Some Reflections on the Sublime and Belief in God





In Edmund Burke's treatise A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful Burke explains where the feelings of the sublime come from. For Burke, the Sublime has its roots in pain and danger. As I have been reading through this treatise I have come to realize that Burke's idea of the sublime may help get at some of what Christians throughout the centuries have said about the experience of God. Before I get to that here is Burke's section on the Sublime:

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is produced of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure. Without all doubt, the torments which we ma be made to suffer, are much greater their effect on the body and mind, than any pleasures which the most learned voluptuary could suggest, or than the liveliest imagination, and the most sound and exquisitely sensible body could enjoy. Nay I am in great doubt, whether any man could be found who would earn a life of the most perfect satisfaction, at the price of the ending it in the torments, which justice inflicted in a few hours on the late unfortunate regicide in France. But as pain is stronger in its operation than pleasure, so death is in general a much more affecting idea than pain; because there are very few pains, however exquisite, which are not preferred to death; nay, what generally makes pain itself, if I may say so, more painful is that it is considered as an emissary of this king of terrors. When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are delightful. as we everyday experience. The cause of this I shall endeavor to investigate hereafter.
That which is dangerous and can cause us harm is only terrible when we experience it or are too close to it. But from a distance in time or space it can be awe-inspiring. Take my experience with a tornado as an example. When I was about 19 my family and I were caught on the interstate by a Tornado. As we were heading down interstate 64 trying to get away from one of the frequent summer storms we a funnel cloud quickly formed, within seconds it was a full blown tornado. We could see it ripping up trees about a half a mile away. It was terrible, I felt frozen but wanted to move at the same time. Looking back on it now it gives me feelings of awe and wonder, but in the moment I mostly felt terror and a strong desire to hide (which we did). I do not want to call the tornado beautiful, but awe inspiring. Similar to the way the ocean makes me feel when I stand on the shore. I know it can kill me, I know that I am insignificant before the might of the waves, but I still stand transfixed by it.

I would argue that classical theism should make us feel much the same way. The only difference I would add is that God gives rise to both emotions of beauty and the sublime. If we look at the divine attributes there is a beauty to the balance and sheer power, knowledge, goodness, and creativity. But there is also a very real sense in which God could snap us out of existence. If he ceased to think about the world and uphold it with his power everything but Himself could cease to be. That is a level of the sublime that nature cannot even approach.

In scripture God is not only the creator of all that is, but is also the moral judge of human beings. This adds an added dimension to the sublimity of the divine. Some day Christ will sit on his thrown and judge us for whether we have believed and followed his way, or did things our own way and abandoned divine love. There is awe we should have at human authorities as well. The couple of times I have seen the Supreme Court in DC was sublime as well. Because you know that there decision of major import are made, that authority exists in those halls.

Anyway, just a few reflections.

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