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Rudolf Otto (25 September 1869 – 6 March 1937) was an eminent German Lutheran theologian, philosopher, and comparative religionist. He is regarded as one of the most influential scholars of religion in the early twentieth century and is best known for his concept of the numinous, a profound emotional experience he argued was at the heart of the world's religions.[1] While his work started in the domain of liberal Christian theology, its main thrust was always apologetical, seeking to defend religion against naturalist critiques.[2] Otto eventually came to conceive of his work as part of a science of religion, which was divided into the philosophy of religion, the history of religion, and the psychology of religion.[2]

Rudolf Otto
Born (1869-09-25)25 September 1869
Peine, North German Confederation
Died 6 March 1937(1937-03-06) (aged 67)
Marburg, Germany
Cause of death Pneumonia
Academic background
Alma mater
Influences Friedrich Schleiermacher, Immanuel Kant, Jakob Fries
Academic work
Discipline Theology and comparative religion
Notable works The Idea of the Holy
Notable ideas The numinous, the mysterium, the tremendum, the fascinans, the ganz Andere
Influenced Eliade, Jung, C. S. Lewis, Tillich, Barth, Rahner, Heidegger, Wach, Horkheimer, Gadamer



Born in Peine near Hanover, Otto was raised in a pious Christian family.[3] He attended the Gymnasium Andreanum in Hildesheim and studied at the universities of Erlangen and Göttingen, where he wrote his dissertation on Martin Luther's understanding of the Holy Spirit (Die Anschauung von heiligen Geiste bei Luther: Eine historisch-dogmatische Untersuchung), and his habilitation on Kant (Naturalistische und religiöse Weltansicht). By 1906, he held a position as extraordinary professor, and in 1910 he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Giessen.

Otto's fascination with non-Christian religions was awakened during an extended trip from 1911-1912 through North Africa, Palestine, British India, China, Japan, and the United States.[4] He cited a 1911 visit to a Moroccan synagogue as a key inspiration for the theme of the Holy he would later develop.[3] Otto became a member of the German parliament in 1913 and retained this position through the First World War.[4] In 1917, he spearheaded an effort to simplify the system of weighting votes in Prussian elections.[2] He then served in the post-war constituent assembly in 1918, and remained involved in the politics of the Weimar Republic.[4]

Meanwhile, in 1915, he became ordinary professor at the University of Breslau, and in 1917, at the University of Marburg's Divinity School, then one of the most famous Protestant seminaries in the world. Although he received several other calls, he remained in Marburg for the rest of his life. He retired in 1929 but continued writing afterward. On 6 March 1937, he died of pneumonia, after suffering serious injuries falling about twenty meters from a tower in October 1936. There were lasting rumors that the fall was a suicide attempt but this has never been confirmed.[2] He is buried in the Marburg cemetery.



In his early years Otto was most influenced by the German idealist theologian and philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher and his conceptualization of the category of the religious as a type of emotion or consciousness irreducible to ethical or rational epistemologies. In this, Otto saw Schleiermacher as having recaptured a sense of holiness lost in the Age of Enlightenment. Schleiermacher described this religious feeling as one of absolute dependence; Otto eventually rejected this characterization as too closely analogous to earthly dependence and emphasized the complete otherness of the religious feeling from the mundane world (see below).[4]

In 1904, while a student at the University of Göttingen, Otto became a proponent of the philosophy of Jakob Fries along with two fellow students.[2]

The Idea of the HolyEdit

Otto's most famous work, The Idea of the Holy, was first published in German in 1917 as Das Heilige - Über das Irrationale in der Idee des Göttlichen und sein Verhältnis zum Rationalen. It was one of the most successful German theological books of the 20th century, has never gone out of print, and is now available in about 20 languages. The first English translation was published in 1923 under the title The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational. Otto was influenced by the rationalist approaches of Immanuel Kant and Jakob Fries, and he stated that his previous works had focused on the rational aspects of the divine.[5] He felt people should first do serious rational study of God, before turning to the non-rational element of God as he did in this book.[5][6]:vii

In The Idea of the Holy, Otto writes that while the concept of "the holy" is often used to convey moral perfection – and does entail this – it contains another distinct element, beyond the ethical sphere, for which he coined the term numinous based on the Latin word numen ("divine power").[6]:5-7 (The term is etymologically unrelated to Immanuel Kant's noumenon, a Greek term referring to an unknowable reality underlying all things.) He explains the numinous as a "non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self". This mental state "presents itself as ganz Andere,[7] wholly other, a condition absolutely sui generis and incomparable whereby the human being finds himself utterly abashed."[8] Otto argues that because the numinous is irreducible and sui generis it cannot be defined in terms of other concepts or experiences, and that the reader must therefore be "guided and led on by consideration and discussion of the matter through the ways of his own mind, until he reach the point at which 'the numinous' in him perforce begins to stir... In other words, our X cannot, strictly speaking, be taught, it can only be evoked, awakened in the mind."[6]:7 Chapters 4 to 6 are devoted to attempting to evoke the numinous and its various aspects. He writes:

