The Numinous According to C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain deals with the apparent paradox of evil in the world and Christian belief in a benevolent deity. As with all of his works, Lewis’ explanation throws off some wonderful tangential insights. Here I am thinking of his opening chapter, which discusses the difference between the “numinous” (spiritual world) and the moral life.

Lewis begins by critiquing the materialistic view that man’s idea of the numinous simply grew out of his fears and sense of awe in dealing with the natural world. The problem is that there is nothing in everyday experience that could produce an apparently superfluous supernatural response, unless of course the spiritual life is something that really does exist on its own. Nor can the numinous be reduced psychologically to the level of “wish fulfillment.” Scriptural Judaism and Christianity, after all, seem more likely to hamper than to fulfill many of our mundane desires.

Since the majority of people are not hardened atheists (though they are often spiritually vague), a more useful distinction is not between belief and unbelief, but between the numinous and moral realms. As Lewis explains:

The Numinous is not the same as the morally good, and a man overwhelmed with awe is likely, if left to himself, to think the numinous object “beyond good and evil.”

This is true of many forms of superstition which are utterly devoid of ethics. The devotee is concerned with obtaining personal satisfaction and avoiding inconvenience, not obeying some higher code of right and wrong. Lewis says that such individuals may worship “sexuality, or the dead, or the lifeforce, or the future” without being “righteous.”

Atheism is a hot topic. But it was never much of a temptation for me. On the other hand spiritual pursuits can be confusing and full of pitfalls. There are people who are fixated on the sensational and bizarre, willing to believe in vampires, ghosts and demonic possession, without any consideration of God’s presence. Spiritual frivolity lends itself to stupid and exploitative cults. Nor is belief in evil sufficient by itself. Lewis discusses both pagans and puritans whose religion is driven chiefly by fear.

The [Calvinst] doctrine of Total Depravity—when the consequence is drawn that, since we are totally depraved, our idea of good is worth simply nothing—may thus turn Christianity into a form of devil-worship.

I accept with Lewis that the spiritual dimension necessarily perfects and upholds the moral.  Yet I admire someone like Malcolm Muggeridge who was ethically a Christian long before he became a believer. Compared to many other inward journeys, Muggeridge undoubtedly chose the harder, more nobler path. Some will embrace religion, but only for its showy “numinous” qualities, like the mania for apparitions or tent revival exorcisms. Without the moral component we are like the “wicked and unfaithful generation that asks for a sign” (Mt. 16:4). Religion must more than another form of entertainment, vanity or self-gratification.

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