§ 1. Religious experience
Thinkers who maintain that religious experience is a sufficient warrant for theological beliefs are under a plain obligation to describe this experience and to explain why it should be regarded as a guarantee of its own validity. The same demand may also be made of those who prefer to speak of revelation rather than of religious experience; for a revelation, if it is to be something more than the words written down in a book, must become—or at least must have been—a revelation to individuals in a personal experience. Unless such experience can be described, the plain man does not even know what to look for, and he is given no help to recognize a revelation or to understand why he should trust it.
Perhaps we should not expect this demand for a description to be adequately met—religious men, like artists, may be more interested in having experiences than in describing them; but even the most modest expectations are too often disappointed. Many of those who lay the greatest stress on religious experience seem unable or unwilling to tell us anything about what that experience is. They speak freely enough of the content of revelation, but far too little about the way in which that content is revealed. Yet once they abandon the view that a revelation is literally dictated by God, the need becomes urgent. It is not enough to say, with St. John of the Cross, that ‘God without the sound of words… teaches the soul—and the soul knows not how—in a most secret and hidden way’. From Barth—to take one striking example—it is hard to find out anything more than that the Bible becomes the Word of God when it overpowers or masters us (the German word is ‘bemächtigt’). We ought to be told more than this.
It is sometimes said that such a request is unreasonable—that if we could explain what divine revelation is, what we explained would be precisely not divine revelation. ‘We may not pretend’, says one writer, ‘to usurp the office of the Holy Spirit’. But this is a complete misunderstanding. Nobody expects that a description of aesthetic experience will itself be a work of art or that a description of religious experience will itself be a divine revelation. But we should like at the very least to be told something about the emotions which accompany religious experience, and about the way in which they differ from emotions of a more ordinary kind. Without some light on these and kindred matters we cannot hope to see why religious experience should be exalted above other emotional experiences and regarded as an apprehension of divine reality.
§ 2. ‘The Idea of the Holy’
The theologian who seems to have grasped most clearly the nature of what is required is Rudolf Otto in his book ‘Das Heilige’; and he has been fortunate enough to find in Professor Harvey a competent and sympathetic translator, who has given us an English version under the title ‘The Idea of the Holy’. This work combines wide learning with psychological insight: it is rich in delicate distinctions which are too often overlooked. It can be commended also as a study of religious language; for we may attain greater subtlety and precision in linguistic usage if we are trying to find words for things rather than things for words, although the two processes must go on side by side. As an account of the origin, development, and nature of religious experience it is in a class by itself, and we must try to see what we can learn from it.
At the very outset it should be emphasized that if we approach this topic as philosophers, we may get it a little out of focus. A philosopher is concerned with description and analysis, not for its own sake, but as a basis for the claim that religious experience is the apprehension of a transcendent reality. This is the claim which has to be critically assessed, and it is one on which Otto himself is insistent; but he may be better as a psychologist than as a philosopher, and the merits of his description will remain even if the theories based on it fail to carry conviction.
There is a further point which must be kept in mind if we are to grasp, let alone criticize, the doctrines set forth in this remarkable book. Wide as is its range, it lays special stress on one aspect of religion—the non-rational aspect. Otto recognizes clearly enough that there are both rational and non-rational elements in religion, and that these, in his own metaphor, constitute its warp and woof. He is concerned with both these elements and with their interaction or interpenetration; but he pays more attention to the non-rational element because he believes it has been too much neglected in the past. Unless we make allowance for this, we may think his view very one-sided.
§ 3. The rational and the non-rational
The rational is commonly identified with thinking and the non-rational with feeling, but Otto extends this distinction to cover the objects of thought and feeling. To him an object is rational if it can be thought or conceived clearly; it is non-rational if it can merely be felt but not conceived. Thus the rational element in religion is what can be conceived. God, for example, may be conceived as Spirit, Reason, Good Will, Supreme Power, and it is the very mark of a religion's high rank that it should have no lack of conceptions about God. Without these religion would be mere feeling, not belief, and it would be indifferent to morality. Yet we might entertain theological concepts without being at all religious. In religious experience there must be something more; and Otto claims that our rational concepts have to be predicated of a non-rational or supra-rational Subject which eludes conceptual understanding, and yet must somehow be apprehended in a different way. This different way is the way of ‘a unique original feeling-response’ which is non-rational or non-conceptual. It is present at all levels of religion and constitutes its ‘real innermost core’.
