Theology Thursday: Rudolf Otto

by Max Andrews

Theologian: Rudolf Otto (1869 – 1937)

More on his theology: Otto was a leading theologian of religious expression–a revival of Kierkegaard.  In 1917 Otto published his keynote work, Das Holige (The Idea of the Holy).  The outcome of the book was a sociological study of human religion and marked the distinction between ethics and religion.  The two cannot be equated.  Theological liberals maintained the idea that we should do what we know we should do.  The moral good may not be religious and the religious may not be the moral, which disagreed with the theological liberals).  Religion, to Otto, has to do with the numinous, that is, the realm beyond the human, which both attracts us and terrifies us.  This is what he called the mysterium tremendum. This is an unapproachable fear towards God.  C.S. Lewis illustrates this fear in The Problem of Pain.

Suppose you were told that there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told “There is a ghost in the next room,” and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is “uncanny” rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread. With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous. Now suppose that you were told simply “There is a might spirit in the room” and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking–described as awe, and the object which excites it is the Numinous.

Therefore, while the moral may make us feel good but the religious act is ambiguous. This dialectical theology starts with crisis wherein one cannot move from the human to the divine.


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