Holy, Idea of the
HOLY, IDEA OF THE
HOLY, IDEA OF THE . [This entry attempts an assessment of the role of the German theologian Rudolf Otto and his book The Idea of the Holy in setting forth a distinctively phenomenological interpretation of the nature of religion.]
Rudolf Otto's work during the first half of his career culminated with his publication, at the age of forty-eight, of Das Heilige (1917), translated as The Idea of the Holy (1923). Published in an age of high hopes for science, it has as a central concern the assertion of the autonomy of religion. Otto's position is diametrically opposed to what has come to be called reductionism, that is, the explanation of religion as a creation of human culture, a response to psychological or social needs that is in some sense the product of those needs. Otto, by contrast, asserts the autonomy of religion in the sphere of its own activity and its status as a response to a power transcending the human.
A landmark among theories of religion, Otto's book appeared only five years after the major work by the French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858–1917), Les Formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse. To situate Otto in European intellectual history, it will be useful to discuss Durkheim briefly. This is not because of any direct response by Otto to Durkheim; as far as can be told, they never met in person, nor did the German theologian and the French sociologist discuss each other's works. Rather, the contrast between these two influential books demonstrates the presence of an issue that has persisted in the interpretation of religion. Durkheim, who analyzes the sacred as originating in a symbolic projection of the clan or tribal group identity, stands as a polar opposite to Otto, who portrays the holy as a power far greater than, and lying far beyond, the human realm.
Although Otto does not seem to have reacted directly to Durkheim, he did write an article in 1910 that was sharply critical of a figure Durkheim found attractive: the German psychologist Wilhelm Wundt, whose Völkerpsychologie (Leipzig, 1900–1909) offered an evolutionary theory of religion as a social phenomenon, the product of group fantasy. Otto flatly denied the possibility of a social account of customs and myths in the absence of a capacity for religious feeling in the individual, and he asserted the uniqueness of such a feeling as a distinctively human spiritual capacity.
The significance of Rudolf Otto's work is that it takes account of the cumulative critical and scientific tradition of modern Europe and claims a place of respect for religious experience and religious thought in a modern age. That critical heritage, too vast to be set forth in detail here, included the institutional challenges to church authority of the Renaissance, Reformation, and French Revolution. It included the rationalist critique of revealed knowledge made by the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. It included nineteenth-century scientific discovery, comprehending a view of the evolution of human biology that many saw as paradigmatic for culture as well. And it included comparative linguistic, historical, and cultural studies fueled by an expanding fund of information from Europe's contact with the rest of the world; this new knowledge tended to remove the element of uniqueness from various aspects of the Christian heritage. Otto, then, was a product of modern European culture, seeking an up-to-date but sympathetic expression of religion in terms of what that culture had at its disposal.
By and large, the use of the expression the holy as a noun has spread since the appearance of Rudolf Otto's book, and as a direct result of it. Otto was not the first to employ the holy as a noun; that distinction may belong to the German philosopher Wilhelm Windelband (1848–1915), who did so in an essay in 1903. In any event, the pattern of making noun concepts out of adjectival qualities was not new; for instance, the term das Göttliche ("the divine") is found in the writings of the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831).
In the academic study of religion in the English-speaking world, reference to the holy has implied an appreciation of divine potency as a reality. The usefulness of the term has been generic: It has been possible to take references to the source or object of religious veneration as examples of human religiosity generally, without committing oneself to the affirmations or practices of a particular community and tradition.
The subtitle of Otto's The Idea of the Holy declares his agenda: An Inquiry into the Nonrational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational. Otto was not seeking to deny an important role to rationality. Far from it. Otto, in the tradition of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), insisted that reason could operate a priori to establish mathematics, rules of inference, and the like, and could operate a posteriori to distill impressive amounts of information from sense data. In particular, Otto sought to extend and refine the application of the Kantian critique of reason promoted by Kant's disciple Jakob Friedrich Fries (1773–1843). Those today who read Das Heilige in isolation should note Otto's priorities in his foreword to the 1923 English translation: "I feel that no one ought to concern himself with the 'Numen ineffabile' who has not already devoted assiduous and serious study to the 'Ratio aeterna.'" Religious orthodoxy in general, and Christian doctrine in particular, have a tendency toward rationalization, Otto asserts. But while highly developed rational, conceptual systems have their place, Christian theology has tended to overlook the nonrational element in religious experience. It is this element that Otto seeks to characterize and illustrate in Das Heilige as "something remarkably specific and unique" (p. 4).
