Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Rudolf Otto (1869-1937)
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.

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