My Mystical Experiences, and Some Thoughts on Religion

Kallistos

This is not something that I, as a pretty strong rationalist likes to discuss much, and it is rather personal, but some discussions on friends’ blogs make me wish to share some of them.

First off, let me say, that I have never had the sort of mystical experience where one sits and chats with the Gods, whether in dreams, visions, etc. Rather it is something more basic, a strong sense of the numinous and awe. The roots of Roman religion, for instance came in the sense of numina (one could say, “power”), sometimes the numina of a place, or an event, or a phenomenon …which eventually became personalized as the Gods. In Hellenic religion, the same thing happened with the growth of daimones into theoi, and even in Homer the Gods are referred to daimones. The earliest religious iconography comes from Sumer, in the form of votive offerings of human figurines, each with huge eyes … eye wide with awe.

All religion is rooted in awe. Even atheists often feel awe at the majesty and power of the universe, and formed Scientific Pantheism as a way to express their awe.

The New Friesian Theory of Religious Value

Religion contains a special domain of evaluation: the holy or the sacred. This category has two sorts of opposites and three forms of opposition. The opposites are the polluted or unholy and what may be called the common, mundane, worldly, or secular. The relationship between the holy, the polluted, and the common is similar to that between the beautiful, the ugly, and the plain in aesthetic value. There are no degrees of transition between the beautiful and the ugly. Something cannot really be both beautiful and ugly at the same time — except in different respects, as in a portrait of an ugly person, e.g. Socrates, that is nevertheless beautifully done or revealing of the beautiful soul, e.g. Socrates [note]. On the other hand, there are degrees of being beautiful or ugly, but both of them tend to the third pole, the plain.

Similarly, something cannot be both sacred and polluted at the same time, but there are degrees of sacredness and pollution, with each tending to the third pole, the common and secular.

Religious value is more complex than aesthetic value because three forms of opposition mark off each of the three poles of the sacred and its two opposites. Thus, there is a difference between 1) the sacred and the profane, 2) the clean and the unclean, and 3) the numinous and the mundane.

What is holy is therefore sacred, clean, and numinous. What is polluted or unholy is profane, unclean, and numinous. And what is common is profane, clean, and mundane. In many ancient religions, one of the most important oppositions is between the clean and the unclean. Many of the rules in the Old Testament concern pollution and cleansing; but cleansing, of course, does not make anything sacred, it merely makes it worthy of becoming, approaching, or associating with the sacred. In almost mathematical terms, nothing can exist on the track expressing degrees of sacredness without leaving the track showing degrees of pollution. The opposition between the sacred and the profane is often confusing because of the bivalence of the category of the profane. Webster’s dictionary has one definition of the profane that is mundane, “not concerned with religion or religious purposes: SECULAR,” one that definitely involves pollution, “serving to debase or defile what is holy,” and one that is mixed or the profane proper, “not holy because unconsecrated, impure, or defiled: UNSANCTIFIED.” “Unconsecrated” and “unsanctified” will mean simply the non-sacred, i.e. either unholy or mundane.

The third form of opposition, between the numinous and the mundane, is essentially between matters of religious concern and those that are not. Whether of the holy or of the polluted, religious valuation can be said to possess “numinosity,” an uncanniness, mystery, and power set apart from common, ordinary, worldly, secular, and mundane things. Holiness and pollution can both be dangerous, but the difference is that pollution is not sought for its own sake but is often acquired despite that (through spilling blood, having sex, menstruating, eating the wrong things, etc.). Ritual actions are required to remove pollution. Ritual actions are also required before dealing with holy things, in part to remove pollution but also to prepare for the dangers posed by holiness itself. There is nothing dangerous about the merely mundane. It is just a kind of emptiness in comparison.

The holy and the polluted pose a threat to each other. The concepts “defile,” “debase,” and “desecrate” reveal that even what is holy, as well as what is clean and mundane, can be damaged by the unholy. If the divine presence in a temple is of value to a community because of the protection that the god provides, the desecration of the temple may not harm the god, but it may certainly harm the community, as the means of pleasing and accessing the god is compromised. On the other hand, something may be so holy that it cannot be desecrated. Thus Alfred Kohlatch [This is the Torah, Jonathan David Publishers, 1988] quotes Rabbi Judah ben Bathyra as saying, “Words of the Torah are not susceptible to uncleanness.” Kohlatch adds, “No individual, not even one who is ritually impure, can defile a Torah by touching or handling it,” and “the Talmud states clearly that a Torah scroll cannot be made ritually unclean regardless of who handles it.” On the other hand, the holy is also definitely a threat to the polluted, as is well illustrated in the Biblical destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. …

