NOTES on Rudolf Otto (1869-1937): The Idea of the Holy


Rudolf Otto was a German theologian. Among his most influential books was The Idea of the Holy, which he first published in 1917.

“Numen” and the “Numinous”

Otto discusses the terms “holiness” and “the holy.” Today, the words mean “completely good”; however, originally the words had a main meaning that was quite different. Originally “holy” meant something that was set apart from and unapproachable by human beings.

Because the word “holy” has taken on the additional meaning of “completely good,” Otto proposes that we use a new term for what was originally called “holy.” The new term will have the meaning of “holy,” but without the emphasis on morality and without the emphasis on reason. (The philosopher Immanuel Kant felt that we use our reason to determine what is right and wrong.)

The new term is the “numinous,” a word that Otto invented. The word comes from the Latin word numen, which means “divine power.” The glossary of Exploring the Philosophy of Religionby David Stewart defines “numinous” as referring to “that which is experienced as the ‘wholly other’ or as the mysterium tremendum. Otto also referred to the numinous as the holy.” Otto believed that since we made the word “ominous” fromomen, we can make the word “numinous” from numen.

The numinous category of value and numinous category of mind “cannot be strictly defined,” Otto writes. It is a mental state that is of its own kind and cannot be reduced to any other mental state — it must be experienced. However, we can talk of other things that are notthe numinous but that are like the numinous. In Otto’s words, the numinous “cannot, strictly speaking, be taught, it can only be evoked, awakened in the mind; as everything that comes ‘of the spirit’ must be awakened.”

“Mysterium Tremendum”

The Analysis of “Tremendum”

How can we describe the experience of the numinous? Since it is something that has to be experienced, the only thing that we can do is to use ideograms — states of mind that are analogous to the numinous.

According to Otto, there is something that is “the deepest and most fundamental element in all strong and sincerely felt religious emotion.” That element is not “[f]aith unto salvation, trust, [or] love.” The element under discussion is something that can be experienced in “personal piety,” during “rites and liturgies,” and around “old religious monuments and buildings.” That element is the mysterium tremendum.

Otto describes this feeling of the mysterium tremendumin this way:

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 ‘profaner,’ non-religious mood of everyday experience. It may burst in sudden eruption up from the depths of the soul with spasms and convulsions, or lead to the strangest excitements, to intoxicated frenzy, to transport, and to ecstasy. It has its wild and demonic forms and can sink to an almost grisly horror and shuddering. 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 mysteryinexpressible and above all creatures.

We can experience the mysterium tremendum, but what is the quality of those experiences? To answer that question, Otto proposes to analyze first the adjective “tremendum” and then the substantive “mysterium.” The adjective “tremendum” has three elements:

1) the element of awefulness,

2) the element of overpoweringness (“majestas”), and

3) the element of “energy” or “urgency.”

  1. The Element of Awefulness

Otto points out that “tremor” means “fear.” However, the experience of fear is only analogous to the feeling inspired by the tremendum. Indeed, Otto says that the experience inspired by the tremendumis “wholly distinct from that of being afraid.”

In the scriptures, we read of the “fear” of God and we read of people “dreading” God. That is the element of tremendumcaptured by “awefulness” — being filled with awe.

A better word than “fear” to describe this feeling, Otto writes, would be dread — “a feeling of peculiar dread, not to be mistaken for any ordinary dread.” According to Otto, in this element of the experience of the tremendum, “we have a terror fraught with an inward shuddering such as not even the most menacing and overpowering created thing can instil. It has something spectral in it ….”

  1. The Element of Overpoweringness (“Majestas”)

We must add something to “awefulness,” because we also experience such things as “might” and “power” and “absolute overpoweringness” when we experience the tremendum. Otto uses the word “majestas,” or majesty, so that we have what we can call tremenda majestas.

