The Common Good

Little Boys With Toys

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.

Kim Jong-un in 2009. Photo by petersnoopy / Flickr.com
Kim Jong-un in 2009. Photo by petersnoopy / Flickr.com

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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 was 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, real missiles, and real threats of destruction are mistaken for childhood toys or computer games where human folly can be erased by hitting a reset button.

We are all children inside, for good and for 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.

Gordon C. Stewart is a social commentator, writer and radio commentator on Minnesota Public Radio's "All Things Considered" (MPR).  He is pastor at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, Minn. Visit him at http://gordoncstewart.com/

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