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.
Born in Peine (near Hanover), Rufolf Otto attended the Gymnasium Adreanum in Hildesheim and studied at the universities of Erlangen and Göttingen, Otto received his doctorate from Göttingen with a dissertation on Luther and habilitation on Kant. Both Luther and Kant had a formative influence on Otto’s thought. They came to represent the epitome of religion’s irrational and rational sides respectively in Otto’s eyes. In 1906 Otto became extraordinary professor and in 1910 he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Giessen. In 1915, he became ordinary professor at the University of Breslau, and in 1917, at the University of Marburg's Divinity School, one of the most famous Protestant seminaries in the world at the time. Although he received several other calls, he remained in Marburg for the rest of his life.
Otto was also active on the political scene, being a member of the Prussian parliament from 1913 to 1918. His political orientation was decidedly liberal and progressive and he considered such activity as a duty, not something he undertook out of ambition. Otto retired in 1929 and died eight years later, probably as a consequence from a malaria infection he had caught on one of his many expeditions. He is buried at Marburg.
Otto’s travels brought him into direct contact with the realms of Islam (Egypt, North Africa, Palestine), Greek and Russian Orthodoxy, and with the religious cultures of India, China and Japan. Otto also visited the United States and was about to offer the celebrated Gifford lectures in Edinburgh, Scotland, when he suddenly passed away. His in-depth on-site observations are generally credited with being a major source of insight for his work. A linguistic genius, Otto mastered most western European languages, as well as Russian and Sanskrit, which allowed him to explore the world of Hindu mysticism first-hand.
Otto was a rigorous scholar in the tradition of late nineteenth century and early twentieth century liberal German academia. In spite of his later emphasis on the non-rational core of religion, he was, like almost all his contemporaries, firmly anchored in Kant’s critical tradition. The suggestion (that was not uncommon in his time) that Otto was an uncritical romantic fascinated by the irrational is ungrounded. However, Otto did seek to grasp the distinctive character of religious consciousness as early as 1898 with his first published book, The Perception of the Holy Spirit by Luther.
Naturalism and Religion, published in 1904, established his reputation by contrasting the naturalist approach of science and the religious approach, as well as the possibility of an integrated worldview. The Philosophy of Religion based on Kant and Fries (1909) was even more significant. Jakob Friedrich Fries had attempted to integrate an intuitive element into Kantian ethics by introducing the notion of Ahndung (roughly, an intuitive presentiment). Like many others, Fries was thus trying to go beyond Kant’s agnostic rationalism and to account for a human capacity to reach out to ultimate reality.
Nevertheless, no one had a greater influence on Otto than Friedrich Schleiermacher, the great German theologian who had pioneered a new intuitive approach of the study of religion some one hundred years earlier. Schleiermacher remains famous for his definition of religion as a “feeling of absolute dependence” (Schlechthinige abhängigkeit). It had been Schleiermacher’s stated goal to “entirely destroy” the notion that religion was a mere mixture of ethics and metaphysics. Otto would follow closely in his footsteps.
Otto's 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, Über das Irrationale in der Idee des Göttlichen und sein Verhältnis zum Rationalen, translated as “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. This expression, also coined by Otto, would be adopted by Karl Barth who ushered in a wave of neo-orthodoxy a few years later. For Barth, the Wholly Other came to signify the God of the Gospels who reveals himself, as opposed to the human attempt to reach God represented by religion. Otto’s perspective did not imply any such 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 quintessential 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. Even a Paul and a Luther experienced God as a God of judgment unexplained by the human sense of justice, and a God of love and goodness. 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 an 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.
It is important to note that Otto speaks of the “Idea” of the Holy, and not of the Holy itself, as if he would speak of a thing in itself. The numinous, is etymologically unrelated to Immanuel Kant's noumenon (a Greek term referring to an unknowable reality underlying all things). Otto’s approach remains phenomenological: he seeks to identify the necessary components of our idea of the Holy. By introducing the notion of the numinous, he does not suggest that there is a hidden, non-rational element in the divinity, but that our mind cannot conceive of the Sacred without including a non-rational, or numinous, element. At the same time, it is obvious that the reality of the Sacred, not its mere conceptualization, is Otto’s real focus of interest, but his philosophical elaboration of the problem is very limited. Otto remains the thinker who has best been able to isolate the unique nature of the religious consciousness, but the multiple philosophical problems related to his findings remained largely unsolved.
By no means did Otto’s career end with the publication of Das Heilige. His Mysticism East and West (1926) contains a comparison of Hindu and Christian mysticism (Meister Eckhart), a topic that would lead to further refinements of Otto’s thought in the following decades. Otto’s last work, The Kingdom of God and the Son of Man (1934) is essentially theological in nature.
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 Otto's 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.
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