Rudolf Otto – pioneering and influential German theologian (and probably part-mystic)

R. Otto via Wikipedia

Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) was a German Lutheran theologian who wrote an influential book called Das Heilige: Über das Irrationale in der Idee des Göttlichen und sein Verhältnis zum Rationalen (1917) [English translation: The Idea of the Holy (1923)] which, as the title suggests, developed notions of the Holy and the numinous.

When I was writing my Ph.D. I mentioned, while discussing Otto, that the philosopher Immanuel Kant talks about noumenal vs. the phenomenal realms. What I most likely didn’t mention, however, is that the two ideas – numinous and noumenal are, so Wikipedia tells us, etymologically unrelated.¹ However, if I were to sit down in a coffee shop with you, I could probably convince you that they are semantically related—if in a kind of roundabout way.

The idea of the numinous comes up a lot at I use the term to try to make accessible what are essentially spiritual truth claims. Carl Jung did the same thing, offering his own views about numinosity

Jung, Otto, Evelyn Underhill, Micrea Eliade, Joachim Wach, Ninian Smart, and the Americans William James and Joseph Campbell argue that numinosity takes different forms. Jung talks about the dark, inferior sides of numinosity in terms of the “shadow.” Otto uses slightly different terms, like “daemonic dread.”³ Wach differentiates Christian religious experience from magic. Meanwhile, James comes right out and says that some forms of religious experience proceed from the “demon.”4

Jung, Campbell and Smart tend to emphasize the importance of how the conscious ego relates to numinosity. Does the spirit touch or consume us? Elevate or obfuscate? Do we identify with, differentiate ourselves from or have a relationship with numinosity?

Tentacle Monster Working – Don’t Worry via Flickr

Without being overly judgmental, I think it is important for spiritual seekers to recognize that there isn’t just one type of numinosity. Too many people, imo, get stuck on lower levels without even realizing the love and glory that lies above. Many who haven’t experienced the higher levels probably tend to see me as a narrow-minded Catholic.5 And for me, some of these people carry an unacceptable level of spiritual gloom (or worse) that makes me want to maintain a respectful distance.


² Trying to make spirituality more accessible is why I was first admitted to the University of Ottawa (well, that and the fact that they liked my external scholarship, which always looks good on an academic institution).

³ See Chapter IV,

4 (a) See text around Footnote 3 in This is a surprising assertion from James if we are to believe John Passmore who says James is entirely agnostic (Passmore, A Hundred Years of Philosophy).
(b) The names mentioned here represent far from an exhaustive list. In her portable classic Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, H. R. Ellis Davidson seems to hint at spiritual differences lying behind and represented within mythic variations, noting that some modern Christians are able to view other forms of spirituality with calm detachment, something which the Church Fathers and other early Christians usually lacked.

5 This is ironic because most Catholics, I think, tend to see me as “unconventional” to put it mildly.

Related » “An Outline of Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy,” Jainism, Religion, Spirit, Joachim Wach, Comparative Religion, William James, Numen


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