Defying empirical definition, holiness, like Christianity itself, only makes sense from the inside, from direct experience and that not only of hearing the seraphim calling to one another ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts’, not even when such confrontation brings the self-revelation of personal and corporate uncleanness. Holiness comes home in that action when the same ‘LORD of hosts’ calls one of those seraphim to fly towards you with a live coal in its hand which he had taken with tongs from the holy altar and place that coal at the very source of one’s unholiness and say, ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven’ (Isa 6:7).
One recalls here Forsyth’s words: ‘the holy is the ideal good, fair, and true, translated in our religious consciousness to a transcendent personal reality, not proved but known, experienced immediately and honoured at sight as the one thing in the world valuable in itself and making a world’ (Peter T. Forsyth, The Principle of Authority in Relation to Certainty, Sanctity and Society: An Essay in the Philosophy of Experimental Religion (London: Independent Press, 1952), 6).
Human curiosity longs for a rational expression of ‘the holy’ at the same time that holiness defies such explanation or ‘justification’ apart from moral experience. It is known only as the human subject is thrown back onto the miracle of revelation, of grace. (Even Otto sees something of this when he notes that accompanying the disvaluing of self is the feeling of being unworthy to be in the presence of ‘the holy one’, that we may even defile him, and that we subsequently require a covering that renders the approacher numinous, freeing them from their ‘profane’ being,’ so that they are no longer unfit to relate to the Holy). Certainly, when we are dealing with the holy, we are in ‘a region which thought cannot handle nor even reach. We cannot go there, it must come here. We are beyond both experience and thought, and we are dependent on revelation for any conviction of the reality of that ideal which moral experience demands but cannot ensure … The situation is only soluble by a miracle’ (Forsyth, Authority, 6).