In all this there are serious initial difficulties.
In the first place, ho concept can be adequate to its object: the most insignificant mongrel has more to it than we can think in our concept of ‘dogness’ or ‘dogginess’. And it is impossible to suppose that even the rational attributes of God, such as omniscience, can be adequately grasped by any concept of ours.
In the second place, it is hard to see how Otto can talk about religious feelings and their object without making use of concepts, or at least of conceptual words. No doubt these concepts will not be definable like the concept of a triangle; and the words, if they indicate a feeling, will mean nothing to any one who has not experienced that feeling. But, after all, the same might be said about the word ‘red’. Otto himself attempts to avoid this difficulty by describing as ‘ideograms’ the words which refer to specifically religious emotion. Curiously enough, the word ‘ideogram’ is normally used for a letter or mark that indicates, not a sound, but an idea or concept, as in the writing of the Chinese. Otto uses it for an ostensive sign or mark or token which points directly to some experienced feeling.
Even if there may be some confusion in all this, there is at least a real difference between thinking and emotion; and it will be a great service if our attention can be drawn to a distinctive religious feeling.
To religious feeling Otto applies the adjective ‘numinous’, derived from the Latin word ‘numeri’. He maintains—and this is his central doctrine—that non-rational numinous feeling is an essential element in religious experience and is part of its compelling power. By calling it ‘numinous’ he wishes to insist that it is not dependent on theoretical or moral concepts, but is something original and even primitive. The crux of his doctrine lies in the claim that by numinous feeling it is possible to apprehend both the existence and the value of a corresponding numinous object.
§ 4. Mysterium tremendum
If the argument is to be followed, we must do our best to describe this numinous experience in a summary fashion; but a bare outline may be misleading, and will certainly be jejune, where so much depends on distinguishing the finer shades of feeling by means of words which are emotionally precise. What is still more serious, we shall have to refer to ordinary natural emotions which are merely analogous to numinous emotions differing, not in degree, but in kind; and the words we use must be taken, not as conceptual, but as mere ‘ideograms’ for emotional ‘moments’ that are unique. The numinous cannot be conceived, or at the most it can be conceived only negatively—that is, we may be able to conceive what it is not; but what is conceived negatively may be felt as in the highest degree positive—as, for example, when St. Paul says: ‘Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him’.
To those who have never experienced any religious emotion it will be as if we were trying to explain colours to a blind man on the analogy of sounds.
The numinous object—that is, the object of numinous feeling—is said to be mysterium tremendum. The phrase is perhaps better left untranslated, since to express it in our own language is to conceptualize it and make it less of a mere ideogram. Perhaps the Latin words indicate the numinous by their sound better than by any idea they may convey, and those who do not know Latin will be here in at least as a good position as those who do. The religious man is in the presence of a mystery which arouses dread and stupefaction and fascination rather than conceptual thought.
Let us begin by considering the adjective ‘tremendum’.
The first aspect of the object thus indicated is its ‘awefulness’: the object arouses an awe or dread akin to natural fear. This is found in a perverted form in our dread of ghosts, in shudders and creepings of the flesh before the eerie, the uncanny, and the weird. In the cruder manifestations of religion it is a daemonic dread, like the horror of Pan. In the higher religions it becomes genuine awe, a feeling of personal nothingness before the awe-inspiring object directly experienced. To this object we ascribe something analogous to wrath—the Wrath of God, the mysterious ira deorum, which likewise has a different character at different levels of religious experience. In it there is an element which may be indicated by the phrase ‘absolute unapproachability’.
In the tremendum there is a second aspect which may be called ‘majesty’—or again ‘power’ and ‘might’. It is especially before this majesty that we are conscious of being ‘dust and ashes’—conscious of the annihilation of the self before the ‘transcendent’ or ‘overpowering’, which is the sole and entire reality.
