Notes on Rufolf Otto's The Idea of the Holy. Based on the 1958 Oxford University Press edition of the translation by John W. Harvey. Numbers in brackets refer to pages of this edition.

I. The Rational and the Non-Rational

Theology tends to fasten on those elements of the divine that can be made intelligible and given ethical meaning. These elements constitute the rational dimension of the divine, rational in the sense that it can be articulated in clear concepts. However, actual worship, culminating in mystical contemplation of the divine, discloses an altogether irrational, "ineffable" object whose attributes elude conceptualization. (In a later chapter, Otto will assert that mysticism "is the stressing to a very high degree, indeed the overstressing, of the non-rational or supra-rational elements in religion." (22)) In what follows, Otto draws attention to passages in the Bible and other sacred texts, which when reread without the customary ethical presuppositions bring us up against the terrible, primordial significance of the sacred.

II. 'Numen' and 'Numinous'

Otto notes that the category of the holy resembles the category of the beautiful in "that it completely eludes apprehension in terms of concepts." (5) The holy and the beautiful cannot be adequately defined, yet they are palpable objects of experience.

Note: Modern prejudice against the undefinable denies it any but "subjective" significance. The holy and the beautiful are, therefore, subject to all manner of voluntaristic perversions on the grounds that being undefinable ("beauty is in the eye of the beholder") they can be forced to "include" whatever is politically or fashionably expedient. Hence the parade of grotesques nominated as paragons of fierce beauty by the novelty-obsessed media. Hence also, the progressive push to sanctify petty criminals and perverts in the name of abolishing various social "phobias." Nevertheless, authentic holiness and beauty remain easily discernible by the involuntary responses they produce. In contrast, the willfully nominated beautiful or holy object is held up by massive intellectual scaffolding. The first is immune to deconstruction. The second is always under construction.

To recover the original meaning of the holy, a first step is to dispense with the ethical/moral connotations that have developed around the term.

We generally take 'holy' as meaning 'completely good'; it is the absolute moral attribute, denoting the consummation of moral goodness. . . .

But this common usage of the term is inaccurate. It is true that all this moral significance is contained in the word 'holy,' but it includes in addition--as even we cannot but feel--a clear overplus of meaning, and this it is now our task to isolate. Nor is this merely a later or acquired meaning; rather, 'holy,' or at least the equivalent words in Latin and Greek, in Semitic and other ancient languages, denoted first and foremost only this 'overplus': if the ethical element was present at all, at any rate it was not original and never constituted the whole meaning of the word. (5)

To this end, Otto proposes "to invent a special term to stand for 'the holy' minus it moral factor or 'moment,' and, as we can now add. minus its 'rational' aspect altogether." (6)

The new term he introduces is the numinous, from the Latin numen.

The numinous will refer to both a "category of value" and to a "state of mind, which is always found whenever the category is applied." (7)

This mental state is sui generis, primary and elementary and "irreducible to any other."

The numinous "can only be evoked, awakened in the mind; as everything that comes 'of the spirit' must be awakened." (7)

III. The Elements of the 'Numinous'

Analysis of the numinous presupposes that one can bring to mind "a moment of deeply felt religious experience."

One must avoid imposing on religious experience the emotional content of experiences adjacent to it.

To be rapt in worship is one thing; to be morally uplifted by the contemplation of a good deed is another; and it is not to their common features, but to those elements of emotional content peculiar to the first that we would have attention directed as precisely as possible. (8)

So what is the characteristic mark of religious experience?

Schleiermacher called it the "feeling of dependence."

Otto retorts that the numinous mental state is at once "a self-confessed 'feeling of dependence,' which is yet at the same time far more than, merely a feeling of dependence." (9)

To illustrate, Otto cites the passage from Genesis in which Abraham intercedes with God on behalf of the men of Sodom. Abraham says, "Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes." (Gen. 18:27) The self-reduction to "dust and ashes" expresses the "emotion of a creature, submerged and overwhelmed by its own nothingness in contrast to that which is supreme above all creatures." (10) This is qualitatively different from a "feeling of dependence."

Otto proposes that this "note of submergence into nothingness before an overpowering, absolute might of some kind" could best be described as "creature-feeling." The phrase emphasizes the abjection experienced in the presence of the numinous but also that in the encounter with the numinous, "the fact of God" is not an inference but an immediate knowledge. Thus when the Lord visits Abraham on the plain of Mamre (Gen. 18:1), Abraham recognizes the numen instantaneously and without the numen having announced or declared itself as such. The numinous does not introduce itself. It visits at will.

In a footnote referencing William James' Varieties of Religious Experience, Otto extracts a passage in which James acknowledges a human faculty capable of directly apprehending the numinous:

As regards the origin of the Greek gods, we need not at present seek an opinion. But the whole array of our instances leads to a conclusion something like this: It is as if there were in the human consciousness a sense of reality, a feeling of objective presence, a perception of what we may call “something there,” more deep and more general than any of the special and particular “senses” by which the current psychology supposes existent realities to be originally revealed. (10n)

The key point for Otto is that

this 'feeling of reality,' the feeling of a numinous object objectively given, must be posited as a primary immediate datum of consciousness, and the 'feeling of dependence' is then a consequence, following very closely upon it, viz. a depreciation of the subject in his own eyes. The latter presupposes the former. (11)

The phrase "creature-feeling" improves on "feeling of dependence" by removing the self-reflexive self as an intermediary between the subject and the numinous.

For the 'creature-feeling' and the sense of dependence to arise in the mind the 'numen' must be experienced as present, a numen praesens, as in the case of Abraham. There must be felt a something 'numinous,' something bearing the character of a 'numen,' to which the mind turns spontaneously . . . (11)

What then is this numen whose presence is so overpowering that it shrivels up the sense of self?

IV. 'Mysterium Tremendum'
The Analysis of 'Tremendum'

The "fundamental element" of the numinous is its mysteriousness. Whoever is visited by the numinous is intensely aware of a disturbing presence. But a presence of whom or what? The "presence of a mystery inexpressible and above all creatures." (13) A mysterium tremendum.

