Spirituality and religious experience

Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy

Rudolf Otto pages:
The Idea of the Holy  |  The Idea of the Holy 1: Summary  |
The Idea of the Holy 2: Comments |  The Rudolf Otto Virus

Mircea Eliade starts off The Sacred & the Profane (1957) with a few paragraphs on Rudolf Otto’s Das Heilige (1917), translated from the German as The Idea of the Holy. Eliade offers a perspective on Otto which suits his own purposes but ignores a large part of what Otto has to say. [1]

My Summary provides a reasonably comprehensive account of Otto’s work. I deal in some detail with that aspect of Otto which was of interest to Eliade, his analysis of the nature of religious experience. However, I am equally be concerned with that aspect of Otto which Eliade and others have significantly chosen to ignore, his account of the history of religious experience.

My Comments on Otto’s ideas are made in a separate article.


1 Eliade

In fact, Eliade’s reference to Otto is a red herring. It diverts attention away from Emile Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), in which the sacred – profane dichotomy is a central theme. Any truly serious scholar introducing a book entitled The Sacred & the Profane would have surely have referred to the most important previous authority on the subject, Durkheim, rather to mention an authority of merely tangential relevance, Otto. Eliade was certainly aware of the key work of this founding father of sociology: it is listed in his bibliography and dismissed in a single misleading sentence on p 231.

It seems impossible to supply Eliade with any creditable motive for ignoring Durkheim. For example, when you have chapters on sacred space and sacred time, how can you ignore the authority who has discussed these notions 45 years previously, as far as I am aware introducing them?

Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy 1: Summary

In this first part of this brief study of The Idea of the Holy we summarise what we take to be Otto’s two most important themes: the numinous and religious progress. In the second part, we comment on them in turn.

The Numinous in Religious Experience

Otto starts The Idea of the Holy by arguing that the non-rational in religion must be given its due importance, then goes on to introduce and develop his notion of the numinous. As a kind of first approximation for the wholly new concept he is giving us, Otto characterises the numinous as the holy (i.e. God) minus its moral and rational aspects. A little more positively, it is the ineffable core of religion: the experience of it cannot to be described in terms of other experiences.

[Note that the German heilig can be rendered as either holy or sacred. The translator had to make a choice and chose holy. So in the context of Otto, for holy it is possible to read sacred: the religious experience he discusses is the experience of the sacred.]

Otto’s next approximation is the notion of creature-feeling. He suggests that those who experience the numinous experience a sense of dependency on something objective and external to themselves that is greater than themselves.

The Experience of the Numinous in Real Life

The writer goes on to indicate in concrete terms the kind of experience he is considering. Quotations are essential here so that we are absolutely clear on what Otto has in mind.

It is:

The deepest and most fundamental element in all strong and sincerely felt religious emotion.

It is to be found:

in strong, sudden ebullitions of personal piety, … in the fixed and ordered solemnities of rites and liturgies, and again in the atmosphere that clings to old religious monuments and buildings, to temples and to churches.

It may peaceful and:

come sweeping like a gentle tide, pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship.

or faster moving:

thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its profane, non-religious mood of everyday experience

even violent, erupting:

from the depths of the soul with spasms and convulsions

and leading to:

the strangest excitements, to intoxicated frenzy, to transport, and to ecstasy [pp 12-13 in the standard English version]

Otto’s Mysterium Tremendum

Otto has reached the heart of the matter. He pins down this sort of experience for dissection in terms of a Latin phrase, mysterium tremendum. He presents the tremendum component of the numinous that is being experienced as comprising three elements: awfulness (inspiring awe, a sort of profound unease), overpoweringness (that which, among other things, inspires a feeling of humility), energy (creating an impression of immense vigour).

The mysterium component in its turn has two elements, which Otto discusses at considerable length. Firstly, the numinous is experienced as wholly other. It is something truly amazing, as being totally outside our normal experience. Secondly, here is the element of fascination, which causes the subject of the experience of the numinous to be caught up in it, to be enraptured.  [1]

Some Points Arising

There are several important points to be made about this description and analysis of religious experience. First of all note Otto’s passing mention of the profane. In this account the religious person operates on two levels: usually on the profane or everyday level, but with occasional moments or longer periods of accession to a higher, sacred level.

