When I was younger and entertained more grandiose pretensions of becoming a literary light than I do now, I wrote the following would-be aphorism about the difference between “intellectuals” and true-believing “fanatics”:
An intellectual submits the narrowness of his mind to the breadth of experience; a fanatic submits the depth and breadth of experience to the narrowness of his own mind.
I know: not great stuff.
But the problem posed in that ungainly faux-poeticism is, I believe, related to the two types of reaction to the world—wonder and fear—as well as to the two sorts of people who most hold to each—neophiles and neophobes—that I wrote about in the previous post.
This relation also bears interestingly on an issue of central importance to the history of religion and modern religious studies involving both fear and wonder, neophilia and neophobia: reactions to what philosophers and literary critics since antiquity have called “the Sublime.”
In this post, I’ll break this relationship and the issue of differing reactions to the Sublime down and examine their implications for understanding the crucial difference between delayed-return and immediate-return worldviews and forms of religiosity.
The Need for Structure
Recall from last time that 2009 Terror Management study of the divergent responses to death-thought anxiety from people with high and low so-called “personal needs for structure” (PNS)? Within the context of that study, the term “structure” refers to stereotypes, prototypes, scripts, religious narratives, and the like that all serve as easy heuristics to facilitate individuals’ understanding of the world in clear, orderly, and, unfortunately, prejudicial ways.
The experiment found that individuals with high PNS meet the threat of death and the unknown with stable or even bolstered adherence to and reliance upon their personal thought structures. At the same time, they generally eschew novelty and dread change.
Meanwhile, low-PNS individuals responded to concerns about mortality with an increased willingness to explore novelty. The nihilistic threat posed by death drove them to plunge freshly into the messy diversity of the natural world around them.
What most interests me about these results is, as I mentioned previously, the way in which the high-PNS-ers’ need for structure becomes for them a kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The ineluctable attraction they feel toward the idea of a stable world order standing strong against the perceived threats posed by novelty, change, mortality, and epistemic uncertainty leads them to lean ever more heavily on structure, rules, and a system imposed on external reality.
Now, we all impose epistemological order on the messy world around us to some degree or other. We do this partly to facilitate snap judgments that help ensure our survival—for instance, assuming the presence of causal agents behind phenomena of uncertain etiology primes us to deal with predators lurking out of sight—and partly because it just helps us make other tidy intellectual cuts that simplify our day-to-day lives on an almost inconceivably complex planet.
For instance, largely as a cultural artefact stemming from a centuries-long legacy of literacy and linguistic standardization combined with modern statecraft, European observers tend to regard languages as discrete entities, hermetically sealed off from one another and easily locatable with clear boundaries on any geopolitical map of the world.
For the purposes of news media in a language that is understandable on a national level, standardized textbooks for large-scale education schemes to inculcate such a standard form of communication meant to unite localities, even just for popular “teach yourself”-style courses on bookstore shelves intended to facilitate foreign travel and commerce in such places to bring much needed capital into the local economy, we all have a positive need for languages to be able to be conceived of and packaged in something like this neat and clean way.
Out there in the real world, however, the situation is always far messier. Actual communicative practices of contiguous groups of people usually shade imperceptibly off into one another. There are dialects, pidgins, creoles, and lingua francas. I’ve written about this concept before under the deliberately provocative heading of “Languages Do Not Exist.”
In 1959, professional linguist and Christian missionary Kenneth Pike wrote a classic paper that invoked an equally provocative metaphor from quantum physics to speak of the traditional, notional way in which we all tend to view languages as discrete particles, even though, when viewed from a more holistic perspective, they often operate on the ground more like dynamic wave functions “merging into one another in intricate, overlapping, complex systems” or the even more diffuse concept of fields.
Even within a single supposedly unified speech community, one finds plenty of local practices that bend the rules of “standard” textbook grammars and present variant sets of norms that obtain within subgroups. Some linguists call themselves “variationists” precisely because they make the diversity within language communities their principal focus.
Just consider the “English” plural form of the term lingua franca itself. Is it properly lingua francas (what most dictionaries will champion), the rare hypercorrection linguas franca (on the model of attorneys general, courts martial, poets laureate, and the like), the Italianate lingue franche (the term lingua franca came into English from Italian, after all), or the Latin backformation linguae francae? The answer is…yes!
