Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Explaining Rudolf Otto's Views on Religious Language and Religious Experience

Rudolf Otto published his ground-breaking work The Idea of the Holy in 1917.  World War One was in its third year. Hegelian optimism had been diminished by the horrors of the trenches and the savagery of man. Access to these insights meant that Otto could never ignore the primitive aspects of man, the savage, non-rational traits that lurk behind our actions. It was this knowledge that separated Otto’s theology from that of the protestant tradition from which he was departing.

The 20th Century saw a dramatic change in theology, largely inspired by Otto’s ideas on religious language and religious experience. Up until the publication of his book, the majority of theologians had striven to rationalise religion and God so as to define him and his characteristics with words such as: "Spirit, Reason, Purpose, Good Will, Supreme Power, Unity, Selfhood” (examples used by Otto). Otto commends these men for their tenacity and persistence, saying that what makes Christianity superior to many other religions is its “unique clarity and abundance” of conceptions. However, he goes on to argue that this rationalisation is only fruitful up to a certain extent; beyond that, there is a danger that God will be suffocated by labels and names, and his real essence will be lost. There is, according to Otto, something unknowable in God, and yet theologians often seem to forget this. This is very similar to the views of Dionysius and the thinkers who advocate the apophatic way. Although he argues that there is a non-rational aspect to God, he rejects the idea that “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” (Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus). He claims that, although part of God is inexpressible, we should not simply “be silent” and ignore it. We must not simply deny the miraculous. He argues against Orthodox doctrine and dogma which lead does in no way “do justice to the non-rational aspect of its subject.” He attacks his contemporaries for reducing God to an intellectualistic and rationalistic being, when in fact God is also personal and non-rational. Thus, Otto explains the flaws of rationalist theology, and advocates a new approach to religious language.

Otto’s new approach of considering both the rational and the non-rational aspects of God led him to argue that religious experience is, in itself, non-rational, and that this is why it is largely ignored. He writes: “Men shut their eyes to that which is quite unique in the religious experience, even in its most primitive manifestations.” It is only religious life that “presents us with something unmistakably specific and unique,” and thus it cannot and should not be ignored. It gives us the most genuine understanding of God, more genuine than the Bible and the Church can ever give us. Otto seems to believe that religion, and indeed religious experience, is for everybody, the common masses and the illiterate, rather than simply for those Professors of Theology who have studied every religious text and have reduced God to a definition. Thus, because religious experience is largely ignored by theologians, and because it is almost indescribable, Otto proposes the invention of a word to describe the non-rational aspects of God, religion, and religious experience. Although the word “Holy” was originally used to describe this non-rational aspect, Otto explains that its meaning has been manipulated so as to include ethical assertions, and indeed it has come to mean “completely good” rather than its original meaning, closer to “ineffable”.

The word he proposes, from the Latin word “numen” meaning “other”, is “numinous”. He writes: “This mental state is perfectly sui generis and irreducible to any other…” He says that, while it can be discussed, it cannot be defined, and he goes on to explain that the only way to understand the feeling is to experience it oneself. He also says that each generation, once the old word for this non-rational aspect of religion has become corrupted, ought to invent a new word for the same feeling. Tillich argued something similar in his Symbols Theory, in which he said that each religion is simply a collection of symbols to represent the same God and emotions. Thus, “holy” and “numinous” are both words or symbols used to represent the indescribable.

Otto goes into little depth about what exactly the “numinous” is, and this is precisely because, as he says, it is the ineffable. However, he does say that it is the “uncanny”, the “weird”, arousing in us “grisly horror and shuddering”. He also adds that the sense of the numinous is the sense of a reality mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Keith Ward, in his book God: A Guide for the Perplexed, gives an explanation of Otto’s ideas and seeks to explain what he meant by the word “numinous”. He argues that it is similar to what Plato describes in The Republic: once leaving the cave and seeing reality (i.e. having a religious experience), we can never again live normal lives. It makes life mysterium, incomprehensible and confusing. It is also tremendum, containing an element of “terror fraught with an inward shuddering” (Otto). Ward explains that all Gods have a double aspect: a loving, kind side, and a more dominating, cruel side. He sites Krishna’s words in the ‘Song of the Lord’: “I am Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Thus, Keith Ward explains, as well as confusion, fear ought to be inspired by religious experience. But religious experience is also fascinans,

“an intoxicating rapture which transports the mind into an altered, heightened frame of consciousness, before which ordinary experience pales into relative insignificance.” (Ward)

Thus, Ward explains, if you feel puzzled, terrified and simultaneously intoxicated, you are experiencing the “numinous”. These three emotions combined indicate a religious experience. These experiences are, for Otto, the most important part of Christianity.

Thus, although Otto’s definition of religious experience may not be exactly correct, and although it may be slightly too precise, his qualms with contemporary theology and religious language were certainly valid. God is, necessarily, unknowable; in Exodus 3:14 God said to Moses. “I AM WHO I AM”. And so, to rationalise God is to kill him, and this is precisely what Otto aims to avoid.

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