The Real Alternative

An Outline of Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy


otto1Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the non-rational factor in the idea of the divine and its relation to the rational was first published by Oxford University Press in 1923. A second edition appeared in 1950.

This brief outline is based on a 1973 reprint of the second edition. The specialized Appendixes on pages 179-229 have been omitted.

To fully appreciate the height and depth of Otto’s work, one should really read the whole book. Here we find impressive scholarship, innovative ideas and the somewhat obvious influence of his documented travels in North Africa and Asia. John C. Durham‘s thematic summary is also recommended.

This outline is, of course, selective and should be taken in no other way. The following quotations and paraphrases were deemed most important to each chapter.† Another reader would have, no doubt, picked out different passages. Critical comments appear [in square brackets like this, followed by—MC]. Black page numbers indicate chapter lengths, red page numbers are for quotations, and blue page numbers are for paraphrases.



Translator’s Preface to the Second Edition ix-xix
Translator John W. Harvey says the following quote from Pascal’s Pensees expresses Otto’s own attitude: “‘If one subjects everything to reason our religion will lose its mystery and its supernatural character.'” xviii
Forward by the Author to the First English Edition (1923)
Otto says he wishes to study the non-rational or supra-rational but does not wish to promote “fantastic irrationalism.”
Chapter I – The Rational and the Non-Rational 1-4
“So far from keeping the non-rational element in religion alive in the heart of the religious experience, orthodox Christianity manifestly failed to recognize its value, and by this failure gave to the idea of God a one-sidedly intellectualistic and rationalistic interpretation.” [Otto was a Protestant. The Catholic tradition honors a rich variety of mystical writings from countless saints. I refer the reader to The Life of St. Teresa of Avila by Herself among other titles which I would provide on request. See also Otto's own comments in Chapter XIIMC]. 3
Chapter II – ‘Numen’ and the ‘Numinous’ 5-7
Omen has given us ‘ominous’, and there is no reason why from numen we should not similarly form a word ‘numinous.'” [Numen is a Latin word usually translated as the power, presence or manifestation of a deityMC]. 7
Chapter III – The Elements in the ‘Numinous’ 8-11
The experience of the numinous requires one to feel creaturely and dependent on some kind of supreme, overpowering might. “The numinous is thus felt as objective and outside the self.” 10-11
Chapter IV – Mysterium Tremendum 12-24
‘Numinous dread’ or awe characterizes the so-called ‘religion of primitive man’, where it appears as ‘daemonic dread.’ “This crudely naive and primordial emotional disturbance, and the fantastic images to which it gives rise, are later overbourne and ousted by more highly developed forms of the numinous emotion, with all its mysteriously impelling power.” 15-16
Chapter V – The Analysis of ‘Mysterium’ 25-30
“Mysticism continues to its extreme point this contrasting of the numinous object (the numen), as the ‘wholly other’, with ordinary experience.” 29
Chapter VI – The Element of Fascination 31-40
Lower levels of the numinous are evident in such works as the poetry of Sophocles. “It may mean evil or imposing, potent and strange, queer and marvelous, horrifying and fascinating, divine and daemonic, and a source of ‘energy.'” 39
Chapter VII – Analogies and Associated Feelings 41-49
Music feeling is something like numinous feeling in that “we attribute to it a spell, an enchantment.” But this is only an analogy. “We must beware of confounding in any way the non-rational of music and the non-rational of the numinous itself, as Schopenhauer, for example, does.” 49
Chapter VIII – The Holy as a Category of Value 50-59
We have both the light thrill of awe before the tremendum of the numen and also, and more especially, the feeling of this unique disvalue or unworth of the profane confronted by the numen…Here, then, comes in the felt necessity and longing for ‘atonement.’ One begins to crave the close presence of the numen so as to transcend one’s sense of unworthiness as “‘creature’ and profane natural being.” When we feel “guilty of a bad action…the evil of the action weighs upon us and deprives us of our self-respect.” And the negative effects continue into a second stage. “The same perverse action that before weighed upon us now pollutes us…The man feels a need, to express which he has recourse to images of washing and cleansing.”Christianity expresses the mysterious need for atonement or expiation more fully and effectively than any other religion. And in this too, it shows its superiority over others. It is a more perfect religion and more perfectly religion than they, in so far as what is potential in religion in general becomes in Christianity pure actuality…[teachers will have to demonstrate how] the Christian religious experience, how the ‘very numen’, by imparting itself to the worshipper, becomes itself the means of ‘atonement.'” 54-55, 56
Chapter IX – Means of Expression of the Numinous 60-71
