For a course this semester entitled, "The Theoretical Approach to the Study of Religion," I have been reading Rudolf Otto's "The Idea of the Holy." He takes what has been called an 'experiential' approach to the study of religion. In other words, what is truly significant about the religious participation and belief is in fact the experiential value of encountering the 'numinous' as he terms it. Now, after having established Otto's point, I wish to move on to what happened in class.
A hodge podge of seniors and sophomores, this course has students from many religious backgrounds, or no religious backgrounds, and many voices- passionate voices. One could feel the average blood pressure of the room rise as the discussion of a holy experience unfolded. As true children of the 21st century, many rushed to point out that we can now chart the parts of the brain active when an individual experiences something, 'ecstatic.' Many wanted to say that Otto's stance on 'the idea of the holy' is obsolete because we can explain the 'mysterium tremendum et fascinanans' (tremendous and fascinating mystery) that is the experience of the holy. Our professor quickly said that Otto would not buy it for a second- we can explain what's going on, but we can't explain why it's going on (unless there is some sort of drug ingested). Thus, we can explain the reaction and not the cause.
I propose and impose another way of thinking about the phenomenon of the brain activity. As an extreme rationalist, and one who feels wounded when my rationalism is rejected as non-belief, I propose that the holy, that which we experience, is an idea. In other words, these holy moments are the culmination of pondering, or realization, a moment of clarity. The idea of genetic change comes to mind in discussing this: most evolutionary possibilities (physical changes) exist already in genetic code as recessive, unexpressed traits. Thus, rather than mutations causing the change, something we could consider a non-intentional outside force, the possibilities exist within already. Our holy ideas could indeed exist outside of our realm of being, they could be inspired by an outside source, but the capacity we have to conceptualize these ideas is already there. I feel that the keys to belief and understanding are already stored inside of us, and much of our lives are spent searching through the correct banks and drawers inside of us to find the right files to make sense of it all.