1. Earlier in the present course it will be remembered we found it necessary to make a basic distinction between two different types of theism. According to Rational or Literal Theism qualities like goodness wisdom and power can be ascribed to God in their literal meaning. According to Supra-rational or Symbolic Theism it is only in a symbolic significance that such qualities can be ascribed to a Being who is ex hypothesi completely perfect. So far however we have made no attempt to develop the concept of ‘supra-rational theism’. Since it seemed to us that the orthodox or ‘official’ theism of the schools belonged fundamentally to the former type we thought it best first of all to consider Rational Theism and to ask whether its claim to truth could survive critical examination. Our conclusion has been that it can not—that it breaks down in self-contradiction. Goodness wisdom and power in the literal meanings we attach to them presuppose either thought or will or both of these; and thought and will we tried to show are functions which in their very nature imply defect in the subject so functioning and are therefore in contradiction with the absolute perfection that theism in all its forms ascribes to God.
Part Two (Second Course): On Godhood
Lecture XVI: Otto and the Numinous: The Transition to Supra-Rational Theism
It does not follow of course that supra-rational theism to which we now turn will fare any better. Though escaping no doubt the particular difficulty which seems to wreck rational theism it may well founder from other causes. Thus it may in the first place fail to establish itself as the authentic theoretical expression of religious experience. Or in the second place it may be discovered when we think it out with due care to be not really meaningful—for the notion of a valid symbolic knowledge where the thing symbolised is strictly speaking inconceivable must be admitted to be a puzzling one. Or in the third place even if we should be satisfied that supra-rational theism is the authentic expression of religious experience and also that it is meaningful it may still turn out that there is no good reason to suppose it to be true; no good reason to suppose that the God of supra-rational theism has any objective reality.
In this lecture I shall be attempting to meet the first (which is in my opinion much the least formidable) of these three ‘waves’. To this end I shall attempt an outline of the views of Rudolf Otto more particularly as they find expression in his celebrated Das Heilige. For Otto seems to me to have shown not indeed that supra-rational theism is true but that it is the only form of theism that is in accord with the full complexity of actual religious experience. There is a natural tendency in theology (inasmuch as it is an intellectual discipline bent on conceptual formulations) to make formal acknowledgment of the supra-rational as an important element in religious experience and then to allow it to recede far into the background; if not indeed to forget about it altogether. Against this tendency Otto's work is a sustained protest. It is I shall suggest Otto's major achievement to have reminded us that no theology can have any pretensions to validity that treats this element as less than central. But when the supra-rational element does receive due recognition a reorientation of the orthodox attitude towards the use of rational concepts in theology seems really inescapable. It becomes very difficult indeed to see how more than a symbolic validity can be assigned to these concepts. They would seem to be appropriate ideograms (to use one of Otto's favourite terms) rather than literally true representations of the Divine nature.
In the lecture that follows the present one I shall be engaged in elaborating the idea of a ‘supra-rational theism’ and in meeting what seem to me the most formidable objections to the view that it is in this rather than in ‘rational’ theism that the proper terminus ad quem of religious development is to be found. When that has been accomplished our old question ‘Is religion true?’ having passed through the intermediate form ‘Is theism true?’ will have come to assume its final (and as I think its proper) form ‘Is supra-rational theism true?’. The answer to that question will be our sole concern thereafter.
Today however I aim at little more than to expound Otto who is to myself by a wide margin the most illuminating religious thinker of modern times. This is a judgment which will I fear seem strange and perhaps a little shocking to many theologians in this country. British theologians in common with British philosophers have a strong common-sensical tradition. Though in the nature of the case they cannot wholly reject they have a deep-rooted suspicion of the mysterious the supra-rational the numinous. They like to pride themselves on keeping both feet firmly planted on the ground—which seems after all a rather unpromising way of reaching to Heaven! That it is possible and undesirable when soaring into the empyrean to lose all contact with the solid earth no one would dream of denying. This is a temptation to which all forms of mystical religion are admittedly much exposed. But it is not in my opinion a temptation to which Rudolf Otto despite his vigorous championship of the supra-rational can fairly be said to succumb.
But enough of preamble. Let us try to see now by attending to the argument of Otto's major work what his doctrine of the supra-rational amounts to and how he arrives at it.