“The magical is nothing but a suppressed and dimmed form of the numinous, a crude form of it which great art purifies and ennobles.” Otto says the Chinese landscape and religious painting of the classical T’ang and Sung dynasties confronts us with the numinous. He adds that the use of empty space – the void or emptiness – is a negation that allows the wholly other to become actual. [We cannot know for certain if this type of numinosity is qualitatively equivalent to others. To compound the problem, various individuals may experience this type of numinosity differently, not only in intensity but in character.MC] 67, 69-70
Chapter X – The Numinous in the Old Testament 72-81
The numinous is found in all religions but is preeminent in the Bible. “The capital instance of the intimate mutual interpenetration of the numinous with the rational and moral is Isaiah.” 72, 75
Chapter XI – The Numinous in the New Testament 82-93
Otto notes the power, majesty and goodness of God but also the presence of “weird awe and shuddering dread before the mysteries of the transcendent.” He then cites Matthew 10:28, “‘But fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.'” [Some translations of this passage use the word "him" and others "God"MC]. Otto says that the idea of election (i.e. chosen by God for salvation in everlasting heaven) entails the experience of grace. [As with the term numinosity, we cannot know just what the so-called "experience of grace" means for different people. Even within ourselves, at one stage in life we may associate a certain experience with grace (e.g. an endorphin rush after jogging) and yet later in life come to experience something even more sublime, which we then designate as "grace," reformulating the previous endorphin rush as something qualitatively different. It seems the healthy (and scientific) position would be to stay open to new experiences (and conceptual updates) with regard to the idea of grace, all the while realizing that we can probably never know with certainty what another person experiences (or means) when using words like grace and numinosity. This issue arguably cast some doubt on Otto's claims about comparative mysticism and the superiority of Christianityassuming, of course, that God didn't directly or indirectly reveal true knowledge to Otto. Even if Otto's claims are correct, the argumentation would appear weak to hardcore rationalists, especially those biased against the idea of revealed knowledge. More creative and arguably advanced thinkers, however, would at least entertain the possibility of revealed knowledge rather than automatically dismissing it.MC] 84, 87
Chapter XII – The Numinous in Luther 94-108
Otto says that in “less authentic forms assumed by legend and miracle,” in its Neo-Platonic influenced concepts, and in the “paradoxes and mysteries of Catholic dogma” there is an “intimate rapport of Catholic piety with mysticism.” He suggests that the Lutheran school has “not done justice” to the numinous aspect of God as understood by Luther himself and Christianity in general. [This chapter highlights Otto's independent thinking. Along these lines Otto originally aspired to be a minister but a very conservative German Lutheran Church hesitated to give him an appointment.MC]. Otto also says that “the mysterious is much less in evidence in the official systems of doctrine, whether Catholic or Protestant.” [This may seem confusing in light of the above quotation but in Catholicism all dogmas are doctrines but not all doctrines are dogmasMC] . 94, 100,  104, 108
Chapter XIII – The Two Processes of Development 109-111
Otto speaks of a two-step process involving the initial numinous consciousness followed by the rationalization and moralization of that experience. But Otto’s view is not a kind of postmodern, open-ended polymorphism. He posits an overall spiritual and moral development in this process. “And this process of rationalization and moralization of the numinous, as it grows ever more clear and more potent, is in fact the most essential part of what we call ‘the History of Salvation’ and prize as the ever-growing self-revelation of the divine.” Otto stresses that this does not entail a suppression or supersession of the numinous, “but rather the completion and charging of it with a new content.” [Today we speak more in terms of how we 'conceptualize' an initial experience. Along these lines I often stress the role of interpretation, especially with regard to unusual experiences which supposedly prove certain beliefs (e.g ETs or reincarnation) beyond a shadow of a doubt.MC] 109-111
Chapter XIV – The Holy as an A Priori Category, Part I 112-116
Otto likens the numinous to Kant’s use of the term a priori. For Otto the numinous “issues from at the deepest foundation of cognitive apprehension that the soul possesses.” This means that the numinous “comes into being in and amid the sensory data and empirical material of the natural world and cannot anticipate or dispense with those, yet is does not arise out of them, but only by their means.” [Kant also makes a debatable distinction between (a) essentially unknowable noumena and (b) the world of phenomena. See discussion
Chapter XV – Its Earliest Manifestations 117-131