There is in the tremendum yet a third aspect, which may be called the ‘urgency’ or ‘energy’ of the numinous object. This is said to be most perceptible in the Wrath of God and to be present at all stages from the daemonic level up to the encounter with the ‘living’ God. It ‘clothes itself in symbolical expressions—vitality, passion, emotional temper, will, force, movement, excitement, activity, impetus’. Even the love of God may be felt as a consuming fire.
These three aspects of the tremendum—its ‘awefulness’, its ‘majesty’, its ‘urgency’—seem to be closely connected. If we turn to the noun ‘mysterium’, we find further—and more sharply distinguishable—elements in the numinous feeling and the numinous object. The mysterium may be called the ‘mysterium stupendum’: it is a mystery which arouses stupor and amazement as distinct from dread—an astonishment which strikes us dumb. In its everyday sense a mystery is merely a secret which baffles us, something alien, uncomprehended, unexplained; but in its religious sense it is the ‘wholly other’, which is entirely beyond the familiar, the usual, the intelligible. Here we have the non-rational, the non-intelligible—something beyond nature and beyond the universe, or even, in Plato's phrase, beyond being, something ‘whose kind and character are incommensurable with our own, and before which we therefore recoil in a wonder that strikes us chill and numb’.
There is one last factor in our feeling for the mysterium—perhaps the most important factor of all. The numinous object does not fill us merely with dread and amazement: it also attracts and charms and entrances, and indeed fascinates. This fascination Otto connects with the transport and fervour, the ravishment and intoxication, the exaltation and ecstasy, of the Dionysiac element in religion. But he finds it also in the solemnity and calm of public prayer and private devotion, in the peace of God which passes understanding. This factor we might expect to be associated, not so much with the worship of Dionysus as with that of Apollo—unless this God is reserved for the rational element in religion; and the rational concepts of love, mercy, peace, and comfort, which are said to be parallel to this numinous fascination, seem to be connected more with religious calm than with religious transports. Yet it may be that Otto is right in not making too sharp a separation between ecstasy and tranquillity; and both of these may be covered when men speak in decisively religious terms of the bliss and beatitude of the worshipper and the divine grace of the object of worship.
If the numinous object were merely dreadful, religion would be concerned only with expiation and propitiation. Because this object is felt also as fascinating, there can be religions of salvation in which there is a self-surrender to the numen, in which God may be loved for His own sake—not merely for the material or spiritual benefits He can bestow. Here also parallels are to be found at the lowest levels of religion—in the half-magical, half-devotional attempts to identify the self with the numen or to be united with it in ecstasy. Where possession of and by the numen becomes an end in itself, there we have at least the beginnings of religious life.
Such in bald outline is Otto's analysis of religious experience, or rather of its non-rational elements considered in relative abstraction. He may seem at times to lay too much stress on fear and wrath and even, like A. E. Taylor, on feelings of pollution. In the last case especially we have to ask ourselves whether such feelings are a mark of spiritual profundity or a symptom of mental disease. Some men will always prefer to worship at the shrine of Apollo rather than of Dionysus, and will find true religion in the writer of St. John's Gospel, in St. Francis and St. Teresa, rather than in the more daemonic saints. They will lay greater stress, as I have done, on such feelings as ‘gratitude, trust, love, reliance, humble submission, and dedication’. But Otto may well be right in claiming that these are far from covering the whole range of religious life; and he is fully aware that primitive emotions have to be transmuted or transformed at the higher levels if they are not to be a source of religious aberration. The balance as well as the richness of his thinking can be grasped only by those who are willing to read the book itself.
§ 5. The faculty of divination
We may agree with Otto that religious feeling is unique in the sense that, as he says, it is distinct from ‘pleasure or joy or aesthetic rapture or moral exaltation’. We may also grant that some men have a special aptitude or susceptibility for religious feeling, just as others have for music or poetry or mathematics. But it is a very big jump from this to postulate, as he does, a special religious faculty, termed appropriately enough ‘the faculty of divination’, which, although originating in feeling, is aware both of a transcendent reality and of its objective value, and is even able to grasp and appraise itself.
