“My terror was the salute that mortal flesh gives to immortal things.” — Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis
Till We Have Faces disturbed me. In fact, the scene that the above quote comes from haunted me for weeks after reading it. In it, the protagonist Orual persuades her beautiful sister Psyche to break her vow and look upon the mysterious mountain god to whom she was betrothed. When Psyche does, she awakens his wrath. Amidst a cataclysm of lightning and splitting rock, Psyche is sent into exile, “to wander, weeping, from land to land; weeping for her lover,” while Orual is left to suffer the realization of her folly.
For some reason, the image of Psyche sentenced to wander the earth, to endlessly relive her sin, stuck with me. It was one of my first realizations that holiness and horror could be mysteriously intertwined.
We don’t often connect horror with holiness. In fact, we tend to see them as polar opposites. While holiness involves purity, light, and righteousness, horror involves fear, impurity, and evil. But the truth is, holiness and horror are far more aligned in the Christian worldview than they’re not.
In the early twentieth century, German theologian Rudolf Otto, in his book “The Idea of the Holy,” coined the term “numinous” to describe religious experience of the “wholly other,” the divine. Wikipedia defines “numinous” thus:
According to Otto the numinous experience has two aspects: mysterium tremendum, which is the tendency to invoke fear and trembling; and mysterium fascinans, the tendency to attract, fascinate and compel. The numinous experience also has a personal quality to it, in that the person feels to be in communion with a Holy other.
Interestingly enough, the root idea of “holiness” is “wholeness.” In this sense, encountering the numinous means both
- Experiencing the “Holy” other
- Experiencing the “Wholly” other
Fear and trembling — or horror — is not just about shock or gore, but about an encounter with Something both Holy and Wholly Other. It is the “salute of terror… mortal flesh gives to immortal things.”
C.S. Lewis’ illustration in The Problem of Pain is helpful in understanding the numinous:
Suppose you were told that there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told “There is a ghost in the next room,” and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is “uncanny” rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread. With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous. Now suppose that you were told simply “There is a might spirit in the room” and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking–described as awe, and the object which excites it is the Numinous.
The visceral fear of a tiger is nothing compared to the awe and dread and disconcertion one would feel encountering the Invisible. But this is exactly the terror induced by the Living God. The apostle Paul describes Him as the One “who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see” (I Tim. 6:15-16). Paul concluded,
“Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men…” (II Cor. 5:11)
“The terror of the Lord.” Apparently, experiencing the Holy contains its own unique terror. Which could explain why the apostle John, upon seeing the glorified Christ, “fell at his feet as though dead” (Rev. 1:17). Which is the exact opposite we’d do upon seeing a tiger.
So while perfect love may cast out all fear (I John 4:18), fear is very much a part of encountering Perfect Love.
Experiencing the Holy, the numinous, is at the heart of the Christian religion. Later on in The Problem of Pain, Lewis ties the idea of the numinous to religious development
…when men identify them [the gods], when the Numinous Power of which they feel awe, is made the guardian of the morality to which they feel obligation.
So not only does mankind instinctively intuit something Other, we seek to put a face on it, to personalize the Ethereal This phenomenon, as Lewis points out, finds its fulfillment in Christ. Christianity is unique in that this “Numinous Power” — this sense of any real morality or holiness — came to earth, became flesh, and dwelt among us.
“…and we beheld His glory, the glory of the One and Only” (John 1:14)
The ultimate Horror is the God-Man, that the Numinous became flesh and dwelt amongst us, that the Unspeakable spoke. Even more terrifying, is that we killed Him.
Holiness and horror intersect at the cross of Christ.
It’s sad that so many have distilled horror, both its psychological components and its genre representations, into something purely pulp, much less something that needs avoided for sanity’s sake. If Jesus Christ is the perfect convergence of a Personally Other, then perhaps horror is also inexplicably bound with our own wholeness.