Religion has its numinous character whether the principle objects of religion be immanent or transcendent, e.g. tangible fetishes, idols, places, persons, etc., even states of consciousness, or a supernatural God, heaven, etc. Religion possesses no special category of obligation (i.e. the rites and objects mean nothing to anyone outside the religion) but instead subsumes all the others, usually collapsing them moralistically into the ritual requirements of the religion. The “holy” is thus often equated with moral goodness or, when that sense isn’t so strong, with the beautiful or the sublime. Numinous value, however, is polynomicly independent of other forms of evaluation: religious practices may be repugnant, the gods (or God) may do bad things, or sacred objects may be ugly or repulsive. The cleansing of pollution and the preparations for sacred rituals may require moral rectitude or beautiful costumes, or they may require appalling mortifications, self-mutilations, blood sacrifices, etc. Ritual practices simply may not make any sense…

This polynomic independence occurs to us as the problem of evil. If God is omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent, then why does evil exist? He would know it exists; he would be able to get rid of it; and he would want to get rid of it. The problem of evil, however, is more general than a theological difficulty over a transcendent personal God. Even without God, as in Buddhism, there is still birth, disease, old age, and death. These were regarded by the Buddha as a problem. They still are, and we must still ask ourselves why the world often seems to be a “meaningless nightmare of suffering.” If religion offers consolation that the world makes ultimate sense and has a meaning or a purpose, despite all evidence to the contrary, it is holy things that present the tangible (or perhaps intangible) quality of that consolation.

Karl Kerenyi, in a book which only I have read, based on discussions of authors in various fora, entitled The Religion of the Greeks and Romans discusses this whole matter of numinous, profane, and mundane.

“The case is no different with the verb hazesthai which might seem of all words that most confined to the religious sphere. Its meaning is related to that of dedienai — ‘to be afraid’ — and aideisthai — ‘to be ashamed,’ and it is used as absolutely sysnonymous with this later word, and what is immediate decisive, moreover, it is not at all confided to the religious sphere … the word means a respectful, but not a ‘religious’ behavior … Hazesthai is what Zeus himself feels towards the sphere of Night. He would not want to do anything which might displease this great goddess. And hazesthai in two important passages refers to a deity to whom the epithet hagnos — ‘pure’ — belongs, that is Apollo … in the Odyssey a priest of Apollo is an object of hazesthaiaideisthai is used as a variant for hazesthai occurring somewhat earlier in the same passage …

“The verb hazesthaihagnos, epithet of the pure and purifying god Apollo … It can well be said that ‘it is used pre-eminently of the uncontaminated elements of nature. Yet the elements have in the world of men their deathly aspect as well. They form, like the gods, a boundary to human existence …

“The other adjective from this root, hagios refers more to the cult — ‘pure’ temples, uncontaminated cult statues, mysterious cult procedures …” (Kerenyi 1962 pp 106-107)

Further on, Kerenyi writes:

“A similar concept with the Greeks is hosion or hosia. In our texts the substantive hosia occurs earlier than the adjective hosios …

“Negative versions, like the quite general one that is not hosia to plan another’s deaths.

“… Plato treats of hosiotes (the state of hosia) in a sense equivalent to piety and religious purity in general. Yet he too starts from a case of murder … In general, in order to be hosios it was sufficient to live the Hellenic life as it was lived according to the nomizomena of the different States …

“The word hosios is used not only of the person who leads a ‘pure lift’ but of anything else to which purity can be applied, for instance a place where something goes on which is still permitted by the unwritten laws of life but would be forbidden by the laws of a stricter religious need … It is accordingly quite clear that the hosion occupies a middle position between the hieron and the wholly profane …

” … Hieros, the adjective for everything which belongs to the persons or presence of the gods, in Homer already has that radiant colour.” (ibid pp 108-111)

“It is clear that hagnos, hagios and hieron means Pure or Holy in various senses, and hosia is intermediate with Pure and Impure, i.e., it is Mundane or Clean and Profane. The Polluted, Unclean and Unholy would be something akin to hosios or miasma destructive of the Pure and Holy.

The “Need to Know”and the Meaning of Life

As Plato thought that the love of wisdom began with the love of the kind of value we can see, beauty, now we can say that beauty most concretely contains the promise of what is not merely of this life and this, phenomenal, world. This is ironic, since mere beauty can be regarded as one of the most superficial and trival things in life, with no necessary connection to virtue or morality. Indeed, beauty sometimes seem positively adverse to virtue and morality. When the Greeks, of course, said “good and beautiful,” they meant nobility as well as good looks, or even, as with Socrates, nobility without good looks. At best, beauty often seems inert and dormant. On the other hand, beauty has other permutations. The sublimely beautiful displays active and even fearful power. While one tends to think of wind and lightning in this respect, erotic beauty is just as much an expression of it, with a fearful power that disturbs and unsettles, even frightens, many, even as it drives a great deal of fashion, entertainment, and daily life, often threatening loss of control, both personal and public. The sublime and the erotic bespeak hidden power that is only latent in the merely beautiful.

