The Idea of the Holy

By Rudolf Otto, 1917

What do we mean when we say something is “sacred” or “holy”?  Well, from the way we use these words, we certainly seem to mean something positive, so a first guess might be that “holy” means “supremely good” or something like that.  This guess would be wrong, or at least gravely inadequate, insists Rudolf Otto in this book.  Holiness is an entirely distinct category from moral value, and indeed from anything other than itself.  It can’t be explained or even described in terms of other things, any more than sight can be described in terms of sound or smell.  This would seem to make Otto’s task of describing holiness impossible from the start.  And, indeed, if we readers had no faculty for apprehending holiness, the task would be as impossible as that of explaining color to a blind man.  Otto insists that we do have such a faculty, though.  It is undeveloped in most of us—we may be unconscious to certain aspects of holiness, and our idea of the sacred may be mixed with foreign ideas, but this book attempts to prompt us to experience the sacred for ourselves.  It tries to evoke various aspects of the holy by analogies from other aspects of human experience.  Because the word “holy” has been too moralized in our languages to suit his purposes, Otto usually refers to the quality he is describing as the “numinous” or, occasionally, the “mysterium tremendum”.

The presence of numinous can be a terrifying experience.  According to Otto, the most primitive apprehensions of the numinous are associated with feelings of dread and creepiness.  Ghost stories represent a degraded version of this experience, and we can understand an aspect of what it means to say “this place is holy” if we were to say instead “this place is haunted”.  The numinous is supremely mysterious; it gives the impression of being “totally other”, of being utterly outside of nature and beyond the power of our reason to comprehend.  In this connection, Otto gives a fascinating exegesis of the Book of Job.  When God describes his power and providence to Job, the examples given are not meant to show how God’s wisdom is seen in the teleological ordering of nature.  Instead, the examples include what seem to be absurdities and monstrosities.  What these aspects of nature indicate, according to Otto, is that God is utterly beyond our ideas of what is reasonable.  What reconciled Job to his fate was his realization that it is a good thing that God is above our reason:  His “wildness” is part of His divinity.  The numinous is also connected with an intense sense of power and energy.  Indeed, this overpowering force can be a source of terror.  Thus we hear of God’s “wrath”; He is the “living God”, a “consuming fire”, and to look on Him is death.  These are all, Otto insists, analogies from other experiences used to describe something for which there are no words.  For example, experiencing God’s wrath doesn’t always mean His literal anger, but rather a forcefulness of His presence that can be described in no other way.  When confronted by the power of His presence, by His sheer plenitude of being, the creature is struck by its own comparative nothingness.  Otto calls this “creature-feeling”, which is related to Schleiermacher’s “feeling of absolute dependency” in that the former gives rise to the latter.  Finally, as the rational aspect of religion is developed, the aspect of the goodness and absolute value of the numinous come to the fore.  What had once seemed like a ghost or a demon is now seen to be the source and sanction of the moral law.

Otto believes that religions can be judged against each other according to how well they capture the sense of the numinous.  Since he’s a Lutheran theologian, it is not surprising that Christianity comes out on top in his estimation.  From this, one might get the impression that Otto is a pious Lutheran.  However, towards the end of the book and in the appendices he reveals that he doesn’t actually believe in miracles or the Resurrection.  How has someone so sympathetic to the religious impulse been led to such disastrous apostasy?  Perhaps it is because he regards the numinous aspect of religion as not only qualitatively distinct from other experiences, but as actually non-rational.  True, by “non-rational” he doesn’t mean “irrational”, but the effect is still that we can’t take numinous expressions literally, and we can’t reason from them logically.  The point is always to get the “spiritual” message, which opens Otto to the liberal Protestant temptation of dismissing the “carnal” messenger.  First distinguish the physical claim of the Resurrection from its spiritual “meaning”.  Then accept the latter and discard the former.  Finally, claim that people who accept the physical fact are thereby denying the spiritual meaning.  In the liberal Protestant mind, the two are first distinguished and then, inexplicably, opposed.  Far better to accept the classical Christian view, the sacramental/incarnational view that the physical and spiritual are inseparably united.

2 Responses

  1. […] the study of the phenomenology of religion, a study which was later carried to greater heights by Rudolf Otto and Mircea Eliade; he and these other thinkers have proved that religion is not merely a substitute […]

  2. […] the study of the phenomenology of religion, a study which was later carried to greater heights by Rudolf Otto and Mircea Eliade; he and these other thinkers have proved that religion is not merely a […]

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