The principal and abiding interest of Rudolf Otto's philosophy of religion has centered on his description of religious experience. In Das Heilige Otto presented as characteristic of religion a particular awareness of the presence of divinity for which he coined the word numinous. He derived the word from numen, the Latin term for a divine spirit or localized power that the ancient Romans perceived in nature. The numinous, for Otto, is a feeling that one has as a creature in the presence of a superior power. Otto gives it a three-factor explication: It is the awareness of a mystery (something wholly other than one's self); which is tremendum (awe-inspiring, overpowering, possessed of its own emotion-like initiative) yet at the same time fascinating (such that one is drawn to seek communication with it). Having set this forth in forty pages, Otto seeks in the balance of the book to describe ways in which the sense of the numinous is expressed in religious art, in biblical literature, and in the writings of the Christian mystics. Writing as a Lutheran, Otto is particularly interested in mystical elements in the faith of Martin Luther.
Although Das Heilige seems to start out as a treatment of a philosophical problem, namely the role of the rational and the nonrational as sources of religious knowledge, the bulk of the book is not so much an argument as a collection of illustrations. Herein perhaps lie both the book's weakness and its strength. The reader is drawn into material from the history of religious life rather than the history of doctrine, drawn into territory that is more psychological or symbolic than conceptual. Bit by bit, the reader is shown that a religiously satisfying response to the Kantian problem of knowledge of the transcendent is likely to be a deeply personal rather than a rationally analytical one. Otto is by no means the first religious philosopher to have made such a point; the limits of reason had been discussed by early Christian theologians, and the twelfth-century Muslim thinker Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī proposed a particularly appealing synthesis of the roles of reason and experience. But Otto's innovation appears to have been to provide a structure for the description of feeling and in so doing to commend feeling itself to people of a rational bent.
Otto's term numinous has subsequently become part of the general vocabulary of the study of religion, often in two senses. In one of these senses, the quality inheres in the experience; one has a numinous experience or feeling, numinosity or numinousness is an aspect of that experience or feeling, and the reality that is held to exist is an event in the consciousness of the religious individual. In the other of these senses, numinous refers to the quality of that presumed reality beyond the individual; it produces, or is the object of, that experience or feeling, and it is held by religious participants and religiously committed observers to be a reality far transcending the experience of any one individual.
Essentially, in the rhetoric of Otto's presentation, both of these connotations of the term numinous are implied; Otto wants the term to function in both senses. On page 7 of The Idea of the Holy he says, "I shall speak, then, of a unique 'numinous' category of value and of a definitely 'numinous' state of mind, which is always found wherever the category is applied." The overall thrust of Otto's presentation involves the conviction that there exist not only a state of mind and a realm of value as two distinct realities, but that the first of these is intimately linked to the second and constitutes a form of evidence for it.
For centuries a recurring problem of religious philosophy has been whether anything in the realm of the transcendent or divine can be demonstrated to the uncommitted or skeptical inquirer to be an existing reality. On the whole, the post-Kantian consensus has been that there is no "objective" knowledge of the transcendent possible through the operation of reason on the data received from the senses. Experience of the transcendent, however compelling to the person who has it, is not necessarily compellingly transferable to the person who does not have it.
Although the bulk of Otto's book amounts to a descriptive inventory of various people's intense experiences of divine power, which seeks to elicit an appreciation of intensely felt religion (particularly of mysticism) from the reader, the inescapable fact that Otto himself realizes is that there is no demonstration by argument that can substitute for religious experience itself. Perhaps the best-known phrases in The Idea of the Holy appear on page 8:
The reader is invited to direct his mind to a moment of deeply-felt religious experience, as little as possible qualified by other forms of consciousness. Whoever cannot do this, whoever knows no such moments in his experience, is requested to read no farther; for it is not easy to discuss questions of religious psychology with one who can recollect the emotions of his adolescence, the discomforts of indigestion, or, say, social feelings, but cannot recall any intrinsically religious feelings.
This fundamental element of religion, the sense of the numinous, is held to be a primary datum of human experience. The explicit contention appears to be that, as in the case of physical sensations, emotions, or aesthetic feelings, if one has not had the experience, one cannot understand the subject; and it is at least loosely implied that if one has had the experience, one can.