While the numinosity of the sacred and holy is sometimes said to merely be a form of the sublime, there is considerably more to it than that. Where the sublime is powerful and even fearful, the numimous is positively uncanny and Other — supernatural rather than natural. No longer an inert and dormant beauty, numinosity seems to have broken free from objects altogether, feeling like an intrusion from reality beyond phenomena, whether of divinities, spirits, or any other kinds of paranormal powers. This can still have its erotic aspect, as we see in the divine sexuality of Babylonian temple prostitution, or the pornographic sculptures on Indian temples. This certainly gives us another case of the difficulty of pinning down a construction of transcendent objects, since a religion like Christianity seems to construe the hereafter as devoid of sexuality. It is India that ironically combines the most austere ascesticism with the most explicit eroticism. …

It appears, then, that what we need to know are the values of the phenomenal world. Since we are not now living or operating beyond that, our doctrines and speculations about it end up being paradoxical and self-contradictory. Yet the values of the phenomenal world are themselves not truly of it, and present us a clue that there is more to things than what we see. The ultimate clue, though also the most tantalizing, is the sense of the numinous, in which we seem to glimpse an unaccountable majestas in the transcendent, whether we think that this is the God of Abraham and Isaac, the Existence, Consciousness, and Bliss of Brahman, the wonderful, cosmic Buddha-dharma, or even the Form of the Good … It is only a matter of concern when we want more, when the undeniable randomness, senselessness, and unfairness of events moves us to yearn for some way in which it will all make sense — when the shortness and imperfection of life means that we want reunion with our loved ones, to enjoy moments that in fact were all too brief or that in our folly we did not appreciate enough at the time.

The numinous is the uncanny, powerful and awesome.

From Kerenyi again:

“The life of the hosios is a normal life, pleasing to the gods after the Hellenic style. The characteristic of it is not a negative behaviour, but rather a laissez-faire, a carefree piety. A way of life distinguished by a special regard for the divine is called by the Greeks eusebia. Its root is the Greek verb expressing the highest form of worship — sebein, sebesthai … The etymological root meaning is on the face of it fairly clear and certain. Sebein, sebesthai originally meant something like ‘step back from something with awe.’ The simplest translation of sebas is ‘awe.’ This is confirmed, too, by the meaning of another verb derived from the same stem, sobeo — ‘I drive away.’ This etymology does not require us to call in aid the mana-taboo kind of interpretation. The origin of the awe is no more expressed in sebas or sebesthaisobein ….

“To arrive at a real understanding, therefore, we must start not from the bare etymology of the words but from the whole phenomenon, an account of the experience, that is, in which its cause too is given … In the Odyssey there occurs in four different contexts the sentence: ‘Awe took hold of me at the sight.’ In no case can there be the slightest question of a mysterious secret force. The sebas is everywhere occasioned by something becoming manifest and present in an actual form, something which by its visible appearance is able to excite such awe. Thus sebas was excited in Telemachus by the radiance of the royal palace of Sparta; by the pleasing presence of Telemachus himself in the old friend of his father and in Helen, who discovers the form of Odysseus in the form of his son; and finally in Odysseus by the divine beauty of Nausicaa as it appears before his eyes. Gods and men alike feel sebas at the view of an appearnce such as the narcissus, the wonderful flower which the earth goddess cunningly caused to grow for the enticement of Persephone and to oblige the god of the underworld — ‘a Sebas can be excited not only the beauty of an appearance, but also by a picture of horror, when it is imagined as if before one’s eyes. Thus Achilles must picture to himself the dreadful state of Patrocles’ dead body … When it is the horrifying condition of a slain man or a dishonoured corpse which is being imagined, the atrocity itself need not actually occur. The awe of it is in the soul.” (Kerenyi pp. 111-113)

The sense of awe against the beautiful or powerful … and aginst the horrible and terrible can also be seen in the following passage.

The Kant-Friesian Theory of Religion and Religious Value

The notion of the sacred or the numinous as a category for understanding religion was substantially launched by Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) in his classic Idea of the Holy (Das Heilige) in 1917. Otto, indeed, coined the term “numinous,” which has now become part of common usage. Otto’s influence on thought about religion extends from C.G. Jung (1875-1961) to the “Chicago School” of history of religion founded by Mircea Eliade (1907-1986). On the other hand, Otto’s influence on the philosophy of religion has been less strong, perhaps because he was professionally more of a theologian (not rigorous enough for philosophers) and is too easily misunderstood and dismissed as describing some kind of mysticism. Even in the history of religion, Otto’s own analysis often does not persuade because of his clear preferences for Christianity and his devaluation of religions that do not measure up to Christian paradigms. …

Rudolf Otto. Otto had a clear sense that there was much more to religious feeling than what his philosopher friend allowed through a sense of the beautiful and the sublime. But he also thought that there was no reason not to add that extra feeling into the very fine metaphysical and epistemological framework, the theory of Ahndung, that Kant and Fries had actually provided. Thus, as a purely descriptive matter, Otto believed that we are related to the transcendent, not just through morality, and not just through the beautiful and the sublime, but through a sense of the holy and the sacred, categories of value that are unique and characteristic of religion.

