By Maria Flores
In his book, The Idea of the Holy, Rudolph Otto attempts to explain the nature of God. He holds that the human person is capable of comprehending the Divine only to a certain extent because of the rational nature that the two beings share. This rational component (as opposed to mere subjective feeling) renders true religious belief possible and gives religions such as Christianity “superiority” over other religious structures (Otto 1). However, Otto makes a distinction which characterizes his entire philosophy as described in The Idea of the Holy: “between rationalism and profounder religion” (2). He argues that while the human intellect can partially comprehend the nature of God, its dissimilarity to God renders reason unable to entirely encompass it. Therefore, in order to provide an idea of God’s non-rational aspects, Otto explores man’s feelings in response to the experience of God by introducing the concepts of the Numinous the Mysterium Tremendum, and the Wholly Other. The following article evaluates Otto’s notion of God, specifically with regard to the contrast between his case against rationalism, and the diminished state of man which follow from his proposed concepts.
Otto’s notion of the Numinous refers to “the gradual shaping and filling in with ethical meaning . . . of what was a unique original feeling-response” (6). It is characterized by the Mysterium Tremendum—the feeling of “dread” from the human perspective, or the corresponding “wrath” from God’s perspective (14, 23). The Numinous is the primary response to an encounter with God which is followed by a feeling of creature-consciousness (10).
Otto’s philosophy responds to the error of rationalism which seeks to explain the mystery of God through basic logical premises. Otto appears to have sufficient argument against rationalists through the exploration of feelings in the midst of religious experience, which he deems incapable of articulation but instead capable of being “evoked, [or] awakened in the [reader’s] mind” (7). However, his use of feelings to describe religious experience paradoxically produces the opposite effect: as Otto shows in the beginning of his book, a belief system based on feeling is lesser than one based on rationality because of the unreliable nature of feelings. By the fifth chapter, however, Otto has based his theory entirely on feelings evoked when experiencing God. His use of feeling is inconsistent with his initial intention to examine that which is conceptually unknowable about God because feelings and reason are equal components of the human condition.
While psychology may not have as much of an insight into the nature of feelings, there is no reason to suppose that feelings provide more insight into the nature of the human person than does reason. Just as Otto criticizes rationalists for trying to understand religious experience through reason alone, one could criticize Otto’s use of feelings. If one understands the nature of the human person as an inseparable body, soul and mind, then the inexplicable nature of God is a truly preserved mystery. Nonetheless, it is possible to preserve this mystery as such while learning more about God’s nature through the simultaneous study of human thoughts and feelings. It must be noted, however, that the reason as to why there has been a greater focus on reason rather than feelings is because thought is consistently more reliable than feeling in discerning truth. Therefore, in theologizing with both logic and feeling, reason must qualify phenomena found through feeling whenever possible.
Furthermore, Otto says that he who has never had a religious experience should cease reading because he will try to rationalize something that cannot be rationalized (8). This raises the question of how one can tell whether one has had a religious experience, an experience with evil, or an excitatory reaction from brain neurons. It seems that a rational evaluation is necessary to determine the validity of the experience. Otto briefly addresses this problem when distinguishing between natural fear and the dread which accompanies a religious experience in his understanding. He says, “the distinction . . . is not simply one of degree and intensity. The awe or ‘dread’ may indeed be so overwhelmingly great that it seems to penetrate to the very marrow, making the man’s hair bristle and limbs quake” (16). This type of emotion includes the cognitive evaluation of the source of fright and in this way is distinguished from the fear every animal can experience; it reaches a higher level of qualification. This explanation sets criteria for telling sentiments of fear, but more biological studies on feelings could supplement his examination to provide a more convincing guideline for genuine religious experience. There cannot be such a separation between one’s rational and non-rational understanding of the Divine as Otto’s implication when he discourages the inexperienced reader from continuing to read, for knowledge of the object of one’s worship must logically enhance one’s closeness to it.
Otto’s conception of the Wholly Other similarly fails to account for an accurate view of the human person; this notion describes the Divine in “kind and character [as] incommensurable with our own,” promoting a “consciousness of creaturehood” or the idea of extreme subordination to the creator including the “annihilation of self” and the holding of the “transcendent as the sole and entire reality” (21, 28). If something were completely other from God and bore no resemblance to Him whatsoever, it would be annihilated because that force would be in competition with God; such competition is impossible. Everything God creates is good and as it reflects God Himself. Evil is the lack of good and so it does not make sense that God should create something evil, destined for destruction.
Otto says that his position is in line with the “religious humility” of Christianity (1, 20). He also references Buddhism which professes happiness as a state “free from conscious action” (Aikien). Otto’s philosophy can be likened to Buddhism and, from an outside point of view, Christians may seem to deprecate themselves in subordination to God as well (as evident in fasting, the wearing of chapel veils, or deliberate mortification). It is true that Christians strive to constantly remind themselves of their status as creatures subordinate to the Maker of the world however, the fact of their creation by a loving God denounces the idea of an annihilation of human life and supports the idea of humanity as the epitome of creation; their final end is to be “little less than a god” and they were created for union with Him (Psalm 8:6).
Moreover, Otto says that the Divine draws man to Himself in curiosity because He “has no place in our scheme of reality” (29). The Christian point of view attributes man’s attraction to God to His completion of our nature—that is, humanity’s resemblance to Him. Therefore, the distinction is made between full annihilation and full immersion in God. Father Thomas Dubay’s book, Fire Within, about the mysticism of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross explains this relationship between God and humanity as follows:
The tenderness and truth of love by which the immense Father favors and exults his humble and loving soul reaches such a degree—O wonderful thing, worthy of all our awe and admiration!— that the Father Himself becomes subject to her exaltation, as though He was her servant and she His lord. And He is as solicitous in favoring her as he would be if He were her slave and she His god (Dubay 180).
From the Christian perspective, man’s final end is clearly not that of eradication, as Otto holds, but of completeness and total bliss through union with God.
In The Idea of the Holy, Otto’s concepts seek to evoke in the reader the indescribable human feeling in response to religious experience. The resulting concepts of the Numinous, the Mysterium Tremendum,” and the Wholly Other disregard a comprehensive view of the human person, as shown by Otto’s conclusions of the hidden insight into the Divine that feelings supply and the annihilation of self when faced with the Divine, therefore nullifying his theory. Conversely, when the view of the inseparable threefold nature of the human person as body, mind and soul is preserved, the mystery of God proves beyond complete apprehension by any creature and humanity is regarded as superior to the rest of creation because of its unique resemblance to the Divine.
Aiken, Charles Francis. “Buddhism.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. 2 Feb. 2017 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03028b.htm>.
Dubay, Thomas. Fire Within: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and the Gospel, on Prayer. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989. Print.
James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. London: Penguin, 1979. Chs. 3-4. Print.
Nettle, Daniel. Personality—What Makes You the Way You Are?. Oxford University Press, 2007. Introduction and Chs. 1, 8, and 9. Print.
The New American Bible. Revised Ed. Catholic World Press, 2011.
Otto, Rudolf. The Idea of the Holy. Ed. 2. Oxford University Press, 1958. Chs. 1-5. Print.