This special faculty of divination is supposed to be present in all men, though in very different degrees, and to be at work throughout the development of religion: it is not to be superseded or absorbed by philosophical thinking or moral action. Although manifested at first, so far as it is cognitive, in mere inklings or surmises, and associated with the primitive experience of shudders and creeping flesh, it propels us towards an ideal, but non-rational, good known only to religion. This shows, according to Otto, that ‘above and beyond our rational being lies hidden the ultimate and highest part of our nature’. The mystics call it the deep places of the soul, the fundus animae. It is a predisposition which may be called ‘pure reason’ in the profoundest sense—an odd nomenclature for a faculty expressly non-rational; and it has to be ‘distinguished both from the pure theoretical and the pure practical reason of Kant, as something yet higher and deeper than they’.
To use words like ‘faculty’ may be misleading if we suppose that a faculty is an agency or cause by which phenomena can be explained. We in no way explain how opium can put us to sleep by saying that it has a soporific faculty. The danger of being misled is increased when we speak of a faculty as ‘propelling’ us or as ‘being hidden in the depths of the soul’. But we must try to understand Otto's language and not merely to find fault with it.
If we use the word ‘do’ in its widest sense, men, according to Otto, are able to do something in a greater or less degree—namely, to feel emotion that is specifically religious. To say that they have a faculty of divination is to say this over again. What Otto wishes to add is that this faculty—or this emotion—gives rise to ‘an a priori category’ by which it is possible to know God.
Nothing could be more shocking to a modern ear, which is trained to connect the phrase ‘a priori’ only with analytic or tautologous propositions. In the face of such an obstacle it is difficult to make Otto's meaning clear.
The a priori may be equated with what is not derived from given sense-impressions (although it may be manifested on the occasion of sense-impressions): it is a product of spontaneous mental activity. The most obvious example is the concept of ‘ground and consequent’. We have this concept only because we think: to think is to distinguish between ground and consequent. This distinction could never be derived from sense-impressions, even if thinking could not take place without sense-impressions. Thus the concept of ground and consequent is an a priori concept—one produced by our own activity in thinking.
Otto extends this usage very far—perhaps altogether too far. Feelings are commonly classed with sense-impressions even although they may be roused by association. Otto, however, wishes to regard the religious feeling-response and its development as a priori inasmuch as it is a spontaneous activity which depends for its character on an original predisposition of the soul.
We need not quarrel with the word ‘predisposition’, which may be given a perfectly good sense; but one difficulty about all this is that the usage of the term ‘a priori’ becomes so wide that there would hardly remain any mental phenomenon which was not a priori.
Clearly all emotion would become a priori: we could not, for example, experience sexual emotion unless we were, so to speak, made that way. Seeing a colour would become a priori so far as it depended on a predisposition or power to see. Instinct itself might be described as the a priori of animals.
Even if we are not dismayed by this prospect, we have to ask what it is that the faculty of divination is supposed to do.
The whole of Otto's book is his answer, but we may try to sum up the doctrine in his own words. The religious predisposition becomes a ‘religious drive or impulsion’ (Triebe). ‘In undirected, groping emotion, in seeking and shaping representations, in continually striving onwards to the generation of Ideas, this impulsion endeavours to become clear about itself, and it does become clear about itself by laying bare that obscure a priori foundation of Ideas out of which it itself sprang’.
The trouble about this statement (in which I diverge a little from Professor Harvey's translation) is that the faculty of divination seems to do too much. It is not merely that Otto wants it to be cognitive as well as emotional: he also wants it to be self-conscious and self-critical. There may be a sense in which religious consciousness claims to be all this; but when it comes to laying bare its own a priori foundations, it is hard to deny that it is becoming very rational indeed.