The awfulness of this mystery, its tremendum, can be broken down into three components:

    The Element of Awfulness The Element of 'Overpoweringness' ('majestas') The Element of 'Energy' or Urgency

1. The Element of Awfulness

Anyone "who will recognize nothing in the divine nature but goodness, gentleness, love, and a sort of confidential intimacy, in a word, only those aspects of God which turn towards the world of men" will be disturbed to find out that the numinous is primordially associated with none of these things but with a particular type of fear, a dread of something aweful, something that inspires awe and terror at the same time.

In multiple languages the holy is associated with "a terror fraught with an inward shuddering such as not even the most menacing and overpowering created thing can instil. It has something spectral about it." (14) This "religious dread," whose antecedent is an even more primitive "daemonic dread" is related to the fear of ghosts and responds to "the feeling of 'something uncanny,' 'eerie,' or 'weird.'"

It is this feeling which, emerging in the mind of primeval man, forms the starting-point for the entire religious development in history. 'Daemons' and 'gods' alike spring from this root . . . (14)

Note: The primordialness of daemonic dread, its primitiveness, is reflected in the fact that in a secular era, we remain susceptible to daemonic dread (viz. the supernatural horror genre) even as we have become insensible to the divine presence. In a desacralized world, the daemonic becomes the last trace of the numinous. It is a bitter irony that modern progress entails a spiritual regression to the primitive.

Even when the worship of 'daemons' has long since reached the higher level of worship of 'gods,' these gods retain as numina something of the 'ghost' on the impress they make on the feelings of the worshiper, viz. the peculiar quality of the 'uncanny' and 'aweful,' which survives with the quality of exaltedness and sublimity or is symbolized by means of it. And this element, softened though it is, does not disappear even on the highest level of all, where the worship of God is at its purest. (17)

A specific instance of the survival of daemonic dread within a higher-level form of worship is what in the Bible is referred to as the Wrath of Yahweh.

. . . it is patent from many passages in the Old Testament that this 'wrath' has no concern whatever with moral qualities. There is something very baffling in the way in which it 'is kindled' and manifested. It is, as has been well said, 'like a hidden force of nature,' like stored-up electricity, discharging itself upon anyone who comes too near. It is 'incalculable' and 'arbitrary.' Anyone who is accustomed to think of deity only by its rational attributes must see in this 'wrath' mere caprice and wilful passion. But such a view would have been emphatically rejected by the religious men of the Old Covenant, for to them the Wrath of God, so far from being a diminution of His Godhead, appears as a natural expression of it, an element of 'holiness' itself . . . (18)

The wrath of God is the tremendum expressed (and rationalized) by an analogy with human anger. Yet

Something supra-rational throbs and gleams, palpable and visible, in the 'wrath of God,' prompting to a sense of 'terror' that no 'natural' anger can arouse. (19)

The wrath of God, Otto concludes, is an "ideogram" of the "absolute unapproachability" of the numinous.

2. The Element of 'Overpoweringness' ('majestas')

In addition to 'absolute unapproachability,' the mysterium tremendum possesses an 'awful majesty.'

This second element of majesty may continue to be vividly preserved, where the first, that of unapproachability, recedes and dies away, as may be seen, for example, in mysticism. It is especially in relation to this element of majesty or absolute overpoweringness that the creature-consciousness, of which we have already spoken, comes upon the scene, as a sort of shadow or subjective reflection of it. Thus, in contrast to 'the overpowering' of which we are conscious as an object over against the self. there is the feeling of one's own submergence, of being but 'dust and ashes' and nothingness. (20)
From this feeling of submergence issue mystical ideas of

. . . first, the annihilation of the self, and then, as its compliment, of the transcendent as the sole and entire reality. . . . For one of the chiefest and most general features of mysticism is just this self-depreciation (so plainly parallel to the case of Abraham), the estimation of the self, of the personal 'I,' as something not perfectly or essentially real, or even its mere nullity, a self-depreciation which comes to demand its own fulfillment in practice in rejecting the delusion of selfhood, and so makes for the annihilation of the self. (21)

The mysteriun tremendum imposes itself as an absolute reality or presence more present and real than the self. With the self obliterated, the mystic finds joy in identifying with the force that obliterated it. "A characteristic common to all types of mysticism is the Identification, in different degrees of completeness, of the personal self with the transcendent Reality." (22) Elaborating, Otto approvingly quotes Edouard Récéjac's Essai sur les fondements de la connaissance mystique: "Le mysticisme commence par la crainte, par le sentiment d'une domination universelle, invincible, et devient plus tard un désir d'union avec ce qui le domine ainsi." (English edition: "Mysticism begins with fear, fear of some universal, invincible ruling power, and becomes later a desire for union with that which so rules it.")

3. The Element of 'Energy' or Urgency

In manifestations ranging from the daemonic up to the "living God" of the Bible, the numinous object is associated with formidable, one might say, uncontainable, energy. This characteristic of the numinous, closely related to the phenomenon of the Wrath of God, is one of the elements most resistant to rationalization. This is "a force that knows not stint nor stay, which is urgent, active, compelling, and alive." (24) In mysticism, this boundless energy of the numinous becomes the "consuming fire of love." However, analogies and even the idea of "energy," can only convey an aspect of the numinous that remains beyond rational comprehension and so, also, beyond utterance.

V. The Analysis of 'Mysterium'

4. The 'Wholly Other'

The adjective "tremendum" conveys the effect that the mysterium tremendum has on those who experience it. But it does not explain the nature of the mystery.

The mystery under consideration exceeds what we might experience when coming across some natural wonder. It is stupefying. It causes "an astonishment that strikes us dumb, amazement absolute." (26)

Taken in the religious sense, that which is 'mysterious' is—to give it perhaps the most striking expression—the 'wholly other' (θάτερου, anyad, alienum), that which is quite beyond the sphere of the usual, the intelligible, and the familiar, which therefore falls quite outside the limits of the 'canny', and is contrasted with it, filling the mind with blank wonder and astonishment. (26)

Otto's carefully chosen words, "wholly other" (ganz andere), emphasize the radically alien nature of the numinous, its refractoriness to rational comprehension. Indeed, the chapter is introduced with a quote from Gerhard Tersteegen that declares "A God comprehended is no God." (25)

The characteristic mental effect of the mysterium is stupor.

