want to venture to speak to you this Halloween morning of a theme unto
which no other holy occasion is quite appropriate. I want to speak with
you concerning the Dark Mysteries, those facts of the Holy that can only
be rightly spoken or heard on this, the shadow side of All Saints' Day.
For they are truths concerning the night side of the Holy. I have ventured
to speak of them every year in my All Saints' Eve homilies, though usually
to a smaller group.
My theme this morning is
that of what Paul Tillich called "demonic holiness." To make this
intelligible, I should explain exactly what "holiness" means, or used to
mean before we domesticated and de-fused it.
Rudolf Otto, in a classic
study called The Idea of the Holy, set about tracing the history
and the basic meaning of the holy, or the sacred. Just what is so holy
about it? He studied many ancient and modern religious texts, including
many in the Bible, and he isolated the central element as an irrational,
pre-rational sense of the awe-inspiring, that which is at one and the same
moment terrifying, uncanny, and yet endlessly fascinating.
One dares not look, and
yet one cannot take one's eyes away. We feel this way in a particularly
scary movie: we cover our eyes, yet we peek through our fingers!
Both elements are
necessary parts, Otto argued, of a true experience of the Holy, a numinous
experience. There is the fear of the Lord and the thirst as of the hart
after the water brook. One hears the thunder of Sinai saying, "Man shall
not see me and live!" and one responds, "O God, thou art my God; I seek
thee. My soul thirsts for thee, my flesh faints for thee, as in a dry and
weary land where no water is!"
The experience of the
Holiness of God was the experience of the infinite qualitative
distinction, as Kierkegaard called it, between the finite and the
infinite. Before the terrible, yawning Abyss of the Holy, one shrinks into
the microscopic dot of one's own pitiful creatureliness.
One feels not moral
guilt, but ontological shame, the rebuke of self-knowledge that one is
precisely nothing before the great Eternal I am That I Am. It is the
terror captured so well in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy and her
compatriots grovel before the great and powerful Oz.
It is altogether
appropriate to invoke a children's fantasy to illustrate the idea of the
Holy. That is why this is a subject for Halloween, which we usually
relegate to childish observance. It is not that All Saint's Eve has no
lesson for adults. Oh, it has a lesson for us all right, but one we have
forgotten. Once we could see it with the clear eyes of children, but as
adults we prefer to forget it. And to forget it is a sign of the hardening
of the arteries of religious sensibility. What is it that children have
not yet forgotten?
Simply that for the
unearthly, the uncanny, the Other, to encroach, which is what we say is
happening when God comes near, it must be essentially terrifying, though
of course no less fascinating. The fear of ghosts draws from the well from
which the fear of the Holy Ghost used to come.
We have de-fused the
explosive bomb of the Holy, we mundane adults. We have safely moralized
the notion of the Holy. We have made the word synonymous with moral
perfection, which of course we do not claim to have. We say God is holy
and we are not, because he is morally perfect and we are not.
But can God even be said
to be righteous? Has he proven himself by resisting temptation? No, he is
not flesh that he should be tempted in the first place. God is surely
beyond righteousness. We can no more call God righteous than we can call
him "learned," as if he ever had to learn anything in the first place!
But we are right when we
remember that God's holiness at least means he is separated from mortals.
Holiness was a pre-moral term. It meant he could not be approached
lightly. One had to tremble in his Presence, take off one's shoes on
ground made holy by the shadow of his Presence. Do not touch even the base
of Sinai, Moses tells the trembling crowds, lest Yahweh break out upon you
and you be destroyed!
It is this potentially
destructive power of the Holy that Tillich called demonic holiness. It
completely consumes some who serve it, such as Shi'ite car-bomb
terrorists, such as Branch Davidians, Jim Jones sectarians. Years ago, my
father and I sat watching some of the astonishing footage of the Jonestown
aftermath. I had trouble sleeping for a couple of nights afterward. He
looked at the screen and remarked, "That shows the terrible power of
religion." Exactly. Even the terrible power of the Holy.
What kind of charisma did
Charles Manson have? Jim Jones? Their followers regarded them as Christs.
And in a strange way they were right: if the Christ is the one who is a
clear channel to the Holy, these men were Antichrists, real and true
conduits of demonic holiness.
Let me tell you why it is
important to remember that God is Holy, terrifyingly holy, far removed
from the likes of you and me. That he far transcends every stumbling
thought and fumbling word of ours.
Because if we do not fear
God, fear him, I say, as one fears the expanse of the night sky or the
dreadful depth of the ocean, then our love for God will turn to contempt.
We imagine ourselves to be on easy and familiar terms with the Almighty,
and familiarity breeds contempt. Only no one can have contempt for what is
infinitely greater. One contemns what is lesser than oneself. And any God
you can feel comfortable with is by definition less than you. Some kind of
idol or pet.
God the cuddly teddy bear
of liberal Protestant theology is a contemptible idol. Not the real God,
nothing to be afraid of.
But does not the
Christian gospel claim that we can dare to call God Abba, Father? Doesn't
the First Epistle of John rhapsodize over the fact that the Father has
shown us such love as that we may flatter ourselves his children?
Yes. But there is no
contradiction. This is precisely why the gospel speaks of Christ as the
mediator between God and humanity. If we see no distance which needs to be
overcome between the finite and the infinite, we will see no need for a
Christ to overcome it. In Christ, we say, the God who was once far off has
been brought near. If God is not a consuming fire, if it is not a terrible
thing to fall into his hands, then the Redeemer becomes superfluous. But
if we have a God who says, "Mere mortals may not see me and live," then
that is why we need a Jesus Christ to be for us the human face of God.
God's holiness means that
there is a distance of infinity between him and us, It and us if you would
know the truth! And, even more gravely, it means that he is in no wise
obliged to overcome that distance! If he damned the human race to
oblivion, who could call him to account? Job learned that lesson the hard
But God's grace means
that he has overcome the distance anyway! In Christ we feel that we are
brought near to this God. He has enabled us to stand on the holy ground
which ought by rights to swallow us alive as it did Korah!
I say we have
domesticated the Holy by redefining the Holy exclusively as righteous. We
have divided the Holy One into two. We have divided him into Good and
Evil, or if you prefer a variant spelling, God and Devil. It's just a
matter of how you sprinkle the letters, as the Kabbalists could have told
It is fairly evident in
the Old Testament that God was thought the origin of both blessing and
adversity, creation and destruction, life and death, good and evil. The
Lord's Prayer remembers this in that it can ask God not to tempt us! He
The robust ancient
concept, or should I say experience of the Holy was that of destruction as
well as providence. We forget that and as a result we cannot imagine how
to square evil and adversity with a good God. A good God? Where did you
ever get that idea? The Holiness of God is demonic as well as divine. It
is fire as well as balm. It smites as well as heals.
If adversity strikes, God
forbid, and you curse God, you are not so much guilty of blasphemy as of
missing the point! If you comfort yourself with the tortuous
rationalization that God is calculatingly using tragedy for some good end,
you are making God into a pitiful schemer who must use devious means to
gain his ends.
What you must recognize
in such a moment, not that it will comfort you, is the demonic side of the
Holy. The experience of tragedy is the experience of limit. Heidegger saw
that we define and understand things by bumping into their limitations.
Well, understand this about yourself: you are a creature. A mortal. A
mote. To know that is to know the opening of the terrifying vista of the
Holy. It is a religious experience.
Here is what little
children know on Halloween, even if they only know it in pretense and
play. They know that there is a night side to the Holy, a darkness before
the sun of righteousness rises with healing in its wings. They know that
there is that which thrills the soul by frightening it and making it to
know its own mortality.
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