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The Idea of the Holy by Rudolf Otto

The Idea of the Holy

by Rudolf Otto

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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A Gift from the Library of and by The Very Rev. Charles M. Guilbert, Custodian of the Book of Common Prayer to Shelley Burch Joel Watson Jr. Charles had asked me to help him box his books to send to a theological school overseas. After boxing all the books and sealing them he asked if there was anything I wanted. Ha! too late, but I took this and one other printed in the 1500s which I gave to Matthew Ellsworth Crow, Margaret's nephew. Stamped in the front "From the Library of Charles Mortimer Guilbert Acquired 1943 Number IVaot" and then his signature and the date July 23, 1943.
  stcloudlibrary | Nov 3, 2016 |
The Idea of the Holy is known mainly for its discussion of the irrational element in religion in terms of the numinous. However, there is a lot more in the book than that.

Most importantly, Otto offered a vision of religious history. A German, he suggested that religion had gradually become refined over time, reaching its highest point in Protestant Christianity, more specifically in the Lutheranism to which he subscribed.

Of course, this aspect of the book is brushed under the carpet as it does not accord with today's world religions perspectives.

It is to be noted that the book was published in 1917, at the height of World War 1. At the time, Otto was a member of the Prussian parliament, something else not mentioned in the WikiPedia article on him. In fact, I believe that the book was Otto's contribution to the German war effort.

It is no doubt highly significant that apparently no book length biography of Otto has ever been written in German, let alone in English. The WikiPedia article now lists a 2012 'kleine' biography in Dutch. Hopefully, we'll get a translation at some point.

You can find my summary of The Idea of the Holy, along with my comments at greater length, on my old website at http://www.bytrentsacred.co.uk/index.php/rudolf-otto/the-idea-of-the-holy-1-summ....

My own view of the numinous is that it results from the triggering of a biological mechanism. In a primate deference reaction, most people tend to be overcome with awe in the presence of the powerful. The experience of the numinous is merely a transference of that feeling in the imagined presence of the divine.
  leontes47 | Nov 23, 2012 |
Fear of the Shadow, the daemon, is the beginning of subjective religious experience according to Rudolf Otto in The Idea of the Holy. Our utterly deferential fright is encapsulated in that hoary Old Testament expression, “the Wrath of Yahweh.” (18) Otto calls it the numinous experience, when our “blood runs cold” and our “flesh creeps.” We recognize the sacred, the hallowed, the holy when it triggers an acute and overwhelming emotion, all out of proportion to the event – wonder, awe, astonishment, stupor, dread. “Here we have a terror fraught with an inward shuddering such as not even the most menacing and overpowering created thing can instill. It has something spectral in it.” (14) This is the encounter with the divine, that which is “wholly other” from the physical/rational self, that which is “wholly other” from what can be recognized or understood.

The ancients accepted the ineffable experience as a part of physical reality. They saw spirits in rocks and rivers. The hibernating beast came out of an uncanny place. Wild animals looked at people with the eyes of disguised gods. And the boldest of ancient people, as do bold people throughout time, sought to harness some small part of that ineffable power and energy. Magic was born – the effort “to appropriate the prodigious force of the numen for the natural ends of man.” (33)

complete posting at https://maryoverton.wikispaces.com/The+Magical+Groundhog+-+I
  Mary_Overton | Apr 2, 2012 |
I decided to read The Idea of the Holy by Rudolf Otto when I saw that it was on C.S. Lewis' top-ten list of books that influenced him, reasoning that if it was good enough for Lewis, it was probably worth my time to read. All I can say after having read several of the list's books is that Lewis has strange tastes!

