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Sep 25 Rudolph Otto and the Idea of the Holy

Today in 1869 we remember the birth near Hannover in Germany of Rudolph Otto. He is now regarded as one of the most influential scholars of religion in the early twentieth century and is best known for his concept of the numinous, a profound emotional experience he argued was at the heart of the world's religions. He elaborated this in his wide selling book ‘The idea of the Holy’ , written during World War One created an immediate sensation, and it was quickly translated into English and then, Swedish , Spanish , Italian , Japanese , Dutch, and French all within 12 years.






In the book, Otto moved beyond 'the Holy' as a concept of moral perfection. He described an authentic encounter with the Holy as ‘Mysterium, tremens et fascinans'. A mystery that is at once terrifying (tremendum) and fascinating (fascinans). This is what he means by the word numinous which he took from the Latin word numen ("divine power"). Otto felt that the numinous was most strongly present in the Old and New Testaments, but that it was also present in all other religions. His thinking had a profound influence on some of his contemporaries such as C. S. Lewis, Paul Tillich, Karl Barth and the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner. In a passage in the book, he describes the numinous 'The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing, as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its “profane,” non-religious mood of everyday experience. [...] It has its crude, barbaric antecedents and early manifestations, and again it may be developed into something beautiful and pure and glorious. It may become the hushed, trembling, and speechless humility of the creature in the presence of—whom or what? In the presence of that which is a Mystery inexpressible and above all creatures.


Otto began his academic career as a Lutheran theologian and wrote his dissertation on Martin Luther's understanding of the Holy Spirit and then followed with his habilitation on Kant. Looking at Luther’s life he was interested in understanding the distinctive character of the religious interpretation of the world— and then contrasted the naturalistic and the religious ways of interpreting the world, raising the question of whether the contradictions can be or should be reconciled. There was no easy reconciliation but he opposed equally the religionist’s hostility toward science and the scientist’s disregard of religion. The two perspectives, he insisted, were to be embraced and learn from each other . His exploration of Immanuel Kant was to specify the kind of rationality that is appropriate to religious inquiry. In this endeavour he was influenced by the eminent German philosopher and theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher particularly his early work, (On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers), Otto was impressed by Schleiermacher’s fresh way of perceiving religion as a unique feeling or awareness, distinct from ethical and rational modes of perception, though not exclusive of them. Schleiermacher was later to speak of this unique feeling as man’s “feeling of absolute dependence.” Otto was impressed by this and credited him with having rediscovered the sense of the holy in the post-Enlightenment age.


He then undertook an extended journey around the world, beginning with North Africa, Egypt, and Palestine, continuing to India, China, and Japan, and returning by way of the United States. During a visit to a Moroccan synagogue on this trip he encountered in memorable fashion the trisagion —"Holy, holy, holy…" which would have a big impact on him. His mastery of languages and his knowledge of the history of world religions meant this this was a rich and illuminating experience. In addition to being at home with the languages of Near Eastern religions, he had mastered Sanskrit sufficiently to translate many ancient Hindu texts into German as well as to write several volumes comparing Indian and Christian religious thought. This engagement with India showed itself by the impact that Hindu theology started to have on his thinking. For example, his concept of the “wholly other” has the meaning of “God” in his Christian theological studies but at the same time, it semantically implies the “ultimate reality” of other religious traditions; “Brahman” and “God” (Isvara) in Hindu religious tradition as well as “God” in Christianity. His attempt to identify universal elements of religious or mythic thought would later be repeated by thinkers such as Carl. Jung and Mircea Eliade.

It was a time when liberal Christianity was stuck in an 'apologetic cycle' with what was perceived as the continual onslaught of natural sciences. The influence of descriptive psychology can be clearly seen on Otto’s attempt to describe the non-rational dimensions of this experience as a mysterium tremendum et fascinans, Otto eventually came to conceive of his work as part of a science of religion, which was divided into the philosophy of religion, the history of religion, and the psychology of religion. However his attempt to found religion on human experience had a mixed reception with only Paul Tillich making significant use of Otto's ideas. However the concurrence of neuropsychology, cognitive science, and the study of religion that took place in the 1990s returned in significant respects to themes that interested Otto, and neuropsychologists such as Eugene d'Aquili and Andrew Newberg have studied religious experiences that are reminiscent of Otto's numinous experience.