Rudolf Otto's The Idea of the Holy 1: Summary

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In this first part of this brief study of The Idea of the Holy we summarise what we take to be Otto's two most important themes: the numinous and religious progress. In the second part, we comment on them in turn.

The Numinous in Religious Experience

Otto starts The Idea of the Holy by arguing that the non-rational in religion must be given its due importance, then goes on to introduce and develop his notion of the numinous. As a kind of first approximation for the wholly new concept he is giving us, Otto characterises the numinous as the holy (i.e. God) minus its moral and rational aspects. A little more positively, it is the ineffable core of religion: the experience of it cannot to be described in terms of other experiences.

[Note that the German heilig can be rendered as either holy or sacred. The translator had to make a choice and chose holy. So in the context of Otto, for holy it is possible to read sacred: the religious experience he discusses is the experience of the sacred.]

Otto's next approximation is the notion of creature-feeling. He suggests that those who experience the numinous experience a sense of dependency on something objective and external to themselves that is greater than themselves.

The Experience of the Numinous in Real Life

The writer goes on to indicate in concrete terms the kind of experience he is considering. Quotations are essential here so that we are absolutely clear on what Otto has in mind.

It is:

The deepest and most fundamental element in all strong and sincerely felt religious emotion.

It is to be found:

in strong, sudden ebullitions of personal piety, ... in the fixed and ordered solemnities of rites and liturgies, and again in the atmosphere that clings to old religious monuments and buildings, to temples and to churches.

It may peaceful and:

come sweeping like a gentle tide, pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship.

or faster moving:

thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its profane, non-religious mood of everyday experience

even violent, erupting:

from the depths of the soul with spasms and convulsions

and leading to:

the strangest excitements, to intoxicated frenzy, to transport, and to ecstasy [pp 12-13 in the standard English version]

Otto's Mysterium Tremendum

Otto has reached the heart of the matter. He pins down this sort of experience for dissection in terms of a Latin phrase, mysterium tremendum. He presents the tremendum component of the numinous that is being experienced as comprising three elements: awfulness (inspiring awe, a sort of profound unease), overpoweringness (that which, among other things, inspires a feeling of humility), energy (creating an impression of immense vigour).

The mysterium component in its turn has two elements, which Otto discusses at considerable length. Firstly, the numinous is experienced as wholly other. It is something truly amazing, as being totally outside our normal experience. Secondly, here is the element of fascination, which causes the subject of the experience of the numinous to be caught up in it, to be enraptured. [1]

Some Points Arising

There are several important points to be made about this description and analysis of religious experience. First of all note Otto's passing mention of the profane. In this account the religious person operates on two levels: usually on the profane or everyday level, but with occasional moments or longer periods of accession to a higher, sacred level.

Secondly, note the situations in which this higher level may be attained. Otto refers not only to personal piety, where he is presumably talking about prayer and religious meditation. He also includes participation in religious ceremonies and even visits to churches and the like.

Thirdly, note that although Otto initially mentions participation in ceremonies and visits to holy buildings as occasions for profound religious experience, he proves in the discussion of the five elements to be concerned above all with mysticism. This is surely a matter of personal piety.

Religious Progress: a Preview

Fourthly and finally, note that in the course of the analysis of the mysterium tremendum Otto gives us a preview of his ideas on religious progress. In the section on the first of his elements, awefulness, the writer explains how this part of the experience of the numinous still retains something of its origins in the most primitive form of religious experience:

let us give a little further consideration to the first crude, primitive forms in which this numinous dread or awe shows itself. It is the mark which really characterizes the so-called religion of primitive man, and there it appears as daemonic dread. This crudely naïve and primordial emotional disturbance ... [pp 15-16]

In this context, Otto suggests four stages of religious progress, the third being implied:,

  1. the worship of daemons
  2. the worship of gods
  3. inferior forms of the worship of God
  4. the highest level of all, where the worship of God is at its purest [p 17].

In his sections on the last two of his elements, the wholly other and the element of fascination, the writer refers again to daemonic dread as the primitive starting point of the numinous experience.

Having established early in the book (by p 40) exactly what he means by the numinous and the experience of it, Otto goes on to explore various ramifications of the idea. Much of this kind of material seems to have no bearing on the development of ideas of the sacred in the c20th and is irrelevant to the purposes of this site. So we shall skip it. As has been suggested previously, the issue that is of interest is the writer's treatment of religious progress.

