How the Numinous Creates a Sense of Purpose

Photo by Neil Banas

Many religions take their answer for granted, then try to re-explain your problems in a way that matches up.

I prefer a religion that takes the essential problem as its starting point: who are we, and how do we live a meaningful life? An honest investigation of that question never leads to doctrine. It’s the starting point of philosophy, and the foundation of good religion.


I may not have a name for such religion, but thanks to a reader I do have a very eloquent explanation of how it works. This comes from Dave:

My religion is one which seeks meaning by recognizing one’s place in the proverbial grand scheme of things. For me that is… best realized on a deep, internal level in an experience which can only be described as numinous.

My definition for numinous might be “in the presence of something greater, provoking one to awe, wonder, and sometimes terror.”

By realizing this experience in the natural world I think that necessitates a relationship between the individual and nature, realized as being both an individual within and in harmony with nature and in relationship to nature as wholly other and transcendent (in the sense of greater than self).

My religion seeks to address what comprises a good and worthwhile life. For me I need not just to understand, articulate, and act on my values to achieve this. I also need to be in good relationship with others… and cultivate a sense of purpose.

(It’s worth reading his whole comment.)

The Numinous

In the context of our other discussions, I’m reading Dave’s beliefs wholly without supernatural elements. When he says “the presence of something greater” I read that as the stars, the ocean, or the beat of a drum.

This to me is the oldest religion, the experience that predates doctrine and myth. It is also the future of religion.

People are losing interest in religions that use faerie tales to explain the world. But these same folks will find they have profound experiences in the presence of the numinous. Such experiences are moving and haunting. To seek them out is natural, to contemplate them is helpful.

I use adventure as a tool for finding and implementing experiences of the numinous, in the self. And as a tool for finding one’s purpose, for deciding your own Fate in the world.

How do you experiences the numinous? Does religion need anything more than this?


18 thoughts on “How the Numinous Creates a Sense of Purpose

  1. I love what Dave wrote. I love what you are saying and why. I taught a workshop yesterday in which I said almost the same thing about Dave’s sense of the numinous, what it is, and how it feels–almost exact wording, so it’s cook and weird all at once.

    I wonder, though, why you want to cut off the numinous with only the material things that awe us. Certainly, the stars, mountains, oceans, and trees awe me. So do good stories. It sounds like you are dismissing faery tales as no longer useful for helping us into the meaning of things. I guess if someone wants to insist that a faery tale is literally true we have a problem, but the problem is not the story. :) So, I’ll be keeping all good stories, of the faery or otherwise. And, I’ll be keeping an open mind to any way the numinous speaks to me. It might be a tree or a star. It might be a dream. It might be a voice or image that appears to me while I meditate or conduct a ritual. It might be in the words that someone says on a bus or say, in a blog. for me, that’s the future of religion–dropping, finally, ALL the limits we want to place on the way that Spirit speaks.

      • I agree with this. As above, I wasn’t actually condemning faerie tales — delightful stories that we know are fiction. I was condemning the tendency of some religions to state inaccurate, demonstrably false things and insist it is fact.

        When religions make inaccurate claims about physics, history or society — which mainstream Paganism and mainstream Christianity both do — they degrade the numinous and detract from the experience of it. Such “faerie tales” — or lies, if you prefer — are not needed for religion. And as people become increasingly science-friendly, religion is going to have to drop the fake stories (or openly admit they are metaphors) to survive.

        • I understand, but I think we should stop using the terms ‘fairy tales’ or ‘myths’ to describe falsehoods. I think we (pagans or otherwise) do ourselves a disservice by doing so. How can we expect people to take serious religions inspired by myth rather than linear history, if we keep equating the two.

          • Faerie tales and sacred myth are both fiction. They carry lessons, morals, and metaphors of extreme value but to pretend they are factual is, in my opinion, one of the greatest mistakes of scripture-based religions.

              • I don’t really know how else to respond; I’ve already agreed that these untrue stories can carry great truths about humanity.

                But, no matter how moving or allegorical these stories can be, the world is not 10,000 years old (Christianity); Zeus does not live on a mountain (Classical paganism); and the world was not run by a benevolent matriarchy in the Bronze Age (Wicca). If a religion presents these stories as true, it is bad. It is a bad thing to do. Bad.

                (Thankfully, not all Christians, Hellenistic pagans or Wiccans present those fictions as truths, but the point stands.)

                • I know that we agree here. But myth doesn’t become false unless one assumes that in must be literally true. So I think we should refrain from using the words ‘myth and ‘fairy tale’ to describe literalistic of fundamentalist claims, just because they are meant to metaphors.

    • Arden says:

      I agree with this. Fairy tale does not mean “false,” and I don’t think the primary function of any such story is explanatory, however it may seem on the surface… I think they can be a way of *relating to* the natural world, among other things.

      • Ibidem. If a religion says something fictional — such as “the world is only 10,000 years old” — and teaches it as truth, that religion is rapidly becoming irrelevant.

