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Another Perspective

Meeting God Face to Face

Imagine yourself having a direct, personal experience of God, standing face to face with Him. How would you describe the experience? What words would you use?

An early 20th century German Lutheran professor, Rudolf Otto, tried to answer this question.1 To experience God face to face, Professor Otto wrote, is to have an encounter with the Holy. The Holy, he believed, is pre-eminently a living force that is the innermost core of religious experience. Because it is a primary condition of reality it can be discussed but not defined, just as beauty is knowable but not definable.

To describe this kind of experience, one that involves many overwhelming feelings occurring at the same moment, Professor Otto felt the need to invent a new word: numinous. A numinous experience is one that is full of awe, majesty, urgency, dependence, fascination and exaltation simultaneously.

By awe, Professor Otto meant being in the presence of God evokes a primal inward shuddering, terror and fear on the one hand, and reverence on the other. It is an uncanny feeling, eerie, beyond what is normal. He described this inward shuddering as a dread so complete that it “seems to penetrate to the very marrow, making [a person’s] hair bristle and…limb’s quake.”2

The majesty of God creates a self-consciousness, a “creature-feeling” of being nothing before the enormity, power and presence of the Holy. The mysterious Other is beyond our apprehension and comprehension – it is wholly Other. Awareness of being in the presence of a Power that has absolute supremacy induces the feeling of humility. It is to express the feelings of awe, majesty, and humility in the Christian celebration of the Eucharist that “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts: Heaven and earth are full of your Glory. Glory to you, O Lord Most High” is recited just before the priest asks God to sanctify the bread and wine.

By urgency Professor Otto was referring to the vitality, passion, will, force, movement, excitement, activity, and impetus of the Holy. The use of urgency was his attempt at describing the compelling aliveness intrinsic in such a moment.

Besides awe, majesty and urgency, there are also feelings of wonder, rapture and exaltation. Professor Otto wrote that at the highest point of stress during the encounter, the fascinating becomes "overabounding, exuberant." This is why the Sufi Rumi danced when he worshipped God and his followers were called Whirling Dervishes. There is an ecstasy to the moment. Trust and love are part of the experience. There is the feeling of grace that God has allowed the meeting, is protecting us through it, and bestowing bliss beyond compare. Professor Otto writes of the experience of meeting God face to face: “By its all-pervading, penetrating glow it makes these very blessings more than the intellect can conceive in them or affirm of them. It gives the peace that passes understanding, and of which the tongue can only stammer brokenly. Only from afar, by metaphors and analogies, do we come to apprehend what it is in itself, and even our notion is but inadequate and confused.”3

Meeting God face to face, engaging the Holy Other, is a life transforming experience. We are not the same after it. Is it any wonder that some individuals who have had such a meeting speak of themselves as being born again? Have you had a numinous experience? What words do you use to describe what you experienced?
1 Professor Otto wrote in 1923 what has become a classic: The Idea of the Holy. (New York: Oxford University Press).
2 Page 16. The feeling of dread is present in Jewish religious practices. Only the High Priest could enter into the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem. This could occur only once a year. For anyone else to enter or for the High Priest to enter unprepared would result in instant death.
3 Pages 33-34.
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