Otto appears to expect people to have had religious experience. But his memorable injunction "to read no farther" takes on significance because it is evident that religious experience is not universal—that is, it is something that some people have and others do not. Even if most people have it and only a few lack it, there are still some persons who must be treated as rational, as perceptive, yet not as religious. Thus religiousness, however characteristic it may be of humans in general, and however "normal" it may be, is not universal. This normality or normativeness of religion, not the universality of religion, can be seen as both a strength and a weakness of Otto's position: a strength, in that many have been tempted to take the objects of religion as experientially evident without exhaustive rational proof; but a weakness, in that for those who seek such a proof there is nothing conclusive forthcoming.
Semantics of "Holy" in English
One of the more interesting aspects of the use of Otto's discussion of the holy in the two generations since his book appeared is the widespread equation between the terms the holy and the sacred in writings sympathetic to religion in general.
Speakers of English are not surprised to find in their language two common and near-synonymous terms for the same phenomenon. In instance after instance, a word of Germanic (Anglo-Saxon) background such as get or gut will be matched by a word of Romanic (Latin or French) origin such as obtain or intestine. Frequently the Germanic word is felt to be more direct or down-to-earth. But while the word of Romanic origin may connote greater sophistication, its denoted meaning may often be the same as the Germanic. The result is that speakers of English can display a tendency to expect synonyms, to assume for practical purposes an equivalence in terminology, without seriously testing the matter.
An instance of this disposition is that in the English-speaking world, writers on the nature of religion in general have referred sometimes to the holy and sometimes to the sacred as though the phenomena were identical and the terminology a rather incidental matter of personal taste. This has been true not merely when the subject has been mentioned in passing apropos of another argument; it has also been the case in critical works on this very topic, such as Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane, or in discussions of Eliade such as Thomas J. J. Altizer's Mircea Eliade and the Dialectic of the Sacred (Philadelphia, 1963, p. 24). Eliade's generation has invested the sacred with the same connotations that Otto's generation found in the holy, a point to which this article shall return shortly. Otto's English translator, John W. Harvey, assumes the sacred and the holy to mean the same thing in a sentence he adds to the text of The Idea of the Holy at a prominent juncture at the end of the first chapter. And in his own appendix to the English translation, "The Expression of the Numinous in English" (The Idea of the Holy, pp. 216–220), he finds holy "a distinctly more numinous word than sacred" but does not specify a difference in denotation. Indeed, for Harvey the two terms are part of "the English wealth of synonyms" that "has presented the translator with an embarrassment at the very outset" (p. 216).
On equivalency of vocabulary, it should be noted that while English is one of the world's more self-consciously cosmopolitan languages, it is by no means the only one. The Norman conquest of England in the eleventh century, which superimposed a Latin vocabulary on a Germanic one, is suggestively parallel to the Islamic conquest of Iran in the seventh century, which gave Persian a massive inventory of Arabic loanwords as synonyms for the vocabulary of pre-Islamic Iran.
What does the English word holy mean? For the range of its usage, with dated examples of the first appearance of various senses, the Oxford English Dictionary (1933) provides three copious pages of material. For the purposes of this article, the usage divides into three categories: first, the attributes of God (who is definitively holy) or the divine; second, the attributes of things that derive their holiness from association with God; and third, the attributes of people and actions conforming to what is held to be God's expectation. On God as holy, one has such phrases as "Holy art thou," "the Holy One of Israel," and the like. Examples of holy things are the Holy Bible and the Holy Grail. For people and actions, consider the phrases "holy man," "to lead a holy life," etc. Inevitably, there are borderline cases: "Holy matrimony" falls under the second heading if one regards it as an institution (and therefore a "thing"), but under the third if it is seen as an activity.
Sacred may today be a near equivalent of holy, but it differs in two important respects. First, it is more recent as a word in English. Whereas holy, a term of Germanic origin, occurred in Old and Middle English, sacred, coming from Latin by way of French, made its appearance only gradually in the centuries after the Norman conquest. Second, sacred took over some, but by no means all, of the semantic range of holy: Specifically, it referred to respected or venerated objects but not to the divine itself and not to persons as individuals. The God of the Bible did not become the "sacred one of Israel," nor did a "holy man" become a "sacred man."
What was at stake in the extension of the word sacred in English usage appears to have been an effort to describe the veneration accorded by human beings rather than to assert that the thing in question had been hallowed by God. Sacred, a past participle of a now-archaic verb sacren, meaning "to consecrate," implicitly commits the speaker or writer merely to a description of human veneration, whereas holy may more likely imply that the user of the term holds that the object in question has indeed been hallowed by God. Sacred, though frequently used by religiously committed persons, had also the potential of being a descriptive term used by an outsider to a religious community, while holy was much more exclusively a participant's term. Thus, one says "the holy Bible" in a context where the book is treated with reverence, but in referring to others' scriptures one is comfortable with expressions such as "the sacred books of the East."
