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.