The Idea of the Holy, Paperback Book

The Idea of the Holy Paperback

Part of the Galaxy Books series

3 out of 5 (1 rating)


Since the English translation first appeared in 1923, Rudolf Otto's volume has established itself as a classic in the field of religious philosophy.

It offers an in-depth inquiry into the non-rational factor in the idea of the divine and its relation to the rational.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press Inc
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Philosophy of religion
  • ISBN: 9780195002102

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I decided to read <i>The Idea of the Holy</i> by Rudolf Otto when I saw that it was on C.S. Lewis' top-ten list of books that influenced him, reasoning that if it was good enough for Lewis, it was probably worth my time to read. All I can say after having read several of the list's books is that Lewis has strange tastes!<i>The Idea of the Holy</i> is Otto's attempt to pick up where systematic theology leaves off. That is to say, while systematic theologies treat the rational aspects of God, <i>The Idea</i> discusses the non-rational divine aspects. How does one describe that which is by definition indescribable? Otto does so by using the <i>via negativa</i> (what it is not), metaphor (what it is like) and appeal to personal experiences in the believer's life, including one's <i>a priori</i> understanding of the holy. For Otto, the non-rational aspects of God, which he dubs "the numinous," can be explained (as best as one can) by the <i>mysterium tremendum</i>. <i>Mysterium</i> refers to the "wholly other" aspect of God--elements that differ in essence from everything that humans know and can describe. <i>Tremendum</i> refers to God's awefulness, His majesty, His overpoweringness, and all that causes humans when confronted with Him to experience what the Bible calls "the fear of the LORD." Taken together, we see that deep in God's nature there is something that we cannot ever fully understand, something which instills soul-shaking fear and respect, yet something for which we yearn, and indeed something which we as a race have felt from the beginning of history. After discussing the concept--or feeling--of the <i>mysterium tremendum</i> and its means of expression in some detail, Otto turns to the expressions of the numinous in the Old and New Testaments and in Luther's works. The chapter "The Numinous in the New Testament" is especially worthwhile because of Otto's thoughts on the kingdom of God and predestination. He does an excellent job reaching past the "rational" mindset of the post-Enlightenment West and viewing those key theological concepts as part of God's supra-rational plan. Specifically concerning election, he writes"The idea of 'election'…is an immediate and pure expression of the actual religious experience of grace. The recipient of divine grace feels and knows ever more and more surely, as he looks back on his past, that he has not grown into his present self through any achievement or effort of his own, and that, apart from his own will or power, grace was imparted to him, grasped him, impelled, and led him. And even the resolves and decisions that were most his own and most free become to him, without losing the element of freedom, something that he <i>experienced</i> rather than <i>did</i>." (p. 87)Any true follower of Christ will at once recognize the truth of this statement--although it may defy rational analysis--because he or she has experienced it and knows it is true <i>a priori</i>.Otto goes on to discuss how the idea or feeling of the numinous developed throughout humankind's history to become what it is today in "civilized" religions such as Christianity, and how its origins can still be seen in "primitive" tribal religions today. Here Otto writes under the assumption that religion evolved gradually from primitive humans, a theory also adopted by C.S. Lewis. As I find it hard to rationalize this view with my own interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis (namely, that Adam was a real man who had a close relationship with God, at least prior to the Fall), this part of the book remained fairly unhelpful to me. To one with a different interpretation of Gen 1-11, it may provide much more benefit.Overall, this is a very difficult book to read. As Otto himself states in the forward, no one who has not mastered the rational aspects of God (i.e. systematic theology) should venture into the numinous. I could also add that to get the most out of this book, one should also have some familiarity with philosophy (and esp. early-1900s German philosophers and theologians such as Schleiermacher), biblical Greek, Latin and even some German, and be accustomed to the writing style of circa 1920. As someone with some but not all of this knowledge, the book was especially challenging for me. However, I did gain some valuable insights from it, and I plan to read it again at a later date. All in all, I felt the book was worth reading, but its appeal will ultimately be limited to a very specific audience.

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