The Numinous: Experiencing the Sacred in the Secular


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How do we experience the Sacred in this world? Is the spiritual always just out of reach? Here are perspectives from sociology, philosophy, and anthropology that reveal our changing views on the Numinous.

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  • We live in a paradoxical tension between God and the world, religion and mundane life. We are called to be pilgrims but we are also citizens and employees; this world is not our home but we put down roots, get degrees, and live lives of quiet desperation. We compartmentalize the sacred from the secular. That relationship is what I want to explore today.
  • Emile Durkheim saw religion as the foundation of social life. Human life is life together.
  • The sacred realm both attracts and repels us. Rituals and symbols allow us to approach the sacred realm from the profane realm. Sacred taboos prohibit immoral behavior in the sacred realm. Ritual purification is necessary. A boundary crossed, shown by rituals and symbols, to the holy ground.
  • The Sacred is powerful, sometimes fatal; the taboos ensure that participants don’t anger the deity. Keep the sacred within the prescribed box through right use of the rituals.
  • Rudolf Otto saw this power as a primordial force and its power as an essential influence on humans,foundational for the development of religions through all time.
  • He coined a term ‘numinous’ from ‘numen’ as ‘ominous’ derives from ‘omen.’ The numinous is the holy, the sacred, the awe-ful power of the daemonic.
  • Mysterious, tremendous, and fascinating - The ‘Wholly Other,’ the alien, uncanny, the alien power that draws us, terrifies us with its energy and urgency. But it also uplifts us beyond ourselves as we realize our utter fragility in its presence.
  • Priests, and sometimes kings, mediated for their people before this sacred presence. A division, a veil, that was permeable. Moses meets with Yahweh on Sinai as the liaison between the people and their God. Elijah on Mt. Carmel. High priests in temple at Jerusalem. Jesus changes that at his death. Now we can come before God boldly through Christ.
  • Rationalism of the Enlightenment further reduced the role of God in the world. The Sacred and the Secular travel on parallel, but not converging tracks. Scientific materialism finds knowledge through reason and through empirical experience. As God seems to play less of a role the Romantic and the Victorian poets, Wordsworth, Hardy and Arnold and others turn to Nature for the wonder and awe that is missing in rationalism.
  • Throughout the 19th century artists depicted the grandeur, power, and immensity of Nature. Alfred Bierstadt, Charles Friedrich, Loutherborg and others, dazzled and awed audiences with their perspective of Nature as the mysterious and numinous presence.
  • But we also can still detect traces of the Numinous in cathedrals with their vaulted ceilings, stained glass, paintings, everything designed to both remind us of our smallness and lift us up beyond ourselves.
  • We can still find the Numinous in the raw, brute power and beauty of Nature.
  • Alain de Botton, in The Art of Travel, says a landscape arouses the sublime when it suggests a power greater than humans. The universe is mightier than we are, we are frail and temporary, we must accept the limitations on our will. Nature conveys this truth to us more gently and grandly than does the social world.
  • A contemporary perspective on religion and the sacred is offered by Father Andrew Greeley, Catholic priest and sociologist.
  • In this view the motivation is intrinsic and the source is from within. The Sacred is what we ennoble and raise up from our values.
  • All of us are capable of having these non-rational religious experiences. They sometimes appear without religious trappings. Greeley suggests that capacity does not guarantee opportunity: those who want them and are open to them have the experiences. Others may have them but discount them or not recognize them.
  • Another perspective open to all of us is in the movement from innocence to experience. We begin by supposing an indefinite but pleasant future.
  • We take a fall into Experience, perhaps through a death, a divorce, loss of a job, illness, a cataclysmic event. The world is seen for its cruelty and its indifference to our loss. What we decide in the depths of experience makes the difference. God can lift us up in grace and power.
  • We can experience the Numinous in the depths of our despair and loss, the sense of events beyond our control. After the experience we can regain a tempered innocence that can help others. A bowl is just a bowl again . . .
  • To live a spiritually integrated life seems ideal. All things secular may be conduits of the Sacred and the Numinous. Seventh-day Adventists have a unique perspective on this: the Sabbath celebrates the created earth (mundis) and our movements of justice and liberation; the Eschaton reveals the uncanny power of God beyond anything we can do to ultimately change the world.
  • My spiritual prompts . . .
    Question: how do we sense the presence of God in our time?
  • Read more about this and other topics at my blog:
  • The Numinous: Experiencing the Sacred in the Secular

    1. 1. Sacred Secular
    2. 2. Emile Durkheim 1858 - 1917
    3. 3. Sacred Realm Rituals Symbols Profane
    4. 4. ed cr a S Secular
    5. 5. Rudolf Otto 1869 - 1937
    6. 6. Numinous (The Holy)
    7. 7. mysterium tremendum et fascinans
    8. 8. Sacre d Secular
    9. 9. Sacred Secular
    10. 10. Andrew Greeley 1928 -
    11. 11. What we value we raise to the level of the sacred
    12. 12. Non-rational religious experiences vary: intensity frequency context content Those who value them, have them
    13. 13. Innocence
    14. 14. Innocence Experience
    15. 15. Innocent Experience Innocence Experience
    16. 16. Sacred Secular
    17. 17. Learn in humility Live in grace Worship in gratitude Look for the good Fear no evil
    18. 18. Sources Creative Commons Distribution License for selected images. De Botton, Alain (2002). The Art of Travel. New York: Vintage Books. Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Trans. Carol Cosman. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Otto, Rudolf (1923). The Idea of the Holy. Trans. John W. Harvey. Mansfield Center, CT: Martino Publishing, 2010. Roberts, Keith (2000). Religion in Sociological Perspective.  Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.
    19. 19. Entelechy Productions (2014)
    20. 20.