2. The leading aim of Das Heilige may be said to be to delineate in as precise a manner as is possible the characteristics possessed by the object of religious worship for the actual religious worshipper. Otto is undertaking in fact an analysis of religious experience. It is common ground that the distinctive general character of the object of religious experience as experienced is ‘Holiness’. The holy and only the holy is genuinely ‘worshipful’. It is common ground too that the holy as conceived in religion includes within itself the highest moral attributes known to man and in the highest possible degree. It ought also to be common ground Otto contends though it is in fact a truth which has for a variety of reasons been heavily obscured in much traditional theistic thinking that the Holy cannot be exhaustively described in terms of moral or any other attributes capable of conceptual formulation. The historical manifestations of all the great religions bear constant witness and careful introspection of one's own most deeply felt religious experiences abundantly confirms that there is something more in the specifically religious valuation of the Holy Being than appreciation of powers and excellences of which we can form definite rational concepts. What is this ‘something more’—the ‘over-plus of meaning’ essentially ingredient in the Holy for any experience that is truly religious?
The answer of Das Heilige is that it is what its author calls ‘the numinous’. And while it would of course be absurd to claim for Otto the discovery of this constituent of religious experience we can I think fairly claim for him that he has in the first place virtually forced general recognition of it by the brilliance of his presentation and that he has in the second place distinguished its different facets by a psychological analysis of incomparable subtlety and delicacy; an analysis moreover reinforced at every vital point by a wealth of apt illustrative detail garnered from an encyclopaedic knowledge of the records of religion in many different quarters of the globe and at many different levels of development. Whatever the critics may have to say of Otto's religious epistemology and religious metaphysic (and I allow that for these my own admiration is well within bounds) few would wish to deny that as an essay in the psychology of religious experience Das Heilige is a tour de force.
From the outset Otto takes pains to impress upon his readers that they are not to expect from him a clean-cut conceptual definition of the numinous; for this is in the nature of the case impossible. The ‘numen’ like ‘Duty’ is an unique content of experience not definable in terms of anything other than itself. But just as in the case of Duty much can be done towards evoking the unique moral experience in which alone duty can be apprehended by comparing it with and disentangling it from familiar experiences that in one way or another resemble it so too there are experiences resembling the numinous in one aspect or another which can be helpfully used in guiding the mind towards the unique apprehension of the ‘numen’. In both cases however the ultimate appeal must be to direct experience; to the moral experience of Duty in the one case to the religious experience of the Holy in the other. Otto therefore enjoins the reader if he wishes to make anything of the analysis that is to follow to ‘direct his mind to a moment of deeply-felt religious experience as little as possible qualified by other forms of consciousness’;1 and to pay special regard to what is unique in such a state of the soul rather than to that which it has in common with other similar states.
Close inspection of such states Otto begins by claiming should enable us to see the partial truth and at the same time the inadequacy of Schleiermacher's view that the most fundamental and distinctive feature of religious experience is the ‘feeling of absolute dependence’. The ‘feeling of absolute dependence’ is an instructive description so far as it goes; but in Otto's opinion Schleiermacher's interpretative comments upon it betray that he has failed in at least two respects to give it the meaning it must bear if it is to be accepted as truly representing the essential character of religious experience.
In the first place Schleiermacher fails to bring out the qualitative difference between the religious feeling of dependence and the feeling of dependence in ordinary life—i.e. the dependence that consists in being subject to the control of circumstances and environment. There is more here than a difference of degree which is all that Schleiermacher's account seems to allow. The moment of religious feeling that is being sought after is well exemplified in Abraham's ‘I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord which am but dust and ashes’. The expression ‘dust and ashes’ points to something far deeper than the mere feeling of subjection (however ‘total’) to extraneous forces. The note that is struck is rather that of what one may best call ‘creature-feeling’—the creature's consciousness of illimitable inferiority when confronted by its Creator. The authentically religious ‘feeling of dependence is at bottom’ (in Otto's words) ‘the emotion of a creature abased and overwhelmed by its own nothingness in contrast to that which is supreme above all creatures.’2 The religious and the natural feelings of dependence are thus not identical in quality though they have sufficient similarity for the term ‘dependence’ drawn from ordinary experience to serve as a useful pointer to the quality of the actual religious feeling.
