Is this the Region, this the Soil, the Clime,
Said then the lost Arch Angel, this the seat
That we must change for Heav’n, this mournful gloom
For that celestial light?

—John Milton, Paradise Lost

The term numinosity isn’t too well-known beyond the academic world of religious studies and anthropology. In a sense, numinosity is like the more familiar term luminosity. But numinosity refers to a subtle, spiritual light instead of an outwardly visible light like the luminosity of the moon.

While numinosity and luminosity may coexist, they remain somehow different. The term first appears, perhaps, in 1647 when Nathaniel Ward wrote in The simple cobler of Aggawam in America:

The Will of a King is very numinous; it hath a kinde of vast universality in it.¹

Rudolf Otto

In his groundbreaking work, The Idea of the Holy (1923), the Lutheran theologian Rudolf Otto uses the term numinous to describe a personal experience of spiritual power. Otto borrows from the ancient Latin, numen, usually translated as “the presence of a god or goddess,” or more precisely, “the power or nod of a deity.”

For Otto, numinosity originates from outside the self but is perceived within. And as a higher process than the magical, the numinous takes many forms. Otto says the numinous has primitive, daemonic and dark as well as elevated, noble and pure aspects.2 He calls the absolute and purest experience of the numen “the Holy.” Sometimes Otto implies that the numinous is identical among all religions. Other times he reveals a definite Christian bias, suggesting that the numinosity experienced through the Bible and by various Christian mystics is absolute and pure.

From today’s standards, Otto’s definition of numinosity seems a bit vague and unsystematic. But his work is regarded as a milestone and continues to have a profound influence within depth psychology and comparative religion.

C. G. Jung

The Swiss psychiatrist C. G. Jung’s view of numinosity builds on Otto’s. For Jung, numinosity is an alteration of consciousness involving an experience of spiritual power. Like Otto, Jung differentiates types or qualities of numinosity. But Jung’s work is arguably more detailed and systematic than Otto’s.

According to Jung, numinosity may be healing or destructive, this depending on the strength and attitude of the conscious ego along with the particular character of a given numinous power. Psychologically speaking, healing numinosity involves personal humility while destructive numinosity may lead to neurotic self-debasement or, alternately, self-aggrandizement.

But this just scratches the surface. In actual fact, the relation between the character of the psyche and type of numinosity experienced is as complicated as life, itself.

Jung also says the light of the numinous passes through the lens of the personal unconscious. A traumatized person, for instance, may distort the numinous, turning what could be positive spiritual experiences into paranoia. Accordingly, an unhealthy psyche may distort some forms of the numinous into something frightening and demonic. Meanwhile, a healthy psyche may be able to distance itself from a dark numinous trigger, thus converting the whole experience into a positive—e.g. enjoying a scary Batman movie.

But it’s not quite that simple because Jung says the experience of the numinous is really the experience of an archetype. And not all archetypes are created equally.

Through years of professional practice, Jung observed different types of archetypal energies. Specific types of numinosity are often attracted by the psyche. And the type of power attracted depends, in large part, on the health of the psyche. Imbalanced, immature and grandiose personalities, for instance, may invite and come to identify with archetypal forces reinforcing an imbalanced, grandiose outlook on life.

On the other hand, Jung says that the psyche is on a natural trajectory towards health and balance, which he calls wholeness. This natural tendency to become whole involves the experience of positive, healing instances of numinosity which may heal psychological wounds lingering in the personal unconscious.

Mircea Eliade

Many suggest that the numinous is identical among all spiritual and religious paths. Some say that visiting a Mosque or a Hindu temple is just the same as entering into a Catholic cathedral or Jewish temple. The Romanian scholar, Mircea Eliade, however, builds on Otto and Jung’s work by noting that numinosity exhibits diverse intensities, qualities and effects.3

Never trying to place religious experience into some kind of forced, politically correct homogeneity, Eliade is just as interested in difference as he is in similarity. And he does an admirable job of outlining these differences by examining a staggering amount of religious data (something that many mediocre scholars fail to do).

Freud, Marx, Weber and Beyond

While the experience of the numinous may be influenced by the unconscious, it seems superficial to reduce so many diverse accounts of numinosity to mere regression. And that’s pretty much what Sigmund Freud did.