Secondly, note the situations in which this higher level may be attained. Otto refers not only to personal piety, where he is presumably talking about prayer and religious meditation. He also includes participation in religious ceremonies and even visits to churches and the like.

Thirdly, note that although Otto initially mentions participation in ceremonies and visits to holy buildings as occasions for profound religious experience, he proves in the discussion of the five elements to be concerned above all with mysticism. This is surely a matter of personal piety.

Religious Progress: a Preview

Fourthly and finally, note that in the course of the analysis of the mysterium tremendum Otto gives us a preview of his ideas on religious progress. In the section on the first of his elements, awefulness, the writer explains how this part of the experience of the numinous still retains something of its origins in the most primitive form of religious experience:

let us give a little further consideration to the first crude, primitive forms in which this numinous dread or awe shows itself. It is the mark which really characterizes the so-called religion of primitive man, and there it appears as daemonic dread. This crudely naïve and primordial emotional disturbance … [pp 15-16]

In this context, Otto suggests four stages of religious progress, the third being implied:,

  1. the worship of daemons
  2. the worship of gods
  3. inferior forms of the worship of God
  4. the highest level of all, where the worship of God is at its purest [p 17].

In his sections on the last two of his elements, the wholly other and the element of fascination, the writer refers again to daemonic dread as the primitive starting point of the numinous experience.

Having established early in the book (by p 40) exactly what he means by the numinous and the experience of it, Otto goes on to explore various ramifications of the idea. Much of this kind of material seems to have no bearing on the development of ideas of the sacred in the c20th and is irrelevant to the purposes of this site. So we shall skip it. As has been suggested previously, the issue that is of interest is the writer’s treatment of religious progress.

The Profane

However, let us note in passing that Otto returns briefly at one point to the question of the profane. He argues that the experience of the numinous leads in people to much more than the sense of personal unworthiness he had spoken of in his discussion of creature-feeling. It leads, according to the writer, to a sense of the worthlessness of the whole of ordinary existence. He calls this the feeling of absolute profaneness [p 51]. Thus the experience of the sacred has as its inevitable concomitant the experience of the profane.

The Awefulness of God

Also worthy of attention is Otto’s effort in his chapters on the numinous in the Old Testament, in the New Testament and in Luther to emphasise that the rise of the rational in the Judeo-Christian tradition did not eliminate the non-rational numinous. In particular, he reminds the reader of the continuing presence of the awefulness aspect, as in ideas of a dread inspiring, vengeful and wrathful God.

In the chapter on the numinous in the Old Testament, Otto discusses the transition of the Old Testament God from an early Yahweh, still bearing traces of the daemonic dread of the pre-god stage of the numinous , to an Elohim in whom the rational aspect outweighs the numinous [p 75], though the latter continues to be very much present.

In the New Testament likewise, Otto looks at the balance between non-rational and rational. Here the rational aspect of God reaches its consummation, but the numinous aspect has not been lost. Thus Otto sees the numinous in New Testament references to a God of vengeance, who will destroy wicked men [p 84]. The author also notably sees St Paul’s doctrine of predestination as non-rational [p 86] and springing from the numinous.

With regard to Luther, Otto argues that the non-rational in the reformer’s religion has come to be ignored:

the Lutheran school has itself not done justice to the numinous side of the Christian idea of God. By the exclusively moral interpretation it gave to the terms, it distorted the meaning of holiness and wrath. [p 108]

An Evolutionary Context

It is a measure of the importance of the theme of religious progress in Otto that, when he gets to it, he allots nearly as much space to it as he has done to the analysis of the experience of the mysterium tremendum. (Clearly, it has to be significant that Eliade and others choose to turn a blind eye to this aspect of Otto.)