        If they tell cool stories and admit they are legends or metaphors, there will likely always be a place for that.

        • Arden says:

          I think people (myself included) are taking issue with the casual use of fairy tale, myth, or fiction to mean “false.” Which is a little nitpicky: you use it in a perfectly colloquial sense. But that’s also part of the greater problem, you know? Particularly since you’re a fence-straddler yourself– you often start dialogues that bridge the gaps between naturalism/humanism and religion.

          Equating fiction with false undermines the value people may take out of said fiction. What’s more, it undermines the credibility of the person who is saying it. Someone who is extremely personally invested in the resurrection of Christ doesn’t need to hear that Christ’s resurrection is false– because *they know* that in some powerful sense, it is *not* false. What they need to hear is that whatever the actual nature of Christ’s physical resurrection, the story *is* real in some deeply meaningful and completely valid sense, and that knowing that they can accept whatever that physical fact may be. One gains much more headway with such an approach.

          Agreed that we’re better off shuffling away the dross, insofar as it does exist and is not just the product of bad or limited interpretation. There’s no doubt that religion should evolve, and I’m glad people are trumpeting it. But it goes both ways. Secular humanism is going to have to adapt, too, to remain relevant, or to gain relevance. The uncharitable, unsubtle way secular humanism talks about religion is one of the major culprits in the extraordinarily unproductive nature of mainstream dialogue about religion, imho.

          (Augh, I’m so hard on secular humanists. But it’s really because they just disappoint me so much. They could be doing so much better!)

    • I try to write poetically. One of the problems with that is it’s imprecise. There is really no problem with faerie tales or fables, precisely because we know they are fictional.

      But some religions say incorrect things about the world, and treat it as truth.

      The numinous expresses itself many ways. It can certainly happen in a dream, a book or a story. But it’s vital to step back and recognize that they are only that: a dream, a book, a story; nothing more. They are not, by virtue of the numinous experience, a prophesy, a revelation, or a fact.

  2. Dave says:

    First off, sorry about the almost Czeclish (like Spanglish for Czechs) in the first part of my comment. Your paraphrasing was what I intended to write but when I get excited (I love this discussion!) I’m prone to soft code switching – something which is more amusing when spoken than written.

    Now then. I’ve been having a very passionate discussion about these topics with my lover for the past few days. I love his insight because he not only takes into account the ascetics of all of it – something I’m terrible at, honestly – but he does so from what is, to me, such an essentially open hearted perspective. He suggested to me “Numinous Eudaimonia – in the presence of the good spirit”. He defined “spirit” in this context to have the same meaning as in “spirit of place” to indicate the cherished characteristics or aspects of a locale or ideal – in this case the ideal life.

    Taken with the broader implications of eudaimonia as being a term used synonymously with the phrase “the good life” and the Aristotelian interpretation of it as embodying ones own personal excellence I rather like it as a term signifying to me the importance of not only understanding one’s place but also actively living and fulfilling it. In this sense I would say that purpose comes from an active engagement in being alive that in turn gives a further richness and meaning to a life well lived.

    For me, that is realized through the experience of flow which I previously described as being a profound engagement in whatever task was at hand, to the exclusion of much else. I think that an argument in favor of the interconnectedness of the numinous and flow might be found in the experience of the musician. When I am playing the harmonica I am taken up in the experience of music as a transcendent, wondrous presence. I am also taken up in the act of making the music as an experience which pulls me down into myself, centering me both as a person and in the moment. For me the former is numinous, the latter being flow.

    When experienced together they cause one to be simultaneously grounded, very satisfactorily I might add, in doing while achieving a profound realization of self and meaning in an overarching context. The outcome is, for me, to move towards developing a kind of engaged serenity that finds its peace riding out the storm and becoming one with the waves as much as relaxing in calm weather with good company. I would say that both kinds of experience, numinous and flow, are important but when they are achieved together the result is a third kind of experience which is also intensely valuable and enormously useful in orienting oneself toward discovering a good and worthwhile life.

    Personally, I could see “numinous eudaimonia” being applied as an approach to life with or without religion but I’d like to think that a religion which places a good and worthwhile – and meaningful – life at the top of its priorities is going to be a religion which is fundamentally more able to speak to our own inner humanness than one which is otherwise focused. As for the term, I love it but I’m profoundly biased towards its creator. :)

  3. I can’t say I associate with the ‘numinous’ in any way with its dictionary definition. Nor am I really looking of my place in the grand scheme of things or an experience. The provided definition of in the presence of something greater, provoking one to awe, wonder, and sometimes terror. Doesn’t really jive for me either. Sure I relish the sense of awe and wonder at how fascinating the universe is, but it doesn’t go much beyond that. I get my ‘fix’ from creating and benefiting myself and those around me (including my environment). Its being satisfied in life that makes me content – so long as I get to create, learn and share I’m golden. Out of all of what was written I agree with this most – be in good relationship with others.

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