Rudolf Otto (25 September 1869 – 6 March 1937) published his masterpiece The Idea of the Holy in 1917. It has been in print ever since. Otto’s work gives us a vocabulary for understanding the experience of what the Bible calls “the fear of the Lord.”
He begins with a caution that before exploring the mystery of faith, we need a thorough grounding in the rationality rationality of faith. Rationality is the realm of theology and orthodoxy. Rationality is what sets apart belief from impulse, grouping belief upon data and objective content.
“… we count this the very mark and criterion of a religions’ high rank and superior value … that it should admit knowledge – the knowledge that comes by faith – of the transcendent in terms of conceptual thought…. Christianity not only possesses such conceptions but possesses them in unique clarity and abundance, and this is, though not the sole or even the chief, yet a very real sign of its superiority over religions of other forms and at other levels. This must be asserted at the outset and with the most positive emphasis.” (1)
Otto cautions, however, that we must guard against the error of thinking that the essence of God can be given in completely and exhaustively rational terms. Our communication about God’s character is in language and is subject to rational definition, however the very very existence of language implies a subject that the language points to. Our language about God is a result, a response, an attempt to summarize and systematize the great Subject which is (or rather, who is) Supra-rational, pre-rational, and encompasses more than rationality. In speaking about God, rationality is not to be despised, nor is it insufficient, but it is not comprehensive. There is more to know about God than what can be rationally expressed.
Even so, there must be a way of talking about and expressing that which is beyond rationality:
“Yet, though it eludes the conceptual way of understanding, it must be in some way or other within our grasp, else absolutely nothing could be asserted of it. And even mysticism, in speaking of it as … the ineffable, does not really mean to imply that absolutely nothing can be asserted of the object of the religious consciousness; otherwise mysticism could exist only in unbroken silence, whereas what has generally be a characteristic of the mystics is the copious eloquence.” (2)
In Otto’s understanding, rationalism is not the denial of the miraculous. Rationalism can admit the miraculous does happen. Indeed the rationalist Christian must explain his understanding of the miraculous in great detail.
Otto says of the contrast of rationalism and supra-rationalism:
“[it] resolves itself rather into a peculiar difference of quality in the mental attitude and emotional content of the religious life itself. All depends upon this: in our idea of God is the non-rational overborne, perhaps wholly excluded, by the rational? Or conversely, does the non rational itself preponderate over the rational?” (3)
In trying to pin down a good vocabulary for this supra-rational experience in faith, Otto begins with the concept of holiness. “Holy,” in all of its linguistic variants, has a moral component. But Otto suggests that the term also implies something more than morality Indeed, he asserts that the earliest usages of the word holy have focused on the “something more” and the moral component was a later addition. This is not to say that the moral component is wrong, but rather that the moral component only comes on the heels of an experience of the qualitatively different nature of God’s character.
To convey the experience of this qualitative difference, Otto settles on the term “numinous.” This, he suggests, is a primary mental state. It is irreducible. Like other qualities, it can be discussed, but it cannot be strictly defined. One can be led to consider it, but one cannot be forced.
“We can co-operate in this process by bringing before his notice all that can be found in other regions of the mind, already known and familiar, to resemble, or again to afford some special contrast to, the particular experience we wish to elucidate….[It] cannot, strictly speaking, be taught, it can only be evoked, awakened in the mind; as everything that comes ‘of the spirit’ must be awakened.” (7)
I believe that Otto’s observations reflect the truth that the encounter with this “something other” is not an impersonal encounter, but a personal encounter with a personal divinity.
As Otto reaches for categories to describe what he means by the experience of the numinous, he directs the reader to think of a religious experience. If you can’t do this, Otto says, then read no further, for this book will not be of use. This, I think, is a fascinating request in an academic work.
The first aspect of the numinous experience is the what Otto calls the “creature feeling” or “creature consciousness”
“It is the emotion of a creature, submerged and overwhelmed by its own nothingness in contrast to that which is supreme above all creatures.” (10)
This creature conscious is as a response to being in the presence of something outside the self. It is a response to an encounter, not a manufactured emotional state from within. Otto labels the object to which the numinous is a response as the “Mysterium Tremendum”
We respond to this encounter with the Mysterium Tremendous with some of the deepest religious feelings: “faith until salvation, trust, love”
“But over and above these is an element which may also on occasion, quite apart from them, profoundly affect us and occupy the mind with a welling bewildering strength….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 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….” (12)
Otto says that the concept of mysterium is a negative one – not identified by what can be known, but by the unknown – that which is beyond experience and understanding. However this mysterium leaves traces in the form of positive feelings:
The feeling of awfulness: The fear of the Lord in the OT is qualitatively different from fear of material things. It reflects a deep inward shuddering. It is a sense of the uncanny.
“It has something spectral in it … all ostensible explanations of the origin of religions in terms of animism or magic or folk-psychology are doomed from the outset to wander astray and miss the real goal of their inquiry, unless they recognize this fact of our nature – primary, unique, underivable from anything else – to be the basic factor and the basic impulse underlying the entire process of religious evolution.” (15)
Otto cite’s Luther’s statement that the natural man cannot fear God perfectly, and then adds:
“…we ought to go farther and add that the natural man is quite unable even to ‘shudder’ or feel horror in the real sense of the world. For ‘shuddering’ is something more than ‘natural’ ordinary fear. It implies that the mysterious is already beginning to loom before the mind, to touch the feelings.” (15)
Otto says that this inward shudder is found in the “Holy, Holy, Holy” of Revelation and in the hymn of Ltersteegen: “God himself is present/Heart, be stilled before him: Prostrate inwardly adore him.” It reaches its perfection, Otto suggests, in a sense mystical awe.
The feeling of majestas: Here Otto conveys the idea of “absolute unapproachability.” He describes this sense by calling attention to the difference between awareness of created-ness and awareness of creature hood. The is awareness of being created. The second is the feeling of general impotence in the face of divine might. This is the consciousness of “the littleness of every creature in face of that which is above all creatures.” (22)
The feeling of “energy” or urgency: Otto describes this as experiencing the living God who acts in history. This is the assertion that God is dynamic and active rather than the Aristotelian great unmoved mover.
These are thoughts from the first five chapters of Otto’s great work. Check it out yourself for more.
You might complement these thoughts with Drew Bratcher’s thoughts on Marilynne Robinson and the pervasiveness of meaning. Then follow up with Nicole Cliffe’s story of her spiritual experience.