What is our subjective response to the overpoweringness of the numinous? In Otto’s words, “Thus, in contrast to ‘the overpowering’ of which we are conscious as an object over against the self, there is the feeling of one’s own submergence, of being but ‘dust and ashes’ and nothingness. And this forms the numinous raw feeling for the feeling of religious humility.”

  1. The Element of “Energy” or “Urgency”

The third element of tremendumis “energy” or “urgency.” We see this in scriptural passages of the wrath of God. However, it is also described as “vitality, passion, emotional temper, will, force, movement, excitement, activity, impetus.” Otto writes that philosophers have tended to dislike this aspect of God; however, it is an important, nonrational aspect of the divine nature.

The Analysis of “Mysterium”

Now that Otto has analyzed the adjective tremendum, he turns toward an analysis of the substantive mysterium.

The “Wholly Other”

The first thing Otto points out is that the adjective tremendumby itself is not enough to explain the substantive mysterium; instead, the adjective tremendumadds something not contained in the substantive mysterium. (Definition: “Substantive” means noun.)

Once again, we have a subjective response to mysterium— our subjective response is “stupor.” The word “stupor,” Otto writes, “signifies blank wonder, an astonishment that strikes us dumb, amazement absolute.” (Just imagine trying to explain the Trinity!)

So what does mysterium— in its religious sense — mean? It means, Otto writes, the “‘wholly other’ …, that which is quite beyond the sphere of the usual, the intelligible, and the familiar, which therefore falls quite outside the limits of the ‘canny,’ and is contrasted with it, filling the mind with blank wonder and astonishment.”

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, “canny” means “Susceptible of human understanding; explicable; natural.” Since the mysteriumis not canny, it is no wonder that Otto writes, “The truly ‘mysterious’ object is beyond our apprehension and comprehension, not only because our knowledge has certain irremovable limits, but because in it we come upon something inherently ‘wholly other,’ whose kind and character are incommensurable with our own, and before which we therefore recoil in a wonder that strikes us chill and numb.”

When Otto tries to describe what it is like to have a genuine “numinous” fear or dread, he has to use an ideogram: the fear of ghosts, which he calls “that degraded offshoot and travesty of the genuine ‘numinous’ fear or dread.” However, the thing about ghosts that captures our imagination is that they have no place in our world. Similarly, the numinous is “supernatural” — beyond Nature — and “supramundane” — “above the whole world order.”

Rational and Nonrational

Otto points out that he has been “investigating the nonrational element in the idea of the divine.” Indeed, the subtitle of Otto’s book is “An Inquiry into the Nonrational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational,” and so we have to enquire into the nonrational and distinguish it from the rational.

Otto writes, “We began with the ‘rational’ in the idea of God and the divine, meaning by the term that in it which is clearly to be grasped by our power of conceiving, and enters the domain of familiar and definable conceptions. We went on to maintain that beneath this sphere of clarity and lucidity lies a hidden depth, inaccessible to our conceptual thought, which we in so far call the ‘nonrational.’”

“Rational” is the word that we use to describe mathematics and geometry. “Irrational” is the word that we use to describe someone who puts his hand in a blender and turns it on just to see what it feels like.

So what does “nonrational” mean? Certainly there is a rational element in the idea of the divine — we are able to grasp something of the divine through the use of our reason. However, Otto writes, in the idea of the divine there is “a hidden depth, inaccessible to our conceptual thought, which we in so far call the ‘nonrational.’” When we feel “religious bliss,” we cannot “elucidate the object to which this state of mind refers” — therefore, the object of religious bliss (and of religious awe and religious reverence) is nonrational.

In Otto’s words, “… the object of religiousawe or reverence — the tremendumand the augustum, cannot be fully determined conceptually: it is nonrational, as is the beauty of a musical composition, which no less eludes complete conceptual analysis.”

Note: The quotations by Rudolf Otto that appear in this essay are from his The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Nonrational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational, translated by John W. Harvey (2nd edition, 1950).


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