EN I, 2. Ancient Numen and Numinosity.

1. The Latin term numen (pl numina) is well established in the religious vocabulary of the ancient Roman writers. Vergil, for example, speaks of numen as the divine will or command of Jupiter. He even uses the word metonymically to refer to the deity himself (Jovis numina), especially in the sense of the god's majesty and power. As a common noun, numen refers to the nodding of the head by an authoritative figure, such as an emperor, to signal his command. It can also refer to the emperor himself, who from the time of Octavian claimed to be deity and the offspring of Roman deity.

2. In Ovid, especially in the Metamorphoses, his memorable collection of traditional stories about the gods and goddesses, the use of numen sometimes refers to persons and sometimes to what is impersonal. It seems as though the poet deliberately refrained from giving a clear indication of whether numen was a divine aspect of a mythological character or a divine force independent of a person in the myth. Translators of the Latin texts of the Metamorphoses into English, by the way, tend to miss the meaning of numen, perhaps because of their lack of knowledge of ancient Roman religion or early Christianity.

3. Polytheistic Roman religion did not develop an adequate intellectual capacity to serve the needs of its vast multicultural, politically diverse empire. The extension of Roman citizenship to people who were not ethnically Roman, or even Italian, was a unifying measure, but the development of required emperor worship became a political and a religious failure. The weakness of Roman civil religion became evident when it unsuccessfully confronted the rising tide of Christianity in the third century. The term numen therefore never developed the importance in ancient Roman religion that the Judeo-Christian idea of holiness developed in Israelite, Jewish, and Christian religions. In the fourth century, the Roman civil religion was transformed into a partnership between the imperial government and the new Christianity. Along with the abandonment of the ancient Greco-Roman pantheon and the divinization of the emperor, the term numen too was eclipsed. It was preempted by Christian terms, especially the Biblical idea of holiness. In modern times, Rudolf Otto noted this connection between Christianity and numinosity in his seminal work The Idea of the Holy (English translation, 1923).

4. The ancient term numen serves the modern student of religion well as the starting point for understanding all religion. It comes to the twenty-first century thinker with as little of the baggage of enculturation as possible, comparatively speaking, for expressing such a basic concept. It was a genuinely religious term used for centuries in a living context. It therefore avoids the problems of an artificially invented term by its extensive use in ancient Roman literature, where it had important religious significance. Because the Roman Republic and Roman Empire have long ago passed out of history as contemporary political institutions, along with the Roman religions that coexisted with them, the modern student of religion can view the term numen with a degree of detachment. The term can be expanded in the light of insights about religion that have accrued during the course of the intellectual history of the last two thousand years, especially from the rapidly growing field of paleoanthropology in the last few decades.

5. One very valuable aspect of the ancient term numen for the twenty-first century discussion of religion is that it was used by the Romans for both personal and non-personal religious entities. A genuinely religious term that is open to both meanings is vital and, in fact, indispensible for a modern discussion of religion, in which the participants choose theistic or reistic language to describe their views. Numen (no italics) is the term, along with numinous, numinosity, numinize, numinology, and other words built on the same root, that can enable that discussion to take place. For example, the adjective numinous may describe an experience of God's hand or an experience of a natural wonder. Let us imagine that two people are standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon for the first time. One viewer describes the sight as the handiwork of the Creator, while the other viewer describes it as product of powerful natural forces of water over millions of years. Both viewers could describe what is before them as a numinous sight. One gives a theistic explanation of the grandeur of the canyon, while the other gives a reistic explanation of the same beauty. One explanation comes out of the language of theology; the other view comes out of the language of esthetics or geology. Both viewers project numinosity on the magnificent walls of the canyon. One projects personalistic numinosity on the rock walls, while the other projects reistic numinosity on them. Both viewers are deeply moved by their first experience of visiting the Grand Canyon. For them both, it is definitely a religious experience. Certain structures in the old brain are stirred by what the senses, especially the eyes, are telling them; the old brain triggers the numinization process. Both viewers numinize the experience, that is, assimilate it into their religion, but use different concepts and language to do so. Such is the numinology of this hypothetical experience.

6. In Ovid, the term numen is embedded in myths about rescue and deliverance. It is the numen which is instrumental in saving people. This aspect of the ancient Latin term makes it a good choice for playing a key role in the modern analysis of religion. When enriched with insights from modern paleoanthropology, evolutionary thought, and depth psychology, numen expresses the basic idea in all religion. The modern term numen indicates the combination of all that an organism uses to enhance its own survival and reproduction on the planet. It includes such things as the design of the organism's physical body, its neural structure, its food choices, its mating habits, its aggressiveness, and many other things. Living organisms vary tremendously, so their numen varies tremendously. Numinosity, the abstract term that designates the possession of numen, is an indication of the survivability-replicability of an organism or species. In humans, the brain has developed over evolutionary periods of time into a highly capable tool for dealing with numinosity. The older parts of the brain, more so than the newer parts, have the ability to identify what is numinous in the experience of an individual human being or group. The old brain alerts the new brain about numinous objects in a person's experience. Such mental transactions between the old and new brain, when integrated with human personality and culture, are the basis of all religion. The association of numen with salvific events in Roman mythology makes the term an especially good starting point for a modern discussion of religion. Ancient salvation, whether it refers to the rescuing a helpless mortal female from a exploitative male deity, as in Ovid, or taking a repentant sinner to heaven after death, as in the New Testament, is a function of numen. Survival-reproduction is the numinological goal.

7. When Darwin expounded his idea of survival, he linked it with organisms which were evolutionarily "the fittest" in the struggle for continuing life on earth. Though Darwin himself thought early in life of becoming an Anglican clergyman, he formulated no theory about human life after death, if he thought seriously about the matter at all. His idea of survival is so highly numinous that it is not surprising that his ideas evoked great protests from Christian theologians of his time. Survival and salvation have central numinosity in both evolutionary and theological thought, but their enculturations radically differ. Numinologically, however, survival and salvation are very similar. Both evolutionary thought and theological thought are possible from a numinological perspective, but not in their naive forms. Evolutionists need to face the questions of how life on earth arose, how life developed its replicating capability, and the role of cooperation in the origin and survival of species. Theological thinkers need to radically reconceptualize the god-idea in the light of current knowledge of the cosmos, assimilate the paleoanthropological implications of human origins, and reconcile the thinking process in their tradition with the new knowledge of how the brain functions. Narrow, materialistic, philosophical evolution no longer presents a convincing case. Nor does rigidly dualistic, medieval theology. Numinology offers a promising alternative to these two outmoded approaches to religion for the twenty-first century.

Copyright, Paul H. Andrews, 2002, 2008