Unlike the triumphant ideals of love, hope, and charity, the dark side of religion—that vortex of dread, sin, hell, and the wrath of God—has been mocked and ridiculed out of mainstream society. But in our condescension towards this seemingly archaic side of religion, we have lost something of great significance. Religion in the developed world is preoccupied with happiness and attracting followers; however, religion in the past found the task of reconciling people to the otherness of God fearsome. While religious congregations still sing about an awesome God, nobody is really afraid. We have forgotten that God must be known through darkness as well as light. The apprehension of the divine in Western Christianity has become listless compared to other traditions, like Orthodox Judaism and Islam, which adhere more closely to ancient faiths.

Rudolf Otto in his 1917 classic, The Idea of the Holy, explains that religion begins with a sense of ‘something uncanny,’ ‘eerie,’ or ‘weird’ that when most acutely experienced causes the soul to tremble “inwardly to the farthest fibre of its being.” This experience is the quintessential response to an encounter with the otherness of God. It is the response of Job when he exclaims, “My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” There is something about Job’s abject state when confronted by the Almighty that is critical to the unadorned religious experience. Examples of religious dread are common in the West, but the theophany in the Bhagavad-Gita rivals anything in the Bible. It begins when Prince Aryuna asks his chariot driver, who is the avatar of Vishnu, if he can see God in his divine form. Aryuna is given a divine eye, without which he can neither see nor approach Vishnu, and immediately Aryuna exclaims that the universe quakes:

For as I behold Thee touching the heavens, glittering, many-hued, with yawning mouths, with wide eyes agleam, my inward soul trembles, and I find not constancy nor peace, O Vishnu.

Seeing Thy mouths grim with teeth, like to the fire of the last day, I recognize not the quarters of the heavens, and take no joy; Lord of Gods, home of the universe, be gracious!

Similarly, in the Torah an encounter with God could result in death and the prophets were required to avert their eyes. Among the Jews at the time of Christ, “God-fearing” was a description of righteousness. To be fearful of God is even expressed as a blessing during the celebration of Yom Kippur:

So then, let Thy fear, O Yahweh our God, come over all Thy creatures, and reverent dread of thee upon all that Thou hast made, that all Thy creatures may fear Thee and every being bow before Thee …

In Revelation, God has a sharp sword coming out of his mouth “with which to strike down the nations,” and the Letter to the Hebrews warns that, “it is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” This aspect of God is also celebrated in the first known Eucharistic hymn which begins, “Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand.” For Otto, all this language of wrath and dread is really code for “something supra-rational that throbs and gleams, palpable and visible.” Wrath and jealousy are semi-rational states that seize us in the natural world and help us relate to a God who cannot be understood through reason.

Related to and closely following this early experience of religious dread and awe is a sense of impotence and nothingness compared to overpowering might that Otto calls “creature-feeling.” Creature feeling initiates Job’s self-depreciating response, which we can also see in the words of Peter when he addresses Christ: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” The prophet Isaiah more colorfully evokes the same apprehension:

“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”

Otto believed that we have an innate desire for repentance that cannot be explained by any system of morality. It is an instinctive and spontaneous urge caused when we approach the divine. A feeling of sinfulness arises from a recognition of the holy that is contrasted to our profane and unholy state because the creature is too small and limited to bear the infinite. This is the reason why the prophets had to avert their eyes. For the same reason, prehistoric people participated in purification rituals before they approached the holy. Sin is what separates us from the eternal, and the saints have always accepted the reality of their own sinfulness. The Chandogya Upanishad explains: “There is a bridge between time and Eternity; and this bridge is Atman, the Spirit of man. Evil or sin cannot cross that bridge, because the world of the spirit is pure.” Augustine, who wrote so poignantly about communion with God, was similarly concerned about the impediment of sin:

My soul’s house is narrow for you to enter; will you not make it broader? It is in a state of collapse; will you not rebuild it? It contains things which must offend your eyes; this I know and admit. But who will make it clean? To whom, except you, shall I cry: Lord, cleanse me from my secret faults, and spare thy servant from the power of the enemy.

“I am a man of unclean lips” is the cry that bursts forth from every one of us, the Jewish theologian Will Herberg writes, “whenever the force of existence smashes through the hard crust of egocentric self-deception.” Martin Luther, who possessed a deep sense of creatureliness, was horrified by his followers who claimed direct “conversation,” which he thought trivialized the terrible majesty of the Creator, the unendurable glory that has to be veiled in the flesh of Jesus crucified. For Luther, grace begins in the experience of alienation and a sense of condemnation. Existential dread brings about one’s total poverty, the “emptying out” of human righteousness and conceit which makes redemption through God’s grace possible. Redemption cannot come from our own efforts alone. Like Aryuna, who required a divine eye to see Vishnu, we instinctively grasp for a divine gift or grace, received through sacrifice and repentance, which renders us fit to approach the numinous.

