To say that the Western world is increasingly secular and materialistic is news to no one. But our modern tragedy isn’t “godlessness” but rather what has filled the void of the old religions for many. No one rejects transcendence in a vacuum—like Indiana Jones’ idol, something always has to take its place.
In 1917 German theologian and philosopher Rudolf Otto published Das Heilige—literally “The Holy,” though in English it’s usually titled The Idea of the Holy. In it he offers a description of religiosity centering on “the sacred,” on that mysterious Other that draws man almost irresistibly but at the same time fills him with awe and even dread. Otto defines the sacred as mysterium tremendum et fascinans—a fearful and fascinating mystery. Holiness is more than just moral uprightness and purity. It’s something that draws us.
Why tremendum et fascinans? With this Otto seeks to explain the tension generated by man’s instinctive desire for the transcendent. The sacred has an irresistible attraction: Man needs it, he can’t live without it, and no matter how hard he struggles to reject it, something always draws him to it. Yet along with this fascination comes a sense of powerlessness, even of dread—an awe that imbues man with humility and a sense of unworthiness. Even in Christianity, which teaches that God has come to man as a man, there is still something infinitely other about the Almighty. There must be. Catechism lessons on the gifts of the Holy Spirit often take pains to say that “fear of the Lord” doesn’t mean being afraid of this God. That’s theologically correct, but the word “fear” still signifies something necessary in the relationship between God and man.
Every culture in human history has been religious. Man has an innate need and capacity for the tremendum et fascinans. Today, though the Western world has built an irreligious society, it cannot and has not changed the heart of man. The culture seeks to discount the response to the sacred before the question is even asked, and thus man’s longing for the fascinans and awe of the tremendum come pouring out in other ways. The substitutes may be pitiably unfulfilling, but you can’t snuff out the fundamental yearnings of the human heart. The cult of the ephemeral is the product of a heart unmoored from the Ultimate but unable to stop its quest for just that.
The poor substitutes for a transcendent fascinans are all around us—money, pleasure, and power are attractions as old as time itself. When God is rejected or considered irrelevant there is nothing the heart of man won’t use to try and fill that sense of emptiness. This doesn’t have to be in ways as sensational as mansions or sex or hedge funds; think of the deification of the environment or “science,” or the endless advertising for the latest gadget or the perfect diet, or the breathless crusading for the next president, or … the list goes on. A professor I know who teaches poetry at a sizable public university had his students write panegyrical poems to the COVID vaccine, their “savior” and giver of life. It’s disconcerting how idolatrous it sounds. But man will seek a savior wherever a savior may be found.
Perhaps more subtle than the false fascinans, but no less real, is the false tremendum. Tremendum in the true sense leads us to recognition of God’s greatness and purity and thus to humility and docility in our dealings with him. But when this is cast off as mere superstition, the false tremendum of apocalypticism takes its place. Prophets of doom have always held a certain lurid sway; we love to make an apocalypse out of everything. Look at the weather, for instance. Is it just me or is practically every weather event—every heat wave and thunderstorm and cold snap and hurricane—trumpeted as “unprecedented,” “historic,” “worst ever”? This of course harks back to environmental doom-ism. Then there is the media’s almost gleeful obsession with every aspect of the COVID pandemic and potential long-term consequences. Politics, too, is a bottomless source of apocalypses. If my side is god, then your side winning is no less than a displacement of god, signaling wholesale destruction. There are many reasons our country is so polarized and politicized, and this is certainly one of them. Man’s hunger for awe, when it has nothing truly awesome to turn to, seeks to satisfy itself with on lesser things. It’s junk food for the soul.
With the transcendent preemptively closed off, today’s man looks about and says, “This isn’t tremendum et fascinans, so we’ll have to make it that way.” Of course, it’s not so explicitly articulated, but that’s what it boils down to. Man has condemned himself to the worship of the fleeting, trying to invest every academic paper with the qualities of tremendum et fascinans. No society and no individual can simply be “free” in the abstract and expect to stay that way for long. With freedom we need the virtue to anchor ourselves in what also is true. Because the truth will set you free.