In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him...And one called to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory." The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said, "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!" Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: "Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out." Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I; send me!" (Is. 6:1-8)
From its aesthetic sense of majesty and power, to its movement from awe and unworthiness into prophetic action, Isaiah's encounter with the Holy serves as a paradigmatic model for Rudolf Otto's The Idea of the Holy. The Isaiah passage illustrates at least two tenets central to Otto's work. First, that numinous encounters evoke feelings of awe, devotion and utter humility -- religious feelings that are categorically unique and speakable only through analogy. Second, that while holiness is distinguished from morality, an encounter with the Holy does carry within it a moral imperative pointing toward the convergence of the human will and the will of God.
The following summary and critique examines Otto's ideas concerning numinous encounters. Scholars have called Chapters 1 through 13 of The Idea of the Holy a phenomenological account, with the remaining Chapters 14 - 21 a more philosophical treatment of his subject. I will follow this basic division in summarizing the work. The critique will include discussion of Otto's epistemology, a brief look at his work from a postmodern constructionist standpoint, the inherent dualism in Otto's thought, and The Ideal of the Holy as a phenomenological account.
Otto sees the Holy, or holiness, as a unique category of interpretation combining both the rational and non-rational. Interestingly, the rational and non-rational do not exactly correspond to thought and feeling. Rather, they are predicates of an object. If an object can be conceptualized, it is a rational object. If it cannot, it is non-rational. He maintains that as Christians we rightly conceptualize certain attributes of God -- goodness, spirit, reason, purpose, power, unity, selfhood -- thus leading to our sense of the divine as rational and moral. Orthodox Christianity's doctrines and dogmas certainly attest to this, and rightly so, according to Otto. He warns us, however, that this is not all there is to God. The essence of the divine cannot be contained in rational attributions. God is also non-rational, and it is this largely ignored aspect of God within the Protestant tradition that his works examines.
Otto uses the term numinous to denote this non-rational essence, that part of the holy which is ineffable and beyond moral characterization. Numinous refers both to the object and to the experience of the object. Because the numinous itself is beyond words, Otto's analysis is strictly analogical and focuses on the feeling response to the presence of the holy, best characterized with the phrase mysterium tremendum fascinans et augustum. According to Otto, this feeling response is a sui generis category -- irreducible and uniquely religious.
Now to a brief review of Otto's examination of numinous encounters:
The mysterium is the wholly-other, an object eluding all understanding. It is over and beyond what is familiar or intelligible and fills the mind with "wonder and astonishment." (IH, 26) In our encounters with the mysterium we meet something "whose kind and character are incommensurable with our own, and before which we therefore recoil in a wonder that strikes us chill and numb." (IH, 28)
The adjective tremendum describes this mysterium and our encounters with it in three ways. Awefulness is a feeling of fear, bordering on terror, that "penetrates to the very marrow, making [our] hair bristle and limbs quake." (IH, 16) The body shudders in its awareness of the uncanny. The second element is overpoweringness, or majestas. This aspect is one in which the creature-consciousness appears. We feel ourselves but dust and ashes in the objective presence of the all-powerful other. The element of energy or urgency is characterized for Otto in the idea of the wrath of God -- vitality, passion, will, force, movement, impetus (IH, 23) -- as well as in the mystics' notions of the all-consuming fire of God's love.
Fascinans also describes experience of the mysterium. Although we do recoil, at the same time we find ourselves strangely attracted. The numinous is alluring, captivating and charming, and we somehow sense that knowing it and being in its presence is unaccountably salvific. This mystery is wonder and bliss, providing the 'peace that passes understanding.'
The fascinans is the positive subjective side of the numinous experience. The positive objective side is the augustum, that within the numinous which claims our respect. We pay homage to that which is outside of us, and that which we feel by its very nature much necessarily devalue our own. Here again we see how, following Schleiermacher, Otto makes clear that several aspects of the numinous encounter serve to evoke within us a creature-feeling in which we have a staggering sense of dependence and personal finitude.
Not only does Otto offer the above description of the numinous encounter, he also looks at how the numinous is expressed and develops in an historical understanding of religion. From animism and fear of taboos to biblical notions all the way through Luther's writings, Otto tracks how it is that all of these are different expressions of a sense of the holy. To paraphrase Otto, daemonic power becomes divine power; dread becomes worship; confusion and inchoate emotions become a "shudder" of holy awe. When the numen becomes absolutized in Deity, Otto maintains, is when the word holy is attributed to God. All of this develops in the sphere of the non-rational. (IH, 110)
Secondary to this development is "the process of rationalization and moralization on the basis of the numinous consciousness." (IH, 110) The sense of the holy has historically been "filled in" with ideals of goodness, justice, obligation. Otto applauds this moralization process overall as part of the history of salvation and "the ever-growing self-revelation of the divine." (IH, 111) At the same time, and in view of an increasingly secularized European Protestant culture, he is most concerned to say that we have gone too far with it and need to regain some balance. For Otto, holiness is completed by the moralization process -- holiness is both non-rational and rational -- but morality always has its source in and is determined first by the numinous. It is in this sense then that we can say, as above regarding the Isaiah passage, that an encounter with the Holy does carry within it a moral imperative pointing toward the convergence of the human will and the will of God.