The truly mysterious object is beyond our apprehension and comprehension, not only because our knowledge has certain irremovable limits, but because in it we come upon something 'wholly other,' whose kind and character are incommensurable with our own, and before which we therefore recoil in a wonder that strikes us chill and numb. (28)

The wholly other stupefies because it is "something that has no place in our scheme of reality but belongs to an absolutely different one." (29) It is super-natural and to that degree, something that profoundly disturbs the mundane category of the real. Attempts to conceptualize this foreign entity as "spirit' or "demon" compromise its alterity. They are steps in the direction of rationalizing the experience of the numinous

and their effect is at the same time to weaken and deaden the experience itself. They are the source from which springs not religion, but the rationalization of religion, which often ends by constructing such a massive structure of theory and such a plausible fabric of interpretation, that the 'mystery' is frankly excluded. (26-27)

Note: Because as moderns we are cut off from both the spiritual faculty of apprehending the sacred and the ascetic techniques that enabled union or identification with it, we take pleasure instead in blasphemy. What is in vogue today, in lieu of worship, is the prideful inversion of worship: vapid rebellion, deconstruction, demystification, demythification, critique. At best, this yields a momentary frisson, for joy in destruction is tacitly an admission of impotence. But for that reason, the activity of destruction must never cease because if it does, the impotence reveals itself. Modernity is in flight from a numinous that if allowed to visit us would traumatically demolish our self-regard.

On the other hand, mysticism stresses the alterity of the wholly other to the point of equating it with non-Being, with no-thing.

But what is true of the strange 'nothingness' of our mystics holds good equally of the sūnyam and the sūnyatā, the 'void' and 'emptiness' of the Buddhist mystics. This aspiration for the 'void' and for becoming void, no less than the aspiration of our western mystics for 'nothing' and becoming nothing, must seem a kind of lunacy to anyone who has no inner sympathy with for the esoteric language and ideograms of mysticism, and lacks the matrix from which these come necessarily to birth. To such an one Buddhism itself will be simply a morbid sort of pessimism. But in fact the 'void' of the eastern, like the 'nothing' of the western, mystic is a numinous ideogram of the 'wholly other.' (30)

The mystical negation of nature and cosmos is not nihilistic because it is a means to affirming the reality of the wholly other, "something of whose special character we can feel, without being able to give it clear conceptual expression." (30)

VI. The Element of Fascination

The numinous is at once dreadful, majestic, and fascinating.

The daemonic-divine object may appear to the mind an object of horror and dread, but at the same time it is no less something that allures with a potent charm, and the creature who trembles before it, utterly cowed and cast down, has always at the same time the impulse to turn to it, nay even to make it somehow his own. The 'mystery' is for him not merely something to be wondered at but something that entrances him; and beside that in it which bewilders and confounds, he feels a something that captivates and transports him with a strange ravishment, rising often enough to the pitch of dizzy intoxication; it is the Dionysiac-element in the numen. (31)

Were the element of dread the sole characteristic of the numen, worship would not proceed beyond expiation and propitiation. The element of fascination is what drives the development of techniques to possess and be possessed by the numen. Asceticism owes its origin to this pursuit.

The element of fascination, the fascinans, is

a strange and mighty propulsion towards an ideal good known only to religion and in its nature fundamentally non-rational, which the mind knows in yearning and presentiment . . . . And this shows that above and beyond our rational being lies hidden the ultimate and highest part of our nature, which can find no satisfaction in the mere allaying of needs of our sensuous, psychical, or intellectual impulses and cravings. (36)

VII. Analogies and Associated Feelings

The dual nature of the numinous, at once an awful mystery and one that excites fascination "constitutes the proper positive content of the mysterium as it manifests itself in conscious feeling." (41)

An analogy may be drawn between consciousness of the numinous and of the sublime. In both cases, we are dealing with "an idea or concept that 'cannot be unfolded' or explicated." (41). The sublime can be associated with greatness and potency, but these are conditions of sublimity and not its essence. "The concept itself remains unexplicated; it has in it something mysterious, and in this it is like that of the numinous." (41) Moreover, the sublime "exhibits the same peculiar dual character as the numinous; it is at once daunting, and yet again singularly attracting." (42) Thus "the idea of the sublime is closely similar to that of the numinous, and is well adapted to excite it and to be excited by it, while each tends to pass into the other."

The numinous is also analogous with the erotic. Like the numinous, eros brings together what is generic and readily understandable in human relationships (affection, care, etc.) with a sexual element that is daemonic, mysterious, overwhelming, irrational. Love, like the sublime, can evoke the numinous. Mystical intercourse with the numinous is often depicted in the language of passionate love (see Bernini's St. Theresa).

Song provides yet another analogue of the numinous. Here again, the expression of readily understandable sentiments is "penetrated" by a wholly non-rational element, namely the agitation produced by music. With music, as with the numinous, we are again dealing with something that produces emotional effects that are strictly unique to it.

Musical feeling is rather (like numinous feeling) something 'wholly other,' which, while it affords analogies and here and there will run parallel to the ordinary emotions of life, cannot be made to coincide with them by a detailed point to point correspondence. It is, of course, from those places where the correspondence holds that the spell of a composed song arises by a blending of verbal and musical expression. But the very fact that we attribute to it a spell, an enchantment, points in itself to that 'woof' in the fabric of music . . . of the unconceived and the non-rational. (49)

Note: One might add that even the verbal component of song, the lyric, is already a transmutation of speech into poetry and, therefore, at least half-musical before set to song and becomes wholly musical when integrated with music. Song and poetry alert us to the fact that speech itself contains an (enunciative) element that is 'wholly other.'

VIII. The Holy as a Category of Value

Sin and Atonement

Just as the numinous is not originally a moral category, so too the notions of sin and atonement are non-moral in origin. Rather, they derive from a feeling of "absolute 'profaneness.'" This feeling of absolute profaneness is intimately connected with the radical disvaluation of the self produced by contact with the numinous. Simply put, in front of the numen, one spontaneously feels unworthy and unholy, a feeling that is subsequently expressed as a confession of sinfulness not related to any specific transgression but to the mere fact of existence. In front of the numen, the very fact that I exist, that I possess a self, is felt to be a profanation, a sin.

