Rudolf Otto (September 25, 1869 - March 5, 1937) was an eminent theologian and religious scholar in the German Protestant tradition. He is particularly remarkable for his contribution to the phenomenology of religious consciousness and his work in the fields of comparative religion and the history of religion. Based on his research and observation, Otto developed the notion of the “numinous” to express the reality of the sacred as the defining element of religious experience. Otto thus stressed the unique and essentially non-rational nature of religious reality, one that he saw as irreducible to other elements. This stood in stark contrast to the commonly accepted view of his time that the real essence of religion lies in universal ethical teachings that can be rationally justified.
Phenomenology is the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first- person point of view. The central structure of an experience is its intentionality, its being directed towards something, as it is an experience of or about some object. An experience is directed towards an object by virtue of its content or meaning (which represents the object) together with appropriate enabling conditions.
Ottos most famous work, The Idea of the Holy (published first in 1917 as Das Heilige), is one of the most successful German theological books of the twentieth century. It has never been out of print and is now available in about 20 languages.
The book’s German title, Das Heilige (the Sacred or the Holy) is followed by the sub-title, “On the irrational element in the Idea of the Divine and its relationship to the rational element”—which clearly reflects Otto’s intent to account for both elements in defining the Sacred, itself the defining moment of religion. Otto concludes that none of the notions used to define the Sacred in terms of human qualities, such as goodness, even heightened to the utmost degree, was adequate to describe it. Otto coined the expression of the numinous (from the Latin word for deity) to describe the unique, qualitatively different content of the religious experience—one that could not possibly be expressed in rational language, but only described analogically through “ideograms” or symbols.
The numinous element was thus linked to the notion of the Wholly Other—that which transcends all our rational capacities of understanding and irresistibly imposes itself upon perceptive human beings. Otto’s perspective did not imply any dichotomy between Christian faith and world religions. Rather, large portions of his main work consist of detailed descriptions of how the numinous or Wholly Other manifests itself in the world’s various religious traditions.
To further define the content of the numinous, Otto uses the equally famous expression of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the mystery that is both awe- inspiring and fascinating. In many ways, the experience of the “trembling” is the archetypal religious experience, one that touches the believers directly and makes them perceive their identity as creatures without any introduction of rational reasoning. Otto felt that in the religious experience, the three elements of mystery, awe, and fascination (or attraction) are so intimately related as to form an irreducible synthetic whole. The paradoxical tension between the fear inspired by the otherworldly Sacred and the irresistible attraction it exerts at the same time on the believer was the very essence of religious consciousness. Since human reason is unable to break its code, the numinous also appears as the mystery.
In spite of this, Otto does not reduce the Holy to the non-rational element any more than he reduces it to the rational and ethical element. Otto sees the gradual emergence of the ethical element in combination with the non-rational element as a sign of a religion’s evolution. That process, according to him, culminates in Christianity, the most universal religion that best exemplifies the notion that God is both numinous and ethical, the angry God and the God of goodness. For Otto, there is something in the human mind that naturally accepts the concept that the Deity is good as soon as it is confronted with it. But the fundamental, raw moment of the Sacred can be found in the pre-religious consciousness of primitive people in the form of a totally non-rational, even irrational sense of awe before the Divine. That paradox does not entirely disappear even as religious consciousness becomes more refined. Modern and contemporary attempts to lift that paradoxical tension by reducing the Holy to the ethical element in fact destroy its very essence.
In direct response to Kant, Otto’s analysis culminates with the claim that the Sacred represents a priori category of the human mind. The sacred, and with it the religious, represents a category that is entirely sui generis. It consists of its rational and non-rational moments, as well as the sense of the inevitable connection between the two. Through his description and analysis of the religious phenomenon, Otto thus believes that he has isolated an essential mental ingredient missed by Kant, one that runs deeper and reaches higher than our pure or practical reason. It amounts to a capacity to directly and intuitively perceive the ultimate meaning of things through some obscure “a priori synthetic knowledge.”
What Otto calls divination is precisely the quality, developed by some and missing in many, to perceive the manifestation of the Divine or, as Christians would put it, listen to the testimony of the Holy Spirit. The “natural man,” says Otto, is totally closed to that realm of the human mind and is thus unable to understand the essence of religion.
Otto’s work set a paradigm for the study of religion that focuses on the need to realize the religious as a non- reducible, original category in its own right. It thus rejects reductionism of any kind. A further significant contribution is the inclusiveness of Otto’s approach. His work remains as a pioneering effort in interreligious dialogue and the study of comparative religion. German-American theologian Paul Tillich acknowledged Ottos influence on him. Tillich’s early work in the philosophy of religion owes much to Otto’s “liberating influence” on him. However, Tillich also criticizes Otto for failing to integrate the numinous and the secular under the common banner of “ultimate concern.”
On the other hand, Romanian-American anthropologist Mircea Eliade used the concepts from The Idea of the Holy as the starting point for his own 1957 book, The Sacred and the Profane, which develops the themes discussed by Otto in a very similar way. As could be expected, both conservative Christian circles and those who saw the recognition of a distinct religious element as a distraction from the social duties of the Church criticized Otto’s approach. Otto’s paradigm was under much attack between approximately 1950 and 1990, but has made a strong comeback since then. Most recently, the great scholar of comparative religion, Ninian Smart acknowledged the contribution of Otto, while making a difference between the numinous experience and the mystical experience. For Smart, the numinous is typical of theism, where God is perceived as an other-worldly, towering presence, while the mystic consciousness, typical of Buddhism, represents and inward experience of oneness with the transcendent. But, as Smart himself acknowledges, the two are often interconnected, as in negative theology.