What distinguishes particularly neophobic, high-PNS folks from the rest of humanity on the issue of submitting untidy experience to imposed thought structure, however, is how totally and inflexibly they do it, how ironfisted a grip they maintain over the systems they erect and impose, and how completely they refuse to allow new information and data to inform and even alter their thought structures.
If, according to Pike’s clever analysis, realization of more complex views of reality depends on shifting one’s perspective, the problem with high-PNS-ers is their refusal or inability to budge from a single, prior, and entrenched point of view. No wonder they have so much trouble with empathy.
Someone of a more malleable, neophilic, wonderstruck bent allows the world in, lets themselves be touched by it, changed. An intellectual submits the narrowness of his mind to the breadth of experience; a fanatic submits the depth and breadth of experience to the narrowness of his own mental conceptions. Nowhere is this distinction more evident than in reactions to “the Sublime.”
What is “the Sublime”? you ask, and why is it important? Well, buckle up: we’re going for a ride.
When astronaut Edgar Mitchell piloted the lunar lander for the Apollo 14 mission to the moon in 1971, he ended up spending a total of two-hundred-sixteen hours and forty-two minutes in space. Thirty-three and a half of those hours he spent on the surface of the moon. Nine and a half while doing extravehicular activities.
During all that time, Mitchell had more than ample opportunity to look back at the earth from the vantage point of space to consider how small and distant his home planet seemed. One bright, multi-colored orb against an infinite stellar background.
Mitchell reflected on the political turmoil and strife that characterized life on planet earth and how all the borders and boundaries that serve as flash-points for conflict on the ground are entirely invisible from space. The boundaries that separated him, as an individual, both from all other individuals and from celestial bodies outside of earth, seemed to him similarly to fall away.
As Steve Volk, author of Fringeology: How I Tried to Explain Away the Unexplainable—And Couldn’t, put it in his discussion of Mitchell’s experience, the astronaut “felt the sensational tremors of his own being extending out into space.” Mitchell experienced a mystical “annihilation of self” and an “ecstasy of unity” with all other beings in the universe. Or so he tells it.
In more mundane philosophical terms, what Edgar Mitchell underwent while in outer space was an experience of “the Sublime.” In actuality, he had many such experiences, as Mitchell reported that his revelatory, epiphanic states returned to him two to three times per hour all the way back to earth. They would strike each time he looked out through the ship’s portal to glimpse the mottled ball of his home planet growing ever larger, coming more and more granularly into view.
The term sublime in the philosophical sense derives from a first-century CE work of literary criticism entitled On the Sublime written by an anonymous author erroneously identified in subsequent tradition either with the Augustan-era Greek historian and rhetorician Dionysius of Halicarnassus or, even less plausibly, with the third-century scholar Cassius Longinus, a disciple of the Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus.
Mystery surrounding the true identity of the author of On the Sublime, combined with the fact that the work appears unique in the history of surviving Greek literary criticism and contributes to the history of ideas a singularly delicate, but nonetheless vital, concept have all conspired to lend the book and its central notion a certain cachet, even an air of the “miraculous.”
As developed by—let’s call him “Pseudo-Longinus”—and then subsequently refined throughout the history of western literary criticism and aesthetic philosophy by such thinkers as Edmund Burke, Immanuel Kant, and Arthur Schopenhauer (among others), the idea of “the Sublime” is somewhat diffuse and subtle as a concept, noticeable not so much for what it is as for the effects it works on observers.
What the Sublime does is provoke in observers an emotional response of wonder and fear and awareness of both mortality and human finitude, all against a backdrop of the boundlessness, spaciousness, and capaciousness of nature and external reality. It may be present as a quality in both nature and in man-made representations, like art and literature, where it may be judged as “beautiful,” while not being the same thing as beauty itself.
Towering mountains, deep valleys, the earth seen from the lofty vantage point of outer space, literature that abides by the “show, don’t tell” dictum of accurately portraying and provoking emotion in readers without simply describing it in words: these sorts of heady stimuli overwhelm the senses and alternately occasion feelings of dread, despair, wonder, and amazement.
Not coincidentally, the Greek word Pseudo-Longinus uses for his concept of the Sublime—hypsos—literally means “loftiness.”
