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The Rational, Rudolph Otto

In The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational, Rudolph Otto attempted to identify the distinctively religious aspects within the religious experience by exploring the non-rational factor. In his use of the term “non-rational” Otto is not suggesting that the religious experience be understood as “irrational”, rather the term should be understood to connote that which is left over after the rational elements have been subtracted.

Hence the purpose and aim of this book is to specifically investigate the relationship of the rational to the non-rational in respect to religious experience. The title clearly reflects Otto’s intent to account for both elements in defining the “Holy”. Otto begins his quest for enlightenment of the religious experience by examining the term “Holy”. He argues that the term should designate the special religious components of the experience but instead had come to represent ethical and moral self-righteousness.

Otto pointed out that the primary meaning of the word seemed to fail in its ability to convey its significance in conceptual terms. Otto concludes that none of the qualifiers used to describe and define the Holy in terms of human understanding (qualifiers such as, goodness, righteousness, most high) were adequate. So he coined a new word (which he derived from the Latin word for deity), numinous, in order to signify that which is holy but minus any moral element and devoid of any rational aspect.

Otto’s goal was to provide a notion which would enable him to describe the unique content of the religious experience, a content that he viewed as being impossible to express in rational language. The numinous has also been defined by other scholars as that which is “wholly other”. Hence it is the knowledge of unknowingly knowing that there is something which cannot be seen. This “wholly other” however, should not be confused with the supernatural. Rather, it should be perceived as that which transcends all our rational capacities of understanding and imposes itself upon perceptive individuals.

This feeling of knowing can occur and overcome a person at any time and in any place, it is beyond human control. The numinous, then comes to designate what Otto described as a special religious “overplus” of meaning in the idea of the Holy, thus identifying all that is a non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and direct object is outside the self. Otto describes this numinous factor as sui generis, hence incapable of being reduced or simplified to any other factor. Thus the numinous can only be understood when there has been an existential experience of the Holy.

As humans our experience of the numinous and response to it should not be understood as ordinary but rather as one of a kind, unique. This then leads Otto to explain that the numinous consciousness is directed towards what he identifies as the mysterium tremendum. He defines the term as literally the mystery before which one trembles. It is important to clarify that the numinous here does not bring about fear which in turn becomes terror in response to the Holy, rather the “ordinary” fear felt by the individual is transformed into an entirely different feeling one that arouses awe and fascination.

The experience of the mysterium tremendum in turn evokes what Otto identifies as a strong “creature feeling”. The paradoxical tension between the overwhelming fear and the compelling attraction, which is stimulated by the otherworldly Holy, is the very essence of religious consciousness. And since human reason is unable to decipher its language, the numinous also appears as a mystery. In actuality Otto argues that the experience of the Holy creates a double response on the part of the individual.

On the one had there is a terrible feeling of fear and repulsion closely associated to the mysterium tremendum and on the other hand there is a powerful element of attraction and fascination which Otto refers to as mysterium fascinans. The element of fascination can thus be understood as co-existing closely with the element of mystery. Otto describes the element of fascination as an intense force one which becomes exuberant and transforms into a mystical encounter which in turn allows the individual direct contact with the numen, the deity. A state experienced by very few individuals.

Despite its restrictive nature the numinous experience of the Holy is basic to all religious experience and according to Otto is thus a self-evident category in both its rational and non-rational elements. Otto’s analysis concludes with the claim that the Holy represents an a priori category of the human mind. The Holy which can only be experienced and understood through the numinous represents, as mentioned earlier, a category that is entirely sui generis. Thus, this a priori category of the human mind consists of both its rational and non-rational elements in addition to the awareness of their inevitable connection.

Through his description and analysis of the religious experience of the Holy, Otto thus believes that he has isolated a crucial intellectual ingredient missed by his predecessors, one that stretches further and extends higher than our inherent or practical reason. It amounts to an ability to directly and intuitively perceive the fundamental meaning of things through some hidden self-evident synthetic knowledge. Otto understands the term “synthetic knowledge” as a predisposition of the human spirit to produce a religious progression that drives the individual toward spiritual development thus suggesting that humans are seekers by nature.