The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing, as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its “profane,” non-religious mood of everyday experience. [...] It has its crude, barbaric antecedents and early manifestations, and again it may be developed into something beautiful and pure and glorious. It may become the hushed, trembling, and speechless humility of the creature in the presence of—whom or what? In the presence of that which is a Mystery inexpressible and above all creatures.[4][6]:12-13

He describes it as a mystery (Latin: mysterium) that is at once terrifying (tremendum) and fascinating (fascinans).[9] Otto felt that the numinous was most strongly present in the Old and New Testaments, but that it was also present in all other religions.[6]:74

According to Mark Wynn in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, The Idea of the Holy falls within a paradigm in the philosophy of emotion in which emotions are seen as including an element of perception with intrinsic epistemic value that is neither mediated by thoughts nor simply a response to physiological factors. Otto therefore understands religious experience as having mind-independent phenomenological content rather than being an internal response to belief in a divine reality. Otto applied this model specifically to religious experiences, which he felt were qualitatively different from other emotions.[10]

Later worksEdit

In Mysticism East and West, published in German in 1926, Otto compares and contrasts the views of the medieval German Christian mystic Meister Eckhart with those of the influential Hindu philosopher Adi Shankara, the key figure of the Advaita Vedanta school.[2]


Otto left a broad influence on theology and the philosophy of religion in the first half of the 20th century. In The Idea of the Holy and other works, he set out a paradigm for the study of religion that focused on the need to realize the religious as a non-reducible, original category in its own right. This paradigm was heavily criticized between approximately 1950 and 1990 but has seen a resurgence since then, as its phenomenological aspects have become more apparent.

The eminent Romanian-American historian of religion and philosopher Mircea Eliade used the concepts from The Idea of the Holy as the starting point for his own 1954 book, The Sacred and the Profane.[11] Carl Gustav Jung, the founder of analytic psychology, applied the concept of the numinous to psychology and psychotherapy, arguing it was therapeutic and brought greater self-understanding, and stating that to him religion was about a "careful and scrupulous observation... of the numinosum".[12] The American Episcopal priest John A. Sanford applied the ideas of both Otto and Jung in his writings on religious psychotherapy. Others to acknowledge Otto were, for instance, philosophers Martin Heidegger, Leo Strauss, Hans-Georg Gadamer (who was critical when younger but respectful in his old age), Max Scheler, W. T. Stace, Joachim Wach[3] and Hans Jonas, war veteran and writer Ernst Jünger, and historian and scientist Joseph Needham.

Karl Barth, an influential Protestant theologian contemporary to Otto, acknowledged Otto's influence and approved a similar conception of God as ganz Andere or totaliter aliter,[13] that fits into the apophatic theology tradition. Max Horkheimer, a member of the Frankfurt School, has taken the concept of "wholly other" in his 1970 book Die Sehnsucht nach dem ganz Anderen ("longing for the entirely Other").[14][15] Otto was also one of the very few modern theologians to whom C. S. Lewis indicates a debt, particularly to the idea of the numinous in The Problem of Pain. German-American theologian Paul Tillich acknowledged Otto's influence on him,[2] as did Otto's most famous German pupil Gustav Mensching (1901–1978) from Bonn University. Otto's views can be seen[clarification needed] in the noted Catholic theologian Karl Rahner's presentation of man as a being of transcendence. More recently, Otto has also influenced the American Franciscan friar and inspirational speaker Richard Rohr. Otto's ideas have also been discussed by Orthodox Jewish theologians including Joseph Soloveitchik and Eliezer Berkovits.[16]


  • A full bibliography of Otto's works is given in Robert F. Davidson, Rudolf Otto's Interpretation of Religion (Princeton, 1947), pp. 207–9

In GermanEdit

  • Naturalistische und religiöse Weltansicht (1904)
  • Das Heilige - Über das Irrationale in der Idee des Göttlichen und sein Verhältnis zum Rationalen (Breslau, 1917)
  • Die Kant-Friesische Religions-Philosophie

English translationsEdit

  • Naturalism and Religion, trans JA Thomson and MB Thomson (London: Williams and Norgate, 1907), [originally published 1904] – Full text online at Google Books
  • The Life and Ministry of Jesus, According to the Critical Method (Chicago: Open Court, 1908), ISBN 0-8370-4648-3Full text online at Internet Archive
  • The Idea of the Holy, trans JW Harvey, (New York: OUP, 1923; 2nd edn, 1950; reprint, New York, 1970), ISBN 0-19-500210-5 [originally published 1917] – Full text online
  • Christianity and the Indian Religion of Grace (Madras, 1928)
  • India's Religion of Grace and Christianity Compared and Contrasted, trans FH Foster, (New York; London, 1930)
  • 'The Sensus Numinis as the Historical Basis of Religion', Hibbert Journal 29, (1930), 1-8
  • The philosophy of religion based on Kant and Fries, trans EB Dicker, (London, 1931) [originally published 1909]
  • Religious essays: A supplement to 'The Idea of the Holy', trans B Lunn, (London, 1931)
  • Mysticism east and west: A comparative analysis of the nature of mysticism, trans BL Bracey and RC Payne (New York, 1932) [originally published 1926]
  • 'In the sphere of the holy', Hibbert Journal 31, (1932-3), 413-6
  • The original Gita: The song of the Supreme Exalted One (London, 1939)
  • The Kingdom of God and the Son of Man: A Study in the History of Religion
  • Autobiographical and Social Essays (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1996), ISBN 3-11-014518-9