Experience of this lofty quality of the Sublime has a way of cutting straight through intellectual pretensions and posturing to reach immediately down to some visceral, emotional part of our being. It is often also highly motivating and profoundly life-altering in a way similar to that in which individuals who survive catastrophic health emergencies like heart attacks report that experience can be.
In the wake of his own encounter with the Sublime in outer space, Edgar Mitchell would go on to found the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) in 1973 to aid in the work of studying, explaining, and, most importantly, educating others about the transformative epiphany he had during his moon mission two years earlier. According to the organization’s self-description, IONS is “dedicated to supporting individual and collective transformation through consciousness research, transformative learning, and engaging a global community in the realization of our human potential.”
Author Frank White spent time interviewing thirty astronauts about comparable revelatory experiences they all had while working in space. He dubbed the similar epiphanies they unanimously reported, along with an attendant resolution to return to earth and become better humanitarians, the result of an “overview effect.”
White’s research on this effect for his 1987 book by the same name led him, like Mitchell, to join with a group of like-minded individuals and found an institute devoted to humanitarian and environmental outreach and activism. That organization goes under the name of The Overview Institute, one of whose stated goals is to promote direct experience of the eponymous personal transformation through both private space travel and digital media that can offer experiences of space flight through simulated or virtual reality.
The Overview Institute thus aims to recreate for individuals the same second-hand experience of the Overview Effect that Frank White experienced while cataloging and reporting on astronauts’ first-hand encounters with the Sublime. As with the experience of Edgar Mitchell, reactions to encounters with the Sublime usually take on this self-replicating quality of the meme.
The Sublime and Speechlessness
Another, logically prior, common reaction in the presence of something judged to instantiate the Sublime that both bedevils somewhat its memeability and thus helps to give the experience much of its mystical quality is a feeling of one’s breath being taken away; of being at a total loss for words; of feeling unable to describe, characterize, or even understand the complex mix of emotions and thoughts rushing through one’s mind.
If you’ve seen the 1997 movie Contact based on Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel of the same name, the dreamlike, “trippy” sequence that ensues when Jodie Foster’s character “travels” in the mysterious pod built by a combination of human and supposedly alien ingenuity, apparently whisking through time and space where she discovers direct evidence of complex extraterrestrial civilizations and is then present at the birth of a major star, you’ve witnessed a modern artistic portrayal of one individual’s powerful experience of the Sublime.
As Foster struggles to put into words what she is witnessing and feeling aboard her tiny, transparent vessel, she ultimately gives up and remarks simply: “They should have sent a poet.”
Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins expressed a similar sentiment in his 2001 autobiography when he reflected on his own fantastic voyage into space:
“. . . [M]y two space flights have changed my perception of the earth…The pity of it is that so far the view from 100,000 miles has been the exclusive property of a handful of test pilots, rather than the world leaders who need this new perspective, or the poets who might communicate it to them” (emphasis added).
This ability of the Sublime to rob those who experience it of their capacity to put their encounter into comprehensible words might seem at first ironic, as Pseudo-Longinus devotes an entire literary treatise precisely to describing and exemplifying the Sublime. Indeed, most of the examples of the Sublime that the author adduces in his work come from literature!
One of these examples is the classic poem of jealous love by archaic Greek poet Sappho, known in the text of On the Sublime only by its first two words phainetai moi (“he seems to me”). The poem has come to be known to English-speaking readers of classical verse as “Sappho 31,” after the position it occupies in standard collections of the fragments of Sappho’s works.
Sappho 31 only survived to modernity because of Pseudo-Longinus’ citation of it in his discussion of the Sublime, where, as I’ve written about before, he praises the work in no uncertain terms for its ability to evoke the physical signs and symptoms of jealous romantic love.
In literary works like Sappho’s famous poem, the Sublime curiously arises from the author’s ability to use words in such a way as to bypass the reader’s awareness of language and penetrate directly to a re-creation of the target experience or emotion in the reader’s mind.
Even in its earliest theorizing, then, the Sublime has involved the curious problem of attempting to communicate the incommunicable, of expressing the ineffable.