Mere unlawfulness only becomes 'sin,' 'impiety,' 'sacrilege,' when the character of numinous unworthiness or disvalue goes on to be transferred to and centred in moral delinquency. (52)

In the same manner the need for atonement originates primordially from the desire to render oneself worthy of standing in the presence of the numen, that is, from the desire to diminish one's profaneness. "It amounts to a longing to transcend this sundering unworthiness, given with the self's existence as 'creature' and profane natural being." (55) As against the majesty of the super-natural, super-human numen, the mere fact of being natural and human arouses a feeling of self-loathing. It is from this that the notion of sin originates and atonement then is an act of modesty, a prophylactic covering over of the loathsomeness of the creature to enable communion with the numen without the risk of polluting it.

IX. Means of Expression of the Numinous

1. Direct Means

No direct transmission of the numinous is possible. Religion can be taught as a set of precepts but the numinous experience that underlies it can at best be evoked, and then only to someone who is receptive, i.e. someone in whom the numinous has already stirred. The sight of others in prayer and worship will evoke the numinous more effectively than any theory or dogma.

2. Indirect Means.

The numinous is fundamentally unrepresentable. Thus the means to evoke "numinous feeling" rely on analogy with "kindred and similar feelings belonging to the "natural" sphere." (61)

The tremendum is primordially associated with fear and dread.

One of the most primitive of these [means of representation] . . . is quite naturally the "fearful" and horrible, and even at times the revolting and the loathsome. Inasmuch as the corresponding feelings are closely analogous to that of the tremendum their outlets and means of expression may become indirect modes of expressing the specific "numinous awe" that cannot be expressed directly. And so it comes about that the horrible and dreadful character of primitive images and pictures of gods, which seems to us today frequently so repellent, has even yet among naive and primitive natures—nay, occasionally even among ourselves—the effect of arousing genuine feelings of authentic religious awe. (62)

Note: I have already noted that in the modern world, the numinous can only be evoked as horror. Modern intellectual pride blocks communion with the numinous, so the numinous visits in the guise of monsters, aliens, and exceptional criminals. Receptivity to the numinous has been dulled to such a degree that it is only the most violent irruptions of the inexplicable that excite interest, and typically, only an interest in redoubling efforts to make them explicable. We might also note that "the horrible and dreadful character of primitive images and pictures of gods" inspired a generation of early 20th century artists. What they were seeking in the primitive was a regeneration of the animating connection with the numinous that European art had enjoyed in the premodern era and that had endowed it with a poignancy for which subsequent art could only substitute theatricality. (Bernini's St. Theresa being an example of the latter.)

The hard, stern, and somewhat grim pictures of the Madonna in ancient Buzantine art attract the worship of many Catholics more than the tender charm of the Madonnas of Raphael. This trait is most signally evident in the case of certain figures of gods in the Indian pantheon. Durgā, the "great Mother" of Bengal, whose worship can appear steeped in an atmosphere of profoudest devotional awe, is represeented in the orthodox tradition with the visage of a fiend. (62)
So the fearful and dreadful come first as analogical evocations of the numinous. Then grandeur and sublimity. Example: sixth chapter of Isaiah. There is a connection between the holy and the sublime "which is something more than a merely accidental analogy." (63)

How is the mysterium expressed?

By analogy with the miraculous.

Nothing can be found in all the world of "natural" feelings bearing so immediate an analogy—mutatis mutandis—to the religious conscuousness of ineffable, unutterable mystery, the "absolute other," as the incomprehensible, unwonted, enigmatic thing, in whatever place or guise it confronts us. (63)


Whatever has loomed upon the world of [man's] ordinary concerns as something terrifying and baffling to the intellect; whatever among natural occurrences or events in the human, animal, or vegetable kingdoms has set him astare in wonder and astonishment—such things have ever aroused in man, and become endowed with, the "daemonic dread" and numinous feeling, so as to become "portents," "prodigies," and "marvels." Thus and only thus is it that the miraculous arose. (64)

Note: The modern intellect is too full of itself to allow bafflement, so the mysterious is reduced to the as-yet-unexplained, foreclosing any possibility of numinous revelation. What in Biblical times was deemed prophetic has since become "schizophrenic." The real horror in the film Take Shelter is not the cataclysm but the pervasive and impenetrable "belief in disbelief" (Maistre).

"Developed" religions cannot abide miracles but may retain an association with the mysterious in the form of the aura that attaches to ritual forms and languages that are obscure. Even this residue of the mysterious, however, has been steadily diminishing as reformers simplify religious services to make them more coherent and transparent. In so doing, they fail to appreciate how much of the spiritual resides precisely in what defies understanding.

3. Means by which the Numinous is expressed in Art

In the arts nearly everywhere the most effective means of representing the numinous is the "sublime." (65)

The sublime is most readily discerned in architecture ranging from the megalithic to the Egyptian.

The arts of China, Japan, and Tibet give a magical impression.

Now the magical is nothing but a suppressed and dimmed form of the numinous, a crude form of it which great art purifies and ennobles. In great art the point is reached at which we may no longer speak of the "magical," but rather are confronted with the numinous itself, with all its impelling motive power, transcending reason, eapressed in sweeping lines and rhythm. (67)
The interesting implication here is that art can function as the numinous itself rather than as mere representation of it. (So where the Abstract Expressionists correct?)

In the West, the paramount numinous (and sublime) art is the Gothic. And yet, only a paragraph later, Otto will claim that

. . . in neither the sublime nor the magical, effective as they are, has art more than an indirect means of representing the numinous. Of directer methods our Western art has only two, and these are in a noteworthy way negative, viz. darkness and silence. The darkness must be such as is enganced and made all the more perceptible by cintrast with some last vestige of brightness, which it is, as it were, on the point of extinguishing; hence the "mystical" efect begins with semi-darkness. (68)

There definitely seems to be a confusion here between representation and the thing it represents. If art itself can assume the quality of the numinous, then it is no longer a representation, direct or indirect. But it would seem that what Otto is concerned with is degrees of "directness" or "immediacy." Or perhaps degrees of "evocation" since at the very beginning of the chapter he declared that no direct means of expressing the numinous can exist. So art is restricted to producing a "numinous impression" but at various points in the chapter he will declare that such and such an object (the steeple of the Cathedral of Ulm or the Buddha in the Lung-Men Caves) is numinous—not that it makes a numinous impression, but that it is numinous. It weould seem that Otto himself is from time to time tricked by the power of analogy and ascribes being to what is only representation, albeit highly evocative representation.

