The Sublime Experience of God

If there were a singular term which could include the moral, rational, cosmic, and divine as part of a realization or part of an experience, the term “sublime” may come closest. At any rate, I want to build on the term, to name the ultimate Christian experience or to locate the point of Christianity. To call this an “experience” may already be problematic due to the way we presently divide up our world, but this is also part of the point. There is the need to reunite fundamental human experience with an explicit moral and cognitional content which accounts for the individual before God in the world.

In common usage, the sublime is a combination of experiencing fearsome, overwhelming phenomena such as a raging storm at sea, threatening cliffs or mountains, towering thunder clouds, before which we are normally reduced to insignificance in comparison to their power, but in the sublime experience, instead of feeling diminished, we are able to take it in and feel our own soul or imagination enlarged. As a boy in Texas, there were several occasions in which on a long ride, alone on the prairie, I was surrounded by distant thunder storms, an endless expanse of wilderness, and rather than being frightened I felt a great thrill, which I equated with an experience of God. I could not name this sublime experience, but I presumed correctly (I am now convinced, fifty years later), it was the center of my newfound faith.

There is a terrible beauty that makes of the fearful something attractive the more fearful and powerful it is, as long as we find ourselves in safety. As Immanuel Kant describes the situation,  “the irresistibility of [nature’s] power certainly makes us, considered as natural beings, recognize our physical powerlessness, but at the same time it reveals a capacity for judging ourselves as independent of nature and a superiority over nature…whereby the humanity in our person remains undemeaned even though the human being must submit to that dominion.”[1] The sense of safety and wellbeing is at once physical (involving all of the physical senses) and yet it is centered in our soulish or cognitive capacity.

The problem with Kant is that he identifies the safety of the sublime with objective reason. He equates it with suprasensible reason or the recognition that it is through cognitive capacities or powers of reason that humans can count themselves above nature. It is not just that he may be confusing reason with God, but I believe he fails to understand the experience of God inherent to the sublime.

I think we can go beyond Kant, but Kant himself points beyond what he calls reason, by describing the pleasure of the sublime experience as mixed with something like displeasure or what he calls negative pleasure. Where he characterizes experience of the beautiful as a positive pleasure, the sublime calls forth an admiration or respect which he characterizes as a negative pleasure. What he did not have the psychological vocabulary to describe, but which he seems to be aiming at, is the notion of a limit experience.

A limit-experience is what it feels like to be undone, or to have the notion of the self as a unified subject thrown into question. A limit-experience according to Michel Foucault, is that which wrenches the subject from herself and which throws into question the notion of a unified subject. If we think of Freud’s reading of Kant, in which the reason behind his categorical imperative is identified with the superego, this negative pleasure might be mistaken for a simple masochism or what Freud called a moral masochism. That is, by not acknowledging the supreme limit which the sublime might be challenging, Kant neither faced the limit experience of death, nor the manner in which ultimate unity is linked to the divine. In other words, he fails to connect the sublime experience to the limit experience definitive of Christianity and in this failure, he fails at both ends of his description of the sublime.

He does not recognize that the ultimate experience of nature is to take it in all at once, either in the simple wonder at the fact that a world exists or in recognition of creation ex nihilo. His picture of the world and of human imagination limited it to a priori, necessary, and stable structures which he considered inherent to the world and necessary to the mind. His thought about the world (there are absolute and necessary laws) structured his depiction of the powers of human imagination.  He allowed a role for intuition, but it was an intuition dependent upon an already existing framework of the mind. As Cornelius Castoriadis notes, “the imagination remained bound to functioning in a pre-established field in Kant’s theoretical work.”[2]

Castoriadis turns specifically to creation ex nihilo to suggest an alternative understanding of the human capacity for creation. He acknowledges that there may be a set of historical or natural conditions linked to creativity in general, but these conditions are not sufficient to account for that which is truly creative. Kant’s notion of the sublime only points to a derived realization. Much like the problem of cosmological arguments for God, the God that might be conceived within these arguments tends to be fit to the pattern of reason which implies his existence from the world.

Kant not only limited the extent of the human imagination in its positive mode, he also did not account for the height of the obstacles it might overcome. It is not simply creation from nothing, but the human experience of this creation power in resurrection faith, which he misses. He maintains that the sublime gives one a sense of immortality, but what should be posed against this intimation is the simultaneous recognition of one’s mortality. As in Paul’s definition of Abraham’s resurrection faith, he had faith in “the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not” (Rom. 4:17). The existential realization of the reality of death and God’s ability to give life to the dead is the personal realization of his power to create from nothing. In other words, Paul is depicting the limit experience of death (as in the living death of being old and unable to have children) with the capacity to conceive of creation from nothing.

Kant is instructive as, in his failure of thought, he helps locate the distinctive difference contained in the Christian experience of the sublime. The overwhelming power and danger of the world are not subdued by an innately immortal soul, or immortal reason, but by the specific death dealing work of Christ. Just as the most powerful force in the world is the big bang behind creation from nothing, so too the personal realization of this power is to be had in Christian resurrection faith.

This is the Christian sublime: the simultaneous recognition of the overwhelming power and danger of the universe exploding into existence and the existential recognition that this power is unleashed in our own life in resurrection power. The ground of sublimity lies within each of us as we reflect upon what might be taken as fearsome, formless colliding galaxies and planets coming into being. Or as it says in Genesis, the world was a chaos in the beginning but in verse 2 the Spirit hovered over the waters and brings order out of the chaos. The same hovering, indwelling Spirit brings order out of the chaos of the human mind. This chaotic power brought to order within ourselves and in the world describes the ultimate sublime experience.

 Being quite young, and having no name or developed understanding of Christian doctrine, I had no way of putting flesh on my first experience of the sublime.  I thought it enough to reproduce the situation, returning continually to the prairie, so as to re-experience the wonder.  As the years went by and I was taught to be more rational, and not to confuse faith and experience, my moments of bliss were whittled down. If I had been properly discipled, properly indoctrinated, I would not have been turned from these early experiences but I could have been turned to exploring and understanding them. Of course, we cannot live in continuous wonder and joy, but by putting a name and understanding to this experience, we can at any time or place experience the epiphany of the sublime.

[1] Critique of the Power of Judgment (The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant), ed. Paul Guyer, trans. Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, 261–262. I am referencing the Stanford Encyclopedia article on Kant’s notion of the sublime.

[2] (Castoriadis Reader 319-337).  See