Otto believes that human beings have the capacity of being able to unconsciously recognize the Holy. He in turn labelled this “special” human capability “divination”. He suggested that it was this very ability of divination which enabled human beings to sense the meaning, value and purpose of the numinous presence. What Otto comprehends as “divination” is the essential quality needed and developed by some individuals to perceive the manifestation of the Divine. This essential quality is not one that can be easily acquired in fact for many individuals it is a quality which is absent.

Otto describes how for Christians this manifestation of the Divine is perceived as the testimony of the Holy Spirit. The ordinary individual is depicted by Otto as being totally closed to the unconscious element of “divination” and is thus unable to understand the essence of religion. For this reason Otto explains that because the numinous experience is non-rational it escapes any form of structural formulation. Thus the “overplus” of meaning generated by the numinous can only be revealed through what Otto identifies as “ideograms”.

Here Otto explains that the term “ideogram” refers to concepts or doctrines that cannot be understood logically but only symbolically. Since such a unique and non-rational experience cannot be defined or conceptualized, the symbolic descriptions are meant to indirectly awaken the experience of the Holy within the individual. In spite of this, Otto does not reduce the idea of 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 moral element as amalgamating itself with the non-rational element of the Holy as a sign of a religion’s progression.

That process, according to him, is “manifestly” lacking within Orthodox Christianity, as Otto believes that Christianity fails at presenting a universal religion which exemplifies the notion that God is both numinous (non-rational) and ethical (rational) a combination which is at the heart of the religious experience. For Otto, there is something in the human mind that naturally accepts the belief that the Deity is good as soon as it is confronted with it, hence despite the fact that God is numinous and can generate incredible fear God is also ethical and therefore intrinsically good.

But the fundamental, basic moment of the Holy can best be ascertained in the pre-religious consciousness of primitive people. For here the Holy takes the form of a totally non-rational, even irrational sense of awe before that which is unknown and yet understood as the Divine. Otto explains that this paradox does not entirely disappear even for the religious consciousness which becomes more experienced.

Otto cautions against the contemporary attempts to alleviate the paradoxical tension by reducing the Holy to merely its ethical element for this exclusion of the non-rational does no more than to destroy the very essence of that which is the Holy. Otto’s assertion of the unique a priori quality of the religious experience has led the philosopher to take an antireductionist approach to the understanding of the idea of the Holy. Otto rejected the one-sided rationalistic bias of most interpretations as well as the reduction of religious phenomena to interpretive schemas.

He suggested that religion needed to be treated not only as autonomous but required a unique and autonomous phenomenological approach which would enable scholars to interpret the religious phenomena in an irreducible manner. Hence creating a universal phenomenological structure of religious experience which would allow the phenomenologist the capacity to distinguish autonomous religious phenomena by their numinous components in addition to providing scholars with a manner in which to organize and analyze specific religious manifestations.

It is important to note that Otto here in this particular book speaks of the “idea” of the Holy and not of the Holy itself. It is also important to understand that the numinous, is etymologically unrelated to his predecessor’s (Immanuel Kant) understanding of the Holy which was perceived as an unknowable reality. Otto’s approach is known as phenomenological because he seeks to identify and understand the necessary components behind the notion of the Holy.

He does so by introducing the concept of the numinous, which should be clearly understood as a concept that cannot be conceived by the human mind without including the obscure, non-rational elements. This is distinctively different from suggesting that there is an obscure and non-rational element in the divinity itself. It is obvious from reading Otto’s book that his primary motivation was to understand the reality of the Holy and not simply to arrive at a generalization of the idea, despite his best efforts his philosophical elaboration of the idea of the Holy remains limited.

Various scholars have criticized Otto’s phenomenological approach as being too narrowly formulated, for his approach focuses largely on the non-rational elements of certain religious/mystical experiences. Scholars have argued that this approach is not comprehensive enough to interpret the diversity and complexity of religious findings nor is his approach concerned sufficiently with the specific historical and cultural forms of religious phenomena, hence rendering his findings largely unresolved and therefore problematic.

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