After Rudolf Otto was rejected from the German Lutheran ministry because of his liberal views, he pursued an academic career, teaching systematic theology at several German universities. In his first book, Naturalistische und religiöse Weltansicht (1904; Naturalism and Religion, 1907), he insisted that modern science does not directly negate religious beliefs in a benevolent providence or cosmic order, although he conceded that intuitions and feelings are ultimately the only real justifications for such beliefs. In his second work, Kantisch-Friessche Religionsphilosophie und ihre Anwendung auf die Theologie (1909; The Philosophy of Religion Based on Kant and Fries, 1931), he utilized Jakob F. Fries’s Neo-Kantian distinctions among knowledge, belief, and a priori intuition or presentiment. In his interpretation of the third category, Otto suggested that perceptions of a numinous world (one that contains a sense of reverence, awe, wonder, and admiration) might be based on an ineffable reality, even though no empirical means exist for proving that such perceptions are based on more than subjective hope and illusion.

In contrast to his earlier books, which dealt primarily with the rational or cognitive analysis of religion, The Idea of the Holy is devoted to the “non-rational” or “supra-rational” aspects. Although Otto denies that religion is a form of “irrationalism,” he argues that the numinous state of mind constitutes the core of all religious beliefs and practices. This is because the religions of human beings are mysterious phenomena that cannot be reduced to systems of cognitive doctrines or ethical principles. Like the mystical thinkers of many religious traditions, he views the experience of “the Beyond” and “the Holy” as involving a sense of wonderment that cannot be satisfactorily expressed in human language or defended on the basis of rational theories. He readily admits that such a noncognitive view of religions necessarily means that any truth claims of religion cannot be assessed by way of logic or empirical methods.

Otto’s term numinous is an adaptation of the Latin numen (deity or religious power), and the term closely resembles...

(The entire section is 928 words.)


Sources for Further Study

Almond, Philip C. Rudolf Otto: An Introduction to His Philosophical Theology. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984. A well-respected interpretation of Otto’s philosophical and theological ideas.

Gooch, Todd A. The Numinous and Modernity: An Interpretation of Rudolf Otto’s Philosophy of Religion. New York: W. de Gruyter, 2000. A scholarly work with two parts: the philosophical background of The Idea of the Holy and an analysis of the reasons for the great success of the book.

Otto, Rudolf. Autobiographical and Social Essays. Edited and translated by Gregory D. Alles. New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1996. In addition to providing a valuable collection of his essays, Alles summarizes Otto’s ideas and their later influences.

Raphael, Melissa. Rudolf Otto and the Concept of Holiness. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. An examination of Otto’s contribution to religious studies, arguing that his theories of religious experience are relevant to theology as well as to the psychological study of religion.