As a notion that describes God apart from his moral and rational characteristics, Otto’s holiness carries elements of Coleridge-like awe-fulness, overpoweringness, absolute unapproachability, fascination and urgency – a force which is most easily perceived in the ‘wrath of God’. A little more positively, it is the ineffable core of religion: the experience of which cannot be described in terms of other experiences.
Otto describes the numinous as that which ‘grips or stirs the human mind’. It is ‘the deepest and most fundamental element in all strong and sincerely felt religious emotion.’ It is found in ‘strong, sudden ebullitions of personal piety … in the fixed and ordered solemnities of rites and liturgies, and again in the atmosphere that clings to old religious monuments and buildings, to temples and to churches.’ Sometimes it comes ‘sweeping like a gentle tide, pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship’ whilst at other times it is ‘thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its “profane”, non-religious mood of everyday experience’. Its sometimes violent, deep eruptions of the soul ‘with spasms and convulsions’ can lead to the ‘the strangest excitements, to intoxicated frenzy, to transport, and to ecstasy’.
Otto turns to the Scriptures, and to Luther, to illustrate that the rise of the rational in the Judeo-Christian tradition did not eliminate the non-rational numinous, citing examples of the continuing presence of the ‘aweful’ and dread-inspiring. He avows that the Old Testament describes a definite shift in tradition from an early YHWH who still bears traces of the ‘daemonic dread’ of the pre-god stage of the numinous who in his anger sought to kill Moses, to Elohim who displays the more mature ‘rational aspect’ which ‘outweighs the numinous’.
Otto also seeks to draw attention to the balance between non-rational and rational in the New Testament where the rational and human aspects of God which begin in the early Hebrew tradition reach their consummation, even whilst traces of the numinous remain. He identifies the numinous in Jesus’ teaching on God’s wrath, in Hebrews and in Paul, where the ‘non-rational’ notions of predestination and the flesh come under discussion. Otto suggests that the clearest example in the New Testament of the Old Testament YHWH is Romans 1:18ff where the ‘jealous, passionate Yahweh’ has ‘grown to a God of the Universe of fearful power, who pours out the blazing vials of His wrath over the whole world.’