Rudolf Otto’s “The Idea of the Holy” as the turning point in religious studies

Le SacreOriginal title: Rudolf Otto “Das Heilige – Über das Irrationale in der Idee des Göttlichen und sein Verhältnis zum Rationalen” (“The Idea of the Holy. An Inquiry into the Non-rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational” (1917, translated in English by John W. Harvey in 1923)). One of the most important books in the field of phenomenology of religion (most prominent representatives are Friedrich Schleiermacher, Nathan Söderblom, Gerardus van der Leeuw, Mircea Eliade), a discipline which studies not man’s relation to God or gods, but the phenomenon of the Sacred (das Heilige) and various forms of its manifestation throughout history (compare with Mircea Eliade’s “hierophanies,” that is appearances of the sacred).

Phenomenology as the philosophical direction refuses from making assertions regarding the true essence of things, things as such, things “in and for themselves” (Kantian noumena) and focuses instead on their representations in human consciousness and experience, that is things as they appear to us (phenomena). Such an approach is especially relevant and productive in the domain of religious studies, firstly, due to the specificity of its subject: “Indeed, these never give a positive suggestion of the object to which the religious consciousness refers; they are only of assistance in so far as they profess to indicate an object, which they at the same time contrast with another, at once distinct from and inferior to it, e.g. the invisible, the eternal (nontemporal), the supernatural, the transcendent. Or they are simply ideograms for the unique content of feeling, deograms to understand which a man must already have had the experience himself.”

Secondly, it enables to avoid the bias of rationalization without submitting to another compensatory bias of irrationalism. In Otto’s words, “In this book I have ventured to write of that which may be called non-rational or supra-rational in the depths of the divine nature. I do not thereby want to promote in any way the tendency of our time towards an extravagant and fantastic irrationalism, but rather to join issue with it in its morbid form. The irrational is today a favourite theme of all who are too lazy to think or too ready to evade the arduous duty of clarifying their ideas and grounding their convictions on a basis of coherent thought. This book, recognizing the profound import of the non-rational for metaphysic, makes a serious attempt to analyze all the more exactly the feeling which remains where the concept fails, and to introduce a terminology which is not any the more loose or indeterminate for having necessarily to make use of symbols. […] This bias to rationalization still prevails, not only in theology but in the science of comparative religion in general, and from top to bottom of it. The modern students of mythology, and those who pursue research into the religion of primitive man and attempt to reconstruct the bases or sources of religion, are all victims to it.”

SchuonInstead, Otto represents the holy (actually, the sacred, for Otto purifies the notion of the latter both from the rational and moral connotations) as the “numinous” (from Latin “deity” – god), understood in terms of Latin construction “mysterium tremendum,” phenomenological analysis of which allows to single out constitutive parts of the experience of the numinous both in the aspect of tremendum and mysterium. Characteristic to the numinous aspect of tremendum consists of three elements: its 1) awfulness; 2) overpoweringness; 3) energy, whereas the aspect of mysterium of two: the numinous as 1) “ganz andere,” that is something “wholly another”; 2) “fascinans,” that is something enchanting, amazing and fascinating.

Naturally, Rudolf Otto as the Protestant theologian was not free of evolutionism in comparative studies of religion (he believed that Christianity “stands out in complete superiority over all sister religions”), as opposed to Mircea Eliade or Nathan Söderblom, for example. But, as the new approach in religious studies, still unfamiliar to many theologians, philosophers and historians of religion, phenomenology of religion gives wide opportunities for exploring religion beyond the both relevant and stereotypical distinctions between Christianity and Heathenism, polytheism and monotheism, dualism (of transcendent and immanent) and manifestationism, as well as evolutionary scheme “animism-fetishism-totemism-polytheism-monotheism” and derivative evaluative oppositions like that between the “high Abrahamic religions” and “primitive shamanistic cults.”

Leave a Reply