Otto takes the Latin word numen, “the might of a deity, majesty, divinity,” and coins the term “numinous” to describe either religious feelings or the religious aspect attributed by those feelings to experiences and objects. He characterizes the feelings as involving 1) ultimacy, 2) mystery (mysterium), 3) awe (tremendum), 4) fascination (fascinans), and 5) satisfaction. Unassociated with any objects, the sense of the numinous is a feeling of “daemonic dread,” a sense of the uncanny, frightful, eerie, weird, or supernatural. These feelings make us feel vulnerable and overpowered, what Otto calls “creature feeling.” A lot of this now sounds like it would go with a horror movie and be associated more with the “forces of evil” than with the God of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, let alone with Jesus or the Buddha. However, the “forces of evil,” if taken seriously enough, as Satan, demons, etc., actually are supernatural and numinous; at one time most religions did not clearly distinguish between benevolent powers (Orisis) and malevolent ones (Seth) as such; and, finally, the God of the Old Testament and the Qur’ân really is a terrifying, overpowering, awesome, even dreadful being–not because He is at all evil, but just because He is genuinely supernatural and uncanny. The expression “fear of God” is not appropriate because wrongful harm is necessarily to be feared from God, but because the kind of reality God represents is superlatively awesome and frightening just because of what it is. Even in Buddhism, this sense turns up in the “Wrathful Deities” who are particular manifestations of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in the Vajrayana form of Buddhism found, for instance, in Tibet.

Taking Otto to be a mystic, which is typical in philosophy of religion, involves a serious misunderstanding or distortion of his theory. Mysticism might be defined as some kind of direct, immediate, or perceptual knowledge of transcendent objects, e.g. God, angels, etc. That might have been the experience of Abraham, Moses, Job, etc.; but it is not the experience of most ordinary religious believers, and it is not what numinosity is particularly about, although Otto’s language may suggest that at times, and Otto was interested in mysticism. Instead, Otto clearly distinguishes our concepts of the ultimate transcendent objects of religion from the ordinary rites and experiences common to most religious believers, which contain the numinous feelings about non-supernatural objects. The concepts, as far as he is concerned, come from reason, just as Kant or Fries would have thought. A mystic claims more than that, and Otto does not seem particularly inclined to credit this as real except as an enthusiastic overinterpretation of numinous feelings, or in extraordinary moments of religious revelation about which we may have to suspend judgment.

Indeed, it is the importance that Otto assigns to reason that creates the greatest difficulties for this theory. Otto accounts for the difference between historical religions in two ways: 1) religions reflect different degrees to which ethical questions have been assimilated into religious consciousness. He calls this the ethical “schematization” of religion, and he seems quite justified in regarding this as a historical innovation. Greek philosophers, the Jewish prophets, the Iranian prophet Zoroaster, and the Buddha all introduce strong moralizing tendencies into their religions. Now it is hard to imagine religion without a moral aspect, but that really had little to do with early Greek, Egyptian, Babylonian, or any other ancient religion or, for that matter, modern Shintoism. Otto also believed that, 2) religions reflect different degrees to which the Kant-Friesian religious Ideas have been assimilated into religion. Thus, not all religions have a single creator God, and Otto is willing to dismiss the sophistication of Buddhism, along with ancient polytheisms, as insufficiently developed compared with Christianity. Since he believes that Judaism and Islam are insufficiently developed morally compared with Christianity, Otto comes to the, for him, comfortable conclusion that Christianity is the supreme religion. …

Even the ethical “schematization” of religion creates a problem for Otto. The traditional Problem of Evil does not even arise when the gods are both good and evil. Nor does it arise very much for Islam, where the Qur’ân plainly says that God does what He pleases and that it is not our business to question Him. But where an omnipotent, omniscience God is ethicized to the extent that He is supposed to be perfectly moral, then the difficulty of the existence of evil in the world, and its evident toleration by God, becomes acute. For many modern Christians, Jews, and others, the moral reproach to God of the world, especially after the horrors of the 20th century, has become so acute that it destroys faith and denuminizes God and religion altogether. Buddhism is certainly in better shape when the presence of suffering is simply taken as a given, no attempt is even made to explain why the world is structured so as to allow such a thing, and the Buddha can be charged with no responsibility for a situation to which he only offers the solution, not the explanation. The result, of course, is there is no explanation whatsoever for the ultimate nature of reality. That may be the most modest and wisest position, but it is also one that tempts even Buddhists into occasional speculations. As Kant would certainly say, this is not a situation that our reason has an easy time leaving alone; and most sophisticated religions, apart from Buddhism, attempt some sort of explanation, however much those must become part of “dialectical illusion.” …

