Sociologists of religion are currently fascinated by the rise of “nones” in America and other countries. These are people who reply “none” when asked about their religious affiliation in survey studies. Thanks to the tireless labors of the Pew Research Center which studies data about religion all over the world, we know a good deal about the “nones.” They are far from being a homogeneous alliance of convinced atheists. Many of them say that they believe in God, that they pray regularly. What they do have in common is that they have not found a church or temple in which they feel comfortable. Actually, there are many gradations between those who claim to be certain about this or that supernatural reality, and those who are equally certain that nothing is real other than what they experience while reading the newspaper on the commuter train going to work in the morning. Max Weber, the father of modern sociology of religion, distinguishes what he calls “religious virtuosi” and the “religion of the masses.” The distinction is overly sharp: Even the newly sainted Teresa of Calcutta said that she had doubts about her faith all along, and even a so-called “new atheist” may sometimes wonder whether there really is nothing other than the world reported on by the morning paper. The New York Times doesn’t mention angelic apparitions.
I have been thinking about what are the minimal experiences that lead to the suspicion that there may be something to religion after all. I recall a German word I learned as a child—gruseln—the experience of something creepy, like hearing things that go bump in the night. I consulted a book that I’m very fond of, the Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (1882, revised in 1961), by the Reverend Walter Skeat, Professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Cambridge). According to Skeat there is a Scandinavian root, gru, related to gruseln as well as medieval Saxon gruri, modern English “gruesome,” and Danish grueli. It seems to me that we can think of a gradation between “surreal,” “gruesome,” and “supernatural.” Which respectively describe what I feel if I first hear the strange noise in the attic, when I hear it every midnight accompanied by Gregorian chanting, and when an angel appears in my bedroom and addresses me in sonorous Latin.
Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) was one of the most influential religion historians of the 20th century. He is best known for his book Das Heilige (1917, translated into English a few years later as The Idea of the Holy). Otto’s approach is to use a wide array of comparative studies to arrive at a general phenomenology of religion. It begins with etymology: The Latin word religio has often been derived from religare/”to rebind ”—as in the old Protestant hymn “The Tie That Binds.” Not so, said Otto: It derives from relegere/“to beware.” Above all, religion is dangerous—one must approach sacred persons or events with great care, as one would a highly charged electrical wire. The first reaction to the supernatural is awe, a distinctive mix of fascination and fear. Organized religion, especially in ritual, is thus understood as an effort to domesticate, to naturalize, or to defang the terrible encounter. That reveals a reality that is “totally other” (Otto, ever the classicist, says totaliter aliter; for “the sacred” he prefers numen/the “numinous”). The familiar reality of everyday life is threatened by and must be protected against this other reality, which has the potential of (at least temporarily) destroying the social order. Then, after the orgies of Mardi Gras comes the sober restoration of Lent.
Maya Deren (1917-1961) was an American dancer and film-maker. But she wrote one book that describes in remarkable detail what Otto meant by the terror of the totally other (literally) invading a human mind—Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1953). Deren had gone to Haiti in order to make a film about indigenous dancing, most of it related to the religion of Voudou (a.k.a. Voodoo). At the core of Voudou is the phenomenon of possession, when various gods of African origins take possession of (“ride”) human individuals. On one occasion, while dancing, Daren had the premonition that something terrible was about to happen to her. She left the dance floor, lit a cigarette, decided to go back and brave the experience. Then she experienced something truly gruesome—her mind being pushed aside and replaced by an enormously more powerful mind. In Haitian Creole this is called dedoublement/”doubling.” She lost consciousness, woke up, and was informed that she had been possessed by Erzulie, an African goddess of love, whose flirtatious persona Daren acted out. She could remember none of this.
Deren clearly had a supernatural experience. I’m not sure whether she would qualify for Weber’s category of virtuosi, since her becoming Erzulie was apparently a one-time event—she didn’t start a cult, she just wrote a book. On a graduated scale, she was certainly beyond the grade of surreal, possibly somewhere between the grades of gruesome and supernatural. One thing is very clear: Those of us lacking any self-validating religious certainties must rely on intimations of the divine, intuitions, signals of transcendent reality. I will conclude by describing two events that happened to me some years ago. I suppose they just barely make the lowest grade of the surreal, a vestibule far distant from Otto’s blazing numen.
I was in Honolulu, probably on a stopover on the way to or from someplace in Asia. An old friend of mine, a professor at the University of Hawaii, and I were in a hotel lobby, waiting for his wife to join us for dinner. An elevator came down from an upper floor, disgorging about six to eight middle-aged Japanese women in kimonos. We paid no attention—Japanese women in kimonos are not rare in Honolulu. A few minutes later the scene repeated itself, the elevator releasing a similar number of similar women. We began to pay attention. But the scene kept on repeating itself, in a machine-like rhythm. The women were milling around the lobby, evidently waiting for others to arrive. We began to wonder who these women were—too many for a family group, perhaps the wives of “salarymen” celebrating the famous Japanese lifetime employment. I opined—maybe the Osaka Ladies’ Flower-Arranging Club? But the rhythm didn’t stop! When it finally did, about seventy to eighty women had congregated in the lobby. We admitted to each other a sort of metaphysical dread: Perhaps a hole in the fabric of the universe had opened up in the sky over Hawaii. There is an infinity of middle-aged Japanese women in kimonos. They will keep coming on and on. There will be millions of these women, spilling out from this location in all directions. The world will never be the same again. We laughed after this group, fully assembled, had finally left—still uneasily. The memory of the surreal fantasy lingered.
The second event happened a few years later. I’d say that it went up a few notches toward the gruesome grade. We were living in Brooklyn, and often had to drive to and from LaGuardia airport on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The route goes through Williamsburg, which has one of the densest concentrations of Hasidic Jews in the country. A number of bridges crosses the BQE. Hasidim go back and forth as if stepping out of a Chagall painting or a scene from “Fiddler on the Roof.” One day I was driving home from having dropped someone at LaGuardia. There was a strong wind. Suddenly a large, typically Hasidic hat flew off one of the bridges and landed right in front of my car. It was a shtreimel, a velvet and fur concoction imitating the headgear of medieval Polish noblemen (it can be ordered online for about $600). My options speeded in my head. It would have been very dangerous to brake suddenly at the speed I was going. I would have braked for a person, but surely not for a hat! When I arrived at home, I said to my wife: “Something very strange happened just now—I drove over a Hasidic hat!” A few weeks later, a statistically improbable event: The scene repeated itself, same spot on the BQE, same type of hat. I drove over that one, too. I was scheduled to give some lectures in Jerusalem. I had the eerie thought that a third hat was waiting for me there. It lingered while I was there. My very genial host was Shmuel Eisenstadt, the sociologist at Hebrew University. I had a pleasant time despite my lingering phobia.
I don’t want to keep you in suspense. There was no third hat.