There is, however, one fundamental difficulty which overshadows all the rest. If the faculty of divination by its own spontaneous activity ‘shapes’ representations and ‘generates’ Ideas a priori, how can it possibly grasp reality, let alone a transcendent reality, by means of such apparently subjective representations and Ideas? Otto seems unaware of this difficulty although it is the fundamental question raised by that very philosophy of Kant which he is attempting to develop further.
§ 6. Otto and Kant
It would require at least a chapter by itself to deal with the relations between Otto and Kant. Even so, the result would be intelligible only to those who had a fair grasp of Kant's philosophy. Here I can only touch on some of the technical terms borrowed by Otto from his master. Readers who shrink from technicalities had better pass on hurriedly to § 7.
Kant holds that the mind in thinking uses a priori concepts like ‘ground and consequent’, and can make these concepts clear to itself by subsequent reflexion.
Among a priori concepts he recognizes what he calls ‘Ideas of Reason’—Ideas with a capital I. These are concepts of the absolute or unconditioned, and they spring from the drive in our thinking towards completeness or totality. We can, if we like, include among them Ideas of absolute reality, absolute power, and so on. As we can never experience anything absolute or unconditioned, Ideas by definition can have no objects in experience.
There are other a priori concepts called ‘categories of the understanding’. These are concepts of what every object must be if it is to be an object of experience in time and space. Kant holds, for example, that the states or qualities of every object must be subject to causal law and so have to be thought under the category of ‘cause and effect’. He holds also that a category can be applied only to the spatial and temporal objects of experience, so that for him no category can be predicated of God.
Otto lumps together Ideas and categories—he uses the words interchangeably—and assumes (by twisting the meaning of both) that the category or Idea of ‘the holy’ can give us knowledge of an object which transcends ordinary experience altogether.
There is in Kant a more complicated doctrine which I can only state summarily. According to this doctrine the category of cause and effect—like all other categories—is complex and contains two distinguishable elements.
First of all, there is in it the a priori concept of ‘ground and consequent’, to which we have already referred. Whatever be the view of modern physics, we commonly regard a cause as a ground (or condition) of an effect which is its consequent (or is conditioned by it).
Secondly, there is a temporal element which may be called ‘regular succession’. Whenever a cause occurs, its effect must follow in time. Without regular succession in time we could never think of one event or state as the ground or cause of another. Regular succession is described by Kant as the ‘schema’ of the category.
Thus the category of cause and effect is a complex category made up of (1) the a priori concept (sometimes described as the pure category) of ground and consequent, and (2) the schema of regular succession. A cause is a ground which regularly precedes its effect (or consequent) in time.
The essential characteristic of a schema is that it is nearer to sense perception and so enables us to apply the category to a real object of experience. Thus the schema is the non-rational element in the category. For reasons into which we need not enter Kant connects it with imagination—with the construction of complex images—rather than with thinking.
All of this terminology is taken over bodily by Otto. For him the complex category of ‘the holy’ is also made up of rational and non-rational elements. The non-rational element has already been considered—it is the numinous, the mysterium tremendum. The rational element we have still to examine; but it may be observed at once that, with a strange perversity, Otto reverses the meaning of the terms he has borrowed. The pure rational concepts belonging to the category of the holy are described as the schemata of the non-rational instead of vice versa. Furthermore, as these rational concepts, although called ‘categories’, are really Ideas and so by definition can have no objects in experience, they are of all things the least suited for the function of schemata—namely, the function of enabling us to apply an a priori concept to an object. Otto no doubt talks as he does because he wishes to regard the non-rational element in religion as somehow ‘higher’—in an unspecified sense—than the rational. But Kant must have shuddered in his grave.
§ 7. The numinous and the holy
Otto's account of the category—or Idea—of the holy must be stated in his own terms, however unsatisfactory these may be.
On his view the ‘holy’ means more than the numinous in general, more even than the numinous at its highest. We understand by it ‘the numinous completely permeated and saturated with elements signifying rationality, purpose, personality, morality’. To neglect the numinous is to impoverish religion and to turn the Church into a school of ethics and theology. To neglect the rational and above all the ethical, is equally fatal: it is the source of fanaticism and other religious aberrations. Where then are we to discover the rational schemata, so-called, which must ‘permeate and saturate’ the numinous if we are to have a sound religion? The details are very briefly as follows.
