Rudolf Otto's The Idea of the Holy 2: Comments

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In the 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 this second part, we comment on them in turn.

The Crucial Comparison: the Appearances of Great Kings

Having analysed the experience of the numinous in terms of the mysterium tremendum, [1] Otto goes on to explore the relevance of comparisons between it on the one hand and sexual feelings and the experience of music on the other.

The crucial comparison, however, is one that Otto does not make. It is the comparison with the way people felt in the presence of emperors, kings and the like in the days when such individuals had absolute power: the present-day equivalent would be the feelings of fans at the performances of their musical or sporting idols.

For Otto's analysis applies equally well to the experience of taking part in an audience with some absolute ruler as it does to that of the numinous: on the one hand, the tremendum part, the impression of immense explosive power, combined with the reaction of awe and admiring inferiority, on the other hand, the mysterium part, impression of the wholly other, combined with the reaction of fascination. To understand what the mysterium tremendum is really all about, we need to enquire how it is people felt the way they did in the presence of great kings.

An Artificial Reality

The thing to understand about the public appearances of great kings is that they were totally stage-managed, with the effect of creating an out of this world experience for those attending. Thus, there can have been no difference in principle between an audience of the Sun-King, Louis XIV, and a performance of, say, the King of Pop, the late Elvis Presley. Attending either type of event was a matter of stepping out of the everyday world into an altogether artificial environment in which normal life was suspended for the duration and everything was orchestrated to focus on the appearance of the great one. And when the great one appeared, everything about him was totally artificial in comparison with the norms of everyday life: his costume, his movements and gestures, the way he was treated by those close to him and so on. He appeared to be out of this world. [2]

In the artificial, controlled environments created for the appearances of great kings, people are assailed with a barrage of sensations and impressions: sights, sounds, information. But their normal resources for handling situations, the normal ways of reacting to their experiences that their culture has taught them, do not apply. So they are forced back into a sort of primal emotional state and produce primal responses: awe-struck submissiveness in the face of the impression of immense power, fascination in the face of an individual who is so clearly human yet so clearly belonging to another world, these two emotions combining as total adulation.

Now, it seems likely that what is really going on in Otto's experience of the numinous is that subjects are stage-managing this kind of experience for themselves: in some sense switching themselves out of everyday reality and into an artificial reality of their own imagining, one which triggers the same kind of primal responses.

It is likely that, confronted with the comparison between the experience of the numinous and that of the public appearances of great kings, Otto himself would have argued to the effect that the latter merely attested to the truth of his notion of the human predisposition for experiencing the numinous, that the stage-management of royal appearances was a matter of exploiting it for unholy ends. We are not going to try arguing with that. This site is concerned to try to add to the spiritual resources of those who do not believe in the supernatural, not to challenge the faith of those who do.

Divine Kingship

What must be said, however, is that it is a surprising omission on the part of Otto that he did not refer to kings in his account of the development of religion from earliest times to its culmination in Christianity. He must have been aware of the phenomenon of divine kingship, of kings and the like being regarded as gods. There had been the Egyptian Pharaohs, for instance, and indeed there was a living example in the person of the Emperor of Japan. [3]

What is more, it seems as though divine kingship ought to occupy something of a pivotal position in Otto's scheme of religious development. He makes a distinction between what he calls pre-religion and religion proper. Pre-religion is about the projection of religious feelings on to things from the natural world, such as the dead or volcanoes; religion is about the projection of religious feeling on to things from the supernatural. One would have thought that divine kingship straddled that divide: the king belonging to the natural as a man, to the supernatural as a god.

[To be concluded]

(c) John C Durham, 2001

Otto's Understanding of Other Religions

In the Summary of The Idea of the Holy, I remark in passing that it has to be significant that Eliade and others choose to turn a blind eye to Otto's seeing Christianity as the culmination of a religious evolution, with other religions as stages along the way. The significance as far as others are concerned is that Otto's religious history had become an embarrassment.

There came a time, say after the Second World War, when it was no longer tenable for Christian religious theorists to belittle other religions the way Otto had done, by understanding them as earlier phases of religious progress. Certainly, that sort of religious history was no longer thinkable in the post-colonial world of the United Nations, the British Commonwealth etc: it was too close to racism. And independently of that, such a theory no longer made sense in the face of a now obviously de-Christianised society, such as was admitted in the 1960s Death of God debate: it was no longer obvious that history was going to stop with Christianity.

February 2004

The Idea of the Holy and the Great War: a Question

Given that The Idea of the Holy was originally published in 1917, it is tempting to ask to what extend, if any, the book might be seen as Otto's contribution to the German war effort. There are two considerations that make this seem like a reasonable question.

Firstly, Otto claims explicitly that Christianity is the highest form of religion and implicity that German religion is the highest form of Christianity: the latter by, for example, his discussion of the numinous not only in the Old Testament and the New Testament but also in Luther. Might he be suggesting that on this account Germany is worth fighting for?

