1. We treat scripture as a conversation instead of ideology
2. We realize tradition as creative instead of nostalgic
3. We hold reason as balance instead of inevitability
4. We pursue evangelism using desire instead of shame
5. We realize transcendence through affection instead of fear
5. We realize transcendence through affection instead of fear
The eminent Lutheran scholar Rudolf Otto characterized religious awe in Das Heilige (trans. The Idea of the Holy,1917) as mysterium fascinans et tremendum, the unfathomable experience that both draws us and shakes us. Otto defined divine transcendence not as remoteness, but as irreducible “otherness,” however close the divine comes. Drawing examples from classic Mediterranean religions, he proposed a universal “idea of the Holy” which modern religion might properly realize in worship. Otto meant to counter social-science critiques of religion such as Freud and Durkheim voiced, as well as the rationalist faith in progress fashionable since the eighteenth century. Sure enough, the first of two world wars in Otto’s own time, and nuclear confrontation afterward, did cloud that faith. And over a century since he wrote, Otto’s description of “Holy” has won broad acceptance from social anthropologists and textual critics alike.
If anthropologists have not agreed upon a standard religious development pattern, nevertheless they observe like steps taken in various traditions. The bible evidences holiness evolving gradually in Hebrew cult, and the New Testament catches a crucial stage. The Hebrew word qadosh at first lacked moral content: it meant simply “set apart from normal use.” A prostitute was called qedesshah (“holy woman”) since shrine prostitutes ensured the generation of flocks and crops. Yet by the time our bible texts were compiled, cultic awe of female fecundity had progressed from “holy” to “too-holy-to-touch” to “contaminating,” with proscriptions against women entering sacred spaces.
Likewise the primitive reverence for blood as a life force (Greek “ambrosia” means blood smeared on fetishes for gods to eat) shifted until worshippers drained the blood from sacrificial victims as a religious contaminant. Such progressive fear is so common worldwide that we call it by its Polynesian name tapu. By New Testament times these two taboos had joined in a popular religious fear of rabbis’ contact with menstruating women even outside temple precincts. Jesus was by no means the only Jewish teacher to challenge that fear.
The growth of taboos reflects a widespread linkage of fear with religious awe, ranging far beyond biblical examples. Awe arises alike in the hearts of Victorian poets admiring a starry night sky, and in Mayan priests donning their sacrificed victims’ skins. But as the notion of “holiness” evolved among major religions, ethical progress replaced ancient dread. Hebrew scripture shows this progress in both prophetic and priestly texts; Babylonian rabbis reinforced it; and New Testament writers insistently place moral holiness above cultic regulations. Among first century reformers, Jesus’ prophetic sign of dining with untouchable groups actually fit well within emerging Judaism, even while it alarmed his opponents—indeed, Matthew’s gospel portrays Jesus as a conservative teacher.
During the same era, Akiva, John Baptist, Paul, and John’s gospel-writers exalted a messianic world ethic, transforming relations with non-Israelites. Another century would pass before those heroes were claimed as Jewish or Christian, long after all had been martyred for their faith. But each preached a moral holiness replacing fearful taboos, and their spirit endures in both religions today.
Meanwhile awe and transcendence endure too. These are planted so deeply in our emotional response to the world that humankind is unimaginable without them. Rather, the ethical process we have witnessed for two millennia has attenuated fear: as Thomas Aquinas wrote seven centuries ago, religion begins in awe and ends in affection. Medieval worship showed affection in ways moderns have misunderstood. For example, Byzantine churches feature a ceiling icon of Christ unsmilingly holding a book: this bears the Greek title Pantokrator from a verb primarily meaning “to rule,” and so typically translated “Almighty” (as in the Russian Vs’ederzhytel’).
Nineteenth century historians imputed a Constantinian imperial attitude to that icon, replacing the friendly equalitarian Jesus of Nazareth. They pictured worshippers intimidated by awe of Christ Almighty and his attending saints pictured around the church, much as petitioners might tremble before a royal court. But Thomas Matthews shows the Pantokrator’s features derive from classical images of Father Zeus, not from imperial pomp. And reading the Byzantines’ own writings, he finds the icon title has been mistranslated: here the verb kratein carries its second meaning “to hold.” Upon entering church and seeing that icon overhead, Byzantine worshippers record trustful feelings, like Americans singing the folk hymn “He’s got the whole world in his hands.” And they greet warmly the many icons which surround them like longtime companions and heroes.
Today western reformers have introduced contemporary spoken language for prayer. Contemporary public rhetoric is useful for many reasons, but it often lacks the affectionate language that enriches older liturgies. At the same time, moreover, worshippers have rediscovered the power of singing and even dancing together: these actions affectively surpass the new texts. And among so many recent reforms, restoring the early Christian Kiss of Peace has proved most revolutionary. Whether people exchange handshakes, hugs, or threefold kisses in eastern Christian style, this ritual transforms everyone’s experience of the sacrament following, and has spread affection through conservative and liberal churches alike. Greeting one another warmly every Sunday, work-a-day layfolk taste personal transcendence not unlike famous poems of mystical union with God by Teresa of Ávila or George Herbert. And scholars reading reports from prosaic folk as well as poets now commonly identify “mystical experience” as a feeling of union with the whole world.
Meanwhile engagement with non-western religions has expanded over the past half century. Social science and psychology inquire newly into experiences of awe and transcendence there, and several Asian faiths extol progress toward universal affection, much as Aquinas describes it. Many Buddhist authors summarize the Buddha nature as boundless love. And the Hindu classic Bhagavad Gita (A Song of God) retells a shaking encounter with the transcendent that vividly exemplifies Otto’s definition. Prince Arjuna has taken on young Krishna as his charioteer. He wonders at Krishna’s uncanny advice in battle, unaware that this is an avatar of the Trinitarian god Vishnu. Then turning to speak to the young man, Arjuna instead sees Vishnu himself in terrible splendor, with the mauled corpses of foes dangling from his mouth, and cries out in fear. Yet Arjuna’s charioteer guides him to victory just as before.
John Adams’ opera Doctor Atomic sets this text to his richest choral writing and reprises it twice, likening that vision to the fearsome majesty of the atomic bomb, and his lyrics recall bomb project leader Oppenheimer citing the Bhagavad Gita, “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” But Hindu commentators explain rather: what Arjuna sees is a vision of a God of Love! Many more Hindu deities likewise present frightful aspects which inspire worshippers’ intense affection rather than terror, and Hindu temple dancers dance to love poetry as sensuous as our bible’s Song of Songs. Hear how transcendence and affection meet as the 15th century poet Mirabai describes her marriage to Krishna:
I give my heart without fear to the Beloved:
As the polish goes into the gold, I have gone into him.
Through many lives, I heard only the outer music.
Now the teacher has whispered into my ears,
And familiar ties have gone the way of weak thread.
Mira[bai] has met the Energy that Lifts Mountains—
That good luck now is her home.
[Trans. Robert Bly & Jane Hirshfield, Mirabai: Ecstatic Poems, Boston 2004]
This is part 5 of 5 in Rick Fabian's Core Values Series describing the theology behind All Saints Company, the founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church.