Many years ago, I read The Idea of the Holy by the Lutheran phenomenologist Rudolph Otto. This book profoundly influenced C. S. Lewis, who writes about it in Surprised by Joy, and I have to say that it also influenced me. Touchstone Magazine has published a fascinating article entitled Surprised by Awe: C. S. Lewis & Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy by Clara Sarrocco.
Otto was describing and analyzing a distinct kind of religious experience that he called “numinous,” from the Latin numen, meaning “divine power.” It is the perception of awe-inspiring, transcendent mystery. If “mystical” experience means feeling one with God, the numinous is almost its opposite, the sense of coming into contact with some One “wholly other” than oneself. It is overwhelming, effacing the self while also filling the self with ineffable joy. The numinous goes beyond the rational, but Otto is careful to explain that it stands in relationship to objective religious doctrines.
From Clara Sarrocco, who goes on to trace the concept in C. S. Lewis:
Otto coined the term “numinous” to designate the non-rational part of religious experience. By it, he meant the blissful exultation one experiences when contemplating the divine. Lewis describes such an experience in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, when he relates how the Pevensie children reacted when Mr. Beaver told them that Aslan was on the move: “At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in his inside.”
None of the children knew who Aslan was . . . but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning . . . so beautiful that you remember it all your life.
Otto’s exposition of the numinous is his most important contribution to man’s understanding of his religious experience, or his experience of God. Chapters II, III, and IV of Das Heilige are pivotal in this regard, for in them he provides his description of the numinous, his explanation of the elements of the numinous, and finally, a discussion of what he calls the Mysterium Tremendum.
The numinous is a primary datum, meaning that it cannot be taught but can only be awakened in the mind. In fact, Otto begins his chapter “The Elements of the ‘Numinous’” with an admonition: “The reader is invited to direct his mind to a moment of deeply felt religious experience. . . . Whoever cannot do this, whoever knows no such moments in his experience, is requested to read no farther.” . . .
Otto describes the element of “awfulness,” that is, being full of awe, as a holy fear of the Lord, one of the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost, along with wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, and piety. It is what is meant by the phrase from Proverbs 9:10, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom.” It is also what Moses experienced it in Exodus 3:5, when he was told, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.”In Christian worship, according to Otto, this awe is expressed by the words, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory”; and in the awe-inspiring words of the Gloria: “For you alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord, you alone are the Most High.” . . .
For Otto, the fundamental element that goes beyond trust and love and that occupies the mind with a bewildering strength is what he calls the “Mysterium Tremendum.” It is what John in C. S. Lewis’s The Pilgrim’s Regress experiences when he responds to the strong voice that says, “Come”:
While he strained to grasp it, there came to him from beyond the wood a sweetness and a pang so piercing that instantly he forgot his father’s house, and his mother, and the fear of the Landlord, and the burden of the rules.
This Mysterium Tremendum is an inexpressible mystery, beyond our conception or understanding, something extraordinary and unfamiliar. If something escapes our understanding only for a time, it is not considered a “mystery” but rather a “problem,” something that eventually can be understood and solved. On the other hand, Otto explains, “mysterium means wholly other,” that which is beyond our sphere, beyond the intelligible, and beyond the familiar.
It is also something that captivates. Otto wrote that
the divine is indeed the highest, strongest, best, loveliest, and dearest that man can think of . . . God is not merely the ground and superlative of all that can be thought; He is Himself a subject on his own account and in Himself.
Thus, the numen is the object of religious search.
Read the rest of Dr. Sarrocco’s article. She does say how Otto finds the numinous in other religions. Clearly that particular experience is insufficient in itself. Otto was writing not as a theologian but as a “phenomenologist,” someone who studies “phenomena.” This type of experience–like happiness, sorrow, and guilt–clearly exists. Christianity, properly, is based neither on rationalism nor experience but on the Word of God. Still, Christianity contains both ideas and experiences.
I found the numinous–or, to use another of Otto’s terms, the sense of the Holy–in Lutheranism, specifically in the sacraments and in liturgical worship. (So does Otto, who also discusses Luther’s experience of Law & Gospel and the Theology of the Cross.) Conversely, the lack of the numinous is what annoys me in so much of contemporary Christianity. I think we should be cultivating the numinous in our spirituality and in our apologetics, and Otto can help us do that.
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