Review: The Idea of the Holy

The Idea of the Holy
The Idea of the Holy by Rudolf Otto
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Rudolf Otto’s book deserves pride of place for his articulation of “the idea of the holy” and his usage of the term “numinous” to describe “the otherness of God.” Otto particularly develops the idea of the non-rational element in our encounter with God. He elaborates various aspects of these encounters, “creature feeling”, “awefulness”, “overpoweringness”, and “energy” or “urgency”. One of the things I appreciated in this work is that Otto distinguishes “non-rational” from irrational and sees a place for rationality and non-rationality to complement each other in religious life.

Rudolf Otto (Public Domain)

Rudolf Otto (Public Domain)

The book also includes examples of the numinous in scripture, and in the writings of those as diverse as Luther and Chrysostom, and in appendices, in Robertson, Watts, Blake, Ruskin, and others. Because of his familiarity with world religions, Otto includes examples from other religions, both eastern and western, as well as the more “primitive”.

The appendices of this work are quite interesting as well. I’ve already mentioned some of the material covered in these. One had to do with “numinous sounds”, those responses made in different languages when confronted with the “awefulness” or “holiness” of God. Another was on silent worship, and the numinous–something to be considered in the culture of “noisy” extroverted worship in many of our churches.

There were two serious places where I found myself parting company with Otto. One is his evolutionary understanding of the development of religion which he incorporates into his development of the numinous from primitive responses of terror in face of the “daemonic” to what he sees as the supreme expression in Christianity. Not only may this be patronizing to other religions, but it also runs counter to another idea that is worthy of consideration: that the knowledge of there being one supreme God may be prior to the worship of many gods or animistic religion. Otto acknowledges the idea of God above the gods in passing but in the main is committed to this evolutionary schema. This work was first published in 1923 when scientists in a variety of disciplines were proposing evolutionary schema under the influence of Darwin, most notably social-Darwinism, and so this approach, which was widespread in the study of world religions, is understandable.

The other place where I part company is his relegation to the “non-rational” the accounts of the resurrection and other miraculous elements. What is troubling, even where Otto might allow for something objective occurring, is to say that all events of these kind are mystical, non-rational, and subjective. One can still say they are “real” in the sense that they were real to the observers, but because they cannot be rationally explained, they are not “real” in an objective sense.

This is a demanding book to read. The translator mentions that some commented that the translation is better than Otto’s German! I would not discourage reading the book either for this reason or my objections. Otto reminds us that a truly infinite God is beyond our ability to explain God, even as theologians are committed to the task of articulating what may be known and worshiped of this God.

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2 thoughts on “Review: The Idea of the Holy

  1. Pingback: June 2014: The Month in Reviews « Bob on Books

  2. I’m impressed, I have to admit. Rarely do I encounter a blog that’s both educative and amusing, and without a doubt, you’ve hit the nail on the head. The issue is an issue that too few people are speaking intelligently about. I’m very happy I stumbled across this in my search for something relating to this.


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