The Religious Sublime
Thus it should come as no surprise that one area of life where experiences of the Sublime assume paramount importance is religion. In his original discussion of the Sublime, Pseudo-Longinus even quotes from the first book of the Hebrew Bible (On the Sublime 9.9), pointing to the creative verbalizations of God in the first chapter of Genesis—merely speaking what He wants created and thereby causing the content of his utterances to spring into being—as an example of the Sublime.
We’ll come back later to this anything-but-coincidental dwelling as an example of the quality the Sublime on the miraculous power of language to summon reality into being.
Because of Pseudo-Longinus’ generally positive evaluation of the Biblical passage—which, in his words “gave expression to the power of divinity as it deserved”—coupled with the general emphasis he places on the quality of “moral excellence” in literature, many historians of the treatise have supposed that whoever wrote On the Sublime was either a Hellenized Jew or at least someone familiar with, and positively disposed towards, Jewish culture and religion.
Many more examples of the Sublime abound in the Hebrew Bible, particularly in Psalms, where one can find persistent echoes of earlier Canaanite and Moabite storm theophanies, featuring God appearing amid thunder and lightening as though a dread and powerful tempest.
Another instance of the Sublime pops up in the scene of the prophet Isaiah’s investiture in chapter 6 of the Biblical book that bears his name, where the eponymous author describes a vision he has had of God surrounded by six-winged seraphim, all flying about and intoning: “Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.”
In the first chapter of Ezekiel, that prophet too narrates a sublime vision of God presented to him at his own inaugural. In the vision, the Almighty appears surrounded by seraphim whose wings flap so loudly that the noise they raise begins to resemble the voice of God Himself, as well as the clangor of a large army on the march (verse 24).
In Habakkuk, chapter 3, the prophetic writer conveys a vision of God emanating from the mountainous territory of Moab, east of the Transjordan. Habakkuk describes the deity as shedding a brightness that covers the heavens, waters and rivers that cleave the earth, and a noise that causes the very mountains themselves to tremble.
In each of these three prophetic scenes, we see also the centrality of fear as a key human reaction to the divine Sublime. The human witnesses report feeling “afraid” (Habakkuk 3:2); a sense of “woe,” of being “undone” (Isaiah 6:5); and the necessity of “falling down upon [their] face” (Ezekiel 1:28) in prostration by way of response.
These descriptions sound like those of eighteenth and nineteenth century Romantic poets and travelers when faced with imposing mountains, giant storms, volcanoes, and the like. Anyone familiar with the Book of Mormon, also a likely product of either nineteenth century manufacture or influence, will be struck by how often figures in the narratives are “struck dumb” and “fall to the earth” out of fear and frightful realization of the awesome, sublime power of God.
After his own experience with an angelic being grabbing him bodily and forcing him to recite what would become the Qur’an, the Prophet Muhammad reportedly returned to his wife Khadija “with his heart beating severely,” pleading with her to cover him until his fear had subsided sufficiently for him to recount the experience to her.
And like Edgar Mitchell with his Institute of Noetic Sciences and Frank White with his Overview Institute, these religious experiencers of the Sublime also go on to take up careers in spreading the good news about their experience and the almost ineffable messages they feel were conveyed to them.
Biblical experiences of the Sublime from prophetic narratives, such as those mentioned in the previous paragraphs, often come at the beginnings of the books which contain them, usually in scenes of the prophets’ investitures as prophets. Their experiences of the Sublime mark the start of their prophetic journeys.
In the Book of Mormon, too, the Nephite prophet Alma the Younger embarks upon his calling following a two-day and two-night catalepsy as a result of an experience of the Sublime in the form of an angelic visitation in a storm theophany. When Alma finally awakens from his catatonic state, he feels reborn and dedicates his life to rectifying his earlier sinful persecution of the Church by spreading the gospel (Mosiah 27, Alma 36).
Such is the meme-like quality to reactions to the Sublime I wrote about above, a trait that emerges as particularly pronounced when it comes to the Religious Sublime.
The Religious Sublime at the Foundations of Delayed-Return Religiosity
True to form, many foundation narratives of traditional, delayed-return religions involve the founding figure or first prophet undergoing an experience of the Sublime before subsequently devoting himself (it’s always a he!) to spreading the faith.
I’ve already mentioned something of the Prophet Muhammad’s experience just above.
