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Otto, Rudolf


OTTO, RUDOLF . Rudolf Otto (18691937) was a German systematic theologian who contributed especially to the philosophy and history of religion. As a liberal theologian or, more accurately, a Vermittlungstheologe (theologian of mediation), Otto conceived of systematic theology as a science of religion, whose components were the philosophy, psychology, and history of religions. In his view, philosophy identified the source of religion in a qualitatively unique experience for which he coined the term numinous. Descriptive psychology revealed the nonrational dimensions of this experience as a mysterium tremendum et fascinans, dimensions that, Otto said, were conjoined to rational or conceptual elements through a process that, loosely following Immanuel Kant, he called schematization. Otto's ideas became foundational for much twentieth-century work in the study of religion that claimed to be phenomenological or scientific rather than theological.


Born on September 25, 1869, in Peine in the region of Hanover, Germany, Otto spent his childhood in Peine and Hildesheim, where his father owned malt factories. After graduating from the Gymnasium Adreanum in Hildesheim, he studied first at the University of Erlangen, a conservative neo-Lutheran institution, then at the University of Göttingen, where liberal theology and the historical-critical study of the Bible prevailed. He initially prepared for a ministerial career, but conservatives in the German church administration found him unsuitable. Instead of taking a German congregation in Paris, he opted for an academic career, where his prospects were only somewhat brighter. He became a Privatdozent at Göttingen in 1898 and something like a visiting associate professor there in 1906, but official opposition to his liberal views and popularizing activities plagued him for years.

In 1904 Otto adopted the philosophy of Jakob Friedrich Fries, helping to establish a neo-Friesian movement along with two Göttingen colleagues, the philosopher Leonard Nelson, who introduced him to Fries's thought, and the New Testament scholar Wilhelm Bousset, whom he recruited to the cause. In the same year, however, Otto fell into a deep depression and considered abandoning theology altogether. When his health finally recovered in 1907, Otto returned to teaching and writing, to ecclesiastical and liturgical activities with a group known as "The Friends of Die Christliche Welt " (Die Christliche Welt was a semipopular magazine for liberal theology), and to political activities, at that time in conjunction with a student-oriented group known as the Akademischer Freibund, the Göttingen chapter of which he, along with Nelson and Bousset, led. His most important publication from the period was Kantisch-Fries'sche Religionsphilosophie und ihre Anwendung auf die Theologie (The Philosophy of Religion Based on Kant and Fries, 1909).

In 1911 to 1912 Otto undertook a "world tour"actually a journey from the Canary Islands to China and Japanfinanced through the German government by the cosmopolitan French banker, Albert Kahn, for the purpose of preparing an introduction to the history of religions (never written). During a visit to a Moroccan synagogue on this trip he encountered in memorable fashion the trisagion "Holy, holy, holy" (Is. 6.3)an encounter that he and his disciples later considered the moment when he discovered the Holy. Upon his return, Otto pursued the history of religions as part of a broader strategy of German cultural imperialism, commensurate with the ethical imperialism of the theologian and publicist Paul Rohrbach but in sharp contrast to the militaristic colonialism of organizations like the Naval and Pan-German Leagues. As part of this program he promoted the series Quellen der Religionsgeschichte, a German equivalent to the Sacred Books of the East. In 1913 he was elected to represent Göttingen in the Prussian state legislature, where in 1917 he led a faction of the National-Liberal Party in an attempt to abolish Prussia's notorious three-tier system of weighting votes. In 1915 he finally received a professoriate in systematic theology at the University of Breslau.

Otto wrote his most famous book, Das Heilige (The Idea of the Holy, 1917), during World War I. In part due to the attention this book received, he became professor of systematic theology at the University of Marburg in 1917, where he stayed until his death. During the 1920s he wrote two major comparisons of Indian religions and Christianity, West-östliche Mystik (Mysticism East and West, 1926), originally delivered as Haskell Lectures at Oberlin College in Ohio in 1924, and Die Gnadenreligion Indiens und das Christentum (India's Religion of Grace and Christianity, 1930), originally the Olaus Petri lectures in Uppsala, Sweden, in 1927. At Marburg Otto founded the Religionskundliche Sammlung, a museum of the world's religions, on behalf of which he made a second lengthy journey to South Asia in 1927 and 1928. He also attracted younger scholars as students and associates, including Heinrich Frick, Theodor Siegfried, Friedrich Heiler, Ernst Benz, and, more remotely, Gustav Mensching, Joachim Wach, and James Luther Adams. In the immediate aftermath of World War I he served on the commission to draft a new constitution, and in 1920 he organized a Religiöser Menschheitsbund (Religious league of humanity), an international nongovernmental organization that he saw as a necessary complement to the League of Nations. His time in Marburg was also marked by vehement antagonism to his thought from neoorthodox theologians, represented there by the New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann.

Although Otto retired early from teaching in 1929 for reasons of poor health, he continued to write and, after a brief hiatus, also to teach part time. In addition to pursuing interests in Indian religions, he discussed what he alleged were Persian roots of Christianity in Reich Gottes und Menschensohn (The Kingdom of God and the Son of Man, 1934). He intended his final major work, which was also to have been his Gifford Lectures, to be a system of ethics, but his scattered essays on the subject were not collected until 1981. Ever an ardent nationalist, Otto seems in 1933 to have taken an interest in the German Christian position, although he found German Christian leaders distasteful. He did not actively oppose the Nazi regime.

In October 1936 Otto fell some twenty meters from a tower, a fall that persistent but unconfirmed rumors identify as a suicide attempt. Whatever the cause, he suffered severely from his injuries and died of pneumonia on March 6, 1937.


Otto's intellectual project grew from a desire to defend religion in general and Christianity more specifically from the attacks of nineteenth-century historians and natural scientists. As a result, although he taught dogmatics and ethics, most of his writing in systematic theology fell within a domain traditionally known as apologetics, albeit focused upon a general apologetics of religion rather than a defense of the superiority of Christianity. By 1909, however, Otto had abandoned these categories and had come to conceive of modern theology as a science of religion, a term whose apologetic utility is evident.

In the tradition of German idealism and, more remotely, of Cartesian dualism, Otto distinguished two realms, the mental and the material, a distinction that he took over from his teacher Hermann Schultz and developed in his first major book, Naturalistische und religiöse Weltansicht (Naturalism and Religion, 1904). Nineteenth-century naturalism made a major error, he thought, when it devalued the mental in favor of the material. Human beings had immediate access to and direct knowledge of only mental events, and such events always mediated knowledge of the material world. Along with some noted biologists, such as Emil Dubois-Reymond, Otto maintained that consciousness was a primary datum that in principle could not be explained in terms of material processes, such as neurophysiological events. Furthermore, he reversed the relationship between rational certainty and intuition that René Descartes had postulated. For him, the mental was not so much a rational realm of eternal ideas or pure reason as it was a realm of conscious experience whose rational representations rested ultimately on nonrational feelings and intuitions.

Although originally attracted to the thought of Friedrich Schleiermacheras a young instructor, he edited the one-hundredth anniversary edition of Schleiermacher's famous Speeches on Religion Otto came to believe that the thought of Fries provided a philosophically more satisfactory account of religion. He summarized that thought in Kantisch-Fries'sche Religionsphilosophie, and in doing so provided a philosophic critique (in the Kantian sense) of the possibility of religious experience, taking "experience" as much in an empirical as in an emotive sense (Erfahrung as well as Erlebnis ). Unlike Kant, Fries thought that cognition takes place in the realms of practical and aesthetic as well as of theoretical reason, raising the possibility of a peculiar sort of religious cognition, too. Furthermore, in Fries's thought all knowledge depends upon feeling. For example, a Wahrheitsgefühl, or feeling of truth, is said to be responsible for one's judgment that the results of one's rational processes are correct. Even in the realm of science and mathematics it is possible to be convinced of the truth of a proposition without being able to demonstrate it, as Otto once illustrated with Fermat's last theorem: mathematicians could sense that the theorem was true, even if they could not prove it. But unlike scientific cognition, Otto claimed, religious cognition involves experiences that are in principle not subject to correction, or even full formulation and elaboration, by theoretical reason.

In his most famous book, Das Heilige, Otto turned from a critical philosophical account of the possibility of religious experience to a descriptive psychology of the content of that experience and its relationship to the "rational," symbolic dimension of religion. To designate religious feelings at their most distinctive he coined the word numinous, which referred, he said, to the Holy or Sacred minus the moral dimension. But he soon encountered a methodological limitation. Conscious experience is only available to the person who has it; therefore, it is possible to formulate a descriptive account of religious feelings only on the basis of introspection, informed by apparent similarities in what others have said. In other words, in order to study the experience that is the ultimate source of religion, a scholar must have a sensus numinis, an ability to experience numinous feelingsjust as the description of color in painting or pitch in music requires certain kinds of perceptual abilities. Those who have such abilities, Otto suggested, experience the numinous as a mysterium tremendum et fascinans. As a mysterium, it is completely other, beyond the realm of ordinary existence, apprehensible but not comprehensible, evoking in human beings the feeling of stupor and stunned silence. People find this mysterium both attractive (fascinans ) and repulsive (tremendum ). On the one hand, it arouses the sense of grace, love, and mercy. On the other, it arouses feelings of terror and awe and the conviction that human beings are in reality nothingfeelings to which Otto, countering tendencies to equate genuine religion with love, gave a great deal of attention. Furthermore, this Holy is a category a priori, and as such beyond empirical criticism. (Otto's Kantianism is muddled.) It is, however, a complex category, consisting not just of the nonrational numinous but also of rational symbolic and ethical elements that "schematize" the numinous and result in relatively persistent but culturally variable religious forms.

Within the framework provided by these basic convictions in philosophy and psychology, Otto worked extensively in the history of religions. After his journey of 1911 to 1912 he learned Sanskrit and translated several religious texts into German. His most ambitious venture was a three-volume study of the Bhagavadgītā (one volume in English), which sought to reconstruct the poem's textual history and thus to recover its original inspiration. His two major comparative works, West-östliche Mystik and Die Gnadenreligion Indiens und das Christentum, also reflect his interest in Indian religions, as well as a division of religiosity common at the time into the mystical and the devotional. The former book compares the positions of the Advaita philosopher Śakarācārya with the German mystic Meister Eckhart; the latter makes a similar comparison of bhakti movements with Christianity of a Pietist bent. Both works ascribe the distinctiveness and superiority of Christianity to a dynamism that derives from its Jewish roots. Otto's last major work, Reich Gottes und Menschensohn, is genealogical rather than comparative in intent and bridges what in the two major comparative studies is a divide between the Christian and the Indo-Iranian or, as that cultural region was called, Aryan. It examines the alleged Iranian roots of Christianity, although it still attributes the highest Christian insights to its Jewish ancestry.

Otto's work in the history of religions was not all descriptive. Influenced in particular by biology, he made modest attempts to identify processes at work in religious history, such as his account of parallels and convergences; that is, of similarities that derive not from common ancestry but from adaptation to similar environmental circumstances. But Otto did not expect comparative study to reveal the universal conceptual or symbolic content of religion, a point he made as early as his critique of Wilhelm Wundt (1910). Indeed, the structure of Otto's thought, oriented to a universal feeling beyond thought and expression, relegates symbols and ideas to a culturally determined rational schematization and so is fundamentally incompatible with later attempts by scholars such as C. G. Jung and Mircea Eliade to identify universal elements of religious or mythic thought. In old age Otto declined an invitation to participate in the first Eranos conference.

Otto's ethics, left incomplete, has received relatively little attention, but like his work on religion it builds upon a descriptive psychology of moral feelings, such as the feelings of guilt and responsibility. One might also note that Otto's thinking was never isolated from the world but always explicitly engaged with it, especially with the church and state. In the church, Otto strove to improve worship and ministry by encouraging liberal theology and incorporating moments of numinous experience into the liturgy. He was also convinced that his insights into religion could further the interests of the German state, which came into existence during his infancy, but his assessment of those interests changed over time. In religion as he understood it, he found the source of both German colonial greatness (his cultural imperialism before the first World War) and of international justice and equality between nations (the Religiöser Menschheitsbund afterward). In the Nazi period he claimed that the study of religions revealed the struggle of the German soul at its most profound and that dialogue between Protestants and Catholics was necessary to unify the German nation.

Impact and Assessment

When it appeared in late 1916 (dated 1917), Otto's account of the Holy created an immediate sensation, and it was quickly translated into English (1923), Swedish (1924), Spanish (1925), Italian (1926), Japanese (1927), Dutch (1928), and French (1929). The impact was especially pronounced in the English-speaking world, perhaps because of affinities between Otto's thought and English Romanticism (e.g., William Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality"). Otto's word numinous, his phrase mysterium tremendum et fascinans (occasionally cited as fascinosum, which means something different in Latin), and even the title of his book, "The Idea of the Holy," still enjoy a certain currency among English-speaking writers and artists, even apart from the details of Otto's thought.

Although himself a theologian, Otto's impact upon Protestant theology was muted, because his attempt to found religion on human experience went counter to the tenets of neoorthodoxy. Paul Tillich, however, made significant use of Otto's ideas, and recently some theologians interested in interreligious dialogue (e.g., Hans-Martin Barth) and feminism (e.g., Melissa Raphael) have engaged them, too. Otto's most significant impact was on the comparative study of religions, especially that form often known as phenomenology. Students and successors utilized Otto's analysis in far-reaching accounts that saw religion as the expression of an experience sui generis. Indeed, Otto's analysis became part of a standard rationale for founding independent academic units to study religion. With time, however, scholars have become suspicious that Otto's ideas improperly universalize structures that best fit Christianity. In addition, the widespread turn to culture and language that began in the 1960s tended to reject Otto's account of an experience that was autonomous, primary, and universal, and either to speak of experiences as shaped by particular cultural and symbolic environments or to ignore them altogether. Furthermore, a significant number of scholars have rejected Otto's insistence upon introspection and his prerequisite that in order to study the source of religion scholars possess a sensus numinis as a violation of scientific method. Among North American scholars, historical interest in Otto has been eclipsed by interest in William James.

The concurrence of neuropsychology, cognitive science, and the study of religion that took place in the 1990s returned in significant respects to themes that interested Otto, but in a way that reveals the difficulties of using Otto's thought today: For example, neuropsychologists such as Eugene d'Aquili and Andrew Newberg have studied religious experiences that are reminiscent of Otto's numinous experience, but unlike Otto they postulate a unitary mind-brain, and so seek to discover the basis for religious experiences in the structure and functioning of the physical brain. Some theologians have seen in such work a foundation and validation for human religiositya fulfillment of Otto's ultimate theological aim, if by a somewhat different route.

Cognitive scientists such as Pascal Boyer, Scott Atran, and Stewart Guthrie have had relatively little interest in religious experiences, even if they have on occasion mimicked Otto's phrases, perhaps unconsciously. Nevertheless, in significant respects their fundamental questions resemble Otto's. In a manner reminiscent of Kantianism they want both to identify the a priori, universal structures that shape intuitive, prerational cognition (folk physics, biology, and psychology) and to relate to those structures the cognitive processes that make religion possible. But they focus on mental representations rather than feelings and intuitions, and they embrace rather than reject evolutionary explanation. Like Otto they do postulate a plurality of distinct mental domains, but they define them in terms of content (inanimate object, living thing, animal, human) rather than varieties of rationality (theoretical, practical, aesthetic), and unlike Otto they do not consider religious cognition to constitute an independent, universal domain. Although they see religion as beyond adequate rational formulation, they attribute this to the symbolic rather than literal quality of religious representation and, unlike Otto, see it as a mark against the literal veracity of religious claims. Finally, they expect to test their claims not through introspection but through vigorous, cross-cultural experimentation. So long as presumptions such as these dominate, Otto's account of religious experience will remain data for the history of religious thought, but it will not be a live theoretical option within the study of religions.


Works by Otto

Naturalistische und religiöse Weltansicht. Tübingen, Germany, 1904. Translated as Naturalism and Religion by J. Arthur Thomson and Margaret R. Thomson. London, 1907.

Kantisch-Fries'sche Religionsphilosophie und ihre Anwendung auf die Theologie. Tübingen, Germany, 1909. Translated as The Philosophy of Religion Based on Kant and Fries by E. B. Dicker. London, 1931.

Das Heilige: Über das Irrationale in der Idee des Göttlichen und sein Verhältnis zum Rationalen. Breslau, Germany, 1917. Translated as The Idea of the Holy by John W. Harvey. Oxford, 1923; 2d ed., 1950.

West-östliche Mystik. Gotha, Germany, 1926. Translated as Mysticism East and West: A Comparative Analysis of the Nature of Mysticism by Bertha L. Bracey and Richenda C. Payne. New York, 1932.

Die Gnadenreligion Indiens und das Christentum. Gotha, Germany, 1930. Translated as India's Religion of Grace and Christianity Compared and Contrasted by Frank Hugh Foster. New York, 1930.

Religious Essays: A Supplement to the Idea of the Holy. Translated by Brian Lunn. London, 1931.

Reich Gottes und Menschensohn. Munich, 1934. Translated as The Kingdom of God and the Son of Man: A Study in the History of Religion by Floyd V. Filson Bertram and Lee Wolff. Boston, 1943.

Aufsätze zur Ethik. Edited by Jack Stewart Boozer. Munich, 1981.

Autobiographical and Social Essays. Edited by Gregory D. Alles. Berlin, 1996.

Works about Otto

Alles, Gregory D. "Rudolf Otto (18691937)." In Klassiker der Religionswissenschaft: Von Friedrich Schleiermacher bis Mircea Eliade, edited by Axel Michaels, pp. 198210. Munich, 1997.

Almond, Philip. Rudolf Otto: An Introduction to His Philosophical Theology. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1984.

Benz, Ernst, ed. Rudolf Otto's Bedeutung für die Religionswissenschaft und für die Theologie Heute. Leiden, 1971.

Davidson, Robert F. Rudolf Otto's Interpretation of Religion. Princeton, N.J., 1947.

Frick, Heinrich, Birger Forell, and Friedrich Heiler. Religionswissenschaft in neuer Sicht: Drei Reden über Rudolf Ottos Persönlichkeit und Werk. Marburg, Germany, 1951.

Gooch, Todd A. The Numinous and Modernity: An Interpretation of Rudolf Otto's Philosophy of Religion. Berlin, 2000.

Haubold, Wilhelm. Die Bedeutung der Religionsgeschichte für die Theologie Rudolf Ottos. Leipzig, 1940.

Schütte, Hans Walter. Religion und Christentum in der Theologie Rudolf Ottos. Berlin, 1969.

Gregory D. Alles (2005)

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