The Idea of the Holy by Rudolf Otto
Review by Laurie Chisholm
This book was published in 1917 and has subsequently had a considerable influence on many thinkers. It has been translated into 20 languages and is still available. In contrast to many works of German theology it is quite readable. The author, Rudolf Otto, was a liberal German Protestant theologian. Accordingly, he moved in the philosophical world of Immanuel Kant and the theological world of Schleiermacher. He was also widely travelled, understood that religious conceptions had evolved over time, and later wrote a book (Mysticism East and West) comparing Meister Eckhart and Śhaṅkara. He even learned Sanskrit.
The Idea of the Holy aims to evoke in us an experience of the holy or the sacred. This is something to experience, not investigate rationally. In Otto’s words, it concerns the non-rational rather than the rational. While William James investigated the wide variety of religious experience, Otto was concerned to discern the common features of such experience, irrespective of the religious context in which they occur. Those who are unable to access such experience are asked to read no further (p22).
To describe this experience, Otto coined the word “numinous.” Just as the Latin word omen gives rise to the word ominous, so Otto derived numinous from the word numen, meaning the special divine force of an object or anything that inspires awe.
The numinous evokes awe and dread, even shuddering. Its source is thought of as holy, sacred, even uncanny, weird, or eerie. It is like a ghostly appearance that sends shivers down your spine. It gives rise to the view that a place is haunted.
The numinous is something ‘wholly other’ than the ordinary. It is mysterium tremendum et fascinans (a mystery that is at once terrifying and fascinating).
The Tanakh (Old Testament) is a rich record of numinous experiences. In Genesis 28.17, Jacob says, “How dreadful is this place! This is none other but the house of Elohim.’ There is the chorus ‘Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God of hosts’ in Isaiah 6. In 2 Samuel 6 we have a strange story:
6 When they came to the threshing floor of Nakon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. 7 The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore, God struck him down and he died there beside the ark of God.
In this, the numinous is understood primitively like a charge of electricity that strikes out indiscriminately against anyone who does not respect its sacredness. The fact that Uzzah had the best intentions towards the ark and indeed wanted to save it from tipping over, counts for nothing.
Otto understands the ‘wrath of God’, which people like Richard Dawkins love to hate, as an expression of the numinous.
The Holy as ‘Righteous?’
The holy also has the association of ‘morally upright, completely good ethically’. In the course of the 19th Century, religion had tended to collapse into ethics or morality. Kant regarded morality as something sacred. Views of right and wrong may vary across cultures and epochs, but the “thou shalt” remains constant and is something absolute, which he called the categorical imperative. Matthew Arnold viewed religion as ‘morality tinged with emotion’. or, as many in the Sea of Faith would say today, orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy. The Idea of the Holy was written to counter this ‘bias to rationalization’.
The Sea of Faith group in the North Shore recently discussed the question whether the holy was something subjective, just in our minds, a human creation, or something in the world out there. Otto believed it was something ‘a priori’, pre-given and existing prior to any experience. It is intrinsic to our experience of the structure of reality.