With a steady stream of new work coming out on Rudolph Otto’s notion of holiness, Otto, it seems, is as popular as ever. Over the coming week or so, I propose to post some reflections on Otto’s notion of The Holy and to contrast it with Forsyth’s (for who else would be up to the task!). First, some background.
Theodor Von Häring, a successor of Ritschl’s at Göttingen and himself a leading figure in the development and popularising of Ritschlianism, had in his class a young man name Rudolph Otto. In 1895, Otto travelled to Egypt, Palestine and Greece, later describing how the experience of Holy Week in Jerusalem, and participating in a Coptic liturgy in Cairo, had left a deep impression on him. But it was that experience that came to him at the Sphinx in Giza which left the deepest impression. He describes a ‘general feeling of the unfathomable depth and mystery of existence and universe’ overcoming him. 1911 and 1912 saw him journeying to North Africa, India, Burma, Thailand, China, and Japan studying religious traditions and experiences, all the time with a growing longing to articulate his experience of the ‘unfathomable depth’.
In 1917, four years before Forsyth’s death, Otto penned Das Heilige (dedicated to Häring), probably the most well known treatment on holiness available. Certainly no discussion of holiness can proceed without considering his ‘yardstick’ contribution which has ‘left its mark not only on the history of religions, but also on twentieth-century philosophy, psychology and aesthetics of religion, biblical studies, and theology’. Otto argues that the holy, what he terms ‘the numinous’ (Lt. numen, divine spirit), is encountered by the creature as the mysterium tremendum and the mysterium et fascinans. More concerned with human experiences of holiness – and the production of such experience in his readers – rather than with an ontology of holiness, Otto concludes that holiness both repels and attracts.
‘Its dual character, as at once an object of boundless awe and boundless wonder, quelling and yet entrancing the soul, constitutes the proper positive content of the ‘mysterium’ as it manifests itself in conscious feeling. No attempt of ours to describe this harmony of contrasts in the import of the mysterium can really succeed; but it may perhaps be adumbrated, as it were from a distance, by taking an analogy from a region belonging not to religion but to aesthetics.’