Archive for January, 2011

I’ve recently been reading a book that my brother gave me for Christmas. It’s titled “The Idea of the Holy” written by Rudolf Otto.

So far I’ve really been enjoying Otto’s work. In a sense he is reclaiming a sense of mystery within the religious sphere, something that I would argue is necessary for approaching theology. He introduces this term, numinous, to talk about the felt presence of that which is, giving us ideas of the divine. Another approach that he introduces in the book is to break down the dichotomy of rational and irrational thus spanning the divide to give the reader an idea of the non-rational. This moves the conversation from a debate about the rationality of belief to another realm that is seemingly other.

Two aspects of the Numinous are the Mysterium Tremendum and the Mysterium Fascinans. So there is this experience of the tremendum leading to tremor, awefulness, and fear as well as an element of ‘Overpoweringness’. This would connect to some theologians ideas that as we begin to talk about God, all we are left with is our own stammering and stuttering. The flip side is the element of fascination, that in the presence of the wholly other there is something that strangely attracts us, fascinates us, draws us in.

“The ‘mystery’ is for him not merely something to be wondered as but something that entrances him; and beside that in it which bewilders and confounds, he feels a something that captivates and transports him with a strange ravishment, rising often enough to the pitch of dizzy intoxication; it is the Dionysiac-element in the numen” (Otto 31).

Later he states that the mysterium “is a bliss which embraces all those blessings that are indicated or suggested in positive fashion by any ‘doctrine of salvation’, and it quickens all of them through and through; but these do not exhaust it. Rather by its all-pervading, penetrating glow it makes of these very blessings more than the intellect can conceive in them or affirm of them. It gives the peace that passes understanding, and of which the tongue can only stammer brokenly. Only from afar, by metaphors and analogies, do we come to apprehend what it is in itself, and even so our notion is but inadequate and confused” (Otto 34).

In two ways one is left stammering in the presence of the numinous, the non-rational, that which can only be spoken in metaphors and yet, oddly enough is attracted to this ‘wholly other’, this that is incomprehensible, this when thought about leaves one confused. One is left in this paradox of the now and not yet, the that which is and the ungraspable, the tremendum and the fascinans.

Now I am only half done with this book, but from what I have read so far I have really enjoyed. It is unfortunate that this seems to be one of the few works that Otto completed, however, in this short book he says so much. What is fascinating is that what he is describing seems to fit with some of my ideas about the necessity of study for unattainable goals, i.e. art to attain creativity, philosophy for wisdom, science for logic, and theology for God. All of which could be described as irrational as all deal with goals that (like pi) are never fully completed.

I leave with this prayer that he includes in Otto’s chapter “The Holy as an A Priori Category” by Henry Denifle. “Loving, tender Lord! My mind has from the days of my childhood sought something with an earnest thirst of longing, Lord and what that is have I not yet perfectly apprehended. Lord, I have now for many a year been in hot pursuit of it, and never yet have I been able to succeed, for I know not aright what it is. And yet it is something that draws my heart and my soul after it, and without which I can never attain to full repose. Lord, I was fain in the earliest days of my childhood to seek it among created things, as I saw others before me do. And the more I sought, the less I found it; and the nearer I went, the further I wandered from it….Nowmy heart rages for it, for fain would I possess it….Woe is me!…What is this, or how is it fashioned, that plays within me in such hidden wise?”


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