Finally, however, a couple of additions to Otto’s theory should be noted. The first is made by Mircea Eliade. Eliade claimed that one of the most important senses of a hierophany, an appearance of the holy, was as an ontophany, an appearance of Being. Sacred realities thus represent real existence while profane or mundane realities are in some ultimate sense merely non-existence. In terms of space, this means that the creation of the cosmos, which is accomplished by numinous beings (but recapitulated in the founding rituals of cities, buildings, tombs, etc.), sets it off as true existence from the chaos which preexisted it and which remains, perhaps, outside its boundaries. The chaos is thus, in a profound sense, non-existence … Eliade himself speaks of the terror of history, and he seems to be right that sacred time always involves a return to a paradigmatic mythic time in the past, the time of the creation, the Exodus, the Last Supper, etc. On the other hand, cyclical time contains its own terrors, as may be well perceived in Nietzsche’s theory of the Eternal Recurrence, or in the endless and futile cycles within cycles of Hindu Deep Time. Thus, it should be clear that sacred time in religion is rather like a synthesis of the eternal and sacred in illo tempore (“in that time” — Eliade loves his Latin) with the actual historical linearity of the present. The Antinomy allows us neither simple linearity nor simple cyclicity.

A second important addition to Otto’s theory may be seen in C.G. Jung with his theory of “synchronicity,” which he calls “an acausal connecting principle.” The word “synchronicity” can simply mean “together in time.” Jung proposes the theory of synchronicity to deal with the occurrence of “meaningful coincidences.” Events have always been meaningfully associated with each other, e.g. Halley’s Comet appearing at the time of William the Conqueror’s invasion of England, when it is now obvious that there can be no causal connection between them and when the slightest bit of scientific sophistication leads us to dismiss any such connections as superstition. Jung can take such connections seriously, not just because he is a psychologist who is interested in whatever appears “meaningful” to people, but also because he is actually a rather faithful Kantian who understands that causal connections themselves are problematic among things-in-themselves. The “meaning” of such connections, of course, is the same kind of meaning that Jung’s Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious have, for which Jung self-consciously uses Otto’s own term, numinosity. Synchronicity, therefore, coupled with Eliade’s ontophany, is about the manner in which connections between events can strike us as real and meaningful, especially religiously meaningful, when there is no sensible, causal, and phenomenal reason for believing that there is a connection at all. This holds off, not the terror of history, but the terror of the arbitrary, random, pointless, and meaningless.

The root of religion in awe can also be seen in a Hellenic context via the following passage from Kerenyi:

Sebas could be called pre-eminently a religious reaction because there was another strand to its meaning besides that of shrinking-back, of awe — the sense of worship. That is why ‘awe’ is only a makeshift translation; it does not render the whole meaning. Theon sebas for ‘worship of the gods’ is a natural mode of expression, while thauma or thrambos, words of wonder and astonishment which occur in Homer in phrases similar to those in which sebas occurs, have no such connotation, and if used in this way give quite a different effect.” (Kerenyi p. 113)

I’m sorry for the long excerpts. As a philosopher, I’ve long been interested in the philosophy of religion, and Otto and Eliade make the most sense, especially when the context of my experiences come into play. For my experiences all involve the numinous, synchronicity and hierophany. Now like Otto, I tend to believe in many cases that some mystical experiences are “overenthusiastic” interpretations of the numinous experience. This is also a point that carolyn_korone has made on her own journal. I would also emphasize the sheer awe. One area where I disagree with the formulations by Dr. Kelley and Otto et al, is the associaton of the numinous with the idea of transcendence (which implies a supernatural order) rather I believe in immanence.

ADJECTIVE: 1. Existing or remaining within; inherent: believed in a God immanent in humans. 2. Restricted entirely to the mind; subjective.
ETYMOLOGY: Late Latin immanns, immanent-, present participle of immanre, to remain in : Latin in-, in; see in-2 + Latin manre, to remain; see men-3 in Appendix I

The divine is existing within the universe, not transcendent to it, in my view. In a real sense the Universe itself is divine.

“The pagan gods, by contrast, live their lives and are not confined to a metaphysical role. They are part of this world, one of three races that populate the earth: animals, which are neither immortal nor gifted with reason; humans, who are mortal but reasonable; and gods, who are immortal and reasonable. ..

“Now consider the pagan world. Imagine a sort of staircase with three steps. One the lowest step stand the animals; on the next step, humans; and on the third step, the gods. In order to become a god, one did not need to rise very far. The gods stood just above humans, so that it often makes sense to translate the Latin and Greek words for ‘divine’ as ‘superhuman.’ Epicurus, according to one of his followers, ‘was a god, yes, a god,’ by which he meant a superhuman genius. This explains why the cosmos was characterized as ‘divine;’ things occurred that were superhuman, that no human could cause to occur. This also explains why it was possible to apotheosize kings and emperors. The practice was ideological hyperbole, perhaps, but not absurd. The emperor simply moved up a notch; he did not go soaring off towards infinity. Given this conception of divinity, the Stoics and Epicureans were able to ask disciples to aspire to become sages, that is, mortal equals of the gods, ‘supermen.’ (Veyne 1987 pp 208-9)

