14 paintings







Stanley Carpenter


The Category of the Holy*



1. The Numinous


a) Introduction


The nature and the extent of the sphere of religion is explained by Otto in terms of the Holy. He regards the Holy as a category of interpretation and value. It contains various elements which, to make the nature of the category clear, one must isolate. The category contains the product of man’s rational endeavor. Inconsistencies in theological formulations are gradually removed because of these rational elements. The manner in which Otto believes the insights of the rational function of man are incorporated in the complex category of the holy will be discussed later in this chapter. The immediate task, and one which Otto considers fundamental, is that of isolating another element of the category of the Holy. This element he calls the “moment” of religion and his characterization of it is “the-nonrational.”


b) The Non- rational


The sub-title of The Idea of the Holy is given as "An Inquiry into the non-rational factor in the idea of the divine and its relation to the rational. “ Therefore, while this entire study, including the extensive phenomenological descriptions of chapter IV is an attempt to illustrate the idea of the non-rational, a preliminary explanation of the term must be offered as a point of reference. In this regard Otto states:



The words “non-rational” and irrational are today used almost at random. The non-rational is sought over the most widely different regions, and writers generally shirk the trouble of putting down exactly what they intend by the term, giving it often the most multifarious meanings or applying it with such vague generality that it admits the most diverse interpretations. Pure fact in contrast to law, the empirical in contrast to reason, the contingent in contrast to the necessary; the psychological in contrast to transcendental fact, that which is known a posteriori in contrast to that which is determinable a priori; power, will, and arbitrary choice in contrast to reason, knowledge, and determination by value; impulse, instinct, and the obscure forces of the subconscious in contrast to insight, reflection, and intelligible plan; mystical depths and stirrings in the soul, surmise, presentiment, intuition1 prophecy, and finally the 'occult' powers also; or, in general, the uneasy stress and universal fermentation of the time,. with its groping after the thing never yet heard or seen in poetry or the plastic arts … Whoever makes use of the word “non-rational” today ought to say what he actually means by it. This we did in our introductory chapter. We began with the “rational” in the idea of God and the divine;[1] meaning by the term that in it which is clearly to be grasped by our power of conceiving, and enters the domain of familiar and definable conceptions. We went on to maintain that beneath this sphere of clarity and lucidity lies a hidden depth~ inaccessible to our conceptual thought, which we in so far call the “non-rational”.[2]



c) Otto's Designation of the Non-rational


For what he hopes is the sake of clarity Otto defines the non-rational element of the category of the Holy by a special term. He notes that from the Latin omen is obtained the word ominous. Therefore from the Latin numen let us coin the term numinous. He adds, ”I shall speak then of a unique ‘numinous’ category of value and of a definitely ‘numinous’state of mind, which is always found wherever the category is applied.”[3]



d) Elements of the Numinous


It will be helpful to deal separately with the various aspects of the numinous. The capacity to experience the holy will be suggested as a priori faculty of man. On the one hand, the subjective side of the numinous will be explained as a feeling, peculiar to this religious faculty of man. The objective side of the numinous, on the other hand, will be insisted upon as well. In addition, the numinous experience will be claimed to convey a unique valuation distinguishing it from a sheer, indeterminate feeling.




(1) The Religious a priori


Just as beauty will only make an impression on the man who possesses the potentiality of esthetic valuation, so, Otto suggests, the Holy is only received because mankind possesses the faculty to receive it and value it.[4] While, however, this ability is due to “… a purely a priori category,"[5] it is not everywhere recognizable in mankind. Some men are not religious and show no desire to be so. This, Otto suggests, points up the distinction between a priori and innate cognitions. The concept of a priori category· suggests that all men possess the predisposition to religious values, but not the capacity to produce them themselves. This can only be done by one possessing what he terms the power of “divination”.[6]


It is clear that Otto desires that the concept of the religious a priori be understood in basically the same sense as the Kantian a priori categories, for he states, ''The ideas of the numinous and the feelings that correspond to them are, quite as much as the rational ideas and feelings, absolutely ‘pure', and the criteria which Kant suggests for the ‘pure’ concept and the ‘pure’ feeling of respect are most precisely applicable to them.”[7] However, he also wishes to make this category in a definite sense more profound, more basic than even the Kantian categories. For example, he asserts,


The facts of the numinous consciousness point therefore - as likewise do the ‘pure’ concepts of the understanding of Kant and the ideas and value-judgments of ethics or aesthetics - to a hidden substantive source) from which the religious ideas and feelings are formed, which lies in the mind independently of sense-experience; a ‘pure reason' in the profoundest sense, which, because of the 'surpassingness’ of its content, must be distinguished from both the pure theoretical and the pure practical reason of Kant, as something yet higher or deeper than they.[8]


The a priori category of the Holy, which Otto elsewhere describes as, “This spirit, this inborn capacity to receive and understand …,”[9] leads to a depth in man more profound than man' s rational faculties can comprehend.


