The Auto-Pygmalion and the Search for the Numinous.
I’ve been in many churches, read many religious texts. I’ve even prayed – though I felt like a bit of a fool at the time – just in case there was something there that might answer. And I’ve never felt anything in response. Not a single part of me stirs to organised religion, or to the texts it is based on – indeed the opposite is the case. It is atheism that sparks my emotional response, my rational understanding. The idea that we stand alone, looking into the abyss, and that that is all there is has something terribly attractive about it, emotionally-speaking. It may be bleak, and wintry, and there may be no hope in it, but the feeling it inspires in me is one of empathy and loyalty. I wonder why this is so? It cannot be just because my reason says that it is truth. If anything, it is the emotional attachment to the feelings that the bleakness of atheism can inspire that is my anchor to it. And yet, those who are religious are often so because of feeling rather than reason. They are like me, in their own way, and I don’t know why. Is there an inadequacy within myself that I can’t recognise or relate to what motivates them: their experience of the numinous as interpreted by their faith?
Yet I don’t believe this is the case. I’ve never been religious, was raised in a family without religion, and yet I know the numinous. Ironically, it was C.S. Lewis who showed the way – I say ironically, because I usually find his reasoning limited and inadequate when it comes to religion. But his feelings I can understand. In the book of his childhood, Surprised by Joy, he talks of his experiences reading northern mythology, and how his reactions to it prepared him for his later conversion to Christianity:
“Pure “Northernness” engulfed me: a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity… and almost at the same moment I knew that I had met this before, long, long ago (it hardly seems longer now) in Tegner’s Drapa, that Siegfried (whatever it might be) belonged to the same world as Balder and the sunward-sailing cranes. And with that plunge back into my own past there arose at once, almost like heart-break, the memory of Joy itself, the knowledge that I had once had what I had now lacked for years, that I was returning at last from exile and desert lands to my own country; and the distance of the Twilight of the Gods, and the distance of my own past Joy, both unattainable, flowed together in a single, unendurable sense of desire and loss, which suddenly became one with the loss of the whole experience, which, as I now stared round that dusty schoolroom like a man recovering from unconsciousness, had already vanished, had eluded me at the very moment when I could first say It is. And at once I knew (with fatal knowledge) that to “have it again” was the supreme and only important object of desire.”
My experience was different from Lewis’. I don’t say that I felt the same thing as he did, but I do recognise his experiences as kin to mine. I never had the childhood memory to forget and then fall back on again. All my experiences have come as an adult, and always from literature – specifically, non-religious literature – or music. It’s rare, but it happens. The literature a reasonable person would expect to find evidence of some sort of spirituality beyond the natural gives me not a shred of emotional response. But the few textual instances that do provoke this response are, as far as I have experienced, limited to the odd, brief passage in fantasy literature – specifically, that literature that resonates with northern mythology.
And welcome as those brief flashes of something beyond what I know to be present are, I find them unsettling.
In normal, everyday environments my atheism functions extremely well. But I would be lying if I said that I didn’t understand the feeling of the numinous, and that I didn’t want to feel it again. If only because to know it and not feel it is becoming unbearable.
Northern mythology tells of a battle called Ragnarök, a final battle where the forces of chaos defeat those or order and cause the destruction of the world. The Völuspá saga tells of the descent into darkness that portends the end, and one of those portents is the monstrous winter – three years of winter without a summer, without sun or warmth. I don’t believe that this is anything more than a story; I don’t have any pagan inclinations. But the metaphor suffices. Lately, I feel as if I have descended into that winter, and I can’t seem to pull myself out.
It’s true that there’s a history of depression in my family, and that I may just be the next one on the genetic tree to get it. All the symptoms are there. It’s also true that to attribute it to any great crisis in non-faith is maybe being just a little bit melodramatic. Who am I that such a crisis should come to me? But increasingly, that monstrous winter is sinking its claws into me, and there’s no-one to talk to about it. I simply don’t trust anyone I know enough to let them see more than a very carefully constructed shell of how I know I should behave. This is where the internet is helpful, because I don’t know anyone reading this, and anyone reading this will never know me, never meet me, never miss me if I can’t find my way out of the ice, find my own path out of Ragnarök and into renewal.
And also increasingly, I begin to feel as if those momentary, scattered experiences of the numinous are all that is holding me together. Again, that may just be a misinterpretation of an experience, or it may be presumption. But I never felt the isolation I feel now before I began to understand the numinous experientially. If it’s a manifestation of some bizarre brain chemistry, I would like to know so that I can learn to recognise it and live without it – I see no point in fostering a delusion for the sake of leaning on some great universal sympathy that doesn’t actually exist. Better to grow a backbone and face my own Fimbulvetr with a little bit of courage. I would almost prefer this, even though I’m not brave and see not possibility of ever becoming so, because the alternative – that there is a reason for the numinous, and that behind that reason is a rationale for leaving me to feel this alone… that is truly unbearable. How can anyone face that with courage, how can that inspire any sort of faith?
I think a person can only get so lonely before the fear of becoming lonelier fails to instil any terror. At that point, you just have to huddle within yourself like some dumb animal and hope that it passes before doing something not very brave at all, like… well, you can guess, I’m sure.
Except it isn’t passing, I’m not a dumb animal who can wait forever, and I am at the point where loneliness has almost ceased to matter. I want answers, and I want not to have to sit through an unending winter to get them. If only because I don’t believe that I can survive it.
How to continue to live as an atheist while still experiencing the numinous… that’s the kind of road-map I don’t seem to be able to find. So where to from here?
Read more of Eva’s posts at her blog.