Some think of Rudolf Otto as a religious thinker of first-class
importance. He investigates religious consciousness in terms of the idea of
the "holy". That is, he aims to describe how humans relate to God through
what many people call contemplation or meditation.
Otto studied at the
German universities of Erlangen, Gottingen, Breslau and Marburg. His
best-known book is The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the non-rational
factor in the idea of the divine and its relation to the rational, first
published in 1923. But he also studied and wrote about the person of Jesus
and on Indian religious thought in addition to his philosophical works.
Thinkers of his time often focused on the question of how reality is
disclosed to us. In what sense can we call our perceptions real? If you or
I experience something, how do we know that our experience correlates with
what is physically "really" out there?
What can be said about personal experience? Is it possible to achieve
some sort of consensus about aspects of it in the same way as the
scientific method generates consensus? Do what we generally call
"religious feelings" describe or disclose reality, and if so, how? Are we
able to directly apprehend that which religion claims it mediates?
Otto's answers to such questions in his earlier works are not
altogether clear. In
Naturalism and Religion (1904) he acknowledges that subjective
truth can't be confirmed or derived from natural data in any normal
scientific or analytical sense. Nevertheless, religions make claims that
there is a providential reality other than that which we can normally
perceive. More than that, they may maintain - as does Christianity - that
some claims amount to an absolute truth applicable to all people, in all
times and all situations.
Although the natural order may contain hints that there is some purpose
or meaning to life, the religious claim is, says Otto, underpinned by
feeling and intuition. It's our universal experience as humans that what
we term the beautiful or the mysterious are qualitative realities which
lie behind material, physical appearances.
In later works, Otto dealt with feelings and intuition as valid
indicators of a reality other than the spatio-temporal one we live in.
Unfortunately, his exposition of what he means by feelings isn't
consistent. He sometimes talks of feelings apparently as emotions, and
sometimes as personal conclusions or judgements backed up by powerful
conviction. He even indicates that intuition is a faculty similar to or
identical with our normal cognitive faculties like eyesight or hearing. In
the last resort, however, he thinks that this "feeling of truth" can't be
fully described in the way that normal phenomena can be described.
In his The Idea of the Holy, Otto distinguishes between ordinary
feelings and religious feeling. He calls the latter a sense of the
"numinous". This class of feelings has two important characteristics: a
feeling of religious awe, and a feeling of religious dread. These feelings
are unique and can't be defined or analysed in terms of anything else. We
experience them under certain conditions, although these conditions are
not enough to fully describe or explain them.
Probably because he was aware that up to this point his explanation of
another dimension of reality could be said to be entirely subjective, Otto
maintains that the numinous can be an object of value and therefore can be
said to be an objective reality in the same way that visual experiences
are considered real. That is, they have an "... immediate and primary
reference to an object outside the self".
The object of numinous feelings, says Otto, is the numen. As far
as I can tell, he thinks that the numen can't be directly described except
through the effects it has on us. The feeling of the numinous
... is not to be derived from any other feeling, and is in this sense
'unevolvable'. It is a content of feeling that is qualitatively sui
generis, yet at the same time one that has numerous analogies with
others, and therefore it and they may reciprocally excite or stimulate one
another and cause one another to appear in the mind.
So religious dread is experienced as the ordinary feeling of fear
although it has an objective reality of its own. In line with
Schleiermacher (whom Otto admired) he suggests that we can "schematise"
the numen by inferring certain qualities which, because it yields the
beneficial and rewarding results in humans that it does, must logically
attach to it - results such as goodness, completeness, necessity,
substance and so on. When the numinous and schematising concepts are
brought together, we can discover the complex idea of the "holy".
The idea of the holy is, writes Otto, a priori (a first
principle) because it emerges "... amid the sensory data ... of the
natural world ... and does not arise out of them". If he is correct in
this assertion then the schematising qualities and their connection with
the numen are also a priori. I think this claim is difficult to
maintain since, if it is true, every rational human being should be able
to experience the numinous as they experience 1+1 = 2 and this appears to
be far from the case.
The qualities which allow us to schematise the numen are a priori,
says Otto, because (and he uses the example of love) numinous love and
ordinary love, though identical in content, differ in form. Thus, it
seems, when applied to the numinous, love becomes absolute; when applied
to ordinary life it is not. When absolute, it arises from "... the
deepest foundation of cognitive apprehension that the soul possesses."
This distinction strikes me as verbal device to establish a validity for
his foundational term (numen) which it would not otherwise have.
Otto further weakens his case when he argues that a priori
realisations are actually only available to a certain class or type of
person. If they were available to everyone they would be innate. We are
all capable of the idea of the holy - but that idea has to be awakened
"... through the instrumentality of more highly endowed natures". Our a
priori sense of the numinous are rather like art. We can all paint,
but only a few can execute great paintings. So, it turns out, I am one of
those who is numinously challenged.
The holy, according to Otto, has a rational dimension in the sense that
certain things which are part of it are real to us. So, for example,
concepts such as goodness "... can be grasped by the intellect; they can
be analysed by thought; they even admit of definition." But the more
fundamental reference point for the holy is non-rational in character -
namely, the numinous which, as already mentioned, can't be analysed,
described or even "conceived" but only "pointed to". The numinous is a
non-rational category of knowing, "... a hidden predisposition of the
human spirit ... a faculty of whatever sort it may be, of genuinely
cognising and recognising the holy in its appearance."
It seems to me that Otto is rightly to be praised for his exposition of
what may be a neurological state involving input and feedback from the
entire system we call "human". But he has not grasped the real difficulty
- that the issue at stake is not reality but perception. What I mean is
that I know of no successful way of establishing for certain that there is
"something out there", something "objective" which is "outside" of the
mental awareness we call "subjective".
We may all of us be entirely subjective entities under the delusion
that we exist as part of a physical universe. If so, everyone except me is
a delusion of my own subjective experience. In which case, I am discussing
the concept of the numinous with myself.
Because of the absurdity of this conclusion, the consensus of all human
beings (with the exception of very few whom we call "insane") is that our
subjective experience does indeed relate to "something out there". Since
knowledge can be called knowledge only when consensus about what's out
there is substantial, the fundamental issue is really about agreeing on
perception, rather than about agreeing on the existence of an "external"
reality. Indeed, it's increasingly the case that the internal/external
distinction is recognised as false in itself, since "reality" is, in the
final analysis, a unitary system. Even so, we know that when we agree
about a perception there is a chance that our (agreed) perceptions might
not correspond with or accurately reflect what's "really out there".
How then do we reach consensus about perceptions? I my view we do so
primarily through what is broadly known as the "scientific method" and the
multifarious analytical disciplines it spawns. Thus in physics a
substantial degree of consensus can be reached about how physical bodies
behave; in biology the coherence of consensus about living systems is
perhaps somewhat less; in history there is a considerable range of views
which might be termed broad consensus on some matters, narrow consensus on
others and disagreement on many.
In terms of beauty, however, consensus forms and changes and disappears
depending on a large range of factors - so great a range that "beauty is
in the eye of the beholder". Perhaps (at least in the modern world)
consensus about goodness is broader than it once was. But even then
substantial differences between individuals and cultures exist even in a
"globalising" world. Otto's argument does not establish the holy and the
numen in the same way as do the analytical disciplines within their broad
paradigms. His approach is essentially of the same character as the art
critic's who attempts to persuade his readers of the merits and demerits
of a work of art.