Little Boys with Toys

(Previously published commentary on North Korean leader with more attractive title) 🙂

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 opposites 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.

Next up: IRAN?

Gordon C. Stewart, April 3, 2012

So…Iran is next. First Afghanistan. Then Iraq. Now Iran… where does it stop?

I feel helpless, like a parent watching a hopped up teenager taking the car. I know I’m not alone.

This afternoon an email invites me to add my name to a statement and show up at the State Capitol in Saint Paul on April 24.  Here’s the email:

In 2008, over 50 Minnesota politicians and religious leaders signed a statement opposing U.S. military action against Iran.  We held a press conference on the steps of the Capitol in St. Paul that generated articles around the world because of the presence of a  delegation of Middle Eastern journalists.

Unfortunately, four years later we are again faced with even more threats of attacks against Iran.

While politicians are pushing for military action, several prominent military leaders are encouraging caution.  The Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, General Martin Dempsey has said that, “It’s not prudent at this point to decide to attack Iran.  A strike at this time would be destabilizing and wouldn’t achieve long-term objectives.”  Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has stated that Iran is NOT developing a nuclear weapon.  (Meet the Press, 1/08/12)

If Iran is attacked, Dempsey has said the results would destabilize not only that country, but the entire region.  Other analysts have written of the possibility of war on Iran escalating to a third world war.  However, Ron Burgess, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told Congress that “the agency assesses Iran is unlikely to initiate or provoke a conflict.”

Yet the media continues to give more coverage to the politicians and pundits who are claiming that Iran is a grave threat to world peace and must be stopped.  The U.S. is just beginning to withdraw from the devastating wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – conflicts that destabilized those countries and cost hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars.

Minnesotans have spent nearly $5 billion to fund the Iraq and Afghan wars in 2011 alone, bringing total Minnesota taxpayer spending for these wars to more than $37 billion.  At a time of cutbacks for education, healthcare, jobs, and housing, we cannot afford another costly military adventure.

Please add your name to the list of Minnesota leaders who advocate diplomacy over military attacks as the way to deal with Iran.  We will hold a press conference at noon on Tuesday, April 24, as part of our campaign to work for a peaceful resolution.

Sponsored by:   Middle East Committee (WAMM), Middle East Peace Now ,  Minnesota Peace Project, Twin Cities Peace Campaign, Women Against Military Madness

I signed the statement. I’ll be there again on April 24. It’s Holy Week. My faith was born on a cross, the Roman state’s instrument of torture and execution during a military occupation. I’m a disciple of the crucified Jesus. How can I do anything else?