Origins of the sacred

Humanity and religion seem coeval. From the point of view of the religious mind, this hardly requires explanation. But from a modern scientific or secular view, religion appears to be an embarrassing remnant. There must be a reason why religion has played such a central and persistent role in human affairs. If not a matter of genes or evolutionary strategy, it must have a psychological cause deeply rooted in our very nature. Is there a core experience that sheds light on the phenomenon of religion?

The uncanny is one response to unexpected and uncontrolled experience. It is not solely the unpredictable external world that confounds the mind, which can produce from within its own depths terrifying, weird, or at least unsettling experiences outside the conscious ego’s comfort zone. One can suffer the troubling realization that the range of possible experience is hardly guaranteed to remain within the bounds of the familiar, and that the conscious mind’s strategies are insufficient to keep it there. The ego’s grasp of this vulnerability, to internal as well as external disturbance, may be the ground from which arises the experience of the numinous, and hence the origin of the notion of the sacred or holy. Essentially it is the realization that there will always be something beyond comprehension, which perhaps underlies the familiar like the hidden bulk of an iceberg.

To actually experience the numinous or “wholly other” seems paradoxical to the modern mind, given that all experience is considered a mediated product of the biological nervous system. For, the noumenon is that which, by Kant’s definition, cannot be experienced at all. Its utter inaccessibility has never been adequately rationalized, perhaps because our fundamental epistemic situation precludes knowing the world-in-itself in the way that we know our sensory experience. Kant acknowledged this situation by clearly distinguishing phenomenal experience from the inherent reality of things-in-themselves—a realm off-limits to our cognition by definition. He gave a name to that transcendent realm, choosing to catalogue it as a theoretical construct rather than to worship it. Yet, reason is a late comer, just as the cortex is an evolutionary addition to older parts of the brain. We feel things before we understand them. Rudolf Otto called this felt inaccessibility of the innate reality of things its ‘absolute unapproachability’. He deemed it the foundation of all religious experience. Given that we are crucially dependent on the natural environment, and are also psychologically at the mercy of our own imaginings, I call it holy terror.

In addition to being a property of things themselves, realness is a quality with which the mind imbues certain experiences. Numinosity may be considered in the same light. The perceived realness of things refers to their existence outside of our minds; but it is also how we experience our natural dependency on them. Real things command a certain stance of respect, for the benefit or the harm they can bring. Perhaps perceived sacredness or holiness instills a similar attitude in regard to the unknown. In both cases, the experienced quality amounts to judgment by the organism. Those things are cognitively judged real that can affect the organism for better or worse, and which it might affect in turn. Things judged sacred might play a similar role, not in regard not to the body but to the self as a presumed spiritual entity.

The quality of sacredness is not merely the judgment that something is to be revered; nor is holiness merely the judgment that something or someone is unconditionally good. These are socially-based assessments secondary to a more fundamental aspect of the numinous as something judged to be uncanny, weird, otherworldly, confounding, entirely outside ordinary human experience. The uncanny is at once real and unreal. The sacred commands awe in the way that the real compels a certain involuntary respect. Yet, numinous experiences do more than elicit awe. They also suggest a realm entirely beyond what one otherwise considers real. Paradoxically, this implies that we do not normally know reality as it really is.

Indeed, as Kant showed, we cannot know the world as it is “in itself,” apart from the limited mediating processes of our own consciousness. All experience is thus potentially uncanny; the very fact that we consciously experience anything at all is an utter mystery! We can never know with certainty what to make of experience or our own presence as experiencers. It is only through the mind’s chronically inadequate efforts to make sense that anything can ever appear ordinary or profane. Mystery does not just present a puzzle that we might hope to resolve with further experience and thought. Sometimes it is a tangible revelation of utter incomprehensibility, which throws us back to a place of abject dependency.

We are self-conscious beings endowed with imagination and the tendency to imbue our imaginings with realness. We have developed the concept of personhood, as a state distinct from the mere existence of objects or impersonal forces. We seem compelled in general to imagine an objective reality underlying experience. A numinous experience is thus reified as a spiritual force or reality, which may be personified as a “god.” When the relationship of dependence—on a reality beyond one’s ken and control—is thus personified, it aligns with the young child’s experience of early dependence on parents, who must seem all powerful and (ideally) benevolent. Hence, the early human experience of nature as the Great Mother—and later, as God the Father. In the modern view, these family figures reveal the human psyche attempting to come to terms with its dependent status.

But nature is hardly benevolent in the consistent way humans would like their parents to be. Psychoanalysis of early childhood reveals that even the mother is perceived as ambivalent, sometimes depriving and threatening as well as nourishing. The patriarchal god projects the male ego’s attempt to trump the intimidating raw power of nature (read: the mother) by defining a “spiritual” (read: masculine) world both apart from it and somehow above it. The Semitic male God becomes the creator of all. He embodies the ideal father, at once severe and benevolent. But he also embodies the heroic quest to self-define and to re-create the world to human taste. In other words, the human aspiration to become as the gods.

On the one hand, this ideal projects onto an invisible realm the aspiration to achieve the moral perfection of a benevolent provider, and reflects how one would wish others (and nature) to behave. It demands self-mastery, power over oneself. The path of submission to a higher power acknowledges one’s abject dependence in the scheme of things, to resist which is “sin” by definition. On the other hand, it represents the quest for power over the other: to turn the tables on nature, uncertainty, and the gods—to be the ultimate authority that determines the scheme of things.

One first worships what one intends to master. Worship is not abject submission, but a strategy to dominate. Religion demonstrates the human ability to idealize, capture, and domesticate the unknown in thought. It feigns submission to the gods, even while its alter ego—science—covets and acquires their powers. Thus, the religious quest to mitigate the inaccessibility and wrath of God, which lurks behind the inscrutability of nature, is taken over by the scientific quest for order and control. The goal is to master the natural world by re-creating it, to become omniscient and omnipotent.

Relations of domination and submission play out obviously in human history. A divinely authorized social relationship is classically embodied in two kinds of players: kings and peasants. Yet, history also mixes these and blurs boundaries. Like some entropic process, the quest for empowerment is dispersed, so that it becomes a universal goal no longer projected upon the gods or reserved to kings. We see this “democratization” in the modern expectation of social progress through science and global management. While enjoying the benefits of technology, deeply religious people may not share this optimism, remaining skeptical that power rests forever in the inscrutable hands of God. Those who imagine a judgmental, vindictive, and jealous male god have the most reason to be doubtful of human progress, while those who identify with the transcendent aspect of religion are more likely to feel themselves above specific outcomes in the historical fray.

The ability of mind to self-transcend is a double-edged sword. It is the ability to conceive something beyond any proposed limit or system. This enables a dizzying intimation of the numinous; more importantly, it enables the human being to step beyond mental confines, including ideas and fears about the nature of reality and what lies beyond. On the one hand, we know that we know little for certain. To fully grasp that inspires the goosebumps of holy terror. One defensive response is to pretend that some text, creed, or dogma provides an ultimate assurance; yet we know in our bones that is wishful thinking. The experience of awe may incline one to bow down before the Great Mystery. Yet, we are capable of knowledge such as it can be, for which we (not the gods) are responsible. We are cursed and blessed with at least a measure of choice over how to relate to the unknown.