A telling illustration of this difference appears in English translations of the Bible. In the King James Version of 1611, the Hebrew qadosh is regularly rendered as holy, whereas in the Revised Standard Version of 1946–1952, it is sometimes holy but in other cases sacred; the instances in which the twentieth-century translators departed from the usage of their seventeenth-century predecessors have primarily to do with the cultic utensils of the Hebrew temple, a ritual expression of religion from which mid-twentieth-century Protestant biblical scholarship appears to have sought to keep a distance, feeling presumably that God's real intent for people was located elsewhere than in the Hebrew sacrifices.
Conduct is an area in which sacred has never taken over the territory of holy. A person, to be holy, must conform to the divine standards of conduct: either ritual, or moral, or both. Thus holiness, through the centuries, has been the pattern of obedience put forward as the ideal for the pious devotee that, when most supremely achieved, renders one a holy person—a "saint." Holiness, in this sense of religious practice, was a prime goal for a religiously motivated person, and was self-consciously reflected on. Indeed, the content of articles on holiness in theological dictionaries and encyclopedias prior to the twentieth century was regularly a discussion of the ideals of the religious life and not a generic discussion of the holy as it has come to be treated.
The second decade of the twentieth century saw a shift from such devotional discussions of holiness to a more comparative treatment. A pioneer in this development was the Swedish historian of religions (and subsequently archbishop) Nathan Söderblom (1866–1931), who contributed a substantial article on holiness to the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics (vol. 6, 1913). As Otto would do four years later, Söderblom sought not to discuss so much the practice of holiness in the sense of an attribute of human conduct as the awareness of it in the sense of an attribute of divinity. To accomplish this discussion cross-culturally, Söderblom recapitulated various terms suggestive of supernatural power, such as the positive holiness of mana and the negative holiness of taboo, from the languages of tribal societies—terms that had come to be used by late nineteenth-century European and American theorists of religion to indicate the most pervasive, the simplest, the most fundamental, and presumably the original feature of religion throughout human culture. Cross-cultural discussions of the nature of religion had been common since the work of F. Max Müller on comparative mythology in the mid-nineteenth century. It appears, however, to have been Söderblom who first applied the term holiness to such a topic.
The semantic differentiation between sacred and holy that this article has sketched is limited to English and is not necessarily found in other languages. Elsewhere one might expect to find (a) two (or more) terms, possibly with a different distinction than that between sacred and holy in English; (b) one term, covering both senses; or (c) no readily identifiable vocabulary equivalent.
Latin and the languages descended from it are an example of the first possibility; German and Russian, of the second; and the languages of certain tribal cultures appear to furnish examples of the last category.
Latin has two words that have been frequently translated as "holy": sanctum and sacrum. Unlike the situation in English, where two words have etymological sources in different languages, the two Latin terms go back to the same Indo-European root, sak-, with an -n- infix occurring in the case of sanctum. The spheres of use of the two Latin terms, however, appear roughly parallel to English. On the whole, sanctum, like holy, generally commits the speaker to an endorsement of the holiness in question as a reality, and it applies to the divine power (God is sanctus) and to the conduct of individuals (saint being derived from sanctus ). Sacrum, on the other hand, denotes human veneration.
Latin's "daughter languages," which emerged from vernacular Latin in the Middle Ages, preserve this vocabulary distinction. From sanctum come santo in Italian and Spanish, saint in French; while from sacrum come Italian sacro, Spanish sagrado, and French sacré. Yet in the usage of these various languages, it is not always the case that the same adjective is applied to a particular object. If for holy one would expect sanctum and its derivatives rather than sacrum, then French usage will meet one's expectations with la sainte Bible, but Latin, Italian, and Spanish will surprise one with Biblia sacra (or, in Spanish, sagrada ). Could it be that Catholic Europe did not hold the Bible in as high regard as did the Protestants, who turned to it as a source of authority over against that of the church? Such a view might fit in with the Italian and Spanish usage, but hardly explains the expression la sainte Bible in French. This illustration, then, may be sufficient to convince one that the semantic distinction between holy and sacred can serve as an indicator of a potential confusion but not necessarily as a precise tool with which to resolve it.
