This is Thomas Carlyle, following Plato, picturing a man, a deep pagan thinker, who has grown to maturity in some hidden cave and is brought out suddenly to see the sun rise:
"What would his wonder be, his rapt astonishment at the sight we daily witness with indifference! With the free, open sense of a child, yet with the ripe faculty of a man, his whole heart would be kindled by that sight . . . This green flowery rock-built earth, the trees, the mountains, rivers, many-sounding seas; that great deep sea of azure that swims overhead; the winds sweeping through it; the black cloud fashioning itself together, now pouring out fire, now hail and rain; what is it? Ay, what? At bottom we do not yet know; we can never know at all.
"It is not by our superior insight that we escape the difficulty, it is by our superior levity, our inattention, our want of insight. It is by not thinking that we cease to wonder at it . . . We call the fire of the black thundercloud 'electricity,' and lecture learnedly about it, and grind the like of it out of glass and silk: but what is it? Whence comes it? Whither goes it? Science has done much for us; but it is a poor science that would hide from us the great deep sacred infinitude of Nescience, whither we can never penetrate, on which all science swims as a mere superficial film. This world, after all our science and sciences, is still a miracle; wonderful, inscrutable, magical and more, to whosoever will think of it."
Growing up, the more seriously I considered the naked existence of the universe, the more open I became to the fact that I simply didn't have a good reason to be an atheist. Yes, I could find no proof of a creator, yet the universe always left such a profound impression on me; always with the sense of, as Wordsworth described, 'something far more deeply interfused.' Most notably, certain experiences I had which bordered on pure dread. I found very little literature to corroborate what I encountered; most significantly, "Cosmic Consciousness" by Dr. Richard M. Bucke. Another was, Rudolph Otto, and his book, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational. Here is an excerpt from a website concerning his theories about the mysterium tremendum which I will quote at length:
"In The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational, Rudolph Otto identifies and explores the non-rational mystery behind religion and the religious experience ("non-rational" should not be confused with "irrational" ) he called this mystery, which is the basic element in all religions, the numinous. He uses the related word "numen" to refer to deity or God.
"Forced, necessarily, to use familiar words, like "dread" and "majesty," Otto insists that he is using them in a special sense; to emphasize this fact, he sometimes uses Latin or Greek words for key concepts. This fact is crucial to understanding Otto. Our feeling of the numinous and responses to the numinous are not ordinary ones intensified; they are unique (I use this word in its original meaning of "one of a kind, the only one" ) or sui generis (meaning "in a class by itself" ). For example, fear does not become dread in response to the numinous; rather, we cease to feel ordinary fear and move into an entirely different feeling, a dread that is aroused by intimations of the numinous or the actual experience of the numinous.
"The word "absolute" is used in its metaphysical sense of "existing without relation to any other being; self-existent; self-sufficing" (OED), its adjectival form, "absolutely," is used with the same meaning. Finally, by "creature," Otto means a "being which has been created."
"The numinous grips or stirs the mind powerfully and produces the following responses:
"Numinous dread. Otto calls the feeling of numinous dread, aka awe or awe-fullness, the mysterium tremendum. C.S. Lewis's illustration makes clear the nature of numinous dread and its difference from ordinary fear:
"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 mysterium tremendum implies three qualities of the numinous:
a. its absolute unapproachability,
b. its power,
c. its urgency or energy, a force which is most easily perceived in the "wrath of God."
Stupor. Because the mysterium tremendum is wholly Other, i.e., is unlike anything that we have encountered or ever will encounter, it arouses in us a mental state of stupor, a "blank wonder, an astonishment that strikes us dumb, amazement absolute."
The shudder. In this state, the soul, "held speechless, trembles inwardly to the farthest fibre of its being ... it implies that the mysterious is beginning to loom before the mind, to touch the feelings."
"Creature-consciousness and the simultaneous experiencing of the self as nothing. Creature-consciousness is the awareness of ourselves as having being or of existing. The nothingness is not a sense of guilt for a transgression, but the sense of being profane, which is the opposite state to the holy or holiness, which is an absolute quality belonging just to God. Only the person who is "in the spirit" can experience profaneness, which Otto describes as a "piercing acuteness... accompanied by the most uncompromising judgment of self-depreciation, a judgment passed, not upon his character because of individual ‘profane' actions but upon his very existence as creature before that which is supreme above all creatures." I think of profane nothingness as feeling, "I am nothing in the presence of that which is all." In this state, we are moved to praise the might of the numen, because its might demands praise and even more because it is absolutely deserving of praise. This sense of nothingness, which Otto calls "disvalue,"becomes a sin or sacrilege if the numinous is perceived in or confined to a moral framework; it has no necessary connection to moral judgments.
"Sense of unworthiness and need for "covering." Accompanying the disvaluation of self is the feeling of being unworthy to be in the presence of "the holy one" (we fear that our presence might even defile him). Being profane, we need a "covering," in Otto's term, or a consecration or grace, "that renders the approacher ‘numinous,' frees him from his ‘profane' being," so that he is no longer unfit to relate to the numen.
"The numinous has another aspect which co-exists with the mysterium tremendum, the power to fascination. The numinous fascinates or draws us to it with a force that is nearly irresistible. Otto calls the alluring quality of the numinous the mysterium fascinosum. At its most intense, this fascination becomes "exuberant" and transforms into the mystical "moment" or direct, complete contact with the numen, a state which few people experience. The numinous dread and the fascinating "combine in a strange harmony of contrasts," which Otto calls the mysterium tremendum and fascinosum
"Human beings as a species have the a priori capacity of mind to perceive or experience the numinous. This is not to say that the ability to perceive the holy, let alone the perception itself is innate; it merely means that every individual has the potential to perceive or experience the numinous. The numinous state of mind or the feeling of the numinous must be evoked in us or brought into consciousness; it cannot be taught.
"The human soul has parallels with the divine or numinous; it too is "mystery and marvel," undefinable, and "wholly alien" to our understanding. Insight into the soul comes, when it does, as an eruption, a flash or burst of illumination. The numinous-ness of the human soul is what enables the mystic to apprehend the numinous."
My questions are: Have you ever experienced this 'Numinous'? If you are an atheist, what led you to rule out the possibility of a God altogether? Do you forsee an absolute limit to what we can know about existence? Do you accept Nescience? What is the significance of beauty in your particular world-view? Or holiness? Most importantly, does the mystery of existence disturb the surety of your atheism? EDIT: should it?