The writer starts his treatment by placing the whole matter in an evolutionary context. He seems to express the view that human nature has been unchanged since humans became humans:

The history of humanity begins with man … we must presuppose man as a being analogous to ourselves in natural propensities and capacities. [p 114]

The Human Predisposition for Religious Experience

So religious growth has occurred not because of any development in human capacities, but because of a predisposition towards religious experience that was always present but only gradually awakened. The writer emphasises that this predisposition is a characteristic not just of some individuals, but of the whole human species.

Otto goes on to identify and discuss a series of phenomena he associates with the earliest expressions of the human predisposition for religion. His eight phenomena are not part of religion as he understands it, but of pre-religion. He begins with: magic, worship of the dead, ideas regarding souls and spirits, belief that natural objects have powers that can be manipulated by spells etc, belief that natural objects like mountains and the sun and the moon are actually alive, fairy stories (and myths). A little more advanced are: belief in daemons (pre-deities, so to speak), notions of pure and impure.

The Beginnings of Religion

Religion proper starts only when feelings prompted by the predisposition for religious experience are no longer projected on to things out there in the natural world, but are accounted for in terms of gods. From then on the progress of religion is a matter of the gradual refinement of people’s understanding of their experience of the divine, till the culmination in Christianity. (Note Otto’s view of Christianity as the end product of religious development: for example

Christianity … stands out in complete superiority over all sister religions. [p 142])

The Motive Force Driving Religious Progress

Now the human predisposition for religious experience does not explain how religious progress took place, how humanity gradually advanced towards Christianity. There had to have been some mechanism or mechanisms to drive things forward. At the very end of his main text, Otto points to

three factors by which religion comes into being in history. [p 176]

But, not for the first time, he expresses himself obscurely. The general idea seems to be that it is basically a matter of the cumulative effect of the interactions between the human predisposition to religion and the contingent events of human history (somewhat like the interactions between nature and nurture, heredity and environment in the development of human individuals, one might suppose).

A specific type of historical event that Otto draws into his argument is the emergence of particular people far more sensitive to the numinous than their fellows and who sensitised those around them. These special individuals included the Bible prophets and pre-eminently Jesus, of course, as the writer points out in the final words of his main text.

As indicated initially, we shall comment on Otto’s ideas in the second part of this article.


1 fascinans

June 2007: When I wrote this summary 6 years ago, I was not aware of the widespread use in references to Otto of the pseudo-quotation mysterium tremendum et fascinans, for which see on this site The Rudolf Otto Virus. The term fascinans is indeed used by Otto, but only on a few isolated occasions and not in conjunction with mysterium tremendum. I still don’t think the term fascinans as such has an important enough place in Otto’s book to warrant inclusion in my summary.

(c) John C Durham, 2001 – 03


Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy 2: Comments

In the first part of this brief study of The Idea of the Holy we summarise what we take to be Otto’s two most important themes: the numinous and religious progress. In this second part, we comment on them in turn.

The Crucial Comparison: the Appearances of Great Kings

Having analysed the experience of the numinous in terms of the mysterium tremendum, [1] Otto goes on to explore the relevance of comparisons between it on the one hand and sexual feelings and the experience of music on the other.

The crucial comparison, however, is one that Otto does not make. It is the comparison with the way people felt in the presence of emperors, kings and the like in the days when such individuals had absolute power: the present-day equivalent would be the feelings of fans at the performances of their musical or sporting idols.

For Otto’s analysis applies equally well to the experience of taking part in an audience with some absolute ruler as it does to that of the numinous: on the one hand, the tremendum part, the impression of immense explosive power, combined with the reaction of awe and admiring inferiority, on the other hand, the mysterium part, impression of the wholly other, combined with the reaction of fascination. To understand what the mysterium tremendum is really all about, we need to enquire how it is people felt the way they did in the presence of great kings.

