r m p






Demonic Holiness


I 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 way!

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 you.

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 might!

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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