much of this fear of the numinous to wane throughout the Greco-Roman world).