The second respect in which according to Otto Schleier-macher's interpretation is defective is that he speaks as though this religious feeling of dependence were primarily a phase of self-onsciousness; a consciousness of self as absolutely dependent from which we pass by inference to the idea of God as a cause beyond our self which will account for this feeling of dependence. But the psychological facts Otto insists tell a different story. The religious experience has ‘immediate and primary reference to an object outside the self’3—a numen praesens. The feeling of utter dependence the self depreciatory ‘creature-feeling’ is not that from which we reason to a numen praesens but rather the subjective reflection cast by the religious experience in its primary aspect which is direct awareness of the numen. In other words for religious experience God is not an inference from certain feelings of ours but an immediate object.
Otto proceeds now to attempt a more detailed determination of the numinous experience broadly characterised so far as we have seen as ‘the emotion of a creature abased and overwhelmed by its own nothingness in contrast to that which is supreme above all creatures’. His method is as always introspection supplemented and safeguarded by reference to historical records of the religious experience of others and by reference in particular to the utterances of those outstanding representatives of the—great religions in whom by common acknowledgment the flame of religion has burned with a peculiar radiance and intensity. The fundamental determinations which he discovers he has compendiously summed up for us in the now classic phrase mysterium tremendum et fascinans.
Each of the three constituent terms here has its ‘natural’ meaning derived from the experience of ordinary life. Otherwise of course they could be no guide to us at all. But it is of the essence of Otto's argument to bring out that this ‘natural’ meaning is never more than an analogue to the meaning which the term has for us within religious experience. Its function is to suggest but not to portray a corresponding moment in the numinous and thus to facilitate the direct experience in which the numinous is alone discerned.
Otto's detailed elucidation of the several moments of the numinous is probably the most remarkable part of a remarkable book. One feels that the only way of doing real justice to it would be to quote in their entirety a dozen or more pages of Das Heilige. There is hardly a sentence in these pages that is not laden with significance; and they must be read as their author wrote them if their persuasiveness is to be in any adequate measure appreciated. The bald outline which is all that I am able to offer here cannot do much more than serve as a reminder to those who have read Otto of the riches of the original. To others I can but earnestly commend first-hand acquaintance with Otto as among the most rewarding experiences that anyone with a concern for religious understanding is likely to enjoy in a life-time.
To take first the noun term mysterium. We are aware of the Holy in its numinous aspect as a profound mystery. But it is ‘mysterious’ not just in the sense that certain events in the natural world which are puzzling and incomprehensible to us are dubbed ‘mysterious’. The mystery of the numinous is felt to baffle conception altogether to elude the very possibility of rational enquiry. We feel ourselves in contact with something ‘wholly other’ 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.’4 It is a mystery before which the emotional reaction of the creature is in one aspect sheer stupor ‘amazement absolute’.
The two adjectival terms tremendum and fascinans give us the quale or content of the mysterium. Within the tremendum itself however Otto finds three distinguishable strands revealing themselves to introspective analysis. The numen is experienced (in this aspect of it) as uniquely daunting and awe-inspiring; as of overwhelming might and majesty; and as superahounding in living energy and ‘urgency’. The numinous emotions which are the correlates of these objective characteristics have their counterparts in ordinary life and we can recognise the analogy between them but in their numinous context the emotions are raised as it were to a new dimension. Consider e.g. the kind of ‘fear’ that is the emotional correlate of the ‘daunting’ aspect of the tremendum. This ‘numinous’ fear is experienced by us as specifically different from though also resembling the ‘natural’ fear that is evoked by real or supposed dangers from objects in the natural world. The difference is not just one of degree. Numinous fear is closest akin to the ‘shudder’ we feel in the presence of the ‘uncanny’; in the presence of what (as it seems to us) ‘has no place in our scheme of reality but belongs to an absolutely different one.’5 Something of this ‘inward shudder of the soul’ is characteristic of all numinous fear. At the same time the numinous fear of religious experience cannot be simply assimilated to fear of the ‘uncanny’ if only because in religion it is but a single strand in a complex emotional whole which includes the emotional correlates of the other features of the tremendum—its might and majesty and living urgency—and includes also the emotional correlate of the fascinans aspect.
