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The Fear of God in Therapy

How theology expresses wonder in the face of the unknown.

Key points

  • Religious experience is more commonplace than we realize.
  • Such experiences are difficult to express and therefore isolating for those who experience them.
  • Theology gives us a language to articulate what we encounter in such moments.
  • It is important for clinicians to engage with theology in order to be able to speak to religious experience.
Zac Durant

A client comes to you wanting to talk about a recent experience, but she is hesitant and unsure how to begin. She worries, you can tell, that what she has to say will sound strange and maybe even delusional. She fears being judged or dismissed. She says she is not sure how to explain what she has seen and that she isn’t even convinced she has seen anything at all. She lacks the language to articulate her experience and, when you invite her to say more, she insists that she does not know what to say.

From what you gather, this client has encountered something that filled her with both desire and dread. She has been overwhelmed by a feeling of awe, a feeling at once alluring and anxiety-inducing. The object of her wonder was not something in the world, but more of an inner longing that felt as if it had been initiated by something (or someone) beyond her. The author of her experience remains elusive. It transcends reason and the limits of language. Her wonder can neither be understood nor given a name. All she can say is that something moved her, that she has been touched.

Though rarely discussed, religious or mystical experiences are far from rare. They are, to use a term that appears in the works of Carl Jung, encounters with the numinous: feelings of awe, dread, excitement, and rapture that result from a run-in with the uncanny.

To illustrate the fear elicited by the awareness of the numinous, author C.S. Lewis asked us to imagine what we would feel if we were told we were in the presence of a “mighty spirit” and believed it. “Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking—a sense of inadequacy to cope with such a visitant and of prostration before it,” he wrote.

John Tyson

The uncanny, Freud famously argued, has profound psychological significance. It gestures at that which is deepest in us, the origins and foundations of psychological life. And yet, when the poet Romain Rolland criticized Freud’s The Future of an Illusion for neglecting the import of mystical experience on religious motivation, Freud explained the phenomenon away. It is the wish to return to the unboundedness of infancy, he said, that accounts for such feelings. The “oceanic” sensation of limitlessness, of connection, of eternity is rooted in the childish illusion that we are the center of the cosmos and so share an unbreakable bond with all that is.

Perhaps we agree with Freud’s assessment. At least, we seem to when we dismiss religious experience out of hand. And yet, how inadequately prepared such dismissals leave us when we are approached by clients (or family or friends) who claim to have come face-to-face with the wholly other, the uncanny, the divine. How are we to engage them about what they have witnessed? How are we to speak to their concerns, their questions, their fear?

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James examines such phenomena and the psychological insights that can be gleaned by attending to them. Describing theology as an explanatory tool that stands apart from religious experience, he nevertheless insisted that it is an important vehicle for articulating the content of otherwise unsayable encounters. Agreeing with the anonymous author of the classic spiritual text The Cloud of Unknowing, that mysticism is a confrontation with “something which you are at a loss to describe, which moves you to desire you know not what,” James says religious sentiment suffers from an “unwholesome privacy” that leaves it “unable to give account of itself.”

Unsplashed / Public Domain
A Hermit (1664)
Unsplashed / Public Domain

Here, then, is where the need for theology makes itself keenly known. For, if one is to help others make sense of and articulate the enigmatic—if one is to speak sensibly to their metaphysical dread—one must have recourse to a language capable of describing it. Theology is that language. Or, better, it is the failure of language, the self-consciously futile attempt to name the unnamable and say what can never be said.

Describing the transcendent as that which is “beyond assertion and denial,” the 6th-century theologian Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite encourages us to “plunge into the truly mysterious darkness of unknowing.” His Mystical Theology calls for a "via negative," or negative theology, that speaks of the divine by failing to express it. Such failing, Dionysius shows, is the path by which we move toward an understanding of the uncanny, that which eludes us even as we experience its overwhelming presence. Theology thus creates a space to talk about the things that resist articulation, a means of naming experiences which would be isolating if left unsaid.

Therapy, too, creates such a space. And it is, therefore, imperative that we as clinicians learn to speak the language that enables religious experience to, in James’s words, “give account of itself.” Otherwise, we run the risk of leaving our clients to suffer the fear of God alone.


Anonymous. (1981). The cloud of unknowing. Trans. James Walsh, SJ. (New York, NY: Paulist)

Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite. (1987) Pseudo-Dionysius: the complete works. Trans. Colm Luibhéid. Ed. Paul Rorem (New York, NY: Paulist)

Freud, S. (1989). Civilization and its discontents. Trans. James Strachey (New York, NY: W.W. Norton)

James, W. (1905). The varieties of religious experience: a study in human nature (London, UK: Longman)

Lewis, C.S. (2001). The problem of pain. New York, NY: Harper One.

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