When, several years ago now, I was kindly invited to write a blog about religion on the website of The American Interest, I was told that if at times I felt like writing about another topic, that would be okay too. I have generally organized my posts around current developments on the immensely curious religious scene, though on occasion I have written on topics which straddle between religion and other phenomena. This will be one of these occasions.
Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) was one of the most influential scholars of religion published in the twentieth century. He is best known for his book on the nature of the holy, Das Heilige (1917). (The English translation was rather misleadingly titled The Idea of the Holy—Otto made quite clear his view that religion is essentially not about ideas but about experiences.) He sought to describe in great detail the distinctive characteristics of religious experience. At the core of the experience is the encounter with a reality sensed to be “totally other” (totaliter aliter) from the reality of ordinary everyday life. Otto coined the adjective “numinous” for the experience (from the Latin numen, which the ancient Romans used to denote any sacred object or event).
The sacred in this sense is both fascinating and terrifying: Human individuals are drawn to it, at the same time impelled to flee from it. (It is noteworthy that in Biblical stories of divine or angelic visitations the first spoken words are “Do not be afraid!”). Our modern English words “awesome”, “uncanny” or “ominous” apply to what Otto sought to convey. Of course these words do not describe the religious experience of an ordinary participant in religious ritual; indeed ritual can be understood as a domestication or even avoiding of a reality that would be dangerous if faced without the comforting protection of ritual. (Only the individuals whom Max Weber called “religious virtuosi” face the blazing light without sunglasses. Ordinary worshippers get a much weaker dosage.) Also, experiences of ominous otherness need not be explicitly religious. They are, so to speak, proto-religious: They do not fully disclose another reality lurking behind the one we take for granted in everyday life; they only hint at it.
I have had no overtly numinous experiences in my life thus far. No angel has ever visited me (my pious Catholic nanny would have added “not that you would have noticed him if he had”). But I have had some that might be called proto-religious. Here are some:
— A few days ago I tried to make a call to Vienna. It rang a couple of times, then a recording said in German: “Dieser Anruf ist nicht moeglich” (literally, “this call is not possible”). Then a more threatening (or should I say a more ominous) English mistranslation came on: “This call is not allowed”. I later learned that such an automatic response comes on in some Austrian cell phones if the owner of the phone has deliberately turned it off. I had not known this. But a memory popped up in my mind, followed by a surreal fantasy: I first visited South Africa in the waning days of the apartheid regime. The security services listened in on phone calls to or by individuals who were “banned” (that were forbidden contacts with the outside world) or were under surveillance. I called a number which was interrupted by a recording which had the same message, first in Afrikaans, then in English: “This call is not allowed”. Then came a surreal fantasy: what if a South African security agent had moved to Austria, taking with him an old cell phone retaining the old warning, for some reason with the Afrikaans portion translated into German. The state which the agent served no longer exists, but there may be an undiscovered recording device, hidden in some cellar in Pretoria, continuing to store telephone numbers that made calls to the cell phone of the defunct agent.
— Some years ago I was in Honolulu in a hotel lobby with a colleague, waiting for his wife to join us for dinner. We sat across from a large door leading to guest rooms. After a while it opened; out came a group of some seven or eight Japanese ladies in kimonos. Nothing to pay special attention to in Honolulu. After a minute or so the door opened again, and out came another group of kimono-dressed women. A minute or so later, yet another set was disgorged. We began to pay attention, wondered whether these were all members of a women’s club, or wives waiting for their husbands to return from a business meeting. But the event kept on repeating itself: The door opened, another group of kimono-dressed women coming out, the door closing, opened once again, another similarly dressed group coming out… And on and on, in a seemingly unending rhythm. After a while there must have been at least a hundred of these women in the hotel lobby. At that point I began to have a fantasy (by no means a pleasant one): For some mysterious reason the door in this hotel connected with a hole in the fabric of the universe, which contains an infinite number of worlds, each with an infinite number of Japanese ladies in kimonos. This would never end. It would go on and on. Perhaps until these little ladies take over the planet. Fortunately, just when this fantasy was about to cross the border into madness, my colleague’s wife showed up and we went to our restaurant. Not a kimono in sight.
— About the same time in my life, when we I lived in Brooklyn Heights, I often drove on the Brooklyn-Queens-Expressway, especially to take guests to the two major New York airports or pick them up from there. (A true New Yorker might say, “Why would anyone go to Queens for any other reason?”) The BQE goes through Williamsburg, which has a large population of ultra-Orthodox or Haredi Jews. There are three or four pedestrian bridges across the highway; one drives under them in either direction. As one drives toward the bridges, one sees people of all ages going across them dressed in gender-specific Hasidic garb, the men wearing plain black fedoras or the so-called shtreimel, an expensively handcrafted fur hat resembling the headgear of Russian aristocrats (including Peter the Great) in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The scene looks like something from a painting by Chagall. On that day I was driving back into Brooklyn from LaGuardia airport. It was very windy. Just as I was coming out from under one of the bridges, a large shtreimel was blown off the head of one of the men walking across. It dropped right in front of the car. It would have been dangerous to brake at the speed I was going. No matter the danger, I’m sure I would have braked if a human being had fallen across my path. But not for a hat! I had to make a decision in a split second (perhaps it was instinctive rather than the result of a conscious decision). I drove over the hat. I was quite shaken. When I reached home I said to my wife: “I don’t really know how to tell you this—I drove over a Hasidic hat!”
But the story has a sequel that reached the level of the uncanny. I was again driving on the BQE when the exact-same event recurred under one of the Williamsburg bridges: Shtreimel falling right in front of my car—no time to brake—driving over a Hasidic hat a second time! Now I was really shaken. It so happened that I had an invitation to give some lectures in Israel, the main one in Jerusalem. As the day of my departure came closer, my anxiety reached an almost Ottonian level. I had the ominous sense that a third hat was waiting for me in Jerusalem, that it would fall on me, and that something awful would then occur. Nothing did. I went for a few days to the Galilee. I called my wife from Haifa and, with relief in my voice, told her that I was fine. She commented, predictably and sensibly, that I had been silly to worry.
A preamble to a religious perspective on reality is an intuition: Things are not what they seem.