Kim Jong Un and the Numinous

Rudolph Otto’s idea of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the source of holy dread and attraction that sends shudders down the human spine, rises to the fore as North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong Un plays with the possibility of nuclear holocaust.

It’s one thing to play with toys. It’s something else when the toys are nuclear bombs and missiles.

In The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational, Rudolph Otto examines what he called the “numen,” the non-rational mystery that evokes feelings at once terrifying and sublime regarding our human condition.

“Otto on the Numinous” provides a concise introduction by an unidentified City University of New York English professor.

In The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational, Rudolph Otto identifies and explores the non-rational mystery behind religion and the religious experience (“non-rational” should not be confused with “irrational”); he called this mystery, which is the basic element in all religions, the numinous. He uses the related word “numen” to refer to deity or God.

Forced, necessarily, to use familiar words, like “dread” and “majesty,” Otto insists that he is using them in a special sense; to emphasize this fact, he sometimes uses Latin or Greek words for key concepts. This fact is crucial to understanding Otto. Our feeling of the numinous and responses to the numinous are not ordinary ones intensified; they are unique (I use this word in its original meaning of “one of a kind, the only one”) or sui generis (meaning “in a class by itself”). For example, fear does not become dread in response to the numinous; rather, we cease to feel ordinary fear and move into an entirely different feeling, a dread that is aroused by intimations of the numinous or the actual experience of the numinous.

The word “absolute” is used in its metaphysical sense of “existing without relation to any other being; self-existent; self-sufficing” (OED); its adjectival form, “absolutely,” is used with the same meaning.”

The fact that North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong Un is threatening the world with nuclear holocaust does what World War I did to many theologians who had presumed that history is on a course of inevitable progress.

It is not.

The power of death is enticing, a sin to which Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the bomb, later confessed. The human will to power becomes evil when real soldiers, real nuclear bombs, and real missiles, and real threats of destruction are mistaken for childhood toys or computer games where human folly can be erased by hitting a delete button.

We are all children inside, for both good and ill.

Looking at the young North Korean leader, psychiatrists might see an Oedipus complex, the son outdoing the father at the game of nuclear threat, the boy who played with matches and determined that if his father was afraid to light the fuse, he would step out from his father’s shadow onto the stage of world power in a way the world would never forget.

But deeper and more encompassing than any Freudian analysis is Rudolph Otto’s mysterium tremendum et fascinans.

The philosophical-theological debates about Modernism and Post-Modernism are interesting. They deserve our attention. But neither Modernism’s rationalism nor Post-Modernism’s deconstructionism is equipped to address the most basic reality which encompassing the human condition: the mysterium tremendum et fascinans and the horror of its daemonic distortion in the shrinking of it by the human will to power.

Whenever we take the ultimate trembling and fascination of the self into our own hands, the world is put at risk. In the world of the ancients and the pre-historical world of our evolutionary ancestors the consequences were limited to a neighbor’s skull broken with a club. In the advanced species that has progressed from those primitive origins, we have fallen in love with our own toys of destruction, the technical achievements and manufactured mysteries that are deadly surrogates for the mysterium tremendum et fascinans that sends shudders down the spine in terror and in joy before what is Real.

Our time is perilously close to mass suicide. Unless and until we get it straight that I/we are not the Center of the universe, the likes of Kim Jong Un – and his mirror opposite but like-minded opponents on this side of the Pacific – will hold us hostage to the evil that lurks in human goodness.

Progress isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The ancient shudder of the creature – the human cry for help in the face of chaos and the heart’s leap toward what is greater than the self or our social constructs – unmasks every illusion of grandeur in a world increasingly put at risk by little boys with toys.

P.S. Just as this piece was in final editing, Dennis Aubrey published “Mysterium Tremendum” on Via Lucis Photography.

Just leave me alone!

(An Acrostic Conversation
for Holy Week, 2013 A.D.)

Just leave me alone!
Enough already!
Stay out of my life!
Useless you! I have
Success on my own!

Come unto me all you
Heavy burdened.
Receive my peace.
I give you life,
Then love one another.

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, March 26, 2013


In the tradition of Nietzsche’s parable of The Mad Man who enters the public square at midnight to cry out “God is dead! God is dead! And we have killed him, you and I,” Willem Zuurdeeg (author of An Analytical Philosophy of Religion, and Man Before Chaos: Philosophy Is Born in a Cry), declared that

Christ has been crucified by an Order which refused to be disturbed by him (Dostoevsky’s legend of the Grand Inquisitor). Christ historically was killed by the justifying Order of the Law. We establish similar Orders!

Zuurdeeg was part of the compassionate underground in The Netherlands that provided refuge for Jews fleeing the horrors of the Order of the German Third Reich. He spent his life in search for an answer to the question of how such a proud and sophisticated culture could become the perpetrator of unthinkable evil. During his years in the United States, he saw once more a social, economic, political, religious Order (Western Democracy and Capitalism) that muzzles the shameless crying out for what we so desperately need (Freud).”Contrasted to modern man (sic) who cannot cry, primitive man (sic) was not ashamed to cry, and his culture provided him with living, vital forms of crying out.”

We are offered a significant choice, namely between two ways of being human. The difference between logical necessities or physical necessities and vital necessities is made clear in that in the latter we have the possibility of refusing ‘to turn away from a disaster’ – we can in fact choose a lesser way of being human over a fuller way. What is at stake in the necessity of cry is one’s own humanity, the meaning of one’s own existence, and to turn away from crying is to turn away from decision and responsibility. This is to deny the very possibility of becoming genuinely human.

Man Before Chaos , published after Zuurdeeg’s untimely death at the age of 57, ends with the unedited notes from the sermon he preached to his students and faculty colleagues in the McGaw Chapel of McCormick Theological Seminary. Here is the conclusion of his sermon.

God is dead (II). This is now turned around. In principle the man gods, of the Primitive Order, the Law, of the Founding Fathers, o9f Democracy, of Reason, of Being (Necessary Being, Being-Itself), of a moral World Order – these are the gods who are dead. They are “idols in the sense that they exist only because we believe in them. They are dead, in principle, in hope, though the present reality is different…. And the God who is alive is Jesus Christ.