and also

Eulabeia in its original meaning presupposes no special experience. It expresses a universal attitude, which it was a duty to observe towards the divine, but no more so than towards any other reality of human life. Only the reality of the divine is presupposed by eulabeia, not some special danger which could only be associated with the divine, not even the danger that it exists and must therefore be treated with respect ‘just in case.’ At any rate none of the well-known passages in which the word eulabeia occurs would justify the interpretation that it is not hte divine towards which we are careful but that we are careful because we are afraid of the possibility that a god might exist. The reality of the divine is not doubted and this reality is not feared in any special way. Eulabeia as an attitude is determined by the universal rule of life that in every one of life’s relationships, and so in relation to the divine as well, one must guard against positive and negative exaggeration, against the too-much and the too-little.

“Not only the concept of thrasos, of foolhardiness, is opposed to eulabeia, but also the too great faith which results in deisidaimonia … and ‘cult excess … ‘

“The concept of eulabeia, which in its religious use belongs to a fairly late period, does not take us very far into the nature of Greek religious experience. It only takes us far enough to be able to determine that for the Greeks the divine was a self-evident fact of the given world, in respect of which one raised not the question of its existence … but the question of behavior worthy of a human being ... The simple Greek was just as much on his guard against the too-much and the too-little as the philosophically educated Greek. Anyone who as not so was an exceptional phenomenon. In face of the self-evidence of the divine in the Greek world the concept of faith is meaningless … faith or pistis … Within the meaning of Greek religion it could only refer to the belief in the reality of the world. And this is the case with the Pythagorean philosopher Philolaos.” (Kerenyi pp. 97-8)

The universe exists axiomatically, and simply. Existence exists as Ayn Rand would say. Or as Parminedes would say, Being (ousia) is. Not being is not. The divine is just a fact of the world, not something apart from it.

One can also stand in awe of the power and size of the universe and the phenomena within it, due to the sheer scale and super human power of it. To some degree, the Gods could be seen as personifications of these superhuman forces … or the sheer power of human ability and capabilities.

It is also the case that the Gods cause or express the orderliness of the universe.

The Gods express and enforce (or one could say are) Themis and Nomos (Order and Law). Themis is linked to aidos or shame. Shame is the recongition of order, whether social, or natural. Law is the expression of law and power (kratia and bios) of Zeus and his knowing Mind (nous). Everything happens due to the mind and order of Zeus or the order of Themis.

Nous, is something shared by men. It allows us to understand the nomos and themis of the universe. Via theoria (thea, ‘spectacle’ and horan ‘to see.’) a form of direct experience of the Gods and of the nomos, one gains an experience of the divine.

In a real sense, as Sir Isaac Newton believed, to know the Laws of Nature was to know the Mind of God. It is also natural to stand in awe of the sheer order and size of the universe.

“The reason for their hope lies embedded in the form of Greek religious experience, and it had two points of highest intensity, or ‘peaks.’ The first of these was seeing the gods face to face. When such a vision occurred, the Greek word theos would have to be uttered in its exact predicative sense, for which the Latin ecce deus would be an equivalent. The second peak experience was to see like the gods. Anyone having such a vision could with the same right exclaim ‘theos!, so that we here have what are really two different ways of expressing the same experience. These moments of intensity were not merely postulated for men … but were reached as a matter of historical fact, on the one hand by the religious Greek, on the other by the Greek philosopher.” (Kerenyi p. 151)

One can experience the divine by either mystical contemplation or experience, or philsophical (and science was ‘natural philosophy’) observance of the underlying order and reallity … to see like a God. This is one reason I engage in intellectual contemplation of the universe, how it works, and on the nature of the Gods. It is a form of prayer and devotion.

I do not believe in the literal truth of the old myths. I believe they have several layers, including allegorical meanings, the historical tales, and ethical parables and examples. I do believe in the Gods, but I am not certain of their nature. I experience variations in the sensation of awe and power when I experience different deities, so I believe they are individual phenomena, but whether they are emanations, emergent phenomena of timeless powers of the universe, or physical supermen of some kind … is beyond me at this point.

However, I do not believe, though they are vastly more powerful than humans, that the Gods are omniscient, omnipotent, or omnibenevolent. All the logical issues with these omni-characteristics, which atheists use to make hay of the Judeo-Christian deity just fall short, since these qualities are not true of the Gods, not even Zeus. Zeus sets the order of the universe up, but does not necessarily create miracles or suspensions of natural law (indeed if he creates and sustains, or is natural law such things would be a violation of His nature, and he cannot disrupt the order of Themis). Indeed, there are known limits to Zeus’ power, in the myths, and legends and even philosophy. Unlike the apparently irrational element of the JCI God, due to his externality or transcendence, does not fit the immanent Gods, who are eminently reasonable, and do what is reasonable, and expect to be believed for reasonable reasons. They don’t expect us to believe in them on faith. Nor do they issue apodeitic Commandments, they issue rules of thumb, and/or expect us to puzzle things out for ourselves, using the divine nous in us, with our theoria which we also share with them.