The qualitative difference between the numinous and the corresponding natural emotions just illustrated in the case of ‘fear’ it is crucial to bear in mind when we try to describe in words drawn from ordinary experience the objective characteristics that belong to the numen. These objective characteristics are the correlates of the numinous emotions and we must resist the temptation to interpret them as though they were identical in quality with the objective characteristics that are the correlates of the corresponding natural emotions. We must never lose sight of the fact that whatever nameable characteristic is ascribed to the numen it is always a specific quale of the ‘mysterium’—of that which has ‘a kind and character incommensurable with our own’.
The complex emotive state aroused by the numinous has however not only different elements within its unity as we have just seen in the analysis of the tremendum but also in a sense opposing elements. For the fascinans element of the numen equally integral to religious experience stands in vivid contrast with the tremendum element. While the soul shrinks in bottomless humility from the mysteriously awful might and majesty of the numen in its tremendum aspect it is at the same time entranced and filled with blissful rapture by the mysterious enchantment and allure of the numen in its fascinans aspect. This ‘dual character of the numinous consciousness’ Otto writes ‘is at once the strangest and most noteworthy phenomenon in the whole history of religion.’6 Fear of the Lord has as its essential complement Praise of the Lord. For the object of religious worship is felt to possess transcendent worth or value no less than transcendent power and majesty to be the ideal goal of all our desiring communion with which brings to the soul ‘the peace that passeth understanding’. And here too Otto reiterates it is crucial to bear in mind that the fascinans is a specific quale of the mysterium and to recognise how feeble at best are the analogies we draw from our ordinary experience to describe it. The glory of God is something that eye cannot behold or tongue tell. The universal testimony of the saints is to beatitude inexpressible before a Perfection that is indescribable; and this testimony finds its echo so Otto would maintain in the soul of every man to whom religion is a reality.
This very brief resumé pale shadow though it be of the original is all that our time will allow for Otto's psychological analysis of the religious consciousness in respect of its non-rational or numinous aspect; an aspect which Otto believes surely with justice theology as a ‘scientific’ discipline has been prone to subordinate unduly to the rational aspect. Shortly we shall be attempting to describe how Otto deals with this second rational aspect of the Holy and how he conceives its relation to the non-rational aspect. But meantime let us follow Otto a little further in his account of the non-rational aspect by noticing what may be called his epistemology as distinct from his psychology of the numinous consciousness.
3. The outstanding feature of Otto's epistemology of the numinous is his claim that the numinous consciousness is a priori ‘A priori’ is a term of somewhat ambiguous import in philosophy but at least it always means ‘independent of experience’ in some sense of that phrase. The following excerpt makes reasonably clear I think in what sense Otto takes the numinous consciousness to be ‘independent of experience’ and at the same time how he understands its relation to experience.
‘The numinous’ he tells us ‘issues from the deepest foundation of cognitive apprehension that the soul possesses and though it of course comes into being in and amid the sensory data and empirical material of the natural world and cannot anticipate or dispense with those yet it does not arise out of them but only by their means. They are the incitement the stimulus and the “occasion” for the numinous consciousness to become astir and in so doing to begin—at first with a naïve immediacy of reaction—to be interfused and interwoven with the present world of sensuous experience until becoming gradually purer it disengages itself from this and takes its stand in absolute contrast to it.’7
The ‘incitements’ or ‘stimuli’ from the natural world here referred to one gathers are primarily the situations which evoke in unusual measure those ‘natural’ emotions which are most markedly analogous to the numinous emotions. Just as by reason of the close analogy between the feeling of constraint by custom and the feeling of constraint by moral obligation or duty ‘the former can arouse the latter in the mind if it—the latter—was already potentially planted there’8 despite the latter's qualitative uniqueness so too ‘natural’ experiences of the exceptionally strange or the exceptionally daunting or the exceptionally enchanting can excite the corresponding numinous emotions awaking the potentiality of our numinous consciousness into activity.
