Art theorists and cultural critics sometimes describe certain works of art as being expressions of the sublime. Etymologically, sublime means below (sub) the threshold (limen), suggesting a deeper reality than what at first meets the eye. In the eighteenth century, the Irish writer Edmund Burke and the German philosopher Immanuel Kant both wrote treatises that explored the peculiar relationship between the sublime and the beautiful, and developed aesthetic theories to explain the satisfying mix of passions that are activated within us when we read certain works of literature or stand inside of spacious and magnificent buildings or before vast natural landscapes.12 Both described the sublime as the experience of a kind of delightful terror.
When we are in the presence of something sublime, we perceive a greatness in the face of which we feel exceedingly small; we sense we are in the presence of something that has absolutely no need for us, and that humiliation propels us into a state of wonder. We find the sublime in objects that are high, deep, immense, gloomy, rugged, powerful, or dark. We hear it in the cries of animals, observe it in a raging storm, feel it in moments of abandonment, confront it in our conscience. We are frozen in fear in such moments, but then, when we discover that we have outlasted the terror and are returned to our senses, the fear is followed by a deep joy. As Philip Hallie has described it, "Sublimity is an experience of terror and exaltation rendered tranquil by our actual safety."13 This arc is the meaning of the sublime. And we are drawn to it, Burke and Kant suggest, both because it rejuvenates us and because through repeated experiences of such survivable mystery, our imaginations are invited to extend to unknown frontiers. The sublime thus drives the aesthetic imagination.14 The evocative power of the sublime became a central theme in both German and British Romanticism through the nineteenth century. The Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, a central figure in German Romanticism, identified a sense of absolute dependence within human consciousness, an "intuition and feeling of the infinite" through which we become aware of the permanent dependence of all finite reality upon the infinite. He called this our "God-consciousness," a point of contact between the finite and the infinite which enters our awareness through our consciousness of sin and grace - a fluctuating sense of our alienation from God and our fellowship with God. This twin consciousness is never had without something to mediate it - music, literature, friendships, storytelling, family, nature, scriptures, religious rituals - each of which can trigger a moment of original awareness, an impression of our absolute dependence inflected with either alienation (sin) or fellowship (grace).15 The similarities of this divided God-consciousness to then current reflections on the sublime are worth noting, particularly because of the work of Rudolph Otto on the idea of the holy.
Otto's book, The Idea of the Holy, which first appeared in 1917, describes the holy as having the double character of the mysterium tre-mendum et fascinosum, a mystery that is simultaneously terrifying and fascinating. Objects, places, persons, and events that register with one as holy are experienced, on one hand, as repulsive, unnerving, demanding and full of a searing judgment, and, on the other hand, as attractive, alluring, mesmerizing and consoling - all at once, though not necessarily in equal amounts. One might find oneself speechless and shuddering, with blood running cold as one's body intercepts these twin frequencies of the holy. Long before Otto, Augustine captured this experience in describing the effect he felt in reading scripture:
How wonderful are your Scriptures! How profound! We see their surface and it attracts us like children. And yet, O my God, their depth is stupendous. We shudder to peer deep into them, for they inspire in us both the awe of reverence and the thrill of love.16
Otto was a great synthesizer. He viewed himself as an heir of both Kant and Schleiermacher, and sought to secure a sense for the infinite as one of the faculties of human consciousness, a religious a priori universally present in human beings, on account of which we can recognize the numinous where it appears. He also drew upon the more recent discussions of orenda, mana, and wakanda - words describing a raw, undifferentiated power thought to reside in natural phenomena -that had been outlined in the reports of missionaries who had observed the religious beliefs of indigenous peoples of North America and the South Pacific. Back in Europe, those who reflected on this primitive sense of raw supernatural power described it as an amoral force, unconnected to any notions of good or evil. It was more properly understood as simply a power that one would be wise to appease and make effective. Protecting oneself from it and putting it to positive uses gave rise to magic, it was theorized; magic which, in time, evolved into religion.