At this point it is helpful to recall Fries' doctrine of Ahndung. The insights of Ahndung were the highest form of esthetic insight. They were, however, the possessions of feeling and could not be conceptually expressed.


On the basis of this insight Otto suggests that the statements of the mystics; often criticized as unintelligible assume new meaning.


Above and beyond our rational being lies hidden the ultimate and highest part of our nature, which can find no satisfaction in the mere allaying of the needs of our sensuous, psychical, or intellectual impulses and cravings. The mystics called it the basis or ground of the soul.[10]


Elsewhere he says,


In the case of the non-rational elements of our category of the Holy we are referred back to something still deeper than the 'pure reason', at least as this is usually understood, namely to that which mysticism has rightly namned the fundus animae, the 'bottom' or 'ground of the soul' {Seelengrund).[11]


What is the basis of confirmation of this insight? How is one to become aware of the a priori category of the holy? Otto's answer is reminiscent of Schleiermacher who had stated.


I must direct you to your own selves. You must apprehend a living moment. You must know how to listen to yourselves before your own consciousness.[12]


Similarly, Otto states it is by the method of introspection that the insights he is suggesting are either confirmed or denied.[13] To the individual who denies this deep felt experience Otto admits he has little more to say for ". . . it is not easy to discuss questions of religious psychology with one who can recollect the emotions of his adolescence, the discomforts of indigestion, or, say, social feelings, but cannot recall any intrinsically religious feelings.”[14]


It must be added, however, that contrary to what Otto here states, his persistent contention for the predisposition of man to religion as an a priori element in his nature suggests that he is willing to give no "unbeliever” up. The awareness of the Holy may be evoked by one gifted with the faculty of divination.[15] Otto’s entire phenomenological description of the numinous, by the use of symbols, is an attempt to evoke such an awareness.[16]




(2) Two aspects of the numinous


(a) The Response. ― Otto clearly outlines two distinct aspects of the numinous. First, it is to be regarded as a unique feeling. This represents the subjective side of the numinous. Secondly, it is to be regarded as an object to which the feeling refers. This represents the objective side.


We have considered ‘the holy' on the one hand as an a priori category of the mind, and on the other hand as manifesting itself in outward appearance.[17]


Otto makes it abundantly clear that the manifestation of the numinous is a feeling experience. Since the numinous affects us on a level deeper even than our rational faculties the experience is non-rational, i.e., incapable of precise conceptualization. The documentation of this point follows.


Speaking of the numinous feeling he says, “It cannot be expressed by means of anything else, just because it is so primary and elementary a datum in our psychical life, and therefore only definable through itself.”[18] Elsewhere he states, “Not the most concentrated attention can elucidate the object to which this state of mind refers, bringing it out of the obscurity of feeling into the domain of the conceptual understanding. It. remains purely a felt experience…”[19]


Continuing discussion of this point Otto notes that a particular numinous experience may remain in the realm of feeling without ever having been schematized by concept. “The mental state we are discussing,” he notes, "may, on the one hand, remain pure ‘feeling', pursue its course, and pass away without its obscure thought-content being rendered explicit."[20] But because the experience of the numinous is one of feeling, not capable of being precisely known conceptually, Otto cautions us against confusing inconceivability with unknowableness.


‘Revelation' does not mean a mere passing over into the intelligible and comprehensible. Something may be profoundly and intimately known in feeling for the bliss it brings or the agitation it produces, and yet the understanding may find no concept for it. To know and to understand conceptually are two different things, are often even mutually exclusive and contrasted. The mysterious obscurity of the numen is by no means tantamount to unknowableness. Assuredly the ‘deus absconditus et incomprehensibllis' was for Luther no 'deus ignotus'. And so too, St. Paul ‘knows' the peace, which yet ‘passeth understanding'.[21]


Otto's conclusion that the numinous feeling is deeper than the pure reason and therefore resists precise conceptualization leads him to a critique of Schleiermacher. While Otto agrees with Schleiermacher's isolation of a unique and religious feeling,[22] he is critical of the concept Schleiermacher chooses to portray it. While he does not do so in his Addresses, Schleiermacher is led in his later, more systematic, works to identify the religious feeling as a "feeling of absolute dependence.”[23]


Otto objects to this expression. Schleiermacher, he feels, has given a conceptual explanation of the matter. Since the feeling in question is held by Otto to be deeper than the level of concept, Schleiermacher’s formulation is clearly unacceptable. "Everything turns upon the character of this overpowering might,” Otto states, “a character which cannot be expressed verbally, and can only be suggested indirectly through the tone and content of a man' s feeling-response to it.”[24]


What is the content of the feeling of the numinous? Otto asserts it is an elementary datum completely separable and distinguishable from all the other feelings of which man is capable.


