The Idea of the Holy

by Rudolf Otto

[This review is followed by exracted comments from the philosophy forum where it was originally posted.]

Once, a member of this forum asked why people did or did not believe in God. I said that I thought it a poor choice of topic, since the tone of the questions seemed to invite ad hominem attacks. However, I think there is an approach to this question that does not invite such attacks and has philosophical interest.

This approach was taken by Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) in The Idea of the Holy ('Das Heilige'), first published in 1923. Otto says that the conception of holiness is compounded of two others – the moral good and the "numinous."

"Numinous" is a word coined by Otto, from the Latin numen, a word meaning, among other things, divine power. Religion springs from the perception of the numinous, just as science springs from curiosity, art from our perceptions of beauty, and social institutions from our gregarious instincts.

The feeling of the numinous is hard to capture in a verbal definition, like the feeling of the humorous, but, like the humorous, most people have felt the numinous. The way to describe the numinous, then, is to describe situations in which the feeling commonly arises.

A common, if lowly, form of numinous feeling is the shuddering thrill ghost stories try to evoke. Here, the numinous feeling is mixed with fear or disgust or oppression to produce the particular flavor a fear called "horror." Related, less negative, qualities are the eerie and the weird. Awe is a purer example of the numinous feeling. The numinous feeling comes in as many shades as any other important passion:

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 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. It may burst in sudden eruption up from the depths of the soul with spasms and convulsions, or lead to the strangest excitements, to intoxicated frenzy, to transport, and to ecstasy. It has its wild and demonic forms and can sink to an almost grisly horror and shuddering. It has its crude, barbaric antecedents and early manifestations, and again it may be developed into something beautiful and pure and glorious. It may become the hushed, trembling, and speechless humility of the creature in the presence of – whom or what? In the presence of that which is a mystery inexpressible and above all creatures.

– Otto, Idea of the Holy, ch 4

It is this emotion or perception of the numinous that led humanity to imagine or acknowledge (depending on your metaphysical opinions) the divine.

People have said that the gods were invented to explain natural phenomena. I doubt that anything so cold-blooded happened. I think the vault of heaven, the cycle of the seasons, birth, and death were simply perceived as awesome, numinous, so that it was obvious that they or whatever lay behind them was worshipful. Using the gods to explain things came later.

Nor, of course, were the gods first arrived at as conclusion in metaphysical arguments. They were in place long before the metaphysics started and, however good or bad the reasoning done about them, they were there in human minds.

Others have said that the gods were invented to comfort people for their miseries. But there are plenty of religions with little comfort in them – they are full of the dark, grisly kind of numen, mostly concerned with appeasing the gods.

The numen comes first; the mythology and liturgy and theology all comes later.

Comment from Liam Boyle:

I support the idea that the genesis of religion can probably be found to a great extent in what Otto calls the numinous. When we gaze at the night sky and contemplate the immensity of the universe, we feel something of an overwhelming awe, as much as any desire to understand or explain. When I saw my daughter being born I had already read all the books on childbirth – I knew the biological facts – but I was overcome by an inexpressible feeling of wonder/joy/mystery, which was not a simple desire for explanation. I can well believe that such powerful feelings lie behind much of religion.

I think it would be a mistake to dismiss altogether, however, the idea of religion as explanation, even in its early stages. The need to understand is strong in humans, and I am sure that early religions served this need even before the development of a more or less systematic metaphysics. I think there is also a lot of truth in the idea of religion as solace, and there is some truth in the crude criticism of religion as a tool of oppression. There are many religions, most are complex, and they fulfill many needs/desires.

I don't believe in God, nor do I believe in a spiritual realm in the way suggested by most religionists. It seems to me that most critiques of religion do human beings an injustice, however, by ignoring the rich aspect of humanity which this "Numen" suggests. I feel the numinous either is equivalent to, or finds strong echoes in, the aesthetic experience. When I find some inestimable beauty in a song or a poem, I do not believe that it is due to some spirit world but rather is part of what it is to be human (Wrong topic?)

