The Idea of the Holy // Rudolf Otto

Language is unfair to religion. Agnostics and atheists can make clear, rational statements defending their views, but the religious struggle to justify their belief in a comprehensible way. In the 1917 book The Idea of the Holy, Rudolf Otto claims that this inability to articulate religious experience isn’t a flaw, but a feature of religious experience.

Born in Germany and raised Christian, Otto was one of the most influential theologians of the early twentieth century. He explored both Christian and non Christian faiths, writing to defend religion from naturalism, the idea that only natural forces are responsible for the workings of the Universe. The Idea of the Holy (originally published in German as Das Heilige) is arguably his most influential work, inspiring notable thinkers including Heidegger, Jung, Gandhi, and Huxley.

The Idea of the Holy is Otto’s attempt at disentangling the nonrational, inexplicable elements of religious experience from the rational, describable ones. The religious experience, or the Holy, consists of an initial nonrational experience. He calls this experience numinous, and argues that all the things people say about the experience are secondary to this numinous encounter. He claims that the numinous cannot be articulated, only stirred within a person as a feeling. He then attempts to do this for the reader.

The numinous feeling occurs when we come into contact with something ‘wholly other’, something not only unknown, but unknowable. Being unknowable, Otto argues, is true mystery. The word mystery has really been diluted in day-to-day use. We use the word to describe puzzles and missing information. Murder mysteries, for example, aren’t truly mysterious. Somebody killed a victim, and we may not know who the killer is, but it is within our capacity to know – we can find out. Otto uses the Latin word mysterium to denote the true mystery of the numinous, not knowing, but also not being able to know, something outside our capacity to know, like what poetry is to a chimpanzee. Mysticism stresses this mysterium, often alluding to it as ‘the void’ or ‘nothingness’. Many faiths give the mysterium-generating ‘other’ different names, using animism, souls, spirits and deities, but these names are rationalisations of something that is primarily experienced as entirely foreign, supernatural, and incomprehensible.

Worshippers commonly claim to be in ‘fear and awe’ of the deity in worship. This is because the mysterium experienced generates two distinct, opposing feelings, a numinous fear or dread, and a numinous fascination. Otto calls the numinous dread tremendum. It’s different from the fear we are familiar with, the fear of failing a test, losing a job, or being mugged in an unsafe neighbourhood. Consider the creeping, chilling feeling you get while reading paranormal horror stories, experiencing an episode of sleep paralysis, or being terrified of monsters under your bed as a child. The emotion is still fear, but the fear has a radically different, primal texture. It’s a fear of something that you not only don’t know, but of something entirely outside your ability to imagine it. This is the essence of tremendum, the supernatural dread experienced on contact with the numinous.

Numinous awe, or fascinans, co-exists with the more fear-based tremendum. Fascinans is the strange fascination and allure of this ‘other’, the more positive aspect of worship. There’s an element of humility and reverence that comes after contact with something fundamentally mysterious. It serves as a reminder that we don’t know everything, perhaps we can’t know everything, and we are an almost insignificant part of something bigger, something enigmatic, something we connect with outside rational thought and language. There’s surreal beauty in that. The phrase mysterium tremendum et fascinans summarises Otto’s numinous – worship as a form of contact with something truly mysterious, inspiring feelings of supernatural insignificance and awe.

It can be illuminating for people who aren’t religious to reflect on their own pursuits of the numinous, through psychedelic drugs, situations akin to worship at concerts and festivals, or things as simple as lying down looking at the stars, contemplating our place in the Universe. Regardless of your stance on religion, developing an open mind starts with understanding both your own perspectives and others’. The Idea of the Holy is a challenging read, but definitely one that encourages a more nuanced, sensitive and tolerant view of religious belief in the current atheist climate. Especially for agnostics and atheists, Otto illuminates a perspective that is crucial to maintaining an open mind.

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