Numinous & Ineffable

Now there’s a pair of words that you rarely encounter!   And if you don’t recognize them as something that applies to the ordinary experiences of life – well, that’s kind of what both of them are about — things that totally transcend the ordinary!  And that’s why we want to talk about them today: both are terms that apply to how we mortal humans experience God.

Ineffable is memorably defined by a little joke:

Teacher: “Johnny, define ‘ineffable.’”

Johnny (squirming nervously): “Well, I can’t put it in words.”

Teacher: “Exactly right!”

(But if you insist on a dictionary definition, here it is: “Too great or extreme to be expressed or described with words.”)

If ever there was a word that seems to have been invented precisely for talking about God, ineffable is it!  Sure, we throw around words like almighty, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, etc.  But those are merely adjectives that state an attribute of the Divine reality, and really don’t come to grips with the essence of who or what He truly is.  And it’s not just that we haven’t yet invented the right words to describe Him – we don’t have even the imagination to conceive of a being who is so totally OTHER.  Indeed, “I AM WHO I AM” is the mysterious way God identifies Himself (Exodus 3:14).

For some skeptics, the ineffability of God is a big part of their problem: how can anyone take seriously a being that’s simply inexplicable?   And that’s where the word numinous comes in.  It’s perhaps an even more obscure word than ineffable (if that’s possible), but on the other hand it describes something that most humans can relate to: “Having a strong religious or spiritual quality, indicating or suggesting the presence of a divinity.”  So, when you see an incredible sunset and are overwhelmed by the sense that ‘someone’ had to have intended this beauty, you are having a numinous experience.   Similarly, when your spirit is touched by the words of a hymn or the soaring strains of a symphony, when you hold your newborn infant and your heart overflows with the goodness of God, or when you sense God’s very presence in prayer, you are the having a numinous experience.  Many of the Psalms speak of a numinous experience, and we attend worship with that hope.  If you’ve ever stood in awe in the soaring space of a medieval cathedral or felt your heart pulled by the haunting spiritual Were You There When They Crucified My Lord, you know that Christians of all generations and cultures have consciously sought the numinous in their worship.  And when it happens, it is indeed a gift of God’s grace.

Because we seek it so avidly, we might expect that the numinous experience is confined only to those who have a heightened awareness of God through their spiritual practices.  But there’s lots of evidence to the contrary.  There is a vast literature, spanning across all civilizations and cultures, of persons whose lives were transformed by a numinous experience that came upon them unsought.  And if you talk to any serious scientist or mathematician, you will hear them speak in awe of the transcendent beauty and order they encounter when peering through a microscope or telescope or pondering the mathematical relationships that so elegantly describe the behavior of galaxies and atoms.  Indeed, one discovers that for many ardent skeptics, a fundamental objection to conventional religious beliefs is that their mental image of a god isn’t ‘big enough’ to account for the incredible wonders that they encounter in their explorations of the natural world.

So far as we know, no other creature on earth has the experience of the numinous, yet it is a universal characteristic of mankind.  We can reasonably conclude that this gift is an aspect of what it means that we are created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27).  And we also recognize that the numinous experience is one of the means by which God makes His presence known to all mankind (Psalm 19:1, Romans 1:19-20).  But, thanks be to Him, our salvation does not depend on coming to grips with the ineffable nature of God nor is it limited to our experience of the numinous.  Rather, God has given us His own Son, a human like us, who lived on this earth to pay the sacrificial price for our redemption.  In Jesus Christ we have “God in flesh made manifest!”

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