To silence and darkness/semi-darkness,

oriental art knows a third means for producing a strongly numinous impression, to wit, emptiness and empty distance. Empty distance, remote vacancy, is as it were, the sublime in the horizontal. the wide-stretching desert, the boundless uniformity of the steppe, have real sublimity, and even is us Westerners they set vibrationg chords of the numinous along with the note of the sublime, according to the principle of the associaton of feelings. (69)

Chinese painting excels at using the void to evoke the numinous.

For "void" is like darkness and silence, a negation, but a negation that does away with every "this" and "here," in order that the "wholly other" may become actual. (70)

Music, which "can give manifold expression to all the feelings of the mind" nonetheless lacks positve ways to express the holy. It must resort to stillness.

Summary: Expressions of the numinous take the form of the fearful , horrible, and dreadful; the sublime; the inexplicable and miraculous; the magical; darkness and silence; emptiness and empty distances; the void; stillness.

What is missing here: The instances of objects (described in Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and Profane) that do not differ from others of their kind (stones, trees, etc.) but which are imbued with the presence of the sacred.

X. The Numinous in the Old Testament

Otto claims that the non-rational is particularly in evidence in Semitic religion.

It is present in ideas of the daemonic and angelic world, which, as a "wholly other," surrounds, transcends, and permeates this world of ours; it is potent in Biblical eschatology and the ideal of a "kingdom of God" contrasted with the natural order, now as being future in time, now as being eternal, but always as the downright marvellous and "other;" and finally it impresses itself on the character of Yahweh and Elohim . . . (72)
The "lower stage of numinous consciousnes" has been superseded by the time of the Prophets and Psalmists, yet traces remain, ex. the odd sentence in in Exod. 4:24 that abruptly and without explanation declares that Yahweh sought to kill Moses right after he dispatched him to meet Pharoah and demand the release of the Israelites.

The daemonic is not to be confused with demonic. The daemon is a "pre-God," the numen at a "lower stage."

Otto introduces a further nuance, distinguishing between the numinous and the holy. The numinous and the numen are to be associated more strictly with the irrational moment in religion. The holy is the product of the rationalization and moralization of the numinous.

Thus the "stern" and "austere" Yahweh is essentially numinous while the "familiar" and "patriarchal" Elohim is (after Isaiah) "the Holy One of Israel." Nonetheless, numinous qualities remain in evidence even in the Elohim, ex. the theophany of the burning bush.

In the Bible, the non-rational God is the "living" God, who is prone to love and anger, emotional attributes Otto insists must be understood figuratively as indicating the fundamentally irrational nature of this living God.

Islam, according to Otto, retains in Allah a figure who is is essentially the pre-Mosaic Yahweh.

The moralizing and rationalizing process that transforms the numinous into the holy "does not mean that the numinous itself has been overcome, but merely that its preponderance has been overcome." (75)

In Ezekiel, we encounter a tendency later evident in occultism to reduce the mysterium to "the merely strange, the extraordinary, the marvellous, and the fantastic," the elements of pseudo-mysticism.

In the Book of Job, the mysterious is given expression as something that is not merely inexplicable but positively stupendous. God's creations are not limited to things that make sense but include things whose "very negation of purpose becomes a thing of baffling significance. (79)" What is on display is the plenitude of God's creative force, the "incalculable and 'wholly other'" nature of divine creativity.

The mysterium, simply as such, would merely be a part of the 'absolute inconceivability' of the numen, and that, though it might strike Job utterly dumb, could not convict him inwardly. That of which we are conscious is rather an intrinsic value in the incomprehensible—a value inexpressible, positive, amd 'fascinating.'" (80)

XI. The Numinous in the New Testament

The tendency in the gospel is to rationalize, moralize, and humanize the idea of God. Nonetheless, the Christian orientation is toward a fully numinous kingdom of heaven. The innovation that Jesus's preaching introduces into Judaic religion is the revelation that the Holy One of Israel is a heavenly Father, at once familial and other. In the Lord's prayer, the name of this Heavenly Father is still "hallowed," i.e. still marked by dread. He remains a numinous (non-rational) figure of wrath and vengeance. A "numinous atmosphere" pervades early Christianity and is particularly pronounced in St. Paul, who declares that God dwells "in the light which no man can approach unto." (1Tim. 6:16) Numinous "self-disvaluation," creature-consciousness, propels Paul toward a militant depreciation of the flesh and a belief in predestination.

Otto notes that belief in predestination is particularly strong in Islam because in Islam the rational and moral attributes of God are undeveloped. "In Allah the numinous is absolutely preponderant over everything else." (90) Allah retains an "uncanny and daemonic character" and this then underlies "what is commonly called the 'fanatical' character of this religion." (91)

XII. The Numinous in Luther

In Catholicism the feeling of the numinous is to be found as a living factor of singular power. It is seen in Catholic forms of worship and sacramental symbolism, in the less authentic forms assumed by legend and miracle, in the Platonic and neo-Platonic strands woven into the fabric of its religious conception, in the solemnity of churches and ceremonies, and especially in the intimate rapport of Catholic piety with mysticism. (94)

Nonetheless, Catholic (theological) orthodoxy diverged from practice and tended, at the hands of the scholastics to a repression of the non-rational factor. Luther's protest against Aristotle and the theologi moderni can be understood as part of a broader contest between the rational and non-rational elements in Christianity.

This contest was of long standing and predated the Middle Ages. It went back to the Stoic attempt to construct an ideal of God as a "wise man" who has achieved apathy by sacrificing his passions and affections and, then, the philosophical importation of this ideal into Christian theology. Otto cites Lactantius as an early critic of this "God of the philosophers," against which Lactantius contends for "the divine in God, that which cannot be reduced to idea, world-order, moral order, principle of being, or purposive will." (96)

The rest of the chapter is devoted to demonstrating in detail that Luther was an exponent of the numinous, non-rational, anti-philosophical, mystical idea of God even if this aspect of his thought was later "tacitly expunged."

