Rudolf Otto on the Fearful and Fascinating Mystery of the Holy

Rudolf Otto on the Fearful and Fascinating Mystery of the Holy

“The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide, pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing, as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its ‘profane’, non-religious mood of everyday experience.”

Rudolf Otto The Idea of the Holy

Rudolf Otto was a German Lutheran Theologian, Philosopher, and Scholar of Religion. His most influential work, The Idea of the Holy, was published in 1917. He was born in 1869 and passed away in 1937. His book The Kingdom of God and the Son of Man set the New Testament against its historical backdrop while introducing something he calls “messianic self consciousness.” 
Rudolf Otto The Idea of the Holy

He influenced a great deal of thinkers, some of whom we’ve either read together or will read together in the future, including Martin Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Mircea Eliade, Karl Barth, Carl Jung, C.S. Lewis, and Paul Tillich.

“Instead of studying the ideas of God and religion, Otto undertook to analyze the modalities of the religious experience. Gifted with great psychological subtlety, and thoroughly prepared by his twofold training as theologian and historian of religions, he succeeded in determining the content and specific characteristics of religious experience.” Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane

Rudolf Otto is most well known for developing the concept of the numinous. The numinous is sometimes referred to as an emotion but might better be described as an apprehension. The numinous conveys the idea of the holy or sacred but he expands the traditional articulation to describe a profound mystery. 

While he is partial to the Judeo-Christian belief in God, Rudolf Otto recognizes the experience of the holy is common to all religions. This allowance made him an early pioneer of what we call comparative religion.

One of the most profound observations Otto makes about our experience of the holy or the sacred is the deep silence that comes over us in response to the sacred. Silence is not only a response to the sacred – it anticipates the numinous. In other words, it invites us into an experience of the fearful and fascinating mystery.

"The held breath and hushed sound of the passage, its weird cadences, sinking away in lessened thirds, its pauses and syncopations, and its rise and fall in astonishing semi tones, which render so well the sense of awe-struck wonder all this serves to express the mysterium by way of intimation, rather than in forthright utterance." Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy

In Interfaces of the Word, Walter J. Ong, a priest and professor, traces the way consciousness changes in the transition from orality to literacy and acknowledges the participatory nature of each utterance. From his perspective, when we interrupt the silence, we are living:

"Oral utterance thus encourages a sense of continuity with life, a sense of participation, because it is itself participatory." Walter J. Ong, Interfaces of the Word

What follows Ong’s declaration, here, is a question of whether silence, then, is inherently passive or whether it is a kind of action in itself.

“Our view of man will remain superficial so long as we fail to go back to that origin [of silence], so long as we fail to find, beneath the chatter of words, the primordial silence, and as long as we do not describe the action which breaks this silence. The spoken word is a gesture, and its meaning, a world.” Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception

For Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the depth of humanity resides in the invisible. It is through language that we know it. Not only does language structure our thought as Lacan famously points out, language is the most valuable witness to our being.

“It is the error of the semantic philosophies to close up language as if it spoke only of itself: language lives only from silence; everything we cast to the others has germinated in this great mute land which we may never leave. But because he has experience within himself the need to speak, the birth of speech bubbling up at the bottom of his mute experience, the philosopher knows better than anyone that what is lived is lived-spoken, that born at this depth, language is not a mask over Being, but -- if one knows how to grasp it with all its roots and all its foliation -- the most valuable witness to Being, that it does not interrupt an immediation that would perfect without it, that the vision itself, the thought itself, are, as has been said, “structured as a language,” are articulation before the letter, apparition of something where there was nothing or something else." Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception

Martin Heidegger taught us language is the house of being. 

Ferdinand de Saussure reminds us without language, thought is a vague, uncharted nebula. 

Marshall McLuhan describes a kind of primordial existence that is outside of time and space: 

“Until writing was invented, man lived in acoustic space: boundless, directionless, horizonless, in the dark of the mind, in the world of emotion, by primordial intuition, by terror.” Marshall McLuhan

 These thinkers anticipate an important question in relation to the numinous: what is the relationship between the experience of the invisible – the holy, sacred, fearful and fascinating mystery – and language?

These authors associate silence with origins and beginnings – for Merleau-Ponty, the depth of humanity resides in the invisible. Rudolf Otto, though, is more interested in what follows the silence. 

Like Merleau-Ponty and McLuhan, Otto likens silence in music to the mystical effect of semidarkness that invites a kind of anticipation of what follows. It is this same kind of anticipation that prepares us to experience the sacred.

"The semi-darkness that glimmers in vaulted halls, or beneath the branches of a lofty forest glade, strangely quickened and stirred by the mysterious play of half-lights, has always spoken eloquently to the soul, and the builders of temples, mosques, and churches have made full use of it. Silence is what corresponds to this in the language of musical sounds." Rudolf Otto The Idea of the Holy

For Rudolf Otto, the silence speaks. And he echoes Soren Kierkegaard in one his lesser known religious discourses on The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air:

"Out there with the bird and the lily there is silence. But what does this silence express? It expresses respect for God, for the fact that it is he who rules and he alone to whom wisdom and understanding belong." Soren Kierkegaard, The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air

Kierkegaard’s passage, here, informs Rudolf Otto’s starting point in articulating the numinous – there is a deep reverence for God, for the Holy, for the Sacred. 

It starts with a religious humility he calls creature consciousness – it’s a feeling not of createdness but creaturehood – consciousness of the littleness of every creature in the face of that which is above all creatures.

Like Louis, in Virginia Woolf’s novel, The Waves, the fearful and fascinating mystery of the holy prompts us to question our existence:

"Something flickers and dances. Illusion returns as they approach down the avenue. Rippling and questioning begin. What do I think of you - what do you think of me? Who are you? Who am I? --that quivers again its uneasy air over us, and the pulse quickens and the eye brightens and all the insanity of personal existence without which life would fall flat and die, begins again. They are on us." Virginia Woolf, The Waves
Rudolf Otto on the Fearful and Fascinating Mystery of the Holy