An Artificial Reality

The thing to understand about the public appearances of great kings is that they were totally stage-managed, with the effect of creating an out of this world experience for those attending. Thus, there can have been no difference in principle between an audience of the Sun-King, Louis XIV, and a performance of, say, the King of Pop, the late Elvis Presley. Attending either type of event was a matter of stepping out of the everyday world into an altogether artificial environment in which normal life was suspended for the duration and everything was orchestrated to focus on the appearance of the great one. And when the great one appeared, everything about him was totally artificial in comparison with the norms of everyday life: his costume, his movements and gestures, the way he was treated by those close to him and so on. He appeared to be out of this world.  [2]

In the artificial, controlled environments created for the appearances of great kings, people are assailed with a barrage of sensations and impressions: sights, sounds, information. But their normal resources for handling situations, the normal ways of reacting to their experiences that their culture has taught them, do not apply. So they are forced back into a sort of primal emotional state and produce primal responses: awe-struck submissiveness in the face of the impression of immense power, fascination in the face of an individual who is so clearly human yet so clearly belonging to another world, these two emotions combining as total adulation.

Now, it seems likely that what is really going on in Otto’s experience of the numinous is that subjects are stage-managing this kind of experience for themselves: in some sense switching themselves out of everyday reality and into an artificial reality of their own imagining, one which triggers the same kind of primal responses.

It is likely that, confronted with the comparison between the experience of the numinous and that of the public appearances of great kings, Otto himself would have argued to the effect that the latter merely attested to the truth of his notion of the human predisposition for experiencing the numinous, that the stage-management of royal appearances was a matter of exploiting it for unholy ends. We are not going to try arguing with that. This site is concerned to try to add to the spiritual resources of those who do not believe in the supernatural, not to challenge the faith of those who do.

Divine Kingship

What must be said, however, is that it is a surprising omission on the part of Otto that he did not refer to kings in his account of the development of religion from earliest times to its culmination in Christianity. He must have been aware of the phenomenon of divine kingship, of kings and the like being regarded as gods. There had been the Egyptian Pharaohs, for instance, and indeed there was a living example in the person of the Emperor of Japan.  [3]

What is more, it seems as though divine kingship ought to occupy something of a pivotal position in Otto’s scheme of religious development. He makes a distinction between what he calls pre-religion and religion proper. Pre-religion is about the projection of religious feelings on to things from the natural world, such as the dead or volcanoes; religion is about the projection of religious feeling on to things from the supernatural. One would have thought that divine kingship straddled that divide: the king belonging to the natural as a man, to the supernatural as a god.

[To be concluded]

(c) John C Durham, 2001

Otto’s Understanding of Other Religions

In the Summary of The Idea of the Holy, I remark in passing that it has to be significant that Eliade and others choose to turn a blind eye to Otto’s seeing Christianity as the culmination of a religious evolution, with other religions as stages along the way. The significance as far as others are concerned is that Otto’s religious history had become an embarrassment.

There came a time, say after the Second World War, when it was no longer tenable for Christian religious theorists to belittle other religions the way Otto had done, by understanding them as earlier phases of religious progress. Certainly, that sort of religious history was no longer thinkable in the post-colonial world of the United Nations, the British Commonwealth etc: it was too close to racism. And independently of that, such a theory no longer made sense in the face of a now obviously de-Christianised society, such as was admitted in the 1960s Death of God debate: it was no longer obvious that history was going to stop with Christianity.

February 2004

The Idea of the Holy and the Great War: a Question

Given that The Idea of the Holy was originally published in 1917, it is tempting to ask to what extend, if any, the book might be seen as Otto’s contribution to the German war effort. There are two considerations that make this seem like a reasonable question.

Firstly, Otto claims explicitly that Christianity is the highest form of religion and implicity that German religion is the highest form of Christianity: the latter by, for example, his discussion of the numinous not only in the Old Testament and the New Testament but also in Luther. Might he be suggesting that on this account Germany is worth fighting for?

[March/May 2007: In their wartime propaganda the Allies were characterising the Germans as barbarians. Thus French propaganda emphasised wholesale destruction of churches during the German invasion of Northern France, the severe damage to Rheims Cathedral during the 1000 day bombardment of that city being presented as epitomising German barbarism. It is very hard not to believe that part of Otto’s purpose in publishing his book at the height of the war was to affirm the religious aspect of the German contribution to Western civilisation.]