Otto discusses numinosity in ‘pre-religion’ in the following order: (1) Magic (2) Worship of the dead (3) The idea of power in objects, such as mana (Pacific Islands) and orenda (North America) (4) The idea of ‘souls’ and ‘spirits’ (5) Natural phenomena believed to be alive or animate (6) Fairy stories and myth (7) The rise of the daemon. With regard to (7) Otto says “to each numen is assigned a seer and there is none without one.” (8 ) The notions of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’, ‘pure’ and ‘impure’ “already found in a purely natural sense, prior to their religious application.” (9) Otto discusses the relation between the numen and the natural. (10) He then says that the type found in (7) “the feeling of daemons,” is the purest form because the “‘religious’ emotion” isn’t being projected onto an earthly object but is experienced within the self. [Otto uses the term "diverted" in a way that seems similar to instances of Freudian and Jungian projectionMC]. Otto then says that the natural psychologists of his day ignored the importance of the “self-attestation of religious ideas in one’s own mind.” Otto says theories which attribute the numinous to “historical traditions and dim memories of a ‘primeval revelation'” are as remiss as the natural psychologists because they too ignore the importance of “self-attestation from within.” 117-131, 122, 125, 130,
Chapter XVI – The ‘Cruder’ Phases 132-135
“The more developed forms of religious experience…and the ‘crude’, and rudimentary emotions of ‘daemonic dread'” are both a priori. Wild fanaticism is a crudity or primitive ‘religion.’ “Here the numinous appears as religious mania, possession by the numen, intoxication, and frenzy.” [Some of the so-called developed religions still valorize this idea. For instance, there are stories and legends of Catholic saints euphorically running about convents and doing seemingly 'crazy' things (e.g. St. Francis of Assisi standing naked in public, declaring the glory of Christ). Otto perhaps addresses this issue in the next chapter.MC]. Otto says “to know and to understand conceptually are two different things.” 132, 135
Chapter XVII – The Holy as an A Priori Category, Part II 136-142
“By the continual living activity of its non-rational elements a religion is guarded from passing into ‘rationalism.’ By being steeped in and saturated with rational elements it is guarded from sinking into fanaticism or mere mysticality, or at least from persisting in
these, and is qualified to become a religion for all civilized humanity.” Otto says the degree to which a religion unites the irrational and the rational in a healthy, harmonious way is a measure by which to rank religions. [This loosely parallels Einstein's views about religion and science and might have implications for a discussion on religions and cults.MC]
Chapter XVIII – The Manifestations of the ‘Holy’ and the faculty of ‘Divination’ 143-154
Otto talks about several forms of ‘signs,’ divination and inner impulses. “Beside the inner revelation from the Spirit there is an outward revelation of the divine nature.” [Some would say that this is similar to the assumptions underlying Jung's idea of synchronicityMC] Otto says the divination of Goethe, the ‘pagan’, as he sometimes referred to himself, may be accurate but doesn’t involve the numinous as it would with a prophet. [A critic might ask how Otto is qualified to say what Goethe, himself, experienced. I discuss this issue in IX and XI, aboveMC] Acts of divination that merely entail the daemonic experience of the numinous “not at the level of the divine and the holy may in a highly cultivated mind only stir emotional reactions of bewilderment and bedazzlement, without giving real light or warmth to the soul.” Goethe is being informed by an “a priori principle that is not explicit and overt, but dim and obscure.” [This calls to mind C. G. Jung's archetypes, particularly those pertaining to the shadow. Jung's archetypes are underlying, unknowable substances existing in the genetic structures of the bodyMC] 143, 153, 154
Chapter XIX – Divination in Primitive Christianity 155-161
Speaking of Jesus, Otto points out that “His own relatives take Him for a man ‘possessed’, an involuntary acknowledgement of the ‘numinous’ impression He made upon them.” 159
Chapter XX – Divination in Christianity To-day 162-174
“Whoever can thus immerse himself in contemplation [of Jesus without sin, suffering for others]…will find the ‘intuition of the eternal in the temporal.” The suffering of Jesus and the resultant Cross, which symbolizes the eternal mystery, is the completion of Job. 169, 173
Chapter XXI – History and the A Priori in Religion: Summary and Conclusion 175-178
Jesus is the highest stage of the ‘Spirit’ where person and performance is “most completely the object of divination [and] …holiness.” Next is the prophet, who has “the power to hear the ‘voice within’ and the power of divination.” 178

† Please reference the above quotations as follows: Otto, Rudolf. The Idea of the Holy cited in Michael W. Clark, “An Outline of Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy.”

The Idea of The Holy by Rudolf Otto

The Idea of The Holy by Rudolf Otto

The Idea of The Holy by Rudolf Otto

The Idea of The Holy by Rudolf Otto

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2 thoughts on “An Outline of Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy

  1. Pingback: Review – The Trickster and the Paranormal (Hardcover Book) «

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