According to Otto, the tremendum—the ‘aweful’ or dreadful aspect of the numen—finds its schemata in our rational concepts of justice and morality: it then becomes what he calls the holy ‘Wrath of God’, which may seem to some to loom too large in his theology. The fascinating aspect of the numen finds its schemata in the concepts of goodness, mercy, and love; and thereby it becomes what is known as ‘the grace of God’. The mysterium itself, the fundamental character of mystery, has its schema in ‘the absoluteness of all rational attributes applied to the deity’.
All of this is not only ingenious, but admirable, as a contribution to the psychology of religion—so much so that it seems a shame merely to expose its bare bones as I have had to do here. Otto is surely right in finding a close connexion between feelings of the numinous and the ‘rational’ attributes of absolute justice, absolute goodness, and so on. He is mainly concerned with moral attributes; but what he says applies also to any attributes taken to be absolute or unconditioned, such as absolute power or knowledge. Concepts of the absolute are Ideas of reason and so are always beyond our powers of understanding; indeed—though Otto denies this—they may themselves be the source of numinous feeling. Hence even if they are not to be identified with the mysterious, they are well suited to be—in Otto's sense—the ‘schemata’ of the mysterious, ‘which lies altogether outside what can be thought and is alike in form, quality, and essence, the utterly and “wholly other”.’ We shall be in a better position to understand this when we come to consider the traditional arguments for the existence of God.
At present, however, we are concerned with Otto's attempts to uphold the validity of religious experience. At times he speaks as if no intellectual justification of religious ‘intuition’ is possible; but he also wishes to show that it is at least not unreasonable to believe in a transcendent reality which is the object revealed to numinous feeling; and his account of the special faculty of divination and of its relation to human reason is partly directed towards this end. Hence the first question before us is this—Does he rest belief in God's existence on reason or on divination?
It seems pretty clear that he bases religious belief, at least primarily, on divination and not on reason. If so, he ought to reverse his terminology—that is, to make numinous feeling the schema of rational Ideas instead of vice versa—and say something like this. In the obscure yearning and feeling and groping which is called ‘divination’ we have from the beginning some inkling of the mysterium which lies behind the world of sense, although at first we misunderstand or misconceive it. Only in the Ideas of unconditioned reality and absolute goodness can we find concepts whereby we can conceive, however inadequately, the object of our yearning and groping. By themselves these concepts are purely rational and not religious; but if we combine them, as we must, with the numinous, considered as a non-rational schema, we get the complex concept—the specifically religious category or Idea—of the holy, under which alone can be conceived the object of worship and adoration so far as it can be conceived at all. Even this complex concept is totally inadequate to the divine reality which is directly felt as a mysterium tremendum beyond all comprehension. The non-rational element of feeling remains essential to religion; but it has become purified into a feeling, not of the merely dreadful or fascinating or daemonic, but of the august and holy; and through this purified feeling or direct awareness our empty Ideas of reason can find their object in a living and holy God.
For Kant such a doctrine would be mere mysticism or Schwärmerei; but it is the most plausible adaptation of his philosophy to the needs of the religious consciousness as described by Otto. We must try to consider it on its merits.
§ 8. The appraisal of religious value
It must be obvious even from the few quotations already given that Otto's language, however suited to the description of religious emotion, is logically too imprecise and metaphorical for the purpose of philosophy. To clarify it may be to distort it. Yet it seems clear enough that what he calls numinous feeling is assumed to be cognitive as well as emotional, and that it has two functions, which for him are not distinguished: (1) the appraisal of religious value and (2) the apprehension of God's existence. The first of these functions is plausibly connected with feeling, although the feeling must be ‘permeated and saturated’ with something more than feeling.
If we speak of God, after Otto's fashion, as the object of numinous feeling, our language is not altogether happy; for God must be much more than an object. But in this terminology it is reasonable to say that numinous feeling is an appraisal both of the object and of the subject. The religious man feels at once God's holiness and his own unworthiness. Otto's description of this can hardly be bettered.