Now it is just the same with the feeling of the numenous as with that of moral obligation. lt too [the feeling of the numinous] is not to be derived from any other feeling, and is in this sense ‘unevolvable’. lt is a content of feeling that is qualitatively sui generis, yet at the same time one that has numerous analogies with others, and therefore they may reciprocally excite or stimulate one another and cause one another to appear in the mind.[25]


(b) The Referent. - In addition to the feeling of the numinous being completely sui generis it is also characterized by a positive valuation. This point assumes significant proportions in Otto’s complete theory of religion. ln exploring it the transition from the concept of numinous feeling to that of numinous referent is made.


The quality of value, Otto observes, "is an immediate datum given with the feeling of the numen …[26] In the ‘moment" of this experience the creature


... passes upon the numen a judgement of appreciation of a unique kind by the category diametrically contrary to 'the profane', the category 'holy', which is proper to the numen alone, but to it in an absolute degree; he says: 'Tu solus sanctus', This 'sanctus' is not merely 'perfect' or 'beautiful' or 'sublime' or 'good', though, being like these concepts also a value, objective and ultimate, it has a definite, perceptible analogy with them. It is the positive numinous value or worth, and to it corresponds on the side of the creature a numinous disvalue or ‘unworth’.[27]


In another passage Otto suggests the same idea; however, in this passage the striking similarity to Fries’ characterization of Ahndung with its positive feeling content is unmistakable. Again he asserts that words cannot express the depths of the numinous feeling.


But though what is enunciated 1n the word is negative, what is meant is something absolutely and intensely positive. This pure positive we can experience in feelings, feelings which our discussion can help to make clear to us~ in so far as it arouses them actually in our hearts.[28]


The apprehension of numinous value which Otto terms ”… a value1 precious beyond all conceiving,"[29] is the basis for the doctrine of sin and atonement.[30] The meaning of sin must not be explained in terms of moral transgression. It cannot be such since it stems from the numinous category which he has clearly distinguished from morality.


It does not spring from the consciousness of some committed transgression, but rather is an immediate datum given with the feeling of the numen: it proceeds to ‘disvalue' together with the self the tribe to which the person belongs, and indeed, together with that, all existence in general.[31]


As a prime example of a record of such an experience Otto suggests Isaiah's vision (ISA. 6.).


If the experience of the numinous worth leads to the profound recognition of sin'" it also makes the creature acutely aware of the need for a covering.


'Atonement', following our view; is a 'sheltering' or ‘covering', but a profounder form of it. It springs directly from the idea of numinous value and worth or numinous disvalue or unworth as soon as these have been developed. Mere awe … has here been elevated to the feeling that man in his 'profanemess' is not worthy to stand in the presence of the holy one,. and that his own entire personal unworthiness might defile even holiness itself.[32]


Otto's insistence upon the objective side of the numinous leads him to the symbolization of God as the "wholly other" the consciousness of which "evades precise formulation in words, and forcing one to employ symbolic phrases which seem sometimes sheer paradox."[33] While the discussion of the particular symbol, the "wholly other", will be deferred to Chapter IV, additional illustrations of the objective side of the numinous experience are offered at this time.


Early in The Idea of the Holy Otto makes it clear that he means to avoid a mere subjectivism with his development of the element of feeling. He states,


For the 'creature-feeling' and the sense of dependence to arise in the mind the 'numen’ must be experienced as present, a numen presens, as in, the case of Abraham.[34] There must be felt a something ‘numinous', something bearing the character of a ‘numen’, to which the mind turns spontaneously; or (which is the same· thing in other words) these feelings can only arise in the mind as accompanying emotions when the category of 'the numinous' is called into play.

The numinous is thus felt as objective and outside the self.[35]


Otto cites William James' Varieties of Religious Experience as supporting the fact of the objective nature of the numinous. He states that James' empiricist and pragmatist orientation prevents him from recognizing the faculties of knowledge and the potentialities of thought in the spirit. But James grasps the fact and is led to conclude, "But the whole array of our instances leads to a conclusion something like this: lf is as if there were in the human consciousness a sense of reality, a feeling of objective presence, a perception of what we may call ‘something there', more deep and more general than any of the special and particular ‘senses' by which the current psychology supposes existent realities to be originally revealed.“[36]


As a peerless example of the fact James has just described Otto quotes a specific instance . It is not unreasonable to assume that James had such an incident in mind when he made the above statement. One is asked to note the claim for the objective nature of the numinous experience.


