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.
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 itsprofane, 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
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 thisnuminous dreador awe shows itself. It is the mark which really characterizes the so-calledreligion of primitive man, and there it appears asdaemonic 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:,
In his sections on the last two of his elements, the wholly other and the element of fascination, the writer refers again to
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.
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