German has not classically had two terms to use. To be sure, there is a word sakral, meaning "cultic," but only in recent years has it seen much use as in noun form for an organizing concept, and even then it is primarily used to translate the sacred from works in other languages. Prior to the mid-twentieth century, heilig covered what has been reviewed as the participant's semantic field of English holy as well as the observer's connotation of English sacred. As long as Western discourse regarding religion dealt almost exclusively with the received Judeo-Christian tradition, and as long as the disposition of most speakers was to accept at least a major subset of the tenets of that tradition, pressure for precision tended not to arise. Indeed, it can be argued that Rudolf Otto tapped the predispositions of a largely willing audience when he published Das Heilige. Writing in a language in which the holy and the sacred are one and the same, he was able to combine a participant's appreciation of religious experience with an observer's range of comparative detail. To a very considerable extent, the excitement that he generated revolved around his call for a participant's appreciation of religion, but this was focused on his discussion of experience; neither he nor his readers directed attention to the "insider" connotation built into the German term heilig. To the extent that readers thought about the word, it appears they gave Otto credit for having given it a more comparative or cross-cultural denotation.
The capacity of the German word heilig to leave open the possibility of God-given holiness, while also referring to human respect, has had more than minor consequences. A German scholar, Albert Mirgeler (1901–1979) mentions the semantics of holiness as a contributing factor to the medieval investiture controversy, a major political struggle involving northern versus southern Europe over the role of the Roman church in the designation of rulers (Mutations of Western Christianity, London and New York, 1964, pp. 96–97). What may have been only a claim for human respect in the Latin name sacrum imperium Romanum came to be understood as a more sweeping claim in its German translation, heiliges römisches Reich ("Holy Roman Empire"). One must be cautious in pressing this point, for, after all, a divine sanction for the power of the state was claimed; and, moreover, many examples could be adduced to show that where words are ambiguous people do have ways of identifying the ambiguity and deciding which sense of a word applies. Still, the possibility of confusion was clearly present.
Russian is another language with only one common word for holy and sacred: sviaty. Rudolf Otto expressed fascination with the chanting of this term, which he had heard from the lips of Russian priests. Again in the Russian case, there are theopolitical overtones. For centuries prior to the victory of Marxist atheism, Russians referred to their land (both its territory and its tradition as a state) as sviaty Rus, "holy Russia." Russia is not the only territory that has been called holy; specific temple precincts frequently are, and the land of the Bible is called "the Holy Land" ("Terra Sancta," etc.) in the various languages of Christendom. But the holiness claimed for Russia is probably best understood at the level of Latin sacrum, not sanctum, at a level, in short, not like the spiritual holiness associated with the Holy Land but like the institutional sacredness of the Holy Roman Empire.
Researchers in comparative and cross-cultural studies have generally been ready to suppose that there exists in tribal societies on all continents, as well as in all the great classic traditions of the Eurasian land mass, a universal human pattern of setting apart certain moments in time or precincts in space and of finding in them hints of a transcendent power or value. It seems to be granted that the phenomenon of a sense of the sacred or holy is virtually universal. It is, however, far less clear that appropriate vocabulary is equally widespread. There appear to be languages without an equivalent covering the same range of meaning as the word holy. This is a problem encountered frequently by Bible translators, whose attempts to render Holy Spirit have sometimes yielded expressions like "clean ancestor" in the target language.
Indeed, much of the principal ritual expression of holiness is bound up with the notion of purity. For persons most familiar with the religious tradition of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, this may be not immediately evident, because many interpreters in recent centuries have concentrated on an ethical conception of holiness, crediting the Hebrew prophets or Jesus with a repudiation of ritual. The intimate relationship between holiness and purity can also be overlooked because a separate vocabulary for purity exists in both Hebrew and Greek. But the notion that the holy itself, as well as human beings who seek to draw near to it, should be kept apart from the profane, finds symbolic as well as practical expression in the avoidance of various sorts of contaminating or polluting substances and actions. Jewish avoidance of pork, Muslim traditions regarding fasting, Christian practice of celibacy, Zoroastrian precautions to safeguard the holy fire, traditional Hindu deitary and social taboos, Shintō ablutions at shrines—all these and many more are instances of the maintenance of some sense of purity worthy of holiness in the "great" religions. It should be no surprise that when investigators of tribal traditions have looked at behavior expressing a sense of, or response to, the sacred, the maintenance of standards of purity has been a salient finding. Where an explicit theoretical conceptualization of holiness has seemed to be lacking, emphasis on ritual purity has offered an obvious approximation in the custom and the languages of tribal societies.
One of the principal options in the study of religion in the mid-twentieth century has been termed the "phenomenology" of religion. Definitions of this term have varied from strict to loose. Understood strictly, the phenomenology of religion is supposed to be a precise application to religion of insights from the European philosophical movement known as phenomenology, launched by Edmund Husserl (1859–1938), in which the self's awareness of what presents itself to consciousness is explored. Phenomenology in that sense has little to do with Rudolf Otto, because he antedated many of the philosophical phenomenologists and did not employ their terminology; to the extent that philosophical phenomenology has influenced the phenomenology of religion, that influence has occurred through certain comparativists writing since Otto's time, particularly in Holland.
In a looser sense of the term, however, Otto was a phenomenologist of religion, indeed one of the pioneers of the enterprise. If by phenomenology one means the type of sympathetic treatment of material from a variety of religious traditions, seeing recurring features of religion as a response to a divine stimulus, in the pattern of the Dutch comparativists of the 1930s through the 1960s, then this name for the approach can be applied retroactively to Rudolf Otto. After Otto's time, this sympathetic treatment of religion in general, stressing similarities (which refrained from arguing the superiority of one tradition over another, stressing differences), would become a major methodological option in the academic study of religion. Many of its practitioners would look back to Rudolf Otto's work of 1917 as a charter document for phenomenology's attitude of sympathy for religion (Mircea Eliade does this in The Sacred and the Profane, for example), just as they would look back to P. D. Chantepie de la Saussaye's Lehrbuch der Religionsgeschichte (Manual of the science of religion; 1887–1889) as a prototype of phenomenology of religion's taxonomic treatment of data from various religions.
One does not need to be a comparativist to appreciate, and to be influenced by, Rudolf Otto's presentation of the holy in Das Heilige. In fact, what made Otto's book a theological best-seller was only marginally the existence in the first quarter of the twentieth century of a cross-cultural cosmopolitanism with respect to religion. Such an interest would account far more for the sales of James G. Frazer's Golden Bough (1897; 3d ed., 1907–1911), whose net effect was to explain away various religious practices as benighted and to suggest that modern men and women had outgrown traditional religion. Much more important was a widespread desire to hold that traditional religion could be felt, if not proved, to be authentic even in a modern age. Most people who read Otto were looking for intellectual and psychological respectability for their own religious faith, not for an elaboration of the faith of others. And it has become commonplace to suggest that the events of World War I, by shattering many easy assumptions of the inevitability of human progress, turned many people to a renewed quest for religious values. This development is often cited as a factor in assessing the impact of Karl Barth in Der Römerbrief (1919), a book differing sharply in its religious assumptions from Das Heilige but sharing with it the status of theological best-seller in the aftermath of the war.
However much Rudolf Otto was aware of the diversity of religions, he made his principal mark by contributing to the faith-and-reason agenda of Western philosophy of religion and Christian theology. Immanuel Kant, in demonstrating convincingly the limits of rational proof, had "made room for faith" as not only unprovable but undisprovable. After him, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) was to characterize religion as rooted in a feeling of absolute dependence. Otto's presentation of the "sense of the numinous" likewise takes feeling or experience as what must be dealt with rather than questioned. In the decades since Otto, probably the most illustrious bearer of this intellectual lineage has been the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich (1886–1965), who (in contrast with Karl Barth's emphasis on revelation) argues from human concern as the starting point for discourse about God.
The type of position that largely since Otto's day has come to be known as religious existentialism, arguing from experience and commitment as a primary datum, remains, despite the obvious problems of objective proof, a major twentieth-century option in the philosophy of religion. To call Otto an existentialist philosopher of religion would be a retroactive designation of the same kind as my calling him a phenomenologist of religion.
In the end Otto's Das Heilige remains a classic in the field probably not because his attempts at a solution have great enduring value but because he has put some of the basic questions in an arresting fashion. Many who pick up the book today feel that they have the measure of it by the fortieth page. Just as a standard newspaper article must face the "cut off test," it seems to make its main point at the beginning, following that up with optional detail. But the challenge of page 8, "whoever knows no such moments in his experience, is requested to read no farther," is as compelling today as when Otto wrote it. Page 8 of The Idea of the Holy will be with Western civilization for a long time to come.
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