As Otto is careful to point out it is not strictly the numinous consciousness but rather the potentiality or capacity for numinous consciousness that is (on his view) an a priori endowment of the human soul.. Manifestly this potentiality is actualised in very different degrees in different persons; partly because incitements to it may be more or less frequent and more or less powerful in different types of experience partly also because the original endowment the predisposition to numinous experience may be stronger in one man than another. Again the numinous consciousness need not and historically it does not emerge ‘all at once’. ‘The numinous only unfolds its full content by slow degrees as one by one the series of requisite stimuli or incitements becomes operative.’9 There are many manifestations of the numinous prior to religion proper in which one particular moment of the numinous is exclusively evoked’—most commonly the mysterium element. And even when the numinous is awakened in sufficient completeness for it to be legitimately identified with religion the several moments may still be present in very unequal proportions. The tremendum element may preponderate over all others as in the ‘daemonic dread’ that is so prominent a feature of many primitive religions: or the fascinans element may preponderate as in certain ‘sentimental’ forms of religion more characteristic perhaps of modern than of ancient times; or the mysterium element may preponderate as it manifestly does in all forms of mystical religion.
So much for how Otto understands the a priori status which he attributes to the numinous consciousness. But it will naturally be asked what reasons he offers for the contention that the numinous consciousness is a priori in this sense. To this question Otto has a direct enough answer to give—though whether or not it is a satisfactory one is another matter. ‘The proof that in the numinous we have to deal with purely a priori cognitive elements’ he tells us ‘is to be reached by introspection and a critical examination of reason such as Kant instituted. We find that is involved in the numinous experience beliefs and feelings qualitatively different from anything that “natural” sense perception is capable of giving us.’10 The core of the matter is that in Otto's view no empirical origin is conceivable for the numinous consciousness. If that be granted then we are entitled to infer that while events in the natural world may be necessary to excite it into activity the numinous consciousness originates autonomously from an a priori endowment of the human mind. ‘The facts of the numinous consciousness’ he says ‘point… to a hidden substantive source from which the religious ideas and feelings are formed which lies in the mind independently of sense-experience.’11
We shall in a later lecture have to enquire how far this ‘proof’ of a prioritycan be accounted successful.
4. We may turn now to the rational as opposed to the numinous or non-rational strand in the idea of the holy. From the beginning Otto has fully recognised that the ‘holy’ is a complex category combining both strands within its unity. The very first sentence of Das Heilige talls us that ‘it is essential to every theistic conception of God… that it designates and precisely characterises Deity by the attributes Spirit Purpose Reason Good Will Supreme Power Unity Self-hood.’12 And ‘all these attributes’ he adds ‘constitute clear and definite concepts: they can be grasped by the intellect; they can be analysed by thought; they even admit of definition’. Moreover (he goes on) ‘we count this the very mark and criterion of a religion's high rank and superior value that it should have no lack of conceptions about God.’13 The attitude thus manifested in his first paragraph Otto preserves to the end. Inevitably since the governing motive of his whole work is to repair what he deems to be the fatal neglect of the numinous element by the customary theology most of his chapters are devoted to elucidation of the numinous and to warnings of the impoverishment that religion suffers from its disregard. But that there is another side to the picture is taken for granted throughout and not infrequently is expressly emphasised. Thus after a rather long stretch almost exclusively concerned with the nature and implications of the non-rational element in holiness Otto goes out of his way to insist that ‘it is no less true that “holiness” “sanctity” as Christianity intends the words cannot dispense with the rational and especially the clear ethical elements of meaning which Protestantism more particularly emphasises in the idea of God.’14
There can be little doubt then about Otto's intention to preserve a highly important status for the rational element in the religious life. The question he has to face (and of course does face) is how a consciousness for which the object of worship is mysterium tremendum et fascinans can also ascribe to that object definite rational qualities. How can God be deemed to be at once supra-rational and also the bearer of rational attributes?
The short answer lies in the word ‘schematism’. ‘The relation of the rational to the non-rational element in the idea of the holy or sacred’ Otto declares ‘is… one of “schematization.”’15 The term is of course borrowed from Kant; but what Otto means by it in its religious context seems tolerably clear without reference to its highly technical application in the Critique of Pure Reason. The numinous content of the religious consciousness is the mysterium tremendum et fascinans that pertains to an order ‘incommensurable with our own’. But as we have already seen the emotions which the numinous object evokes in us though qualitatively unique have a felt analogy with certain emotions evoked in us by attributes and objects in ordinary experience of which we can form clear conceptions. It is on the basis of these felt analogies that a ‘conceptual translation’ or schematism of the pure numinous content becomes possible. The object which we experience as evoking in us the numinous emotions we spontaneously and naturally think of as characterised in supreme measure by those qualities which an object must have to evoke in us the emotions analogous to the numinous in our ordinary experience. By what Otto calls ‘an inward necessity of the mind’ we think of the Holy Being which at once so overwhelmingly daunts and entrances us as endued with Power and Value and with whatever more specific qualities seem to us most fully to manifest these general attributes. At the same time the numinous marrow of our experience ensures our recognition that in the Holy Being the Power and the Value are absolute-totally free from all limitation which may be found in even their highest creaturely expressions.