What’s really interesting about these accounts is that they usually combine a physical setting already known for provoking experiences of the Sublime with the additional element of theophanies and divine visions, rendering them somewhat overdetermined as experiences of sublimity.
Moses’ commission from God in Exodus 3 comes in a remote alpine setting, on a mountain previously associated with a historical religious cult and in the presence of a miraculous fire that fails to consume its source of fuel.
Muhammad’s call to the prophetic life, as narrated in the collection of Sunni hadiths known as the Sahih al-Bukhari 1.1.3, comes in a remote cave called Hira where the chosen Seal of the Prophets was in the habit of secluding himself for reflection and worship. The oldest surviving biography of the Prophet Muhammad by Ibn Ishaq (ca. 704-767 ce) has it that he would retreat to the cave at Hira for a month at a time.
Guru Nanak, the first prophet and teacher of the Sikh religion, recorded in the chief Sikh scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, that, when he was thirty years old, he entered a river to bathe and pray. There, he disappeared in the waters for three days, during which he claims to have been transported to the Divine Court, where he was given food of the gods to eat, received instruction in the words of the foundational prayer known as the Mool Mantar, and accepted his prophetic charge. To the astonishment of the concerned villagers who had dredged the waterway’s floor in search of Nanank’s body, assuming him drowned, the newly minted prophet reappeared from the depths after seventy-two hours and immediately began teaching the Sikh faith.
Even the foundation story of Christianity probably partakes of a significant element of the Sublime in the tales of Jesus’ boyhood visits to Jerusalem (Luke 2: 40-52), followed in quick succession in the Synoptic Gospel tradition by his baptism at the hand of John the Baptist and immediate flight into the desert where Satan tempts the upstart eschatological prophet.
One wonders whether this story sequence might not be the earliest surviving example of what psychologists now call Jerusalem Syndrome, a psychopathology whereby individuals begin exhibiting signs of psychosis bound up with intense religious fervor while visiting the city of Jerusalem, an urban environment steeped for millennia in religious passion and rich history. Jerusalem is, in many ways, the religio-historical equivalent of the type of imposing natural setting that usually occasions feelings of the Sublime.
The November 21, 2017, disappearance of British cyclist Oliver McAfee provides a famous recent example of Jerusalem syndrome afflicting a devout religious individual. McAfee went missing in the Negev desert after leaving behind a trail of pages torn from the Bible and copious notes including references to the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert for forty days and forty nights. He was reportedly following a self-determined pilgrimage route that would take him from north to south across Israel and through the holy city of Jerusalem.
Apparently, cases of Jerusalem Syndrome peaked around the turn of the millennium, but have since fallen back to a stable several per year, most treated by psychiatrists at Jerusalem’s Kfar Shaul Mental Health Center. Many who succumb to the condition have prior personal histories of mental illness, but even those rare few sufferers with no such previous illness share the trait of either being particularly devout ultra-religious individuals themselves or at least of having grown up within ultra-religious families.
The founder of the modern-day Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints or so-called “Mormon” Church, Joseph Smith, wrote of his own prophetic charge experience at the age of just fifteen that it occurred when he had “retired to the woods…on the morning of a beautiful, clear day, early in the spring” (Joseph Smith History 1:14). While praying in the secluded wood, Smith reported a clear experience of the Sublime:
“15 After I had retired to the place where I had previously designed to go, having looked around me, and finding myself alone, I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God. I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction.
16 But, exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me out of the power of this enemy which had seized upon me, and at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction—not to an imaginary ruin, but to the power of some actual being from the unseen world, who had such marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being—just at this moment of great alarm, I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me.
17 It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!”
All of these accounts feature the religious founder alone in some imposing setting prone to occasioning experiences of the Sublime. If my Jerusalem Syndrome speculations about Jesus’ backstory and director Ridley Scott’s version of events surrounding Moses on Mt. Sinai falling and hitting his head hold some truth, many of these stories may also involve actual mental disturbances.
Joseph Smith’s account of his “First Vision” certainly sounds suspiciously like an episode of sleep paralysis, particularly his feeling “bound” by an enemy during the vision. For comparison, hear the story by Moloch Masters entitled “Paralyzed” here. Compare, as well, the repeated mentions in the Sahih al-Bukhari 1.1.3 of Muhammad being “caught…forcefully” and “pressed…so hard that [he] could not bear it anymore.”
