Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Idea of the Holy by Rudolf Otto

Rudolph Otto’s The Idea of the Holy begins by suggesting that those who have never experienced anything like this will have no idea what he is writing about, and may as well just put the book down. That’s dramatic advice, but fair—especially since the choice of words that follow is apt to be extremely confusing.

He, or perhaps his translator, uses the term non-rational to describe the experience of the numinous. What he means is that you cannot model the numinous and wrap your mind around it. Encountering the numinous is encountering something “wholly other.” Terms like majestic, terrifying, powerful, and so on do not, at first apply. The experience goes the other direction, as we try to express what we have known in symbols other people (and we!) can understand.

Thomas Aquinas wrote massive and thoughtful analyses of the foundations and implications of the faith which generations have benefited from, but one day he had a vision, laid down his pen, and said that everything he had written before was so much “straw.”

This experience of the holy Otto sees (and I think correctly) as the origin and source of power of all religions. Even the purely artificial religions—burning incense to the spirit of the emperor or worship of the Communist Party Revolution are piggy-backing on more spontaneous religions (communism is often described as a Christian heresy).

Although he does not explicitly say so, Otto seems to be describing at least three kinds of interaction with the numinous, and possibly four.

  1. The Isaiah or Job version, testified to by many prophets and mystics of many faiths—an overwhelming connection to something more real that you are: overwhelming and yet somehow desirable. The fate of Semele echoes the sense—you cannot look on God and live. Not because you are unclean or sinful (though that can play a role) but because you are finite. And if I may stoop to a mathematical analogy, not just finite in some dimension but finite in the number of dimensions.

    The people of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to go away—perhaps because they worried about future financial setbacks, but more likely because they were encountering something holy and were afraid.

  2. Another form of encounter is like this, but less focused. It also is unsought. For example, in the forest there comes a sense of something numinous and awesome, and the forest seems to be a holy forest because of it. I’ll go into that a little more in a moment.
  3. In yet another form the numinous encounter is sought after, and things of majesty or beauty or even asceticism are used to prepare the worshiper to encounter what, in the final analysis, can only be initiated from outside us. Our effort is not always successful, of course. But this isn’t obviously bad: I’ll discuss that briefly later too.
  4. Another form is logically available, though Otto doesn’t address it. The encounter can be with something secondary but still superior and “other” though not with the ultimate reality of God. For example, encountering an angel could be a numinous encounter.

Otto’s history of religion stands Frazier on his head. The notion that religions develop when a chief tries to inspire awe in his tribe to solidify his control begs the question of what this awe is and where it comes from. It is much more probable that the kind of encounter of the second type is common, and that the religions often come from trying to figure out how to live in light of those experiences. Otto refers us to the testimony of missionaries who find ready acceptance and understanding of their very high understanding of God even among animist cultures seemingly utterly immersed in attempts to manipulate lesser spirits.

The type 2 experience would seem to lend itself to creating a local shrine to commemorate and to visit in hopes of retrieving a type 3 experience: in the forest, by the stream, to the sky--whatever seemed to be the trigger for the original experience. Of course the result is generally some kind of idol, which as a creation of man is less than man and far less than God.

I’ve suggested before that polytheism is the compromise you get when different tribes with different gods met. It is possible that this represents instead the different experiences of the numinous within a single tribe. In either case, I expect it to have arisen syncretically rather than organically, and that true devotion, as opposed to box checking, would be to just one god of the pantheon. (The devotees of Krishna come to mind here.) Polytheism would seem to lend itself to the same kind of superstitious box-checking you find in animism: wear blue, right foot out the door first, and don’t forget to dump a little wine by the lingam and you should be OK for the day.

Of course Christianity has suffered from the same box-checking problem, if the complaints of centuries of preachers and priests are any guide. And I gather from the history of Sufism that Muslims recognize the same problem. But when one welters among many gods, they all tend to become limited and small.

The tendency is almost always to degrade rather than elevate; I believe Otto is correct in locating the origin of religions in encounters with the numinous.

Otto distinguishes between these encounters in part by looking at the side effects. Does the experience communicate a clear message, as Isaiah’s did? Does it leave behind simply a “This place is sacred” or does it have moral implications? And he adds another condition—the more spiritual the better.

This last reflects a sad defect in the book. He seems to think that the “wholly other” can make an impression on a human spirit but not on matter. He doesn’t like the idea of miracles at all and isn’t shy about denigrating them.

He also illustrates his descriptions with quotes from Hindu scriptures, suggesting (I’m not expert enough) that nirvana’s negative description reflects the “wholly other” / no way to tag it with words aspect of the numinous.

One very interesting omission is “Are we made to encounter the holy in particular ways?” From the observation that the experience of the holy ends up being described in terms of majesty and beauty and (often) right living, the effort to represent and to appeal to God which is codified in those terms seems appropriate. A hymn describing God’s power does not have the same dramatic character as the overwhelmed cry of “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord,” but that doesn’t make it inappropriate, or even necessarily inferior if that is a mode of approach to God that we were made for. Would, for example, Aquinas have had the vision at the end of his life if he had not dedicated his work to God all those years?

Read it. Subject to his caveat.

And another caveat—avoid the Kindle version. It was taken from a scan, and the OCR imbeds footnotes without distinction from the text, often mistakes “n” for “w” and suchlike, and you don’t want to know what happens when it hits Greek or Hebrew terms. It was probably taken from the same source as this. Hard copy is a better bet.

I’m told C.S. Lewis considered this one the influential books in his life.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

Interesting to encounter this right after reading Julian Jaynes, who locates the meaning of religion in an effort to hear gods that were once continually audible, until our brains changed. There are many holes in that, but I think there likely is something to the idea that earlier man didn't make the hard distinctions between Voice of the Tribe/Voice of God/Voice in my head that directs me that we do. I'm not convinced those distinctions were entirely blurred, though, however far one goes back.

I did hear echoes of Lewis throughout this post, so I wasn't surprised at your last paragraph. On the wish list it goes.

james said...

I'll have to look up Jaynes. I'm having trouble figuring out what he could be relying on to demonstrate a change in our brains.

Yes, I can see lots of echoes of this in Lewis. Did you read Till We Have Faces?