In Jakob Böhme,

the non-rationally "dreadful" and even the "daemonic" phase of the numinous remains a most living element . . . . Like Eckhart, he finds as a starting point of his speculation the 'primal bottom,' the supra-comprehensible and inexpressible. But this stands to him not for Being and Above-being, but for Stress and Will; it is not good and above-good, but a supra-rational identification of good and evil in an Indifferent, in which is to be found the potentiality of the dual nature of the deity itself as at once goodness and love on the one hand and fury and wrath on the other.

In a footnote, Otto adds:

The ferocity [of deity] is the origin of Lucifer, in whom the mere potentiality of evil is actualized. It might be said that Lucifer is 'fury' . . . the mysteriun tremendum cut loose from the other elements and intensified to mysterium horrendum. . . . The rationalism of the myth of the 'fallen angel' does not render satisfactorily the horror of Satan . . . . It is a horror that is in some sort numinous, and we might designate the object of it as the negatively numinous. This also holds good of other religions than that of the Bible. In all religions 'the devilish' plays its part and has its place as that which, opposed to the divine, has yet something in common with it. (n. 106-107)

XIII. The Two Processes of Development

For Otto, "the permeation of the rational with the non-rational is to lead, then, to the deepening of our rational conception of God." (109) Thus, he sees the idea of the holy develop simultaneously along two axes. On the one hand, there is the development of the irrational element itself, which starts as daemonic dread, becomes fear of the gods and thence fear and worship of God. On the rational side, there is a "process of rationalization and moralization of the numinous." (111)

Almost everywhere we find the numinous attrracting and appropriating neanings derved from social and individual ideals of obligation, justice, and goodness. These become the 'will' of the numen, and the mumen their guardian, ordainer, and author. More and more these ideas come to enter into the very essence of the numen and charge the term with ethical content. (110)

XIV. The Holy as an A Priori Category

Neither the rational nor the non-rational components of the religious experience evolve from sense perception. They are both a priori categories. They hark back to "an original and underivable capacity of the mind implanted in the 'pure reason' independently of all perception." (112) Both derive from a faculty of cognition that is activated by experience but does not arise from it. The apprehension of the numinous issues from a spiritual predisposition.

XV. Its Earliest Manifestations

Having argued in the previous chapter that the human species possesses a predisposition to religion that evolved into a religious impulsion, Otto proceeds to list what he considers the earliest manifestations of this impulsion. He places the emphasis not on the origin of their "ideational aspect" but on "the qualitative element of feeling relative to them." (120)

1. Magic

"Natural" magic attempts to influence outcomes by analogical actions, such as when a bowler releases the ball and then gestures to sympathetically guide the ball to its target. "Proper" magic begins when an additional, more conscious element is introduced: an appeal to dimly sensed, daemonic powers to assist in delivering the desired outcome.

2. Worship of the dead

Disgust and fright are natural reactions to the sight of the dead. When these reactions are accompanied by dread and awe, a qualitatively different feeling emerges. This awe of the dead had to first develop in persons with "special propensities in this direction," who then aroused this awe in others. Dread of the dead then developed into worship of the dead.

3. Ideas of souls and spirits

The essence of the "soul" lies not in the imaginative or conceptual expression of it, but first and foremost in the fact that it is a spectre; that it arouses "dread" or "awe" . . . (120)
This dread does not come from the forms ascribed to spirits and souls "thinner or less easily visible than the body, or quite invisible, or fashioned like air" (120)) but, again, because a numinous impulsion seeks them out and transforms them into objects of reverence.

4. Power or mana

Plants, stones, and other natural objects may possess medicinal properties but they becomes power objects only when they become associated with spells and magic.

5. Elemental forces

When it comes to such things as volcanoes, moon, sun, storms, "both we and the primitive credit an object with life if, and in so far as, we think we remark in it living efficacy and agency." (121) However,

The objects in question only become "divine"—objects of worship—when the category of the numinous is applied to them, and that does not come about until, first, an attempt is made to influence them by numinous means, viz. by magic; and, second, their special efficacy or way of working is at the same time accepted as something numinous, viz. something magical. (121)

6. Myths and fairy tales

Fairy tales are the products of the "natural" impulse toward fantasy, storytelling, and entertainment. "But the fairy-story proper only comes into being with the element of the 'wonderful,' with miracle and the miraculous events and consequences, i.e. by means of an infusion of the numinous. And the same holds good in an increased degree of myth." (122)

7. Daemons

All previously mentioned entities lie at the "threshold" of religious feeling. With the daemon, the proto-god, the threshold is crossed.

The most authentic form of the daemon may be seen in those strange deities of ancient Arabia, which are properly nothing but wandering demonstrative pronouns, neither 'given shape or feature by means of myth,' for there is in the main no mythology attached to them at all, nor ;evolved out of 'nature-deities,' nor grown out of 'souls' or 'spirits,' but none the less felt as deities of mighty efficacy, who are the objects of very living vereration. They are products of the religious consciousness itself. (122)
These daemons do not arise out of folk imagination but in each instance, according to Otto, derive from "the intuition of persons of innate prophetic powers." (122)

8. The unclean

"The unclean is the loathsome, that which stirs strong feelings of disgust." (122) However, the numinous unclean need not have any connection with things that naturally provoke disgust. The numinous unclean has a daemonic root; it is an object of numinous horror or awe. But the feeling of natural disgust can attach itself to such objects by displacement. If these hallowed objects later lose their numinous content, they may retain this ability to provoke what will seem like irrational disgust. Such is the case, for instance, with caste.

9. Feeling of the numinous

The ability to feel the numinous is latent in the human mind.

This is a primal element of our psychical nature that needs to be grasped purely in its uniqueness and cannot itself be explained from anything else. Like all other primal psychical elements, it emerges in due course in the developing life of himan mind and spirit and is thenceforward simply present. Of course it can only emerge if and when certain conditions are fulfilled, conditions involving a proper development of the bodily organs and the other powers of mental and emotional life in general, a due growth in suggestibility and spontaneity and responsiveness to external impressions and internal experiences. (124)

10. Positing the numinous object

This section apppears to be a recap of earlier observations.