The Religious Sublime and Abasement of Humanity
Something else these tales of the Religious Sublime all seem to have in common for the most part, unlike secular ones à la Edgar Mitchell, is that they tend to emphasize a decidedly negative view of humanity and human potential in relation to the source of the Sublime.
That is, while Mitchell may have experienced humanity’s insignificance and a diminution of common human concerns (like policing borders) while in the grips of his revelatory experience of the Overview Effect, religious figures who experience the Sublime tend to come away with a view of human beings as utterly debased before the awesome power and majesty of what is taken for being a god or gods.
These religious experiences of the Sublime may echo the secular ones in their concern for the unsuitability of the one experiencing them for fully articulating and communicating the experience. For reasons discussed above, I’ll call this the “they should have sent a poet” motif. However, in the religious versions of the Sublime, the emphasis falls more heavily on the experiencer’s complete and total lack of ability and education, usually expressed as illiteracy.
For example, in Sikhism, Guru Nanak wrote of his experience of divine calling thusly:
“I was once a worthless minstrel then the Divine One gave me work. … I am completely dumb as I am and I speak as I am made to, by God; I utter and preach the Word just as it comes to me.”
During his encounter in the cave at Hira, Muhammad reportedly pleaded “I do not know how to read” over and over again as he was bodily pressed by the angel commanding him to do just that.
In the Old Testament book of Exodus, when Moses receives his charge from God to go intercede with Pharaoh for the Israelites’ release from bondage in Egypt, he pleads his unworthiness with God: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (Exod 3:11). In the next chapter (Exod 4:10), Moses again despairs of his inability to accomplish his divine mission, imploring God anew: “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”
In his own autobiographical writing, Joseph Smith similarly emphasized his lack of education beyond the rudiments of reading, writing, and arithmetic. In his personal history, the first Mormon prophet wrote of his childhood:
“[A]t the age of about ten years my Father Joseph Smith Seignior moved to Palmyra Ontario County5 in the State of New York and being in indigent circumstances were obliged to labour hard for the support of a large Family having nine chilldren and as it required their exertions of all that were able to render any assistance for the support of the Family therefore we were deprived of the bennifit of an education suffice it to say I was mearly instructtid in reading and writing and the ground <rules> of Arithmatic which const[it]uted my whole literary acquirements” (idiosyncrasies of spelling and grammar retained from original)
Smith would later make much of these humble, obscure origins as juxtaposed and contrasted with the enormity of his self-arrogated mission to found a new religious vision. He wrote of his encounters in trying to spread his new gospel:
“22 I soon found, however, that my telling the story had excited a great deal of prejudice against me among professors of religion, and was the cause of great persecution, which continued to increase; and though I was an obscure boy, only between fourteen and fifteen years of age, and my circumstances in life such as to make a boy of no consequence in the world, yet men of high standing would take notice sufficient to excite the public mind against me, and create a bitter persecution; and this was common among all the sects—all united to persecute me.
23 It caused me serious reflection then, and often has since, how very strange it was that an obscure boy, of a little over fourteen years of age, and one, too, who was doomed to the necessity of obtaining a scanty maintenance by his daily labor, should be thought a character of sufficient importance to attract the attention of the great ones of the most popular sects of the day, and in a manner to create in them a spirit of the most bitter persecution and reviling. But strange or not, so it was, and it was often the cause of great sorrow to myself” (Joseph Smith History 1:22-23, emphasis added).
Intriguingly, quite a similar rhetorical tack shows up in antiquity in a mention by first-century CE Roman historian Tacitus (Annals 2.54) of the oracle of Clarian Apollo located on the coast of Ionia, in the central portion of what is now far-western Turkey. Tacitus writes that the priest, “who is commonly ignorant of letters and poetry,” nonetheless somehow “utters a response in verse answering to the thoughts conceived in the mind of any inquirer.”
The general thrust of this focus in the religious Sublime on human frailty, meekness, and ignorance in the face of the awesome power that provokes the experience has a lot in common with the tone of exaltation and praise of “the Almighty” found in popular Evangelical Christian praise songs, like Rich Mullins’ “Awesome God” and Chris Tomlin’s “How Great is our God.” As with Biblical depictions of storm theophanies, these songs often dwell on God’s acts of creation and His supposed cosmic might.