This became an influential theory of religion in general - speculating that the religions of the world had all evolved from a belief that the world operates under the power of mana, that this power must be regulated, and, eventually, the theory claims, it occurred to the shamanic handlers of this power that a framework of good and evil is the most effective way to regulate it. This then gave rise to divergent rituals, myths, officials, and institutions that distinguish the world's religions. Otto, a Christian theologian, reworked these ideas into his concept of the holy, and conjectured that while our first response to an encounter with the holy is to be overwhelmed by it, to sense our own insignificance in the face of its awful majesty, we also realize we are willingly captivated by it. Standing in its presence, our sense of our own relative nothingness evolves into a sense of uncleanness, and eventually into an awareness of sin and our need for atonement. This, for Otto, better describes the origin of the great religions. But at their fountainhead is this mysterium tremendum, which inspires dread, a dread from which we generally choose not to flee, a dread that fascinates us. And this experience of numinous power can be expected to be encountered through virtually any medium.
According to Tillich, who adopted this concept of the holy from Otto, when we have an encounter with holiness, it is a signal that we have entered into the presence of our ultimate concern. While we commonly use the term "holiness" to refer to moral purity, this captures only part of its meaning, and can even be a distortion of its meaning. We also become aware of holiness through holy "objects," elements within the world that represent or draw us nearer to our ultimate concern, and anything "can become a vehicle of one's ultimate concern."17 Obviously, this is why religious art and icons have such power - they serve as channels through which people encounter what they believe to be ultimate. Tillich had just such an experience when he stood before Botticelli's painting, Madonna with Singing Angels, in 1918. For him this became the paradigm for how subjectivity and self-awareness are momentarily suspended as one becomes the receptacle of a power that reaches through the holy object and overwhelms one with a sense of numinous mystery.
While some objects are more inclined to produce an experience of the holy in people than other objects, Tillich was cautious to explain that the holy does not inhere in the objects in which it is perceived, but that its appearance is a phenomenon in the strict sense - it is an experience co-produced by the external object and the internal disposition of the subject who encounters it.
Tillich sometimes describes the two poles of the holy as the ground and abyss of being. The ground refers to the positive, attractive element, the creative power with which we sense reality is maintained, which bubbles up as if from an artesian well. The abyss refers to the negative, repelling element, our feeling of our own paltriness in the face of the infinite, "the 'stigma' of finitude which appears in all things and in the whole of reality and the 'shock' which grasps the mind when it encounters the threat of nonbeing."18 The abyss is the source of the "dark night of the soul" described by St John of the Cross, an experience corroborated by other mystics who, having probed the divine presence, have been left feeling undone. We vacillate between feeling elevated and annihilated when we are in the presence of that which we experience as holy.
It is not difficult to imagine experiencing the holy through a religious icon like Botticelli's Madonna. Less obvious, however, is the way in which more "profane" or secular phenomena can serve as conduits of the holy. Tillich was particularly taken with Van Gogh's artistry in this regard. In a painting like Starry Night, Van Gogh was tuned to the enchanting side of the holy, and used his paints to pierce the surface of nature and reveal its creative energies, while in his Night Café he gave us a picture of "late emptiness," where, with the waiter gone and one man sitting alone we are confronted with the emptiness of our own loneliest moments, a loneliness from which we flee in futility, aware that it is an unsettling truth of the human condition that follows us wherever we go.
Great public spaces can also be occasions of the holy. Beautiful buildings and structures like the interior of Grand Central Terminal, Gaudi's Park Güell in Barcelona, Wrigley Field in Chicago, the Golden Gate Bridge, or the Mirage Casino in Las Vegas - engineered marvels in which we enshrine and recognize our common aspirations - can be holy objects or places. Natural phenomena, likewise, can be sites of the holy. Niagara Falls, Yosemite Valley and Big Sur can have a religious effect upon visitors, who are overtaken by a sense of having entered a sanctuary of numinous beauty and power, and a corresponding sense of their own smallness. Well-told stories, poems, and films, whose subject matter is not overtly religious, can also momentarily transport one into an experience of the holy.
Tillich makes two important moves with Otto's concept of the holy. First, he develops the notion that while the experience of the holy is evanescent and quite unpredictable where and when it will arise, it makes a lasting mark on the person who has felt its presence by permanently altering their perception of the world. Having brushed against a reality that is so emblematic of one's ultimate concern, the face of one's world is washed with a fresh spray of the utterly meaningful. Second, he refines the twin effects of the experience of the holy, the abyss and the ground, into two ways that religions construe how the holy enters the world - through a divine judgment on our moral actions and a corresponding demand for justice, on one hand, and through a divine consolation that sustains our wonder at the sacramental texture of life, on the other.
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