Sunday, 20 September 2015

Death and The Presence of God - Part 1

Encountering God (theophany) is depicted as an experience that guarantees death. For instance the two episodes of Gideon (Judges 6:22-23) and Manoah (Judges 13:22), in both cases subjects fear for their lives, "you are not going to die," or "we shall surely die, for we have seen God." What is interesting to observe is both Gideon (Judges 6:17-18) and Manoah (13:17;22) wishes a repeat audience with the visitor even though already in the first encounter they sense the unearthly nature of their guest. And it is only after the second encounter they voice out their fear of death. This attempt to come back, to retain the presence (numinous) and the resulting anxiety of death is very interesting to note.

There is a danger in reading these texts and decidedly fall into a trap of paradox about the nature of God, as to whether his presence gives life or death? Initial reading might give an impression that the subjects were crying out of fear of death. But, let us consider it from another angle, what if the cry is out of ecstasy, a release and moment of pure love which longs for death. Dissecting the encounter into two parts such as the longing to repeat the experience and the latter as fear of death as result of the experience.

The former aspect, to repeat the experience, can be studied initially through R. Otto's Mysterium Tremendum et Fascinans  from his book The idea of the Holy. The latin phrase could be translated loosely as "Awesome divine mystery." More clearly the phrase indicates a kind of drive within the homo religiosus whenever he encounters the holy. Meaning the drive is to get a peek into the mysterium yet at the same time filled with fear or filled with "element of overpoweringness" (tremendum) and still holds an "unutterable" ecstasy (fascinans). This gives us a clear view on how the urge to repeat the experience holds sway within the subjects. The experience is terrifyingly ecstatic, hence the drive to repeat. For instance, the peek into the ark of God (1 Sam 6:19) and the resultant death of seventy men and also the death of Uzzah when he touched the ark was instantly killed (2 Sam 6:6), here the point to demonstrate the urge of peeking behind the curtain or inside the box as an act of Mysterium Tremendum Fascinans. Another variant of the repeat audience is Moses' request (Exodus 33:18;20), which was curtly denied "for man shall not see me and live."

Secondly, this fear of death at the presence of God can be looked through Freud's One Love and Death Drive. Begins firstly as a realisation of the mortality in the conscious, as Freud suggests, "In the unconscious everyone of us in convinced of his own immortality." Secondly, as he also suggests that the death-drive's aim "is to reduce living things to an inorganic state." This inorganic state or 'undoing the connections' with organic, could be a very vital insight. Bringing together these two, one can interpret, that the fear of death at the presence of God, primarily brings to our consciousness the finitude in the presence of plenitude and to the total unhinging of the self to the elements of the world (organic) towards true annihilation (inorganic) wherein the self longs to be disintegrated in this presence and wishes the non-material existence of the other.

But we could further than Otto in affirming that the fascinans happens not only affects the subject but also the numinous. For example, Moses' encounter of the un-burning bush. We see encountering God always lingers in the liminal. The beckoning from the un-burning bush is always resisted by the insistence of leaving something behind. Come closer, but not too close, the transaction and the mobility in the presence is filled with tension of how close is close and how close can one carry oneself into the other. This impossiblity in the proximity without affecting the subject ultimately fails the transaction abruptly. This is only one part of the episode the other part is the affect from the numinous itself. In the other part of the episode the numinous pursues the subject. This episode where, "the Lord met him [Moses] and sought to put him to death" (Exodus 4:24) is truly enigmatic. This enigmatic episode could be looked at as the affect of the numinous to take over the subject. It is here we can go beyond Otto saying that the it is here the numinous itself is drawn to the other, the fascinans is what makes Lord to put Moses to death, that is, numinous wishes to take over the subject once the subject touches the numinous deeply, the love and the experience touches both. 'No one can see me and live' are the words of love from the numinous and not words of terror and violence.

If "Holy" is a feeling of Mysterium Tremendum et Fascinans that is, a feeling of repulsive attraction, I feeling of want and fear of death not only in the subject but also on the side of the numinous as we looked earlier. But this moment as "Holy" becomes "set apart" from the other events in time. This moment when the holy is encountered the holy is the "whole" (etymology) and the fullness of the  life encountered. That numinous feeling is the sacred moment and a whole moment of life and is completely set apart. This moment becomes saturated with life and brings a conscious of death as a satisfactory release and ecstasy. This moment is so holy that if life continues the sacredness of the life is tainted by the profanity and the moment is lost, in order to preserve the moment, release is the only way. Every theophany resulted in cry for death, Isaiah's cry of "Undone" (Isa 6:5), Ezekiel and John.

Only in Jesus the effect of theophany clearly unfolds. The cry from the cross "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46) is the cry of death as the result of encountering "God." Thomas Altizer rightly points out that in all the gospels only here Jesus address his Father as God. It is here Jesus encounters in total otherness the presence of God. And this encounter is so fearful that he "cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit" (Matthew 27:50). This is a true encounter of the holy and there is no survival after that. Jesus died because his encounter with the divine was truly fulfilling experience. It was not because of the wrath of God that death in Jesus occurred but because of the torrent of Love that filled Jesus in encountering the presence of God. It was in love and ecstasy that Jesus died after encountering God and not because of sin and wrath.