The secularization of the larger culture may partially explain our loss of religious dread, but Otto blamed religious institutions themselves, beginning with the importance placed on doctrine over practice by Aquinas in the Middle Ages. Like Carl Jung, Otto believed the intellectualizing of rituals and religious narrative has made them earthbound and godless. During the 100 years since Otto wrote The Idea of the Holy, the experience of the holy has continued to diminish in the West as religion has become tamer and more approachable. Sacred music has become a performance enjoyed by an audience instead of a prayer joined in by a congregation. Piety and ritual have been replaced by morality and sermonizing. Words like sin and wrath, outside of the Evangelical community, are muted because they are thought to be reactionary. However, the dark side of religion cannot be completely vanquished because human reason pales in the comparison to the highest reality, which is known through the light and the darkness of the religious experience.

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  1. Thanks, Mr. Renuart, for an excellent article providing much fuel for reflection. The greatest insulator from reality is electricity. Along with its handmaiden, technology, it dulls the everyday experience of the holy that is so evident in a life lived closer to nature. The Promethean fire of electricity provides humans with an unmerited sense of mastery of nature’s resources, limits, cycles, balances, and ecosystems. The Stoic ideal of a life lived according to nature has always been made difficult by human fragility, but it becomes more arduous when we have destroyed the reference. Thanks again for the thought-provoking essay.

  2. A good little book that touches on these themes is Dale Allison’s The Luminous Dusk, a/k/a The Silence of Angels in its earlier printing. The latter version includes a couple essays not in the original.

  3. As someone who grew up in a rather irreligious household who is thinking about converting to Catholicism, this touched me in many ways. We are creatures who love to sin, to paraphrase Augustine, unworthy of the Lord’s mercy; yet He died on a cross so that we may have salvation. /God/ died /for us/, lowly, sinful beings. He can be wrathful, but He loves us. He hates our sins, and died so that we could be saved from them, should we follow Him. This is not the image of Christ as someone who loves everything about you, not the “live and let live” God of the modern, secular world, but a God with stern rules who demands you follow those rules to become a better person, to live a life closer to that which you were meant to live. The God-of-the-world only says “He who is without sin cast the first stone;” the God that saves mankind also adds: “Now go, and sin no more.” I think the rise of the God-of-the-world over the Savior of Mankind — the “live and let live” God and the God with rules — goes hand in hand with what you describe above. These are byproducts, I think, of the conditions of modernity: everything is a commodity, and human existence is reduced down to hedonistic pleasure. We only want instant gratification, and we only seek that. But at what cost? Was the modernity we got ever actually worth it? Perhaps to those at the very top. But what about everyone else? Is a “cyberpunk dystopia without the aesthetics” really worth it? Is a world where technocapital rules over a man divorced from his God, his plot of earth, his little platoons, his history worth it to anyone? In this world of maximum pleasure, no God of wrath is palatable, nor desirable: all people seem to want with regards to God — if they want anything at all to do with Him — is a God who affirms their decisions, affirms their “identity”, affirms whatever /bon mots du jour/ they obsess over. No God to set down stern rules and to raise man up from his sinful state and say “Come with me, my child, and live forever.” Perhaps the fact that traditionalist Catholic churches tend to be composed of young people is a sign in the right direction, but in the meantime, may we find it in our hearts, when the high wears off, to seek salvation from the Savior of Mankind, not comfort ourselves in the false holiness of the God-of-the-World. May the Lord have mercy on all of us sinners, especially those who are blind to him. May we find it in our hearts to cry “Miserere mei, Deus!” Lord knows I, at least, am trying.

    Apologies if I went off.

  4. Well said, Mr. Rashti! In essence, unlike today’s ‘god of the world’, He actually requires a lot from us, just as His Son gave His all for us through his suffering and death on the cross. I am in awe of your incisive apprehension of the current state of religion. But do I understand correctly that you are still thinking about converting to Catholicism? If so, please, please, please do so! But not to the hollow and disappointing novus ordo rite, but to the Traditional Latin Mass which actually requires something of us. With your extensive knowledge of the Doctors of the Church, you would be a tremendous asset, and an inspiration to us fellow converts.
    Blessings to you!

  5. Yes! I always find it moving on Palm Sunday when the congregation repeats: “Crucify him! Crucify him!” The participation in that phrase is always so resounding. It is when we truly own our sinfulness and our creaturely existence. I think faith advances during existential crises.

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