The Rudolf Otto Virus

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When you see the Latin phrase mysterium tremendum et fascinans in discussions of Rudolf Otto, you are not looking at a direct quotation from The Idea of the Holy, at least not from the English translation. This tag appears in about half the discussions I checked in books to hand, e.g. Ninian Smart: Dimensions of the Sacred (1996), (not in fact a book about the sacred). You have to think that Smart [1] and the others were all working from some secondary source and not directly from Otto at all. On the other hand, e.g. Joseph Campbell has the authentic mysterium tremendum in Oriental Mythology (1962), as does Roy A. Rappaport in Ritual & Religion in the Making of Humanity (1999).

In The Sacred & the Profane and in Myths, Dreams & Mysteries (both 1957), Mircea Eliade adds his own coinage, mysterium fascinans, to Otto's mysterium tremendum. In view of this, it seems likely that it was Eliade who coined the phrase mysterium tremendum et fascinans in some other of his many works. If you have a reference, please let me know and I shall insert it here, acknowledging your help if you want that.

Like Misquoting Hamlet

Since I put the above online a couple of years ago, nobody has suggested a possible source for the pseudo-tag.

It can be seen as a kind of virus, rather like a computer virus, spread by a lack of rigour among academics. Certainly, any authority that uses it seems dubious. You have to think that any academic who doesn't check the validity of quotations is going to be unreliable on sources generally, that no reference can be taken at face value.

Thouless in Straight and Crooked Thinking warned against making a sweeping judgement on the basis of a minor lapse. But we are looking at more than that, we are looking at a phenomenon. In the context of discussions of religious experience, it's somewhat like half of the world's English literature scholars misquoting the start of Hamlet's soliloquy.

We must suppose that similar examples of error propagation, of passing bad currency, are to be found in other academic fields.

On 18-07-03, a Yahoo UK search for the phrase brought up 7 sites; a world search suggested 327 sites. The UK sites were in fact mainly religious and devotional. One had a bishop referring to a theologian as if quoting Otto. One was offline, removing the phrase, we may hope. Another appeared to have the phrase on a school exam question, presumably for a Religious Studies A Level course: so they're teaching it in school.

Some checking of overseas sites failed to produce a page reference for the alleged quotation. But this is not surprising. The whole thing is so incredible that I've checked Otto's book yet again, so as to make sure I'm not getting egg on my face: I still haven't spotted the tag in there.


1 Ninian Smart: the source of the Rudolf Otto virus?

May 2007: It looks as though not Eliade, but the late world religionist, Ninian Smart, may be the source of the Rudolf Otto virus. I have just happened across this, referring to Otto, in a book by him first published in 1964:

He analyzed the numinous experience in terms of the Latin phrase mysterium tremendum et fascinans: what is apprehended is a mystery which is awe-inspiring and fascinating. [Philosophers and Religious Truth, 2nd edn 1969, p 110]

This reads as though Smart is offering the phrase as a genuine quotation from Otto. Smart is in error. Otto did not analyse the experience of the numinous in terms of the Latin phrase mysterium tremendum et fascinans: he never used the phrase.

This is the earliest instance of the phoney tag I have come across. Smart apparently made no relevant changes to his book between the 1964 1st edition and the 1969 2nd edition, so this instance of mysterium tremendum et fascinans must date from 1964.

to see the flesh in which the bare bones are encased:

Smart repeats the spurious tag less than 2 pages later, on p 112. Between times, he has made the following remark:

... my brief account of Otto's position is scarcely adequate: the reader would be well advised to read through The Idea of the Holy to see the flesh in which the bare bones are encased. [p 112]

This remark is noteworthy for several reasons. Firstly, it establishes that The Idea of the Holy is indeed the Otto work that Smart is representing as the source of the phrase mysterium tremendum et fascinans.

Secondly, Smart's use here of metaphor is strangely inept. For one thing, encased is used properly when there is a hard outside, as when we say a medieval warrior was encased in armour. But in this situation it's the inside that's hard, the bones inside the soft flesh.

We accept this kind of lapse in journalists and politicians, but in a work called Philosophers and Religious Truth in which a full Professor of Theology has chapters with titles referring to Hume, Aquinas, Kant and, in the second edition, Wittgenstein as well, we should expect very much greater precision of thought

Thirdly, Smart’s suggestion that he has provided the ‘bare bones’ of ‘Otto’s position’ is more than somewhat misleading. He may have provided an account of Otto’s argument regarding religious experience that suited him, but that has meant editing out half of what Otto had to say.

A diachronic understanding:

For Smart fails to point out that Otto offered a diachronic understanding of his alleged phenomenon of religious experience. It is a thoroughly Protestant understanding, in terms of the development of God’s relationship with individual humans since the dawn of time, a process which involved most notably the Old Testament prophets, then Christ and the New Testament apostles and then Luther.

Indeed, we must wonder about Smart's presentation of Otto not as a theologian but as a philosopher who can keep company with Aquinas, Hume, Kant and Wittgenstein. Has any history of philosophy ever even mentioned Otto?

I take The Oxford Companion to Philosophy [1993, edited by Ted Honderich, c1,000 pp], an authoritative encyclopedia of philosophy, to represent the consensus on who qualifies to be regarded as a philosopher now and by and large who did in 1964. There is a half page entry on holy, numinous and sacred [p 372] in which Otto is referred to and his book is listed. But unlike Aquinas (2½ pages), Hume (nearly 4 pages), Kant (nearly 6 pages) and Wittgenstein (3½ pages), Otto does not rate an entry of his own. By contrast, William James gets not only an entry (2 pages) but also, like the aforementioned quartet, a picture as well.

The Smart pages referred to above appear near the start of a chapter called Rudolf Otto and Religious Experience [pp 109-138], which you might suppose is devoted to discussing Otto. But in fact, Smart uses Otto basically as a peg on which to hang some very ineffectual ramblings of his own on ‘religious truth’ and ‘the great religions’. After the first few pages, Otto fades from view.

the highest expression of divine truth:

That Smart soon forgets Otto can be seen in the former’s assessment of the relative merits of his ‘great religions’. Otto had stated categorically on the first page of his book:

Christianity not only possesses such conceptions [about God] 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. [The Idea of the Holy, 2nd English Edn, 1950, p 1].

Smart stumbles his way to a similar position:

... even if Judaeo-Christian theism represents the highest expression of divine truth. [p 135]

However, Smart does not mention that the German had been there before him. If he had been genuinely interested in Otto’s point of view, he could not have failed to refer to him in this context.

Smart is able to reach his own conclusion because he has defined religion in such a way as to make no other conclusion possible. It's as if he were to say, There are some great fruits, namely the orange, the banana and the plum: all have outstanding qualities. But to qualify as the greatest of all, a fruit must have crunchy white flesh that produces juice you can make cider out of. So after weighing all the evidence, after careful deliberation, we are forced to conclude that, well, the apple is the greatest fruit.

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(c) John C Durham, 2001 - 2011