Now on to my mystical experiences, my direct experience of the divine numina, hierophany and synchronicity.

My first experience was clearly one of sheer numina or power and uncanniness.

When I was 8, my family travelled to Greece, and visited Athens. I had already studied about the myths (I wanted to go to Troy and Mycenae but my folks didn’t let us go), and I looked forward to the visit. We went to the Acropolis. There I saw the Parthenon. I stood in literal awe of the beauty of the building even in its ruins, the craftsmanship, the engineering (and the optical illusions created by the sacred geometry integrated into the design) … and while in awe, I felt another, uncanny awe, a sense of sheer indescribable power emananting from within the building. Suddenly time seemed to cease to exist, as the power filled me, completely. I lost myself in the power, I became one with the power within. It was a form of communion that I cannot explain, nor can I deny. Eventually I came down from this “high” of sorts, and stood looking at the building. I turned to my mother to tell her what happened, and to comment on the building … and she was gone. My whole family, and the entire tour group was no longer there. I panicked and ran around, to each building trying to find them. Eventually I realized I was lost, and I sought out the police as I was taught to do. As I desperately tried to explain my situation to the non-English speaking officers, my mom and the tour guide came up and saw me. They too were panicked.

You see, they had gone around the tour, and did not ever notice that I was missing until back at the bus, and they did the head count. My mom could not explain it. She could swear that I had been there with them (and she is very overprotective and kept an eye on myself and my sister worthy of the 100 eyed Argus). Just as I had no idea they had gone and left me. It was uncanny, and strange.

A little while later, we went to the archaeological museum, and we saw the Sounion statue, the giant bronze statue of a muscled, bearded mature man, with his left arm outstretched and his right arm raised to throw something. There is debate whether it is Poseidon throwing his trident, or Zeus throwing his thunderbolt. Again I felt a timeless sense of awe, both at the beauty of the statue and its powerful image, and of something unusual, or numinous emanating from within the statue. This didn’t last long, and I was not left behind, but it was again uncanny … and unforgetable.

Years later, I felt the same sort of numinous theophany ….

In 2003, aryamani and I went to Nashville to visit the Parthenon there. She had gone years before as a girl scout and had taken some photos. I wanted desperately to see the building, a reconstruction of the Parthenon in its full complete and painted glory. I also wanted to see the recently painted and guilded cult statue of Athena Parthenos inside.

Well, I get there, and after winding my way through the museum (and admiring the ingenious engineering machines to move and lift the blocks, the metal staples holding the unmortared blocks, etc), I walked up the steps to the Naos or sanctuary. The statue and the interior were blocked by the interior columns, so I went around them … and came face to face with the 40+ foot tall statue, gilded, painted in a lifelike skintone, and even the eyes painted blue (the ancients painted all their statues, and painted or inserted eyes into the statue). I felt that power again. It struck me like a blow. I staggered back several paces, until I backed into the wall, unable to take my eyes off the statue. The eyes pierced right into the core of my being, touching my soul if you will. I could see the personhood of Athena in those eyes, they seemed to follow me yet did not follow me. The sheer force of the numina still flowed into me like an electric current … and I was overwhelmed with emotion. I slid down the wall crying like a baby in the experience, and sat there for several minutes. aryamani stood by concerned. Several tourists looked at me and wondered what the hell was happening … except for a pair of Hindus, who sort of looked at me, then the statue, and then back to me, and nodded knowingly.

The Hindus have a concept called darshana which literally means “seeing.” When one experiences this with an image, the deity is thought to see you, and you see the deity. It is a profound experience, and vital to Hindu religion and mysticism. That is exactly what I experienced in Nashville, the final confirmation for me, of the existence of the Gods, and Athena in particular. (I had always admired Her for her wisdom, knowledge, cunning, and skill, and looked up to Her, even when I thought of Her only as a metaphor).

Another example of hierophany or theophany came in New York. I had been studying the stories of hospitality, and how this hosia is important. Zeus Xenios the protector of suppliants, guests and hosts, guarantor of this important element of the social order, supposedly comes down to earth to test humans’ xenia.

A few days later, I went to deposit some money in a bank, on my way home. I left the bank, and went down the stairs to the subway. On the way, I turned a corner, and there stood a beggar, a homeless black man. He was being ignored by all the other commuters, when he walked up to me, singling me out from the other people, and he addressed me. “Sir, do you have any change?” I turned to look at him straight in the face … and suddenly I felt the numina again, that strange tingling down my spine. The man’s features seemed to flow a bit, and his piercing eyes (the opis or sight of the Gods), his strong features, grey hair and beard, his strong shoulders and build, suddenly took on a strong resemblance to the statues of Zeus I had seen, especially the reconstructions and copies of the Zeus of Olympia. Again time seemed to stop momentarily, and I felt that darshana like experience. I somehow knew this was Zeus Xenios, and I gave the man the change in my pocket, aside from my train fare. The moment passed, and the man was once again a shambling, weak old man. Again something uncanny, and powerful, and the sense of the God being present before me.