Since Otto's use of the Kantian term ‘schematism’ has been somewhat blown upon by the critics it is worth while pointing out that there does seem to be a sufficient resemblance between the process Otto has in mind and Kant's schematism of the categories—or more accurately Kant's schematism of the pure concepts of the understanding—for the term ‘schematism’ to have real indicative value. By an inward necessity of the mind according to Kant the pure concepts of the understanding are given a translation in terms of temporal consciousness and as thus schematised are applied a priori to perceived objects. By a corresponding inward necessity of the mind according to Otto the mysterium tremendum et fascinans of the numinous consciousness is given a translation in terms of ‘rational’ consciousness and as thus schematised is applied a priori to numinous objects. It may not be a particularly happy piece of nomenclature but on the whole it is not easy to see what more fitting term Otto could have culled from the literature of philosophy to direct attention to the distinctive features of the ‘rationalising’ of the numinous as he understands it.
5. Nevertheless I should by no means wish to dispute that Otto's doctrine of Schematism stands in need of clarification at certain points. There is most obscurity perhaps concerning the nature and basis of the alleged ‘inward necessity’ of the mind whereby the conceptual schemata of the numinous—the ‘ideograms’—are framed. Let us look at this matter for a few moments.
Otto's position will perhaps best be elucidated by distinguishing between and then considering how Otto would answer three closely related questions. The questions are these. Given numinous experience is there (1) an inward necessity of the mind to ‘think’ the numinous at all? If there is an inward necessity to think it is there (2) an inward necessity to think it in some particular way as the bearer of some specific set of characters? And if there is an inward necessity of this second sort is it (3) an inward necessity to think the specific set of characters as in their literal significance predicable of the numinous object?
Now the answer to the first question seems obviously to be in the affirmative. For numinous experience is never merely emotional. Perhaps outside the field of psycho-pathology there is no such thing as a ‘mere emotion’ if by that is meant an emotion not directed towards an object that is in some manner however dim ‘conceived’. At any rate the emotion characteristic of numinous experience as Otto has depicted it is assuredly not ‘directionless’. There is always he insists awareness of an objective reality as evoking the emotion—the numen praesens. Numinous experience thus essentially involves some thinking of its object.
But is there further an inward necessity to think the numen in a particular way a way which will permit the qualities it possesses to be individually and significantly named? The answer to this second question is equally certainly in the affirmative: and the basis of the affirmative answer here is as we have seen the felt analogy between the numinous emotions we experience and certain emotions experienced in every-day life. Were there no such felt analogy we could say nothing specific at all by way of describing the numinous emotions nor in consequence could we give significant determination to the numinous object. But because we are aware of analogy between our numinous emotions and our ‘ordinary’ emotions of wonder of dread and of entrancement we naturally and I think one may say inevitably think the numinous object as the bearer of qualities analogous to the nameable qualities that evoke the ordinary emotions of wonder dread and entrancement. And this is the justification for describing the numinous object in the specific terms mysterium tremendum et fascinans.