At this stage of the development of numinous consciousness, the uncanny is not diverted to earthly things/explanations but "either remains a pure feeling, as in 'panic' terror (in the literal sense of the word), or itself invents, or, better, discovers, the numinous object by rendering explicit the obscure germinal ideas latent in itself." The object that provokes the consciousness of the uncanny can itself be insignificant. The force of the reaction is completely disproportionate to the circumstances that occasion it. The real cause is found later, when special meaning is attached to the experience and one becomes aware that it was occasioned by contact with a "transcendant Something." Thus in Gen. 28:17, Jacob exclaims "How dreadful is this place! This is none other than the house of Elohim." The first sentence "gives plainly the the mental impression itself in all its immediacy, before reflection has permeated it." It communicates the "primal numinous awe." This would have been enough to mark the locale as a sacred, "haunted" place. The second sentence is interpretation. It names the numen and turns it into a nomen. It proceeds from the detection of something eerie, a haunting presence, to the positing of a numinous object.

11. Notions of "high gods"

Many primitive cultures possess a pantheon of actively propitiated familiar gods or daemons and above them a high god

with whom the savage has often hardly any relations in practice . . . and in whom he yet acknowledges, almost in spite of himself, a value superior to that of all other mythological images, a value which may well accord with the divine in the highest sense. (129)

XVI. The Cruder Phases

A key, and questionable, assumption Otto relies on throughout The Idea of the Holy is that religion has an evolutionary history, that it starts with "primitive" daemonic dread and gradually ascends toward a fully developed apprehension of the numinous that integrates its irrational and rational (ethical) dimensions into a fully articulated religion. In this chapter, he attempts to summarize the specific characteristics of "primitive" religion.

(a) Partiality

In the early phase of its "unfolding," the numinous is as yet little more than a source of daemonic dread, not yet associated with any notion of the divine nor any ethical content. As such, it "naturally looks more like the opposite of religion than religion itself." (132) It can even give the impression of devil worship, suggesting that "the devil is more ancient than God."

(b) Indistinctness

Primitive religion has an "abrupt, capricious, and desultory character." (133) It does not distinguish between natural feelings and properly numinous awe.

(c) Deification of natural objects

Daemonic dread is attached to "objects, occurrences, and entities falling within the workaday world of primitive experience." (133) There is no reference to "absolute, transcendent reality."

(d) Wild enthusiasm

The numinous feeling inspires in the "savage" intoxication, frenzy. religious mania, and "possession by the numen." (134)

(e)Improper schematization

The numinous confused with its analogues?

(f) Deficient rationalization

"It is only gradually that the numenous feeling becomes charged with progressively rational, moral, and cultural significance." (134)

Nonetheless, even the first stirrings of daemonic dread point to an a priori category that cannot be derived from sense experience. Religious awe is not an outgrowth of natural fear. Primitive religion already testifies to the presence of a specifically religious concept in the human mind that reaches out to numinous experience.

The development of religion depends on the self-revelation of the numen and its "filling out" with rational elements. This makes the numen more "conceivable" and "comprehensible," yet the revelation does not eliminate what is inconceivable and incomprehensible.

Something may be profoundly and intimately known in feeling for the bliss it brings or the agitation it produces, and yet the understanding may find no concept for it. To know and to uderstand conceptually are two different things, are often even mutually exclusive and contrasted. The mysterious obscurity of the numen is by no means tantamount to unknowableness. (135)

XVII. The Holy as an A Priori Category Part II

The rational and non-rational elements of religion as well as their connection proceeed from a priori knowledge of their necessity hidden in "the depths of the spirit." (136).

The criterion of all a priori knowledge [is] that, so soon as an assertion has been clearly expressed and understood, knowledge of its truth comes into the mind with the certitude of forst-hand insight. (137)

The rational elements of religion "schematize" the nonrational.

The tremendum, the daunting and repelling moment of the numinoous, is schematized by means of the rational ideas of justice, moral will, and the exclusion of what is opposed to morality; and schematized thus, it becomes the holy 'wrath of God,' which Scripture and Christian preaching alike proclaim. The fascinans, the attraacting and alluring moment of the numinous, is schematized by means of the ideas of goodness, mercy, love, and, so schematized, becomes all that we mean by Grace, that term so rich in import, which unites with the holy wrath in a single 'harmony of contrasts.' and like it is, from the numinous strain in it, tinged with mysticism. The 'moment' mysteriosum is schematized by the absoluteness of all rational attributes applied to the Deity.

The combination of the rational and nonrational elements in religion protect it from becoming either too rational or fanatical (and overly mystical). It is a combination that Otto claims makes Christianity superior to all other religions in its "classical form and dignity." (142)

XVIII. The Manifestation of the "Holy" and the Faculty of "Divination"

It is a fundamental belief in all religions that a reality beyond the senses not only exists but that "it may be directly encountered." (143)

Otto proposes to call the faculty that enables cognition of the holy the faculty of divination. (144) This is not a faculty that men in general possess. Rather, it is the possession of special "divinatory" natures. Goethe possessed this ability.

XIX. Divination in Primitive Christianity

Christianity imputes to Christ the value of being "'holiness made manifest,' that is a person in whose being, life, and mode of living we realize of ourselves by 'intuition and feeling' the self-revealing power and presence of the Godhead." (157) There was a force of personality in Christ that made others spontaneously intuit his holiness, his numinous nature. This type of personality is not unique to Christianity but can be encountered in holy men of various religions.

The point is that the 'holy man' or the 'prophet' is from the outset, as regards the experience of the circle of his devotees, something more than a 'mere man.' He is the being of wonder and mystery, who somehow or other is felt to belong to the higher order of things, to the side of the numen itself. It is not that he himself teaches that he is such, but that he is experienced as such. And it is only such experiences, which, while they may be crude enough and result often enough in self-deception, must at least be profoundly and strongly felt, that can give rise to religious communities. (158)

Throughout the gospels, individuals who encounter Jesus immediately recognize him as a numinous being, a Messiah. They were impressed because to start with they had in their spirit a predisposition to recognize the numinous when it showed itself.

XX. Divination in Christianity Today

Does the figure of Christ retain today the ability to make a numinous impression? Otto argues that this impression, the impression of Christ as "the holy made manifest" is attainable only by contemplation of his suffering and defeat.