Having described numinous encounters analogically through a depiction and analysis of the associated feelings, now in Chapters 14 -21 Otto tells us how it is that these feelings are indications of an a priori principal at work, an objective reality. He maintains that these feelings, characterized with the phrase mysterium tremendum fascinans et augustum, indicate that human beings have a built in psychological capacity to experience the numinous. These qualitatively unique feelings do not arise out of any kind of normal sense-perceptions, yet, since any feeling requires some kind of stimulus, they must be evoked in response to a non-natural object outside of us, i.e., the numinous. (PA, 83) They point to a "hidden substantive source, from which the religious ideas and feelings are formed, which lies in the mind independently of sense-experience." (IH, 114)
Otto's epistemology stands on the shoulders of theologian Jacob Fries' neo-Kantianism. In contrast to Kant, Fries maintained that we can know reality, the thing-in-itself. He bases this conviction on how our very existence and being in general give rise to what he calls immediate knowledge. This immediate knowledge carries within it its own criterion of truth, a feeling of truth, which is "inescapable and irreducible." (PA, 47-49) This immediate feeling of truth is what characterizes Ahndung (presentiment or intuitive feeling). It is through Ahndung that human beings are enabled to apprehend the infinite in the finite. Ahndung serves as a bridge between rational faith and scientific knowledge.
Otto takes Friesian Ahndung and calls it the faculty of divination:
Divination consists in the fact that a man encounters an occurrence that is not 'natural,' in the sense of being inexplicable by the laws of nature. Since it has actually occurred, it must have had a cause; and, since it has no 'natural' cause, it must…have a supernatural one. This theory of divination is a genuine, solidly rationalist theory, put together with rigid concepts in a strict demonstrative form and intended as such. And it claims that the capacity or faculty of divination is the understanding, the faculty of reflection in concept and demonstration. The transcendent is here proved as strictly as anything can be proved, logically from given premises. (IH, 144-145)
It is an open question whether Otto "proved" the transcendent, as he claimed, and it is at this point that I want to move into a critique of The Idea of the Holy. Interestingly, although it has significantly impacted the psychology of religion and has become a part of the religious culture, this work has had little theological influence over the years. Bultmann attacked its "irrationalism," and Tillich said the philosophy on which it was based left open too many questions. (MR, 10 and PA, 89, respectively)
Otto's attempt to give philosophical credence, through Friesian thought, to the experience of the holy was for me the most interesting aspect of his work, but ultimately, of course, he is making a rather circular argument. Truth verified by the feeling of truth is a philosophically weak position. Although I am among the many who believe (based on personal experience and Ahndung, no doubt) that what he is saying is accurate, I saw nothing in the reading that effectively countered the problem of human proclivity toward self-deception. Otto himself seems to understand that his philosophical argument cannot hope to convince the skeptical when he writes on page 8 that those who have not had encounters with the numinous should bother to read no further.
The Idea of the Holy is ultimately a document of faith, for Otto cannot establish that an "event did not arise from natural causes or was in conflict with the laws of nature." His only defense against this claim is an appeal straight back to the religious consciousness itself which, he says, "rises against this desiccation and materialization of what in all religion is surely the most tender and living moment, the actual discovery of and encounter with very deity." (IH, 145)
Philosophically, we are left not with logical proof but with a presupposition that the numinous is an objective metaphysical reality and not a psychological projection.
At the same time, however, the notion that The Idea of the Holy fails to 'hold up' on strictly logical philosophical terms needs to be measured against the equally important notion that strictly logical philosophical terms are, after all, only one way of knowing. As a feminist who has experienced first-hand the denigration of "women's ways of knowing," Ahndung is a refreshing 'philosophical' idea. And if both psychology and philosophy are after the same goal, i.e., to make manifest that which is hidden, perhaps Ahndung makes the most sense of all.
To continue with this critique, I turn now to a look at Otto from a postmodern constructionist position. Not surprisingly, his writing carries within it modernist assumptions of universality, a-temporality, and a disregard for placing much importance on the context of experience. His basic proposition, for example, is that numinous experience is sui generis -- irreducible, unmediated by language or circumstance. And he claimed as well to have discovered a universal predisposition in all humans to receive the numinous experience. Both of these claims are at odds with postmodern constructionist insights that all experience is conditioned and that, given the diversity of human existence and the lack of any fixed reference point, universalizing anything is dangerous business.
Perhaps surprisingly, a few aspects of Otto's work do fit rather well with a postmodern perspective.