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Adler, Joseph. "Rudolf Otto's Concept of the Numinous". Gambier, Ohio: Kenyon College. Retrieved 19 October 2016. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Alles, Gregory D. (2005). "Otto, Rudolf". Encyclopedia of Religion. Farmington Hills, Michigan: Thomson Gale. Retrieved 6 March 2017. 
  3. ^ a b c "Louis Karl Rudolf Otto Facts". Encyclopedia of World Biography. Retrieved 24 October 2016. 
  4. ^ a b c d e Meland, Bernard E. "Rudolf Otto | German philosopher and theologian". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 24 October 2016. 
  5. ^ a b Ross, Kelley. "Rudolf Otto (1869-1937)". Retrieved 19 October 2016. 
  6. ^ a b c d e Otto, Rudolf (1923). The Idea of the Holy. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-500210-5. Retrieved 31 December 2016. 
  7. ^ Otto, Rudolf (1996). Alles, Gregory D., ed. Autobiographical and Social Essays. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. p. 30. ISBN 978-3-110-14519-9. ISBN 3-11014519-7. 
  8. ^ Eckardt, Alice L.; Eckardt, A. Roy (July 1980). "The Holocaust and the Enigma of Uniqueness: A Philosophical Effort at Practical Clarification". Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Sage Publications. 450 (1): 165–178. doi:10.1177/000271628045000114. JSTOR 1042566.  P. 169. Cited in: Cohn-Sherbok, Dan, ed. (1991). A Traditional Quest. Essays in Honour of Louis Jacobs. London: Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 54. ISBN 978-0-567-52728-8. ISBN 0-56752728-X. 
  9. ^ Otto, Rudolf (1996). Mysterium tremendum et fascinans.
  10. ^ Wynn, Mark (19 December 2016). "Section 2.1 Emotional feelings and encounter with God". Phenomenology of Religion. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Center for the Study of Language and Information, Stanford University. Retrieved 6 March 2017. 
  11. ^ Eliade, Mircea (1959) [1954]. "Introduction (p. 8)". The Sacred and the Profane. The Nature of Religion. Translated from the French by Willard R. Trask. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 978-0-156-79201-1. ISBN 0-15679201-X. 
  12. ^ Agnel, Aimé. "Numinous (Analytical Psychology)". International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. Retrieved 9 November 2016. 
  13. ^ Webb, Stephen H. (1991). Re-figuring Theology. The Rhetoric of Karl Barth. Albany, New York: SUNY Press. p. 87. ISBN 978-1-438-42347-0. ISBN 1-43842347-0. 
  14. ^ Adorno, Theodor W.; Tiedemann, Rolf (2000) [1965]. Metaphysics. Concept and Problems. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Redwood City, California: Stanford University Press. p. 181. ISBN 978-0-804-74528-4. ISBN 0-80474528-5. 
  15. ^ Siebert, Rudolf J. (January 1, 2005). "The Critical Theory of Society: The Longing for the Totally Other". Critical Sociology. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications. 31 (1-2): 57–113. doi:10.1163/1569163053084270. 
  16. ^ Berkovits, Eliezer, God, Man and History, 2004, pp. 166, 170.


  • Almond, Philip C., 'Rudolf Otto: An Introduction to his Philosophical Theology' (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984).
  • Davidson, Robert F, Rudolf Otto's Interpretation of Religion, (Princeton, 1947)
  • Gooch, Todd A, The Numinous and Modernity: An Interpretation of Rudolf Otto's Philosophy of Religion. Preface by Otto Kaiser and Wolfgang Drechsler. (Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2000). ISBN 3-11-016799-9.
  • Ludwig, Theodore M, ‘Otto, Rudolf’ in Encyclopedia of Religion, vol 11 (1987), pp139–141
  • Melissa, Raphael, Rudolf Otto and the concept of holiness, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997)
  • Mok, Daniël (2012). Rudolf Otto: Een kleine biografie. Preface by Gerardus van der Leeuw. Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Abraxas. ISBN 978-90-79133-08-6.
  • Mok, Daniël et al. (2002). Een wijze uit het westen: Beschouwingen over Rudolf Otto. Preface by Rudolph Boeke. Amsterdam: De Appelbloesem Pers (i.e. Uitgeverij Abraxas). ISBN 90-70459-36-1 (print), 978-90-79133-00-0 (e-Book).
  • Moore, John Morrison, Theories of Religious Experience, with special reference to James, Otto and Bergson, (New York, 1938)

External linksEdit