I also felt the numina strongly in some thunderstorms, as I walked home from the train. Normally I am almost like a cat. I hate being wet. I despise being wet, especially when clothed (when I swim or bathe, it doesn’t bother me). However, I would feel the presence of Zeus the Descender, Zeus the Rainer…and I would walk without any discomfort, and actually revelled in the rain. I ran through it, I danced in it, I splashed in the puddles (things that are totally out of character … I avoid puddles, I seek shelter, etc.).

I’ve even experienced synchronicity in these storms. I’d feel the uncontrollable urge to shout “Io Zeus! Hail Zeus!” at some point in the storm, and would be immediately answered by a flash of lighting and thunder … simultaneously, as if the bolt hit right by me … but it didn’t. This felt totally meaningful, whether I supplied the meaning or not.

Another example of meaningful synchronicity…after 9/11, I was laid off from Bear Stearns just before my scheduled vacation as part of a general lay-off due to the downturn after the attacks. While eating dinner at McDonalds on Greenpoint Ave, I was talking to aryamani about how I was worried, what would we do. Without a job, New York was too expensive to live in. Everyone was laying workers off, no one was hiring. She said that perhaps we might find something in Virginia when we went down. We had already rented the car, had the time share reservations, everything. As we smoked outside, and talked some more, suddenly something hit my shoe. I looked down, and saw an acorn. I looked around, and every single tree on the avenue were red oaks. I had lived there for two years, walked by them every day, and never noticed they were oaks. Nor had I ever spotted a single acorn in the area before. I had a strong sense of synchronicity, that this was some sort of omen, that Zeus, whose tree is the oak, was telling me that He would provide. A few days later, I went to the courthouse in Queens to file some paperwork, and the whole courthouse was surrounded by oak after oak, and as I walked through it, acorns fell on me and around me.

It felt as if there was an answer to my concerns, in meaningful coincidences. Just before I left, an old friend told me that the company he helped clear for, was hiring margin clerks, the job I had at Bear, and they were in Richmond. While I was in Williamsburg on vacation a few days later, I received a phone call from the company, Wachovia, and they asked me to come in for an interview. So we drove out to Richmond, and we did the interview. A few days later, they told me I was hired, and I had a month to move out of my NYC apartment, find an apartment in Richmond, and get ready to start my position. This was all in a matter of days after the acorn incidents.

So no, chit chats with the Gods. No magickal responses to direct prayers or petitions. Only a sheer awareness of something uncanny, other, and powerful. But nothing to expect some otherworldiness, some transcendent element. But these experiences also provide me with direct and powerful, if subjective proof, for me at least, that the Gods exist. I don’t expect anyone to believe because of these experiences. I don’t seek converts, and I don’t claim to be a prophet or anything special. But I know, know deep in my bones that there is something there.

A full, and complete skeptic could explain this somehow, or try, but no explanation makes sense to me. I don’t need a philosophical proof of the existence of the Gods, though, and there can be no disproof, any more than there would be proof or disproof of aryamani ‘s existence for someone who never met her … though I know from direct, personal experience that she exists.

Nor do I believe that the Gods want to prove themselves, or necessarily make themselves known, except perhaps via the order and nature of the universe. In a sense then, the claim from Atheists that God should simply reveal Himself to all men to remove any doubt … falls flat. The Gods are not revelatory beings as the God of the Bible is supposed to be, revealing Himself, little by little to first the Jews, and then the Christians. They reveal themselves in the laws of nature, in gravity, in the stars, and so forth. They are not deities of a specific revelation, and indeed there is nothing in ancient religion that allows or even implies some sort of divine “revelation.” The Gods just are, and men notice and acknowledge their power, perhaps without even knowing them. Nor are the Gods presenting Themselves as the Gods for and of Everyone. They may, as the syncretist holds, be the same Gods worshipped elsewhere, under different names, and with different rites, as they saw fit to establish or inspire or whatever, in that place.

“From this, it follows that the gods of all people are true gods. Other nations might worship gods unknown to the Greeks and Romans, or they might worship the same gods under different names. Jupiter was Jupiter the world over just as a lion is a lion, but he happened to be called Zeus in Greek, Taranis in Gallic, and Yao in Hebrew. The names of the gods could be translated from one language to another, just like the names of planets and other material thinsg.” (Veyne 1987 pp. 208-9)

Endnotes

Veyne, Paul, The Roman Empire, The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass and London, 1987
Kerenyi, C, The Religion of the Greeks and Romans, E.P. Dutton & Company, New York, 1962
Kelley, Dr. David, The Proceedings of the Friesian School

 

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