Secondly and perhaps more significantly, attention has recently been drawn to the importance of awefulness in Otto’s account of the nature and history of the numinous. Might not his emphasis here be seen as a suggestion that unser Gott may be on occasion a warlike God?

Unfortunately, I know little more of Otto than the information provided in his English translator’s preface. This tells us that during the war he was a member of the Prussian parliament and that in 1917, the year of publication, he moved to a chair at Marburg, a university with a conservative and nationalist reputation.

Perhaps somebody could throw some light on the matter. What were Otto’s politics with regard to the war? For example, on what platform was he elected to the Prussian parliament and what was his attitude to the war there?

March 2007: Indeed, why the dearth of accessible English language biographical information on Otto?

June 2011: The English, French, Spanish and German Wikipedia entries currently offer almost no biographical information on Otto, the German version being the least forthcoming of all. Not even this last points to the existence of a book length study of the life of Otto! None of the four refer to Otto’s wartime membership of the Prussian Parliament: did he occupy one of the university seats in the Upper House or what?

November 2003

Special Individuals

Otto’s idea expressed at the end of The Idea of the Holy of a succession of individuals specially in touch with the numinous may be understood as science to religion crossover. It is a restatement in evolutionary terms of the old Protestant idea of a succession of individuals to whom God spoke stretching back to creation.

The Catholic Church derived its authority from the Apostolic Succession, the claim that the Pope and all other properly consecrated bishops stood in direct line of succession from the original New Testament Apostles. Early Protestant theorists like Philip Melanchthon countered that by seeing themselves as part of the True Church, standing in a direct line of succession stretching back before the New Testament Apostles to the Old Testament Prophets.

In fact, for these Protestant theorists the line of individuals to whom God vouchedsafe His Revelations actually started with the first human, the Adam of Genesis, then proceeded through the biblical genealogies and the Prophets to Christ and His Apostles. The line had had a hidden existence during the ages of Catholic supremacy, but in the Reformation had re-emerged.

We can understand William James’s idea of religious geniuses expressed in The Varieties of Religious Experience as part of the same tradition.

September 2006


1 The Use of Latin

Part of this note has been moved to its own page. See The Rudolf Otto Virus

The whole question of the use of Latin in c20th discussions of religious phenomena is worth considering. In general, words from other languages are used either for communication or for effect. It has clearly been for communication that writers have introduced Indian religious terms like guru and nirvana into European languages. But it seems far more likely that, in their use of Latin, Otto and Eliade were seeking for effect.

Latin has had two main sorts of resonances in modern times, scientific and religious, and Otto and Eliade were tapping into both of those. Let us consider Eliade’s term homo religiosus first. In Eliade’s day this was clearly quite superfluous from the point of view of communication: religious man and its equivalents in other European languages were adequate for that. (Today, with political correctness, the situation is different.) Primarily, what Eliade was doing was tapping into the scientific resonances of the Latin, creating a term that seemed authoritatively scientific because of its similarlity to the genuinely scientific homo sapiens. Secondarily, he was tapping into one of the religious resonances of Latin, attaching himself to that tradition of learned commentary on religion in Latin that had started with the early Church fathers.

With a different emphasis, the analysis applies to Otto’s mysterium tremendum. One has to ask why Otto chose to drop in a bit of Latin a century or however long after the language had finally ceased to be an international medium for learned discussion. It is certainly not that he was using an existing Latin phrase, which would have been unexceptional: no, he was creating a new phrase of his own. This can only have been for effect, to give his ideas some extra increment of intellectual weight. On the one hand, there are the scientific resonances of mysterium, rhyming as it does with many of the more obscure elements in the periodic table. On the other hand, and doubtless far more important, there are the resonances of the Church fathers: Otto was making to give his notion the weight of a Patristic tag like anima naturaliter christiana (the soul is naturally Christian).

2 Out of This World

In this light, it would be quite wrong (for example) to understand an Egyptian pyramid as an imitation hill. It was a deliberately artificial-looking construction, its stark, unnatural geometric form and original white colour intentional. If Egyptian engineers had wanted to create a hill that looked like a hill, they would have done so: they were undoubtedly capable. They intentionally built something out of this world for the Pharaoh.