It is also reasonable enough to say that numinous feeling appraises itself—that is to say, as it becomes more refined, it may reject what once it accepted. The analogy for this is the feeling of the artist. We know from experience that the aesthetic feelings both of the creative artist and of the lover of art may become more sensitive and more discriminating in a life given up to the pursuit of beauty. A similar development may be found in those who lead the religious life.
On the other hand, it would be a mistake to suppose that the reflexions of the artist or the religious man on his experience are merely a matter of feeling. When these reflexions become philosophical and begin to lay bare ‘the obscure a priori foundation’ of art or religion, they have moved out of the realm of feeling altogether.
There remains a further question. How can religious feelings claim to be objective—that is, to be valid for others as well as for the individual? Here again we may find some guidance from the analogy of the artist. Whatever philosophers may say, no artist or aesthetic critic can accept the view that the judgements of the Philistine who prefers pushpin to poetry are as worthy of attention as his own. In spite of philosophical difficulties—and they are many—we may, at least provisionally, allow to the religious man a like independence and assurance, and also a like fallibility, in his judgements of religious value. The crucial question for philosophy is the claim that by numinous feeling he is able to apprehend the existence of God.
§ 9. The apprehension of God's existence
So far as divination is a feeling, or a source of feelings, we have to face the difficulty that no mere emotion can by itself give us knowledge of the existence of God. The difficulty is only increased and not diminished, if divination is supposed to produce a priori Ideas from the deep places of the soul. How can Ideas so produced have any contact with external reality, let alone with a transcendent reality which is ‘wholly other’?
The analogy of the artist fails us here. What he produces is an imaginary world, and an imaginary God cannot satisfy the religious man.
Otto's answer to our question is so cloudy that it is impossible to give any clear summary; but some of his obscure and conflicting statements may be quoted.
First of all, he assures us that numinous feeling is a feeling of reality. ‘This “feeling of reality”, the feeling of a “numinous” object objectively given, must be posited as a primary immediate datum of consciousness’. Yet on the crude level it is attached to ‘objects, occurrences, and entities falling within the work-a-day world of primitive experience’. The beliefs and feelings involved in the numinous experience, he further tells us, ‘are themselves not perceptions at all, but peculiar interpretations and evaluations, at first of perceptual data, and then—at a higher level—of posited objects and entities, which themselves no longer belong to the perceptual world, but are thought of as supplementing and transcending it’ (the italics are mine). The inconsistencies here are too glaring.
The word ‘posited’ can cover a multitude of philosophical sins; but we should like to know whether ‘positing’ is the work of feeling or of thought or of both together. This we are never told, but the main view appears to be that the religious man not only believes in a reality beyond the senses, but also ‘experiences’ it: he not only has Ideas of the holy, but may become ‘consciously aware of it as an operative reality intervening actively in the phenomenal world’. Otto is prepared to speak of ‘the experience of God’ and of ‘the actual discovery of and encounter with very deity’.
One of the queer things in his doctrine is that he seems to identify belief with inner revelation (or general revelation) and experience with outer revelation (or special revelation). Apparently we find mere belief when ‘the holy and sacred reality is attested by the inward voice of conscience and the religious consciousness, the “still, small voice” of the Spirit in the heart, by feeling, presentiment, and longing’. Religious experience, as opposed to belief, is found when the holy and sacred reality is ‘directly encountered in particular occurrences and events, self-revealed in persons and displayed in actions’.
We should naturally have expected experience to be concerned with inner feeling and belief with outer events, especially as the German word for ‘to experience’ is ‘erleben’, which indicates a minimum of thought. An outer revelation is not a revelation to us at all until it becomes an inner revelation; and it might seem as if history could give us only second-hand belief in what to the writers themselves was an inner’ experience. But in spite of Otto's curious reversal of terms he does recognize, unlike Barth, that we could not discover the divine in history unless we already possessed, at least potentially, ‘an inward standard that defies expression’, namely, the a priori category of the holy. And indeed he identifies the faculty of divination with the inner witness of the Holy Spirit—‘testimonium Spiritus Sancti internum’.