Freud saw the numinous in terms of remembering a unified “oceanic bliss” which everyone apparently basked in within the mother’s womb. Perhaps Freud’s greatest flaw was his inability to appreciate the upper reaches of the spiritual life. A genius no doubt, Freud nonetheless reduced all things spiritual to all things psychological.

For centuries, saints, seers, gurus and shamans have claimed to work in numinous realms. The idea of the numinous is found in virtually all spiritual traditions. This emphasis on the numinous arguably separates religion from mere social movements such as Marxism and the often reductive claims of postmodernism. Some say, however, that Max Weber’s sociological term charisma might act as a bridge between spirit and society.4

The scholar of religion, Ninian Smart, suggests that people using the term numinous tend to view the Godhead as something other—that is, beyond self and cosmos. Those using the term mysticism, Smart says, tend to see self and Godhead as one.

Although riddled with generalities and, arguably, errors, I quote Smart at length because he provides some thought-provoking contrasts:

If you stress the numinous, you stress that our salvation or liberation (our becoming holy) must flow from God or the Other…though his grace. You also stress the supreme power and dynamism of God as creator of this cosmos. If on the other hand, you stress the mystical and the non-dual, you tend to stress how we attain salvation or liberation through our own efforts at meditation… There is another way in which we may look at the distinction between the numinous and the mystical. In the numinous, the Eternal lies, so to speak, beyond the cosmos and outside the human being. In the mystical, the Eternal somehow lies within us. In the first case we need to be dependent on the Other, in the second case we may rely on our own powers. The numinous, in encouraging worship, encourages a loving dependence on the Other. The mystical, in encouraging meditation, encourages a sense of self-emptying…The two can go together. But there are differing accents.5

Again, this is an oversimplification beset with difficulties. But in his defense, Smart attempts to differentiate various modalities of religious experience.

Joseph Campbell in The Masks of God also differentiates several types of religious experience. For our purposes we’ll break these down into two Weberian ideal types:

  1. Those who see themselves as perfectly holy and equal to God—i.e. a pure manifestation of God on Earth.
  2. Those who see God as holy, regarding themselves as imperfect, individual creatures created by God.

While these are ideal types, the differences they suggest are observable. Like Jung, Campbell says the first type usually leads to self-aggrandizement as the ego identifies with a spiritual power or powers which are less than God. The second type often leads to humility and the experience of God’s grace, a grace which originates from beyond the self.

Great historical figures have spoken about the numinous as a spiritual realm pervading the visible world. The Bengali Nobel Prize laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, for instance, termed this subtle presence the surplus. But it’s important to remember that this ‘surplus’ is described differently among world traditions. And even within a single tradition, individual difference seems to be the norm.

One could spend a lifetime experiencing and reflecting on the complexities of the numinous. And even then, its diversity and subtle interpersonal dynamics most likely would not fully be understood.6

In my Father’s house there are many mansions

John 14:2


1. Oxford English Dictionary

2. a) Otto says a morally evil action is “self-depreciating” and “pollutes,” leading toward imagery that suggests the need for “washing and cleansing.” Otto, Rudolf. The Idea of the Holy, second edition, trans. John W. Harvey, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973 [1923], p. 55.

b) See my outline of Otto’s The Idea of the Holy.

3. See, for instance, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom.

4. The issue of Weber’s term charisma as a bridge between sociology and spirituality is elaborated upon by George Hansen in The Trickster and the Paranormal.

5. Ninian Smart, Worldviews: Crosscultural Explorations of Human Beliefs (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1983), pp. 71-72. Many use the term mysticism in the I-Thou sense as outlined by Martin Buber.

6. The interpenetration of numinosity from one living being to another is hinted at in many traditions, to include C. G. Jung’s psychological treatment of alchemy. The psychoanalytic terms transference and countertransference arguably point in a similar direction—especially the idea of syntonic countertransference. As for the transfer and intermingling of numinosity from an object to a person, here we have the much misunderstood anthropological term, fetish.

Numinosity – Another kind of light Copyright © Michael Clark. All rights reserved.