Jung, the numinosum, and holy dread
Recently on Twitter I had a conversation with David Metcalfe and jadkr — worthy conversationalists indeed — about the ultimate outcome of the dread-filled confrontation between the individual self and the shimmering emptiness of the infinite, the void, the Godhead. The spur for this was my tweeting of a link to an interview with Nancy Evans Bush, former president of the International Association for Near-Death Studies, about the phenomenon of negative NDEs, those that involve experiences of great distress and fear as opposed to the stereotypically reported experiences of love and comfort. Her own NDE, she said, which she experienced many years ago while giving birth, “was not a radiant experience; it was an utterly terrifying experience of the void.”
Our Twitter conversation finally came down to the question of whether the dread-filled response to the infinite, tinged with unpleasantness, sublime terror, and even — as I’ve tried to convey in my books (written from personal experience) — outright horror, is a permanent feature of the experience or a provisional one. David and jadkr averred that it’s the latter, saying that in many ways the negative NDE, and negative responses to the void in general, are entirely in line with, and can therefore be taken to some degree as resulting from, modern ego-bound notions of selfhood, and that, therefore, true maturation in matters of spiritual and psychological depth will eventually convey a person past them. For my part, although I agree with this, I’m also inclined to regard the dread-filled experience as permanent on a certain level, as an inherent experiential reality of the divine-human relationship. Much as orthodox Christian theology holds that an eternal relationship of love characterizes the “divine economy” of the Trinity (the inner transactional relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost), so we humans in our finite, cosmically bounded ego selves are joined with the Godhead in an eternal — but not mutual — hypostatic union of divine dread. Moving past it into a deeper identification doesn’t change this truth, which still subsists whenever we inhabit the ego’s viewpoint.
So that was our discussion a few days ago. Now comes this fine essay/meditation from a writer for the newsletter of the C.G. Jung Society of Vermont to elaborate on these very things. Witness these excerpts, which expound my own point:
[J]ung made it clear…that confronting the Divine is never a pleasant experience for the ego. This is because of pride: the ego “does not like to think consciousness might lose its ascendancy.” The ego fancies it is in control and is forced to face its smallness and limitations when the Self appears. More broadly, Jung addressed this issue in his discussions of the numen, the numinous, the numinosum and numinosity.
[. . .] Some of the positive qualities of the numinosum include: sublimity, awe, excitement, bliss, rapture, exaltation, entrancement, fascination, attraction, allure, and what Otto called an “impelling motive power.” Not so pleasant are other qualities like: overwhelment, fear, trembling, weirdness, eeriness, humility (an acute sense of unworthiness), urgency, stupor (blank wonder), bewilderment, horror, mental agitation, repulsion, and haunting, daunting, monstrous feelings, that “overbrim the heart.” Otto speaks at length of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the fascinating mystery that makes us tremble (in awe).
[. . .] Jung understood that “to have fallen into the hands of the living God” — that is, to be confronted with the Divine — would produce an affect, a feeling response. Most translations of the Greek of Hebrews 10:31 use the word “fearful,” as the response brought up when a person confronts the Self…Jung felt that organized religions, with their rituals and dogmas, provide a “defense” against this experience. But those on the path of individuation cannot avoid it… [N]uminous dreams, synchronicities, and life experiences confront them frequently, calling up that “holy dread,” reminding the ego of its modest place compared to the Self.” (“Jung and the Numinosum,” March 5, 2010)
In the full essay, the writer makes it clear that Jung viewed the dread-filled response to the numinosum as both an organically occurring psychic coloration whose purpose is to lead one beyond the exclusive confines of ego identification and a permanent feature of the relationship between the ego and the Self. Which is, in fact, my own view as well.