Analogy however implies difference as well as identity; and in thinking the content of the numinous the differences must be taken account of no less than the identity. This consideration is crucial for a correct answer to our third question. Otto's analysis of numinous experience it will be remembered gave very special attention to the differences that mark off the numinous emotions from their counterparts in ordinary experience. There is no need to traverse again the old familiar ground: but we may remind ourselves how in the preliminary and general characterisation of the numinous the numinous feeling of ‘absolute dependence’ was distinguished from the natural feeling of absolute dependence by the former's sense of the infinitude of the gulf between the ‘dependent’ and that upon which it depends. It was ‘the emotion of a creature abased and overwhelmed by its own nothingness in contrast to that which is supreme above all creatures’. We may recall again how in the more detailed analysis that followed the distinction between numinous wonder and its natural counterpart was found to lie in the former's sense that the evoking object belongs to an order ‘of a kind and character incommensurable with our own’ that its nature is ‘mysterious’ to the point of eluding the very possibility of rational enquiry. The fundamental difference in fact which makes the felt analogy of our numinous with our natural emotions only an analogy and not a pure identity is precisely that aura of the supra-natural the supra-human the supra-rational in which numinous experience is enveloped throughout. Now when this is appreciated the question whether there is any inward necessity to think the numinous object in terms of rational concepts in their literal meaning answers itself. So far from there being any such inward necessity the position is rather that wherever the numinous consciousness is genuinely active there is an inward necessity of the mind to refrain from interpreting the numinous object in these rational terms.
And yet the temptation to ‘rationalise’ let it be admitted is almost irresistible’. It is only for relatively brief spells that even the most devout of men are sustained at the white-hot temperature of numinous experience. When the cool light of common day supervenes nothing is easier than to think of that which was felt to be daunting and entrancing beyond anything we can conceive as though it were endued with a power and a value greater merely in degree than anything we can conceive. But ‘greater in degree’ implies qualitative identity and the door is then wide open to thinking of God in terms of definite rational concepts. We interpret God in a sense legitimately enough in terms of ‘the highest we know’ ascribing to Him Justice and Might and Love and Wisdom and Compassion and whatever other qualities are ranked highest in our ethical and cultural hierarchy; but we too readily forget that it is only as analogues and not in their literal meaning that these or any other ‘rational’ qualities can fitly be predicated of that which is mysterium tremendum et fascinans.
To sum up then the answers to our three questions. It seems to me reasonably clear both that and why Otto holds that given the fact of numinous experience there is an inward necessity of the mind to ‘think’ the numinous object and to think it in terms of a specific set of characters but at the same time to assign to this set of characters a no more than symbolic validity.
Now the upshot of all this as regards the relation of the rational to the supra-rational in religion is I think as manifest as it is to many religious thinkers unpalatable—I am not sure that even to Otto himself as a Christian theologian it was altogether palatable. It is that while the ‘rational strand’ is as Otto declares ‘as indispensable’ to the idea of the holy as the supra-rational strand the latter is fundamental and ultimate in a sense in which the former is not. It is correct to say that the rational strand is ‘as indispensable’ as the supra-rational strand for the reason that we cannot think the numinous at all—cannot therefore frame any idea of the holy—without thinking it in terms of rational concepts. But because these same rational concepts have to be understood as only analogues for the delineation of the numinous object the ‘indispensability’ of the rational strand must not be interpreted as though rational theism which applies its predicates to God in their literal meaning were as valid an expression of religious experience as supra-rational theism which applies its predicates only symbolically. The implication of Otto's central thesis seems to me to be incontestably that the only kind of theology possible is a symbolic theology.
6. It was to be expected that a doctrine like Otto's which seemed by implication to assign to theology the function of formulating not conceptual truths but mere conceptual ideograms or symbols about God and His relation to the world and to man should meet with a rather chilly reception in the ranks of orthodox theology. Nor have such expectations been belied. Warm tributes have indeed been paid almost unanimously to Otto's spiritual depth and sincerity to the sensitiveness and subtlety of his religious psychology and to the astonishing amplitude of his resources of scholarship; and yet so far as the implications of his central thesis are concerned his impact upon modern constructive theology in this country at any rate would appear to have been almost negligible. I do not find this surprising but it does seem to me hard to justify. Of course as I have already indicated and shall later illustrate I by no means take the view that Otto's religious theories are free from serious blemish. There is much in his metaphysic and epistemology of religion that seems to me ill-founded; and as for the curious doctrine that there is a development of the numinous ‘which works itself out purely in the sphere of the non-rational’ but with the stages of which development the ‘process of rationalization and moralization’ somehow or other ‘nearly if not quite synchronizes and keeps pace.’16 I can only say that I share to the full the mystification of so many other of Otto's readers. But all that I suggest is not really to the point. For it is not Otto's highly questionable teachings on these matters but rather his almost universally admired religious psychology which carries with it such profound implications for constructive theology. It is the mysterium tremendum et fasctnans of Otto's psychological analysis (untouched so far as I can see by the apparent errors to which I have just alluded) that forces the vital question whether theology can ever claim more than a symbolic validity for its concepts and doctrines. If religious experience is admitted to answer to Otto's description of it then surely theology cannot be absolved from the duty of facing up to the question how a literally conceived theology is to be reconciled with the dominatingly supra-rational character of actual religious experience?