The Profane

However, let us note in passing that Otto returns briefly at one point to the question of the profane. He argues that the experience of the numinous leads in people to much more than the sense of personal unworthiness he had spoken of in his discussion of creature-feeling. It leads, according to the writer, to a sense of the worthlessness of the whole of ordinary existence. He calls this the feeling of absolute profaneness [p 51]. Thus the experience of the sacred has as its inevitable concomitant the experience of the profane.

The Awefulness of God

Also worthy of attention is Otto's effort in his chapters on the numinous in the Old Testament, in the New Testament and in Luther to emphasise that the rise of the rational in the Judeo-Christian tradition did not eliminate the non-rational numinous. In particular, he reminds the reader of the continuing presence of the awefulness aspect, as in ideas of a dread inspiring, vengeful and wrathful God.

In the chapter on the numinous in the Old Testament, Otto discusses the transition of the Old Testament God from an early Yahweh, still bearing traces of the daemonic dread of the pre-god stage of the numinous , to an Elohim in whom the rational aspect outweighs the numinous [p 75], though the latter continues to be very much present.

In the New Testament likewise, Otto looks at the balance between non-rational and rational. Here the rational aspect of God reaches its consummation, but the numinous aspect has not been lost. Thus Otto sees the numinous in New Testament references to a God of vengeance, who will destroy wicked men [p 84]. The author also notably sees St Paul's doctrine of predestination as non-rational [p 86] and springing from the numinous.

With regard to Luther, Otto argues that the non-rational in the reformer's religion has come to be ignored:

the Lutheran school has itself not done justice to the numinous side of the Christian idea of God. By the exclusively moral interpretation it gave to the terms, it distorted the meaning of holiness and wrath. [p 108]

An Evolutionary Context

It is a measure of the importance of the theme of religious progress in Otto that, when he gets to it, he allots nearly as much space to it as he has done to the analysis of the experience of the mysterium tremendum. (Clearly, it has to be significant that Eliade and others choose to turn a blind eye to this aspect of Otto.)

The writer starts his treatment by placing the whole matter in an evolutionary context. He seems to express the view that human nature has been unchanged since humans became humans:

The history of humanity begins with man ... we must presuppose man as a being analogous to ourselves in natural propensities and capacities. [p 114]

The Human Predisposition for Religious Experience

So religious growth has occurred not because of any development in human capacities, but because of a predisposition towards religious experience that was always present but only gradually awakened. The writer emphasises that this predisposition is a characteristic not just of some individuals, but of the whole human species.

Otto goes on to identify and discuss a series of phenomena he associates with the earliest expressions of the human predisposition for religion. His eight phenomena are not part of religion as he understands it, but of pre-religion. He begins with: magic, worship of the dead, ideas regarding souls and spirits, belief that natural objects have powers that can be manipulated by spells etc, belief that natural objects like mountains and the sun and the moon are actually alive, fairy stories (and myths). A little more advanced are: belief in daemons (pre-deities, so to speak), notions of pure and impure.

The Beginnings of Religion

Religion proper starts only when feelings prompted by the predisposition for religious experience are no longer projected on to things out there in the natural world, but are accounted for in terms of gods. From then on the progress of religion is a matter of the gradual refinement of people's understanding of their experience of the divine, till the culmination in Christianity. (Note Otto's view of Christianity as the end product of religious development: for example

Christianity ... stands out in complete superiority over all sister religions. [p 142])

The Motive Force Driving Religious Progress

Now the human predisposition for religious experience does not explain how religious progress took place, how humanity gradually advanced towards Christianity. There had to have been some mechanism or mechanisms to drive things forward. At the very end of his main text, Otto points to

three factors by which religion comes into being in history. [p 176]

But, not for the first time, he expresses himself obscurely. The general idea seems to be that it is basically a matter of the cumulative effect of the interactions between the human predisposition to religion and the contingent events of human history (somewhat like the interactions between nature and nurture, heredity and environment in the development of human individuals, one might suppose).

A specific type of historical event that Otto draws into his argument is the emergence of particular people far more sensitive to the numinous than their fellows and who sensitised those around them. These special individuals included the Bible prophets and pre-eminently Jesus, of course, as the writer points out in the final words of his main text.

As indicated initially, we shall comment on Otto's ideas in the second part of this article.


1 fascinans

June 2007: When I wrote this summary 6 years ago, I was not aware of the widespread use in references to Otto of the pseudo-quotation mysterium tremendum et fascinans, for which see on this site The Rudolf Otto Virus. The term fascinans is indeed used by Otto, but only on a few isolated occasions and not in conjunction with mysterium tremendum. I still don't think the term fascinans as such has an important enough place in Otto's book to warrant inclusion in my summary. [Back to Article]

(c) John C Durham, 2001 - 03