3 The Golden Bough

It is difficult to believe that Otto was not familiar with James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, which had been originally published in a two volume version in 1890 and which was particularly concerned with divine kingship.

(c) John C Durham, 2001 – 2004


The Rudolf Otto Virus

When you see the Latin phrase mysterium tremendum et fascinans in discussions of Rudolf Otto, you are not looking at a direct quotation from The Idea of the Holy, at least not from the English translation. This tag appears in about half the discussions I checked in books to hand, e.g. Ninian Smart: Dimensions of the Sacred (1996), (not in fact a book about the sacred). You have to think that Smart [1] and the others were all working from some secondary source and not directly from Otto at all. On the other hand, e.g. Joseph Campbell has the authentic mysterium tremendum in Oriental Mythology (1962), as does Roy A. Rappaport in Ritual & Religion in the Making of Humanity (1999).

In The Sacred & the Profane and in Myths, Dreams & Mysteries (both 1957), Mircea Eliade adds his own coinage, mysterium fascinans, to Otto’s mysterium tremendum. In view of this, it seems likely that it was Eliade who coined the phrase mysterium tremendum et fascinans in some other of his many works. If you have a reference, please let me know and I shall insert it here, acknowledging your help if you want that.

Like Misquoting Hamlet

Since I put the above online a couple of years ago, nobody has suggested a possible source for the pseudo-tag.

It can be seen as a kind of virus, rather like a computer virus, spread by a lack of rigour among academics. Certainly, any authority that uses it seems dubious. You have to think that any academic who doesn’t check the validity of quotations is going to be unreliable on sources generally, that no reference can be taken at face value.

Thouless in Straight and Crooked Thinking warned against making a sweeping judgement on the basis of a minor lapse. But we are looking at more than that, we are looking at a phenomenon. In the context of discussions of religious experience, it’s somewhat like half of the world’s English literature scholars misquoting the start of Hamlet’s soliloquy.

We must suppose that similar examples of error propagation, of passing bad currency, are to be found in other academic fields.

On 18-07-03, a Yahoo UK search for the phrase brought up 7 sites; a world search suggested 327 sites. The UK sites were in fact mainly religious and devotional. One had a bishop referring to a theologian as if quoting Otto. One was offline, removing the phrase, we may hope. Another appeared to have the phrase on a school exam question, presumably for a Religious Studies A Level course: so they’re teaching it in school.

Some checking of overseas sites failed to produce a page reference for the alleged quotation. But this is not surprising. The whole thing is so incredible that I’ve checked Otto’s book yet again, so as to make sure I’m not getting egg on my face: I still haven’t spotted the tag in there.


1 Ninian Smart: the source of the Rudolf Otto virus?

May 2007: It looks as though not Eliade, but the late world religionist, Ninian Smart, may be the source of the Rudolf Otto virus. I have just happened across this, referring to Otto, in a book by him first published in 1964:

He analyzed the numinous experience in terms of the Latin phrase mysterium tremendum et fascinans: what is apprehended is a mystery which is awe-inspiring and fascinating. [Philosophers and Religious Truth, 2nd edn 1969, p 110]

This reads as though Smart is offering the phrase as a genuine quotation from Otto. Smart is in error. Otto did not analyse the experience of the numinous in terms of the Latin phrase mysterium tremendum et fascinans: he never used the phrase.

This is the earliest instance of the phoney tag I have come across. Smart apparently made no relevant changes to his book between the 1964 1st edition and the 1969 2nd edition, so this instance of mysterium tremendum et fascinans must date from 1964.

to see the flesh in which the bare bones are encased:

Smart repeats the spurious tag less than 2 pages later, on p 112. Between times, he has made the following remark:

… my brief account of Otto’s position is scarcely adequate: the reader would be well advised to read through The Idea of the Holy to see the flesh in which the bare bones are encased. [p 112]

This remark is noteworthy for several reasons. Firstly, it establishes that The Idea of the Holy is indeed the Otto work that Smart is representing as the source of the phrase mysterium tremendum et fascinans.

