Not in the numbers
What’s the right number of kids for a family? How often should you kiss your spouse? Some questions require a mystical answer, not a mathematical one. This is why the proposal by college presidents to lower the drinking age is misguided. In fact, if finding the best drinking age is a matter of numbers and not the numinous, they ought to raise it to 25. Why 25? And what the heck is the numinous?
More than 100 presidents and chancellors from such top universities as Duke and Johns Hopkins have suggested lowering the drinking age to 18 to counter the culture of binge drinking. Make no mistake, drunkenness is a problem. Each year, some 1,700 college students die from causes related to alcohol abuse, more than Harvard’s entire freshman class. But if Einstein was right, we can’t solve this problem using the same mind that created it. The solution is not in the numerical, but in the numinous. The numinous?
Numinous is from the Latin numen, referring to faith, or the mystical and spiritual. Jews and Christians have long looked to their faith to determine good drinking. In the beginning, God placed a man and woman in the garden and told them to “have at it” – to mix and match and create (Genesis 1:26-30). It wasn’t long before fermented grapes produced wine – exactly what God anticipated. “He causes the grass to grow for the cattle, and vegetation for the labor of man, so that he may bring forth food from the earth, and wine which makes man’s heart glad” (Psalm 104:14-15). Doesn’t it sound like God’s a Brit, since the scriptures say that wine “cheers God and men” (Judges 9:13)?
Since everyone is made in the image of God, everyone got in on the act. As Iain Gately points out in Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol, the pyramid builders got a daily ration of one and one-third gallons of beer. In medieval Europe, every child, parent, and grandparent “drank every day, and usually several times each day.” Even monks were allowed up to eight pints. Elizabethan England had a pub for every 187 people. The first group of settlers who came over to join the Pilgrims brought 20,000 gallons of beer and wine but only 3,000 gallons of water. Sure, the water stank. But alcohol wasn’t merely a proxy; it was for pleasure. Even Ray Oldenburg, the patron saint of Starbucks, noticed that Milwaukee German immigrants established the “Dutch treat” as a way of ordering the pace of drinking.1 Alcohol was for enjoyment, not inebriation. This is why, since 1839, the Trappist Monks at St. Sixtus monastery have been brewing Westvleteren beer. It sells for more than $15 for an 11-ounce bottle and is considered one of the finest in the world. But you can only purchase two 24-bottle cases a month – by appointment – through the monk’s front gate.2
Of course, we can’t overlook the fact that people do get appallingly drunk – beginning with Noah (Gen. 9:21). But if we leave faith out of the equation, the problem is unsolvable since we miss the second reason for strong drink – it was to give us a taste of the transcendent. From the beginning, the single most important rite for Christians was the Eucharist, at which they ate bread and drank a fair amount of wine. A mild buzz wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. We called it “room zooms” in college; a tipsy testimony to the fact that alcohol can take us beyond the daily humdrum of life. The helpful hand of Christianity, however, was to pour alcohol into a moral framework.
When to drink is like figuring out the right number of kids or how often to kiss – you call on the numinous rather than crunch numbers. But universities no longer look to the numinous. They’re part of a new “anti-culture that would never address sacred order” to determine social conventions, wrote the late Philip Rieff.3 With no transcendent Creator, we’re left with mathematical calculations. It’s really social Darwinism – where virtue is reduced to survival of the fittest and whatever benefits the most people. Okay, if Darwin was right and if this is so, the drinking age ought to be raised to 25, not lowered to 18.
A National Institutes of Health study suggests that the region of the brain that inhibits risky behavior is not fully formed until age 25.4 “We’d thought the highest levels of physical and brain maturity were reached by age 18, maybe earlier – so this threw us,” said Jay Giedd, a pediatric psychiatrist leading the study, which released its first results in 2004. That makes adolescence “a dangerous time” he reports. If it’s so dangerous and survival of the fittest is what matters most, wouldn’t it be better to move up the drinking age to 25? Duh?
The first move, however, is not pounding on the door of a college president. Instead, pose John Stott’s question to your pastor. Stott says that the quest for transcendence constitutes a challenge to the quality of our public worship. He asked, “Does it offer what people are seeking – the element of mystery, the sense of the numinous, in biblical language “the fear of God,” in modern language “transcendence,” so that we bow down before the Infinite Great in the mixture of awe, wonder, and joy called worship?”5 Stott’s answer was “not often.” This might be why an increasing numbers of believers report being bored in church and prefer staying home on Sunday.6 When worship lacks a sense of transcendence, we begin to measure success by what Dallas Willard calls the ABC’s: attendance, buildings, and cash. How ironic. Without the numinous, we’re stuck with numbers – just like university presidents.
1 Ray Oldenburg, The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts and How They Get You Through the Day (New York, NY: Marlowe & Co., 1999), p. 90.
2 “Trappist Monks Available At Beer Phones, Resellers of Prized Beer”, www.elitechoice.org
3 Philip Rieff, My Life Among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority, Kenneth S. Piver, General Editor, Volume I, Sacred Order/Social Order (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2006), pp. 129-130.
4 Elizabeth Williamson, “Brain Immaturity Could Explain Teen Crash Rate: Risky Behavior Diminishes At Age 25, NIH Study Finds,”
Washington Post, February 1, 2005; Page A01.
5 John R. W. Stott, “The World’s Challenge to the Church,” Bibliotheca Sacra Vol. 145 (April-June 1988): 123-32.
6 Terry Eastland, “Sunday Morning, Staying Home,” Wall Street Journal, September 2, 2008; p. A21.