The Idea of the Holy is Otto's attempt to pick up where systematic theology leaves off. That is to say, while systematic theologies treat the rational aspects of God, The Idea discusses the non-rational divine aspects. How does one describe that which is by definition indescribable? Otto does so by using the via negativa (what it is not), metaphor (what it is like) and appeal to personal experiences in the believer's life, including one's a priori understanding of the holy. For Otto, the non-rational aspects of God, which he dubs "the numinous," can be explained (as best as one can) by the mysterium tremendum. Mysterium refers to the "wholly other" aspect of God--elements that differ in essence from everything that humans know and can describe. Tremendum refers to God's awefulness, His majesty, His overpoweringness, and all that causes humans when confronted with Him to experience what the Bible calls "the fear of the LORD." Taken together, we see that deep in God's nature there is something that we cannot ever fully understand, something which instills soul-shaking fear and respect, yet something for which we yearn, and indeed something which we as a race have felt from the beginning of history.

After discussing the concept--or feeling--of the mysterium tremendum and its means of expression in some detail, Otto turns to the expressions of the numinous in the Old and New Testaments and in Luther's works. The chapter "The Numinous in the New Testament" is especially worthwhile because of Otto's thoughts on the kingdom of God and predestination. He does an excellent job reaching past the "rational" mindset of the post-Enlightenment West and viewing those key theological concepts as part of God's supra-rational plan. Specifically concerning election, he writes

"The idea of 'election'…is an immediate and pure expression of the actual religious experience of grace. The recipient of divine grace feels and knows ever more and more surely, as he looks back on his past, that he has not grown into his present self through any achievement or effort of his own, and that, apart from his own will or power, grace was imparted to him, grasped him, impelled, and led him. And even the resolves and decisions that were most his own and most free become to him, without losing the element of freedom, something that he experienced rather than did." (p. 87)

Any true follower of Christ will at once recognize the truth of this statement--although it may defy rational analysis--because he or she has experienced it and knows it is true a priori.

Otto goes on to discuss how the idea or feeling of the numinous developed throughout humankind's history to become what it is today in "civilized" religions such as Christianity, and how its origins can still be seen in "primitive" tribal religions today. Here Otto writes under the assumption that religion evolved gradually from primitive humans, a theory also adopted by C.S. Lewis. As I find it hard to rationalize this view with my own interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis (namely, that Adam was a real man who had a close relationship with God, at least prior to the Fall), this part of the book remained fairly unhelpful to me. To one with a different interpretation of Gen 1-11, it may provide much more benefit.

Overall, this is a very difficult book to read. As Otto himself states in the forward, no one who has not mastered the rational aspects of God (i.e. systematic theology) should venture into the numinous. I could also add that to get the most out of this book, one should also have some familiarity with philosophy (and esp. early-1900s German philosophers and theologians such as Schleiermacher), biblical Greek, Latin and even some German, and be accustomed to the writing style of circa 1920. As someone with some but not all of this knowledge, the book was especially challenging for me. However, I did gain some valuable insights from it, and I plan to read it again at a later date. All in all, I felt the book was worth reading, but its appeal will ultimately be limited to a very specific audience. ( )
1 vote jclemence | Dec 4, 2010 |
A Wonderful Book!
  JohnWhitelaw | Nov 20, 2009 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Otto, Rudolfprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Dippel, Johannes W.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Harvey, John WilfredTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Book description
Qu'est-ce que le sacré ? Pour Rudolf Otto, ce n'est pas uniquement le "religieux" ni le "non-rationnel", mais un sentiment spécifique qui permet la manifestation de forces psychiques inconscientes où se mêlent, dans une alchimie particulière, le rationnel et le non-rationnel. C'est l'impression produite par l'objet religieux, le sentiment du mystère, du "tout autre", analysé ici dans ses multiples développements.
Où l'on comprend comment la religion, fondée sur le "sacré", qui est une production de la raison, permet de maintenir le lien avec le mystère.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0195002105, Paperback)

Since the English translation first appeared in 1923, Rudolf Otto's volume has established itself as a classic in the field of religious philosophy. It offers an in-depth inquiry into the non-rational factor in the idea of the divine and its relation to the rational.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:42 -0400)

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