The word ‘history’ is probably the clue to Otto's strange choice of language. For him the main outward revelation of God is to be found, not in the experience of nature which meant so much to a poet like Wordsworth, but in the Old and New Testaments, particularly in the prophets and ‘in one in whom is found the Spirit in all its plenitude’. ‘Such a one is more than Prophet. He is the Son’.
There is another strain of thought which is borrowed from Schleiermacher with at least a qualified approval. When confronted ‘with the vast, living totality and reality of things as it is in nature and history’, a religious mind may grasp in intuitions, as it were, ‘a sheer overplus’ in addition to empirical reality. The import of these intuitions is ‘the glimpse of an Eternal, in and beyond the temporal and penetrating it’. They are surmises or inklings, and must certainly be called ‘cognitions’; yet they are not products of reflexion, but ‘the intuitive outcome of feeling’. Whatever we may think of these details, it is a fact that numinous feeling may be ‘occasioned’ by an effort to comprehend reality as a whole.
All this may have value as a description of the ways in which numinous feeling can be aroused in men; but it does not help us to understand why numinous feeling should be regarded as giving knowledge of the eternal. What theory there is appears to be self-contradictory; for although the holy reality is said to be ‘directly encountered’, the events in which it is encountered are described as ‘signs’—signs which on the cruder levels are not signs ‘in the true sense’. It is not easy to see how a ‘direct encounter’ can take place by means of signs, or how awareness by means of signs can be properly described as a feeling. No attempt is made to explain how we can pass from the sign to the reality of the thing signified; and it is hard to believe that this could be done without the aid of concepts.
The philosophical problem is not solved by elevating feeling into a special faculty of divination capable of producing its own a priori category. Even in the philosophy of art nothing is gained by postulating a special faculty of aesthetic feeling. But the problem of religion is entirely different; for religion claims, not merely to assess or produce spiritual values, but to afford knowledge of ultimate reality—even if it be a knowledge that comes by faith—in a way that art as such never professes to do. For this purpose a faculty of religious feeling is altogether inadequate. And although Otto, very properly, seeks to supplement this faculty with rational Ideas, he does not pretend that these Ideas enable us to grasp the existence of that ‘supra-rational’ subject of which they are said to be ‘predicated’.
§ 10. Religion and philosophy
It would be a mistake to end on a note of mere negation. On the strength of Otto's analysis the religious man may say to himself something like this. ‘I have enjoyed experiences which seem to me to be experiences of a divine presence. These experiences, which may occur in many ways, I find to be authentic and compelling, and they are shared by many others besides myself. Hence I am willing to trust them, to cultivate them, and above all to act on them. I cannot analyse or justify them further, but I believe that in them God reveals Himself; that He is no mere product of my imagination; and that I must conceive Him under such concepts as the absolutely powerful and the absolutely good. I am aware that these concepts are obscure and that no concepts of mine can be adequate to His nature, but only a God whom I think by means of these concepts can be the object of my worship; and I know from experience that only if I live by these beliefs can my whole life have meaning and my whole soul find peace’.
Such an attitude may be enough for religion, but it is not enough for philosophy. What Otto has done is rather to supply material for philosophical reflexion. He is right in warning philosophers and theologians that religion is by no means to be reduced to the acceptance of theoretical propositions or to the living of a moral life. He is right also in emphasizing the element of mystery; for in a world without mystery there could be no religion. Yet the mystery of the world may be more obvious to our advanced thought than to our primitive instincts; and indeed there can be no mystery except to a being who thinks as well as feels. Otto has done a great service in attempting to describe the development and purification of religious emotion, although this development cannot possibly work itself out, as he sometimes suggests, ‘purely in the sphere of the non-rational’. The main result emerging from his discussion is rather that the various strands of the religious life are inseparably intertwined, and that if we wish to do justice to religious belief, we must not rest it merely on feeling, but must look more closely at the theoretical arguments for God's existence and also at the convictions bound up with moral action. If religion is of the whole man, it cannot be understood without taking into account his experience as a whole.