Feuerbach and, to a lesser extent Marx, seem to have contributed to a critique of religion that does do justice to humanity, and to the full richness of what it is to be human.

Finally, to argue from numinous experiences to the existence of anything other than numinous experiences is not logically sound and is fraught with dangers.


Religion is a large topic. No doubt it served to supply explanations and solace from the very beginning. But if humans had not had the perception of the numinous, we would not have developed anything  much like religion; we would have found other sources of explanation and solace.

By analogy, people often extract moral lessons from great works of art. But the whole field of art was not created from moral motives but esthetic ones. Likewise, religion, art, and science have all been made the tools of political power – what hasn't? – without being created for that purpose.

"Finally, to argue from numinous experiences to the existence of anything other than numinous experiences is not logically sound and is fraught with dangers."

What brought that on? Is it just a general observation? Perhaps I did not make it clear that I was describing religious psychology, not doing theology. I grant it is not possible to move deductively from numinous experience to the existence of spirits, but then it isn't possible to move deductively from any experience to the existence of much besides an experiencer.

Comment from Mike Morgan:

That's where I'm at currently. It's kinda' tricky being a neo-pagan athiest. So I guess the trick is to walk the fine line between apprehending the numinous and developing a creed. Once the creed is developed any further changes in the perception of the numinous is ignored.

Still we have to ask ourselves whether the numinous really exists or is it really something else within us that we perceive to be numinous.

I disagree though on your statment concerning developing gods to explain natural forces as being cold blooded. Strange comment that.

I find it very easy to believe that some ancient, any ancient, upon seeing the flashing of light upon the cloud covered mountain would exclaim "That's Holy Zeus".

I do agree 100% that the perception of the numinous comes first and then descriptions of the numinous follow. This of course, gets into other discussions.

Reply from Mike Morgan to Liam Boyle:

I think that you're pretty much right on top of the topic. Joseph Campbell, who leans upon Otto a good bit, writes that there are two distinct parts of myth and/or religion. The first is what you speak of, the awe of the universe, nature, or everything that is. And as Earl has mentioned, this can be a loving awe or a horrific awe, or anything in between.

The second part, and probably most important to wo/man, is self-salvation or as others say, salvation. What I think is really meant by this is that we all naturally seek to find our proper place in the universe. In pagan thought we think of this as relinking back to nature. In Eastern thought we'd be sharply critizised for attempting to do that which is already done. Redundancy still has a place in my heart. B^)

What I'd like to emphasis here is that after the awe of the numinous we seem to want to find our place in the numinous, to make it all right, to place ourselves squarely in the path of the loving numinous and avoid, like the plague, the horrific numinous.

Another question we can ask along with the prior question is if the numinous is really holy. Does the term holy really describe the numinous?

I don't think so but perhaps I don't understand holy in the same way most everyone else does. That may be my abberation soley. My view, perhaps as yours maybe, is that to apply the adjective holy to numinous is to prejudge whatever the numinous is. Even to use them interchageably is a prejudgement. Doesn't prejudgement of the numinous block further perception of the numinous?

Reply by Ann Broomhead to Mike Morgan:

Earl is on vacation for a few weeks... but I'll answer for him.

An Apprehension of the Holy would be one possible numinous experience. Seeing a ghost would be a numinous experience, but not a holy one.

Reply to Mike Morgan:

I am quite certain that many people, ancient and modern, derive a numinous experience from thunder and lightning, and thus Zeus was born. But the point I was making was that he was born from their numinous experience, not from an intellectual desire to explain thunder and lightning.

Ann is correct. Otto, who coined the term "numinous," did not mean it as a synonym of "holy." Rather, the holy is a particular kind of the numinous – the numinous combined with moral excellence.

Otto arrived at the quality of "numinous" by abstraction; it is the quality held in common by the holy, the horrific, and in slight measure by the uncanny.

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