The Rhetoric of Human Incapacity in the Religious Sublime
As I covered in my piece about the “Wretched Writ” fallacy, however, another, more calculated effect the founder accounts of the Religious Sublime produce by minimizing the knowledge and ability of the would-be prophet is to legitimize the alleged miraculous character of the revelation each is trying to propagate. By emphasizing how unsuitable a vehicle for conveying lofty truth each flawed human messenger is, the accounts suggest that the message could not but be true.
How else than by divine revelation could so uneducated, illiterate, and inarticulate a prophet as [insert founder’s name here] speak such wonders? How indeed?
I’ve mentioned before how modern popular and official apologists of the LDS Church usually turn first in their defenses of the Book of Mormon, which Smith described hyperbolically as “the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion,” precisely to dwelling on Smith’s self-professed want of formal education and his resultant lack of the authorial and editorial skills necessary to produce such a work on his own.
I’ve covered too how Muslim apologists make substantially similar arguments in defending the divine origins of the Qur’an against charges of human authorship at the hand of Muhammad himself.
Paradoxically, then, the Founder Religious Sublime employs the theme of human incapacity as a backhanded means of self-aggrandizement, exalting the would-be prophet and his message. The role of the latter only attains its massive significance and legitimation because it is presented as externalized, resulting from the genius not of humanity (i.e. the prophets themselves), but of a superhuman, divine intelligence.
This is, of course, also why the Religious Sublime always results in the attempted universalization of a particular viewpoint rather than in the particularization of universality itself. That is, delayed-return religious visions adhere to the contours of my ugly “poetic” couplet quoted at the outset of this exposition. They represent a constricting, containing thought- and behavioral structure strictly imposed on the richness of experience from without rather than an attempt to personally approach and come to comprehensible terms with an inexpressible, insane diversity lying outside of oneself.
Remember how one of the chief Biblical examples of the Sublime adduced by the author of On the Sublime came from the first chapter of Genesis and God’s creative acts of speech? For all its supposed debasement of humanity, the Religious Sublime nonetheless centers on the ability of the human intelligence to summon through thoughts and language a structure that it makes real by imposing it on reality itself.
It is this disingenuous combination of seemingly oxymoronic traits—human meekness and prophetic self-aggrandizement, a universal message of supposedly divine provenance crafted and articulated by entirely parochial human minds—that, more than anything else, serves to differentiate the explicitly Religious Sublime from a purely secular experience of sublimity.
The Edgar Mitchells, Michael Collinses, and Frank Whites of the world, meanwhile, for all that they may otherwise resemble religious prophets, seek to push not some supernatural point of view imposed on humanity and the earth out of fear, but rather a wondrous new perspective on human beings and the planet we inhabit gleaned precisely from a more holistic view of the earth and its less particulate, more wave- or field-like nature when glimpsed from the lofty vantage of space.
The Religious Sublime is therefore essentially efferent, emanating from and spreading outward from some source (the putative divine and, more importantly, the prophetic that evokes the divine), while secular experiences of the Sublime remain forever afferent, concerned most with allowing the raging floodwaters of what is without to come rushing in toward and within oneself.
The next post in this series will deal with detailing the many ways in which the constraining, containing function of delayed-return religion limits personal experience of a rich, diverse, and exciting external world.
The Fear-Human Abasement Connection
For now, let me sign off from this rather long post by noting how I suspect that a great deal of the human abasement theme that emerges in religious responses to the Sublime stems from a position of abject fear and self-loathing.
In Matthew Stewart’s 2014 book Nature’s God that has informed several recent posts, there’s a passage where the author quotes a moment of great sagacity as to human nature from the first Earl of Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper’s, 1737 work Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times:
“…[N]o Creature can maliciously and intentionally do ill, without being sensible, at the same time, that he deserves ill. And in this respect, every sensible Creature may be said to have Conscience. For with all Mankind, and all intelligent Creatures, this must ever hold, ‘That what they know they deserve from every-one, that they necessarily must fear and expect from all.’ And thus Suspicions and ill Apprehensions must arise, with Terror both of Men and of the Deity.”
Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I remember being constantly struck by how those most passionately urging religious conversion almost always had a personal narrative of momentous change from some entirely awful, “sinful,” and “fallen” state of life to their newfound religiosity. They all had their stories of having once been fall-down, vehicular homicide drunks; or else voracious womanizers and sexual assailants; or thieves; or porn addicts: you name it.
And these tales of personal failing were always coupled with the message that, since “we’re all sinners,” those of us in the audience should repent and convert too.
But, I thought, I’ve never done those terrible things: never stolen, assaulted, “whored,” or what have you. I’ve never felt so personally broken and fearful of my own out-of-control state. I’d done drugs, sure, drunk alcohol to excess, and consumed plenty of pornography, but I never felt bad about it or unable to manage my passions and still lead a life outside of them.
And so I never understood the appeal of these dire “you better get straight or die”-type messages.
As darling Christian author C. S. Lewis discusses in his posthumously published 1970 essay “God in the Dock,” experiencers and pushers of the Religious Sublime usually begin from a position of fear born of the conviction that they, and indeed all of humanity, are sick or fundamentally flawed in some way. No doubt, that conviction stems from their own upbringing in an environment laden with shame and guilt over natural inclinations and bodily appetites.
They then use this premise of fear and loathing as a wedge to lever doubt into the minds of hearers, with the aim of urging them all to submission.
In his essay, Lewis recalled that, during his experience in trying to address audiences comprised of members of the Royal Air Force on the subject of Christianity, the “greatest barrier” he felt he faced in his task of evangelization was, as he states it, “the almost total absence from the minds of [the] audience of any sense of sin.”
Contrasting preaching in his own day with how he thinks evangelism went in Antiquity, Lewis laments that, whereas the original message of “the Evangelium, the Good News” “promised healing to those who knew they were sick,” “we [in the modern day] have to convince our hearers of the unwelcome diagnosis before we can expect them to welcome the news of the remedy.”
Remember last time how I wrote that delayed-return religiosity “is hawking more than just a putative cure for what ails. It’s actually a key vector for the very affliction itself”? Well, there you have it in a nutshell in C. S. Lewis’ own words.
Lewis even explicitly notes that modern audiences often are not plagued by alcoholism, and the use of modern contraceptives have rendered the “sin against charity” involved in siring and giving birth to bastards a moot point. (He might also have observed—though perhaps the times of his day were not yet so changed—that the social stigma of being born out of wedlock is no longer so pressing as to render producing “bastards” a “sin against charity” at all! Yet again, delayed-return social order gives rise both to the sickness and the purported remedy.)
Thus, Lewis argues, “if we can awake the conscience of our hearers at all, we must do so in quite different directions. We must talk of conceit, spite, jealousy, cowardice, meanness, etc.” Lewis openly advocates for finding some criticism of human nature, however general, with which to awake in his hearers pangs of conscience (read: fear and self-loathing) sufficient to impel them into submission before his religious message.
Even recently deceased progressive Christian author Rachel Held Evans likens the entirety of the Christian church when it’s at its best to the Christian-inflected recovery program Alcoholics Anonymous. She reports that she once admitted in a radio interview that her primary draw to the Christian message stemmed from the fact that “Christianity names and addresses sin. It acknowledges that the evil we observe in the world is also present within ourselves. It tells the truth about the human condition—that we’re not okay.”
And of course, if you were to ask the man C. S. Lewis: it wasn’t his message per se for which he was shilling, but rather God’s. Of course it was. Of course.
Much more likely that possibility than—say—that it represents an entirely human thought structure imposed by collectives keen to enforce a certain kind of delayed-return social order because it has proven enormously competitive and successful over the course of ten thousand years or so of human social evolution.
We might modify the quote from Umberto Eco’s famed novel Name of the Rose about prophets and those prepared to die for the truth, replacing mention of death with fear:
“Fear prophets, Adso, and those prepared to [fear] the truth, for as a rule they make many others [fear] with them, often before them, at times instead of them.”
With the Secular Sublime, there is no such fear born of self-loathing. Only a wider perspective, more holistic outlook, and, in author Matthew Stewart’s repeated turn of phrase, “a more perspicuous understanding.” I hope this exploration of the position of the Sublime within both religious and non-religious outlooks has been able to produce just such perspicuity.