On the NUMINOUS
Sveiki atvykę - mūsų skaitytojams Lietuvoje (Thanks to S)
Sadly, this feeling escapes me all too often, and surrounded as I am by the trappings of consumerist superficiality, I frequently miss this temporal euphoria or sometimes, transient fear.2
In an engaging film of an un-moderated 2-hour discussion, Richard Dawkins and others debate, amongst other things, the possibility of differentiating the numinous from the supernatural and reclaiming it from its religious roots. This thing we feel, the sublime moment that exposes us to our sense of being, is typically seen as a gift from God. The twentieth century theologian Rudolf Otto divided the numinous into two parts: mysterium tremendum, which is the tendency to invoke fear and trembling; and mysterium fascinans, the tendency to attract, fascinate and compel.
Contemporary definitions define the numinous in relationship to a supernatural presence; the sublime; spiritual; sacred and transcendent. But if we are to understand the numinous in relation to the individual, isn’t it useful to separate the supernatural from the numinous? Is religion the only way of making sense of these rare and heightened moments?
Might it be that this experience is simply part of our neurology? –and if it is a heady mix of the social and the chemical, does removal of the supernatural diminish the meaning? I’m sure those of you who have dabbled in the illicit intoxicating world of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide may have an understanding of the chemically induced version of the numinous, as will those of you who have for other reasons, a fluctuation in your chemical balance. I think here, of our sometime giants of the arts world, who have been affected by precarious health and yet, have illuminated much of our thinking.
I’ve had the opportunity to share this notion of the numinous on my travels over the last few months, and responses to it have been varied, from dead-eyed incomprehension to complete recognition. For me, it’s useful for us to develop the ways in which we understand the reach of the arts and its occasional profound impact. Too often, the arts can be bland and prescriptive, offering mild distractions from our day-to-day reality, but once in a while, I’ll hear a story of an event, or moment that has had an overwhelming effect on an individual or group.
Last week, in what could have been a dull steering group meeting, a consultant in pediatric intensive care recounted the way in which the arts had rescued a young man from the darkest of suicidal thoughts, brought on by serious, life limiting disease. Through a moment of deep creative engagement, this young man had, had a lifeline thrown to him that had nothing to do with his illness; that transcended his frustration and fear, and illuminated the possibilities of life beyond the confines of sickness.
Did this young man have a numinous experience? – I have no doubt at all that he did. Do we have the evidence of this experience and its impact? – Of course not: that is the nature of our work. He wasn’t wired up to an EEG, ECG or a CT Scanner. Neither bloods, nor saliva were taken to scrutinize for raised levels of serotonin. And although a part of me would be thrilled to see those affirming areas of the brain sparkle and shine at moments of pure bliss, it would be an unnecessary health burden and entirely counter-intuitive.
Our semantics and the way we discuss the impact of the arts on health and wider society, means we should constantly explore what it is we believe and understand about our practice and its reach. By distinguishing the numinous from the supernatural, and articulating impact without making claims for miracles, we enrich our arts/health agenda.
1. Cheesy I know, but it is real and you do get the point?
2. Being driven by a friend across a desert the size of the UK in Central Australia, I woke from a slumber to whiteness as far as the eye could see. This vast, impossibly bright sand-scape was only punctuated by startling pillars of sand which rose high into the distant sky. I later learnt that these were part of a sand-storm heading in our direction. The experience was terrifying and exhilarating and the humbling product of the natural elements.