Secondly, Smart’s use here of metaphor is strangely inept. For one thing, encased is used properly when there is a hard outside, as when we say a medieval warrior was encased in armour. But in this situation it’s the inside that’s hard, the bones inside the soft flesh.

We accept this kind of lapse in journalists and politicians, but in a work called Philosophers and Religious Truth in which a full Professor of Theology has chapters with titles referring to Hume, Aquinas, Kant and, in the second edition, Wittgenstein as well, we should expect very much greater precision of thought

Thirdly, Smart’s suggestion that he has provided the ‘bare bones’ of ‘Otto’s position’ is more than somewhat misleading. He may have provided an account of Otto’s argument regarding religious experience that suited him, but that has meant editing out half of what Otto had to say.

A diachronic understanding:

For Smart fails to point out that Otto offered a diachronic understanding of his alleged phenomenon of religious experience. It is a thoroughly Protestant understanding, in terms of the development of God’s relationship with individual humans since the dawn of time, a process which involved most notably the Old Testament prophets, then Christ and the New Testament apostles and then Luther.

Indeed, we must wonder about Smart’s presentation of Otto not as a theologian but as a philosopher who can keep company with Aquinas, Hume, Kant and Wittgenstein. Has any history of philosophy ever even mentioned Otto?

I take The Oxford Companion to Philosophy [1993, edited by Ted Honderich, c1,000 pp], an authoritative encyclopedia of philosophy, to represent the consensus on who qualifies to be regarded as a philosopher now and by and large who did in 1964. There is a half page entry on holy, numinous and sacred [p 372] in which Otto is referred to and his book is listed. But unlike Aquinas (2½ pages), Hume (nearly 4 pages), Kant (nearly 6 pages) and Wittgenstein (3½ pages), Otto does not rate an entry of his own. By contrast, William James gets not only an entry (2 pages) but also, like the aforementioned quartet, a picture as well.

The Smart pages referred to above appear near the start of a chapter called Rudolf Otto and Religious Experience [pp 109-138], which you might suppose is devoted to discussing Otto. But in fact, Smart uses Otto basically as a peg on which to hang some very ineffectual ramblings of his own on ‘religious truth’ and ‘the great religions’. After the first few pages, Otto fades from view.

the highest expression of divine truth:

That Smart soon forgets Otto can be seen in the former’s assessment of the relative merits of his ‘great religions’. Otto had stated categorically on the first page of his book:

Christianity not only possesses such conceptions [about God] but possesses them in unique clarity and abundance, and this is, though not the sole or even the chief, yet a very real sign of its superiority over religions of other forms and at other levels. [The Idea of the Holy, 2nd English Edn, 1950, p 1].

Smart stumbles his way to a similar position:

… even if Judaeo-Christian theism represents the highest expression of divine truth. [p 135]

However, Smart does not mention that the German had been there before him. If he had been genuinely interested in Otto’s point of view, he could not have failed to refer to him in this context.

Smart is able to reach his own conclusion because he has defined religion in such a way as to make no other conclusion possible. It’s as if he were to say, There are some great fruits, namely the orange, the banana and the plum: all have outstanding qualities. But to qualify as the greatest of all, a fruit must have crunchy white flesh that produces juice you can make cider out of. So after weighing all the evidence, after careful deliberation, we are forced to conclude that, well, the apple is the greatest fruit.

(c) John C Durham, 2001 – 2011



About alesecci

I am a Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist and Art Psychotherapist. I work with adults in individual and group sessions. I have been a therapist for 15 years and in private practice working extensively with clients who suffer from different disturbs. I help clients overcome emotional difficulties, self-sabotaging behaviors, body problems, bereavement and depression, traumatic experiences and addictions. I am a researcher in Integrative Therapy. I have been using Advanced Integrative Therapy tools in my private practice since 10 years. I am interested in spiritual growth, religion, Taoism, physics and Jungian psychology.
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