[March/May 2007: In their wartime propaganda the Allies were characterising the Germans as barbarians. Thus French propaganda emphasised wholesale destruction of churches during the German invasion of Northern France, the severe damage to Rheims Cathedral during the 1000 day bombardment of that city being presented as epitomising German barbarism. It is very hard not to believe that part of Otto's purpose in publishing his book at the height of the war was to affirm the religious aspect of the German contribution to Western civilisation.]

Secondly and perhaps more significantly, attention has recently been drawn to the importance of awefulness in Otto's account of the nature and history of the numinous. Might not his emphasis here be seen as a suggestion that unser Gott may be on occasion a warlike God?

Unfortunately, I know little more of Otto than the information provided in his English translator's preface. This tells us that during the war he was a member of the Prussian parliament and that in 1917, the year of publication, he moved to a chair at Marburg, a university with a conservative and nationalist reputation.

Perhaps somebody could throw some light on the matter. What were Otto's politics with regard to the war? For example, on what platform was he elected to the Prussian parliament and what was his attitude to the war there?

March 2007: Indeed, why the dearth of accessible English language biographical information on Otto?

June 2011: The English, French, Spanish and German Wikipedia entries currently offer almost no biographical information on Otto, the German version being the least forthcoming of all. Not even this last points to the existence of a book length study of the life of Otto! None of the four refer to Otto's wartime membership of the Prussian Parliament: did he occupy one of the university seats in the Upper House or what?

November 2003

Special Individuals

Otto's idea expressed at the end of The Idea of the Holy of a succession of individuals specially in touch with the numinous may be understood as science to religion crossover. It is a restatement in evolutionary terms of the old Protestant idea of a succession of individuals to whom God spoke stretching back to creation.

The Catholic Church derived its authority from the Apostolic Succession, the claim that the Pope and all other properly consecrated bishops stood in direct line of succession from the original New Testament Apostles. Early Protestant theorists like Philip Melanchthon countered that by seeing themselves as part of the True Church, standing in a direct line of succession stretching back before the New Testament Apostles to the Old Testament Prophets.

In fact, for these Protestant theorists the line of individuals to whom God vouchedsafe His Revelations actually started with the first human, the Adam of Genesis, then proceeded through the biblical genealogies and the Prophets to Christ and His Apostles. The line had had a hidden existence during the ages of Catholic supremacy, but in the Reformation had re-emerged.

We can understand William James's idea of religious geniuses expressed in The Varieties of Religious Experience as part of the same tradition.

September 2006


1 The Use of Latin

Part of this note has been moved to its own page. See The Rudolf Otto Virus.

The whole question of the use of Latin in c20th discussions of religious phenomena is worth considering. In general, words from other languages are used either for communication or for effect. It has clearly been for communication that writers have introduced Indian religious terms like guru and nirvana into European languages. But it seems far more likely that, in their use of Latin, Otto and Eliade were seeking for effect.

Latin has had two main sorts of resonances in modern times, scientific and religious, and Otto and Eliade were tapping into both of those. Let us consider Eliade's term homo religiosus first. In Eliade's day this was clearly quite superfluous from the point of view of communication: religious man and its equivalents in other European languages were adequate for that. (Today, with political correctness, the situation is different.) Primarily, what Eliade was doing was tapping into the scientific resonances of the Latin, creating a term that seemed authoritatively scientific because of its similarlity to the genuinely scientific homo sapiens. Secondarily, he was tapping into one of the religious resonances of Latin, attaching himself to that tradition of learned commentary on religion in Latin that had started with the early Church fathers.

With a different emphasis, the analysis applies to Otto's mysterium tremendum. One has to ask why Otto chose to drop in a bit of Latin a century or however long after the language had finally ceased to be an international medium for learned discussion. It is certainly not that he was using an existing Latin phrase, which would have been unexceptional: no, he was creating a new phrase of his own. This can only have been for effect, to give his ideas some extra increment of intellectual weight. On the one hand, there are the scientific resonances of mysterium, rhyming as it does with many of the more obscure elements in the periodic table. On the other hand, and doubtless far more important, there are the resonances of the Church fathers: Otto was making to give his notion the weight of a Patristic tag like anima naturaliter christiana (the soul is naturally Christian). [Back to Article]

2 Out of This World

In this light, it would be quite wrong (for example) to understand an Egyptian pyramid as an imitation hill. It was a deliberately artificial-looking construction, its stark, unnatural geometric form and original white colour intentional. If Egyptian engineers had wanted to create a hill that looked like a hill, they would have done so: they were undoubtedly capable. They intentionally built something out of this world for the Pharaoh. [Back to Article]

3 The Golden Bough

It is difficult to believe that Otto was not familiar with James Frazer's The Golden Bough, which had been originally published in a two volume version in 1890 and which was particularly concerned with divine kingship. [Back to Article]

(c) John C Durham, 2001 - 2004