The perfect stillness of the night was thrilled by a solemn silence. The darkness held a presence that was all the more felt because it was not seen. I could not any more have doubted that He was there than that I was. Indeed, I felt myself to be, if possible, the less real of the two.[37]


The numinous as it is described by Otto is always to be viewed from the two perspectives which have been isolated. An emphasis on the affective aspect of the numinous must always be modified by his description of its objective nature. The feeling of the numinous must be regarded not as equivalent to an emotion but as a form of awareness. The awareness, however, points to an object beyond the subject. To neglect either element of the numinous in relating the thought of Otto is to do him an injustice for the passages which have been cited illustrate his explicit opinions on the complementary aspects of the numinous.





* Stanley Carpenter; The Category of the Holy
(Stanley Carpenter; Rudolf Otto's theory of religious knowledge, Boston University, 1962, pp. 66-78.)
[https://hdl.handle.net/2144/27992 / Boston University,
OpenBU, Dissertations and Theses (pre-1964) http://open.bu.edu]




[1] Otto is anxious not to be interpreted as advocating irrationalism. His insistence upon this fact can be detected in the general tone of this quotation. Further, he leaves no doubt about his attitude toward the subject of the non-rational in the foreword to the first English edition of The Idea of the Holy. Here he says, "In this book I have ventured to write of that which may be called “nonrational” or ‘supra-rational' in the depths of the divine nature. I do not thereby want to promote in any way the tendency of our time towards an extravagant and fantastic ‘irrationalism’, but rather to join issue with it in its morbid form. The ‘irrational’ is today a favorite theme of all who are too lazy to think or too ready to evade the arduous duty of clarifying their ideas and grounding their convictions on a basis of inherent thought. This book, recognizing the profound impact of the non-rational for metaphysic,;- makes a serious attempt to analyze all the more exactly the feeling which remains where the concept fails, and to introduce a terminology which is not any more loose or indeterminate for having necessarily to make use of symbols.” Otto, The Idea of the Holy, ForewQrd, p. xxi.

[2] Otto, The Idea of the Holy, pp. 58-59.

[3] Ibid., p. 7.

[4] Ibid., p. 160, 162.

[5] Ibid., p. 112.

[6] Ibid., p. 177.

[7] Ibid., p. 112.

[8] Ibid., p. 113-114.

[9] Ibid., p. 61.

[10] Ibid., p. 36.

[11] Ibid., p. 112.

[12] Schleiermacher, Addresses, p. 41.

[13] Otto, The Idea of the Holy, p. 113.

[14] Ibid., p. 8.

[15] Ibid., p. 177.

[16] Ibid., p. 12.

[17] Ibid., p. 174. The developiD;ent of the ideas implied in the phrase “outward appearance” will be given in Chapter IV.

[18] Ibid., p. 9.

[19] Ibid., p. 59.

[20] Ibid., p. 126.

[21] Ibid., p. 135. Emphasis mine.

[22] Ibid., p. 9.

[23] Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith (Eng. trans., Edinburgh, 1928), p. 12.

[24] Otto, The Idea of the Holy, p.10.

[25] Ibid., p. 44.

[26] Ibid., p. 50.

[27] Ibid., p. 51.

[28] Ibid., p. 13.

[29] Ibid., pp. 51-52.

[30] Otto is not suggesting here that the doctrines of sin and atonement are other than conceptual statements themselves. This he recognizes. The point he wishes to emphasize is that the intuitions which give rise to these doctrines do not stem from any other than the numinous consciousness itself, cf. The Idea of the Holy, pp. 52-57.

[31] Ibid., p. 50.

[32] Ibid., p. 54. In addition to the example of Tsaiah, Otto cites also the centurion of Capernaum (Luke 7:1-10).

[33] Ibid., p. 59. Also Dlllenberger, pp. 70-99. Chapter III, "God Revealed as the Wholly Other."

[34] When Abraham ventures to plead with God for the inhabitants of Sodom, he says, "Behold now, I have taken on me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes (Gen. 18:27)."

[35] Otto, The Idea of the Holy, p. 11.

[36] William James, Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1925.), p. 61.

[37] James, p. 67. Cited by Otto, The Idea of the Holy; pp. 22-23.




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