- First, his emphasis on religion as an inner experience is in line with certain postmodern spiritualities which consider experience more authoritative than doctrine, texts or priests.
- Second, as Raphael notes, despite his modernist assumptions, there is little Cartesian rationalism or disembodiedness in Otto. (MR, 5) Indeed, much of the criticism leveled at his work attacks a perceived overvaluation of the body and the senses as well as his position that the intellect cannot ultimately determine religious truth.
- Third, Otto's comparative study of religion was a powerful precursor to the religious pluralism of the postmodern world. Although he ultimately claimed the superiority of Christianity and felt it to be the most evolved of all religions, Otto's writing also showed unusual respect for the truth found in all major religions and he advocated a change in the West's disdainful attitude toward them.
- Finally, Otto's insistence that morality and beauty are culturally determined anticipates constructionist insights.
The dualism inherent in The Idea of the Holy must be mentioned here as well. In characterizing the sacred otherness of the divine, Otto seems at times to intimate that the created world can be nothing but profane. Liberationist critique notes that this dichotomy has led to sinful political and religious structures. Liberationists prefer a more holistic view, seeing the sacred inherent in all of life, and offering relationality as a means by which the violence of these systemic structures may be countered. They point out that relationship with Otto's 'wholly other' numinous is a daunting task, to say the least.
Otto's distinction between the sacred and profane is more complex than some liberationists may take into account. First and foremost it reminds us that we are not God, that our status as creatures means we require a system of morality that addresses political and religious injustices. Also, despite the 'wholly otherness' of a numinous encounter, the fascinans element points toward a kind of mystical joy and sense of salvation, both of which call forth a type of intimacy with the numinous object. Finally, I particularly appreciated Raphael's defense of Otto's dualism vs. the liberationist tendency toward a monistic theology:
If there is no principle of division that names religio-ethical transgression, then there are no frontiers to halt the advance of those political structures of alienation from God . . . The division of holiness and profanity produces an urgent, purposive model of history, whereas the problem of modernity is precisely that it robs history of any telos beyond that of the final mastery of nature . . . . If nothing is enclosed or fenced off as taboo or forbidden, closed to economic colonization or scientific reduction, then there is no obstacle to modernity's Baconian unveiling of creation's mysteries. (MR, 188)
Before concluding, I want to briefly include something about the phenomenology of The Idea of the Holy. Despite the fact that this work is commonly considered a prototypical phenomenological account, the scholars I read had some interesting input into this classification. Raphael points out that while Otto does attempt to get to the central aspects of numinous experience (eidetic vision), he does not suspend judgment even for a moment (epoche). Rather, he assumes his judgments regarding the religious a priori are not only correct, but universal. (MR, 16) And Almond notes that Otto's assertion that religious feelings are qualitatively unique is not phenomenological, but is a philosophical presupposition. This is the case as well for his ideas regarding the varieties of religious experience. While Otto's assertion that different religions experience the numinous in different ways is accounted for phenomenologically, his assertion that ultimately all religions are grounded in one metaphysical reality is once again a philosophical presupposi-tion and is not phenomenologically based. (PA, 85)
Rudolf Otto's The Idea of the Holy has powerfully impacted the psychology of religion at least in part because it reads the human document in a profoundly insightful way, offering us an astute account of our ability to know the infinite in the midst of a finite world. It is a transcendental psychology that provides a means of expressing the human capacity to distinguish between the sacred and profane and to apprehend the self-revelation of God.
From a pastoral theological perspective, I think The Idea of the Holy offers meaningful discussion of at least three things. First, it points to how revelation necessitates grace. At its most fundamental level how we know God, indeed, how we know anything, is pure grace. Also, Otto's epistemology reminds the pastoral theologian that feelings of truth, while perhaps disparaged in society worshiping at the feet of technology and while indeed always requiring careful reflection and analysis, nevertheless yield important clues as to how it is that like Isaiah we often daringly move out into the world in response to a powerful experience perceived strictly from a religious consciousness. Finally, feelings of truth also provide a theological foundation for a crucial aspect of human existence -- hope.
Paul Tillich has written beautifully of how we have a right to hope based on our experience of the eternal in us and in our finite world. We feel that this is a holy place, a holy person, a holy time. The feeling transcends the ordinary; it gives more and demands more, and it points to the ultimate mystery of experience and all existence. Those moments of truth show us that our finitude, surrendered to the flux of things, is only one side of our being and that we are both in and above finitude. Rudolf Otto helps the pastoral theologian sense anew this paradoxical backdrop of what it means to be human.
IH The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry Into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational, by Rudolf Otto (London: Oxford University Press, 1923)
MR Rudolf Otto and the Concept of Holiness, by Melissa Raphael (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997)
PA Rudolf Otto: An Introduction to His Philosophical Theology, by Philip C. Almond (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1984)