In Job the suffering of the righteous found its significance as the classic and crucial case of the revelation, more immediately actual and in more palpable proximity than any other, of the transcendent mysteriousness and 'beyondness' of God. The Cross of Christ, that monogram of the eternal mystery, is its completion. Here rational are enfolded with non-rational elements, the revealed commingles with the unrevealed, the most exalted love with the most awe-inspiring 'wrath' of the numen, and therefore, in applying to the Cross of Christ the category 'holy,' Christian religious feeling has given birth to a religious intuition profounder and more vital than any to be found in the whole history of religion. (173)

Christ defeats death by submitting to it. His defeat is actually the fulfillment of his mission, which is to reveal to man the attainment of deliverance. Christianity is the religion of redemption par excellence.

Its characteristic ideas today are Salvation—overabounding salvation, deliverance from and conquest of the 'world' and from existence in bondage to the world, and even from creaturehood as such, the overcoming of the remoteness of and enmity of God . . . (164)

XXI. History and the A Priori in Religion: Summary and Conclusion

There are, then, three factors in the process by which religion comes into being in history. First, the interplay of predisposition and stimulus, which in the historical development of man's mind actualizes the potentiality in the former, and at the same time helps to determine its form, Second, the groping recognition, by virtue of this very disposition, of specific portions of history as the manifestation of 'the holy,' with consequent modification of the religious experience already attained both in its quality and degree. And third, on the basis of the other two, the achieved fellowship with 'the holy' in knowing, feeling, and willing. Plainly, then, religion is only the offspring of history in so far s history on the one hand develops our disposition for knowing the holy and on the other is itself repeatedly the manifestation of the holy." (176-177)

Otto emphasizes that the a priori cognition of the holy is a universal capability not a universal capacity. As in the sphere of art, the multitude is capable of receptiveness. Only the specially endowed go beyond mere receptiveness and produce something that has the quality of revelation.

The prophet corresponds in the religious sphere to the creative artist in that of art: he is the man in whom the Spirit shows itself alike as the power to hear the 'voice within' and the power of divination, and in each case appears as a creative force. (177-178)


A few striking selections from the 13 appendixes in this edition.

Chrysostom on the inconceivable in God

Does not the distinguishing character of Christianity consist in just this—that God is near us, that we can possess and apprehend Him, and that man himself is His image and likeness? And yet we find this Father of the Church battling passionately, as for something that concerned the very essence of Christianity, for the view that God is the Inconceivable, the Inexpressible, that which gives denial to every notion. (179)

Original numinous sounds

Feelings and emotions, as states of mental tension, find their natural relaxation in uttered sounds. It is evident that the numinous feeling also, in its first outbreak in consciousness, must have found sounds for its expression, and at first inarticulate sounds rather than words; but it is improbable that it devised special and peculiar sounds for itself. Analogous as it is to other feelings, it no doubt adopted the already familiar sounds expressive of terror, amazement, joy, and the like. But it could and sometimes did, put, as it were, a special stamp upon sounds coined for a different use. (190)

The supra-personal in the numinous

The primal experience of the numen is typically an experience of an uncanny and aweful presence not an experience of a person, an experience of an "it" rather than a "he" or a "she." The personalization of the deity comes later and tends to diminish and, perhaps, hide altogether the radical otherness of the numen.

All gods are more than mere (personal) gods, and . . . all the greater representations of deity show from time to time features which reveal their ancient character as 'numina' and burst the bounds of the personal and theistic. This is obviously the case where the experienced relation of the worshipper to his god does not exclusively take the form of contact with a 'beyond' and transcendent being, but comes somehow as the experience of seizure and possession by the god, as being filled by him, an experience in which the god wholly or partially enters the believer and dwells in him, or assimilates him to his own divine nature, commingling with his spirit and becoming very part of him; or, again, where the god becomes the sphere in which 'we live and move and have our being,' And what god has not in some sense had this character? (199)

The mysterium tremendum in Roberston and Watts

The passage from F. W. Robertson's sermon of Jacob wrestling with the angel might have pertinence to the work of Kasimir Malevich and Ad Reinhardt.

Very significantly are told that the divine antagonist seemed, as it were, anxious to depart as the day was about to dawn; and that Jacob held Him more convulsively fast, as if aware that daylight was likely to rob him of his anticipated blessing: in which there seems concealed a very deep truth. God is approached more nearly in that which is indefinite than in that which is definite and distinct. He is felt in awe and wonder and worship rather than in clear conception. There is a sense in which darkness has more of God than light has. He dwells in the thick darkness. Moments of tender, vague mystery often bring distinctly the feeling of His presence. When day breaks and distinctness comes the Divine has evaporated from the soul like morning dew. In sorrow, haunted by uncertain presentiments, we feel the infinite around us. The gloom disperses, the world's joy comes again, and it seems as if God were gone—the Being who had touched us with a withering hand and wrestled with us, yet whose presence, even when most terrible, was more blessed than His absence. It is true, even literally, that the darkness reveals God: every morning God draws the curtain of the garish light across His eternity, and we lose the Infinite. We look down on earth instead of up to heaven, on a narrower and more contracted spectacle—that which is examined by the microscope when the telescope is laid aside—smallness, instead of vastness. "Man goeth forth unto his work and to his labour till the evening;" and in the dust and pettiness of life we seem to cease to behold Him: then at night he undraws the curtain again, and we see how much of God and Eternity the bright distinct day has hidden from us. Yes, in solitary, silent, vague darkness, the Awful One is near—

Names have a power, a strange power of hiding God . . . . Jacob felt the Infinite, who is more truly felt when least named. (220-221)

Final Thoughts

There is a noticeable difference between Rudolf Otto's treatment of the idea of the sacred and Mircea Eliade's (to whose The Sacred and the Profane, I will turn to next)

Eliade emphasizes the cultural ramifications of the sacred and the contrast between consecrated societies and desacralized ones. For Otto, who believes in a fundamental human predispostion to seek out and know the sacred, the experience of the numinous remains a perpetual possibility. For Eliade, modernity would appear to haveforeclosed the possibility of an encounter with the mysterium tremendum.