There have of course been a few critics who have appreciated that at bottom it is Otto's psychology that is the real menace to the orthodox theology of theism and who have directed their attacks accordingly. I am bound to say however that adequate answers to all the criticisms on this score with which I am acquainted seem to me to lie and usually not too deeply hidden within the pages of Das Heilige itself. Nevertheless it may be instructive to conclude this lecture with a brief comment upon one such criticism; one which by reason of its author's great and deserved reputation as a religious thinker and the special bent of his theological interest and also—one must add—by reason of the uncompromising and even somewhat contemptuous language in which the criticism is couched has probably had the unfortunate effect of deterring not a few youthful students of theology from troubling themselves to become acquainted with Otto's works at first hand. I refer to Professor John Oman's attack (for as such I can only regard it) in The Natural and the Supernatural.17
7. The burden of Oman's complaint is that Otto separates the basic religious experience entirely from the ethical so that he is able to explain the conspicuous fact of their actual union in all developed religions only by an external and implausible device; to wit ‘schematization’. And if Otto's actual account of the numinous (the ‘innermost core of religion’ as he calls it) were in fact as Oman reports it to be the charge of completely dividing the religious from the ethical would have much substance. For here is the way in which Oman thinks it fair to describe that account:
‘Professor Otto relates the holy to what he calls the numinous. The name will serve as well as any other for it is the mere impression of an awe-inspiring something the mightier for stirring intense feeling the vaguer it is.’18
Or again: ‘Professor Otto holds this awesome holy to be the one essential religious feeling.’19
Now of course the ‘awfumess’ or ‘awe-inspiring’ character of the numinous is given great prominence by Otto. It relates in his analysis of numinous consciousness to a major aspect of the numen viz. the tremendum. But surely it is the merest caricature of Otto's position to put forward this one major aspect as sufficiently defining what Otto means by the numinous? Otto speaks of ‘that element or factor of the numinous which was the first our analysis noted and which we proposed to name symbolically the ‘aweful’ (tremendum).’20 What of the other major element or factor the other of what Otto expressly calls the ‘two poles’ of the numinous consciousness viz. the fascinans? It seems incredible but it is sober truth that Oman consistently writes as if the whole of Chapter VI of Das Heilige on the fascinans aspect of the numinous not to speak of a multitude of later passages depending upon it simply did not exist.
Yet as soon as we call to mind what Otto has called ‘the dual character of the numinous consciousness’21 the hollowness of the charge that he ‘entirely divides’ the ethical from the religious becomes apparent. The fascinans aspect is that in virtue of which the numinous consciousness is enraptured and entranced by the transcendent worth or value of the numen. If we choose to abstract from this aspect and to forget that essential to the numinous consciousness as Otto portrays it is this element of valuation then naturally nothing is easier than to present Otto's view as ‘entirely dividing’ the religious from the ethical. For it is precisely the fascinans aspect that provides the link between the two ensuring that we cannot but think the object of religious experience as endued with supreme excellence. That the ethical concepts can for Otto be applied to God only as ideograms is of course true. But I must protest that no criticism of Otto on the ground of separating the religious from the ethical deserves to be taken seriously if (like Oman's) it does not even attempt to examine the nature and status of these ethical ideograms and their basis in Otto's thought. Otto may conceivably be mistaken in believing that there is an ‘inward necessity’ of the mind to frame ethical ideograms of the numinous and in believing accordingly that his ‘schematization’ is not external but internal. Mistaken or not however this is an integral and fully articulated part of his system and in my opinion no responsible critic has any right to ignore it.
I urged earlier that Otto's religious psychology imperatively points in the direction of a supra-rational or ‘symbolic’ theism. Much remains to be done however before the notion of such a theism can be made really plausible. In particular the nature significance and validity of a merely analogical knowledge of God demands the closest possible examination. That perplexing problem—or cluster of problems—will be the central topic of our next lecture.
From the book: