Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1869-1937) German Protestant theologian and philosopher. Born in Peine (Hanover), he achieved the rank of Privatdozent in Systematic Theology (1897) and Ausserordentlicher Professor (1904) at Göttingen and was appointed to an official Chair at Breslau (1914). He spent much of his career as Professor of Systematic Theology at Marburg-on-the-Lahn (1917-1937).

Otto's Das Heilige , published in 1917 and translated as The Idea of the Holy , was immediately successful. His Mysticism East and West , published in 1932, contains the collected lectures he gave in 1924 at Oberlin College comparing Eastern and Western mysticism.

The Idea of the Holy is Otto's main achievement. It fit the needs of disillusioned, thoughtful, religious Christians following World War I. Otto devised the term numinous to represent a special, irreducible quality that he felt provided the basis for religious experience. Numinous "creature-consciousness" or "creature-feeling" reflects an overpowering, inexpressible might that must be experienced to be understood. The feeling, objective and outside the self, was labeled mysterium tremendum . Conceptually, mysterium denotes that which is hidden and esoteric, beyond conception and understanding, extraordinary and unfamiliar. Mysterium tremendum has the characteristics of awfulness (inspiring fearful awe), overpoweringness, energy or urgency, being "wholly other," and arousing fascination.

Otto portrayed the numinous as responsible for the evolution of religious sentiment. In its crude, primitive form, it manifests as "eerie," or "weird," granting ghosts and demons their culturally universal qualities. "This crudely naive and primordial emotional disturbance, and the fantastic images to which it gives rise, are later overborne and ousted by more highly developed forms of the numinous emotion, with all its mysteriously impelling power" (The Idea of the Holy , p. 16). Demons, ghosts, and specters are "a link in the chain of development which religious consciousness has undergone." Modern religious sentiment is the result of a "growth to maturity" parallel to that of the development of the taste for refined music (pp. 72 f.).

The concept of "the holy" or "sacred" consists of the numinous, which is nonrational, and other elements reflecting rationality, purpose, personality, and morality. There exists a "predisposition" of the human spirit for religiosity, which "awakens when aroused by divers excitations" (p. 115). The numinous, a universal feature quickening this arousal, is a

primal element of our psychical nature that needs to be grasped purely in its uniqueness and cannot itself be explained from anything else. Like all other primal psychical elements, it emerges in due course in the developing life of human mind and spirit and is henceforward simply present. (p. 124)

Otto believed that the numinous manifests in its fullest form within the Christian faith (p. 178). Although modern researchers find that most reported religious experiences do not contain the fearful awe that Otto considered so important, the universal features within mystical accounts could be regarded as supporting modified versions of his orientation.

See also Experience, Mysticism

James McClenon


R. Otto, The Idea of the Holy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958)

R. Otto, Mysticism East and West (New York: Collier, 1962)

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