I’ve been told, many times and recently as well, that I’m a fool for believing what I do. Recently I was told that Christianity specifically, and “religion” in general, have caused many of the problems of humanity.
So this is a dividing point. I understand my critics’ perspective. I don’t pretend there is no rational basis to make such an argument. The question comes down to truth.
If Christianity is not true, then it may very well be one of the most harmful influences in human history. How can I say that? If there is no truth behind the claim that Jesus is God, then all the crimes that can be laid at the feet of Christianity have no mitigating factors whatsoever, and moreover, if there is no true version of Christianity, then all evil caused by the warped versions fall under the same heading. As I understand following Jesus, any evil that might be done by Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, whom I do not consider Christians, does not cast its shadow on the people who call themselves Jesus followers. Likewise I would say the Crusades, though done in Jesus’ name, were not acts of Jesus’ followers. “By their fruit you shall know them.” But if Jesus has no deity and we all just made this stuff up, then there’s no differentiation. They’re all versions of the same self-deception.
Why would I even entertain such an argument when I believe in Jesus the Christ and have shaped my life around those beliefs, those decisions? I do so because others do not believe and I consider understanding their point of view valuable. Mutual respect means trying to understand one another. As I said earlier in this series, I don’t consider you stupid if you don’t believe. I do believe you are missing out on knowing just how much God loves you. And I really want to tell you.
I offer all that as preamble to say this: Advent is wonder. Advent is wonder and awe and amazement. Advent is God’s invitation into the numinous.
I’m not one to show off with fancy words, because showing off distracts from the point at hand. But I love this word, “numinous.” C.S. Lewis used it, adopted from the writings of Heinrich Otto. Lewis tries to elucidate this word both through his fiction and his didactic work. So in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe:
None of the children knew who Aslan was . . . but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning . . . so beautiful that you remember it all your life.
The numinous is the knowledge of God not based solely on our rational understanding of whom God might be, but on direction experience of God. Otto described it as “Mysterium tremendum et fascinans.” The word most associated with “numinous” in English is “awe.” I believe Job’s transformative moment at the end of the book came not because God gave such an airtight argument in response to Job’s complaints, but because God responded to Job. Job felt proper awe, fear and joy mixed, in God’s presence.
The numinous is, of course, the most difficult, or perhaps most circumscribed, avenue through which to convince someone of God’s existence. All one has to say in reply (truthfully or not) is “I’ve never experienced anything like that.” Oh. End of discussion. In fact, when introducing his chapter “The Elements of the Numinous,” Rudolf Otto wrote, “The reader is invited to direct his mind to a moment of deeply felt religious experience. . . . Whoever cannot do this, whoever knows no such moments in his experience, is requested to read no farther.”
Yet here we are. Advent season, “Christmas” in the truest sense, meaning the celebration of the arrival of Jesus in our world, the historical giving birth by Mary to Jesus, is the moment of numen. Paradoxically, the numinous rests on the factual. If Mary had sex with someone other than Joseph and gave birth to a baby in a barn through the usual cause and effect process, then A)I’m deceived, and B)my critics are right and we’ve done a lot of harm in the world, misleading people about the purpose of life and the hope for life after death. Paul wrote, “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised…If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” That’s because we’re kidding ourselves, and sacrificing for nothing, and hoping in something that does not exist and cannot help us.
Likewise, I believe, if the baby Jesus is not God and man, then we really are to be pitied–or reviled.
Yea, Lord, we greet Thee, Born this happy morning;
Jesu to Thee be all glory given;
Word of the Father, Now in flesh appearing.
But if that baby truly is God’s Word from John chapter 1–“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” then all of the lights and trees and presents and wrapping and even all the love and giving and sharing and embracing are the tiniest glimpse into Advent. If infinite, eternal love has come to us not in power or judgment but in fragile, six pounds, nursing, squirming, waking in the middle of the night baby skin in order to draw closer to us, if God who can raise the dead–make someone dead not dead–also became one who could die for us, then we are invited to open ourselves to awe.
I can’t make you experience* the numinous. I can only invite you in. I believe God invites us, the simplest yet most wondrous offer, the welcoming into mystery and awe, that though none of this makes any sense, nonetheless it is true and is given to us.
For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
*Both Lewis and Otto strongly expressed that numina was not merely an emotional response, but something much deeper. Thus, we aren’t properly talking here only of what we “feel.”