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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Tuesday, April 23, 2013


In Chapter 8 I've now come across one of the sections where Otto unquestionably stumps for the superiority of the Christian faith over other religions, as his translator mentioned that he did.

No religion has brought the mystery of the need for
atonement or expiation to so complete, so profound, or so
powerful expression as Christianity. And in this, too, it
shows its superiority over others. It is a more perfect religion
and more perfectly religion than they, in so far as what is
potential in religion in general becomes in Christianity a pure

This approach stands in contrast to a more rigorous thinker like Ricoeuer, who demonstrates a preference for Christian forms in SYMBOLISM OF EVIL but still grounds his theory in anthropological studies of religious practice. Otto does not justify his opinion in this comparative fashion. This leads me to conclude that his attitude was essentially the same as C.S. Lewis as I described it here:

When Lewis wants to show the universality of the concept of "the Numinous" (first named as such by Rudolf Otto), he has no problem quoting examples of awe-filled responses from Ovid and Virgil alongside examples from the Old Testament. Nevertheless, it's clear throughout his screed that no mere pagan religion can possess its own validity. There's only enough room in town for One Revelation.

 However, Otto's attempt to separate all the shadings of the *mysterium* experience are so thorough that he manages to tap into general archetypal attitudes toward religiosity, even in spite of his Christian preference-- though at times it's best to gloss Otto's opinions with those of authors more versed in comparativist analysis of all religions.

The shading that most interests me here is one that Otto makes on the subject of "the holy as a category of value" (also the chapter's title).  Having isolated various attributes of the mysterium-experience, such as that of "tremendum" and "fascinans," Otto proceeds to ask how the idea of the holy is valued, given that it cannot be valued in the way human beings value natural assets, and invokes the Latin term "sanctus," meaning "holy:"

And at the same moment he [the person experiencing the mysterium] 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
absoIute 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 ."

I placed quotes around the words "worth" and "unworth" for emphasis. Although Otto's use of these terms arises from his specifically Christian idea of a God who invokes fear and trembling, as in his example of Abraham before his deity as seen here, such terms can go beyond the bounds of Christian valuation. For one thing, even though Otto views "worth" as applicable only to the deity while "unworth" applies to the groveling worshipper, one can also see such terms in a wider spectrum, as affects comparable to those proposed by Theodor Gaster.

Rites of jubilation and invigoration are both characterized by *plerosis,* or "filling," because both give the sense that the ritual fills the community with new life. Rites of mortification and purgation are both characterized by *kenosis,* or "emptying," because they "empty out" the community of "noxious elements" one way or another.
In ENERGY EXCHANGE I advanced a tentative comparison of "plerosis" and "kenosis" to Otto's "tremendum" and "fascinans." But "worth" and "unworth" more nearly approximate the *affects* that the participants of a ritual action or narrative derive, with plerotic rituals filling the community with a sense of renewed self-worth-- giving them the opportunity to celebrate either heroic action or comic good cheer-- and with kenotic rituals giving the participants the chance to expel from the community the sense of negative forces of "unworth" that stem from "black humor" and from tragic flaws. 

More unexpectedly, I find that in this chapter Otto, despite his Christianity, anticipates some of the formulations of Georges Bataille.

The feeling [of transgressing aginst the numinous]is beyond question  
not that of the
transgression of the moral law, however evident it may be that
such a transgression, where it has occurred, will involve it as
a consequence : it is the feeling of absolute *profaneness.*

By itself this is just Otto re-emphasizing his earlier point that one cannot reduce the sense of
transgressing against the numinous to transgressing against human law, as Freud famously asserted.
However, it makes interesting comparison to Bataille's anthropologically informed concepts of transgression.

First, Bataille makes clear in EROTISM that all forms of transgression, legal or religious, stem from a universal human need for transgression:

"The taboo within us against sexual liberty is general and universal; the particular prohibitions are variable aspects of it... It is ridiculous to isolate a specific 'taboo' such as the one on incest, just one aspect of the general taboo, and look for its explanation outside its universal basis, namely, the amorphous and universal prohibitions bearing on sexuality."-- EROTISM, pp. 50-51.

Second, because of this need, "the transgression does not deny the taboo but transcends it and completes it."  However, this transcendence was essentially rejected by Christian philosophy, as Bataille explains in Chapter VIII of EROTISM, which is subtitled "Christianity, and the sacred nature of transgression misunderstood":

The main difficulty is that Christianity finds law-breaking repugnant in general. True, the gospels encourage the breaking of laws adhered to by the letter when their spirit is absent. But then the law is broken because its validity is questioned, not in spite of its validity.-- EROTISM, P. 89.
I suspect that Otto will not be capable of seeing any such limitations of his preferred faith.  Still, it's fascinating to see that Otto has conceived of a "profanation" that goes beyond the strictures of utilitarian moral law, for one can see a similar will to profanation and transgression in any number of non-Christian beliefs.  For instance, one sees mortal defiance of the gods in such ancient works as the Gilgamesh Epic and the Epic of Aqhat.  Quasi-tragic heroic figures like Aqhat and Enkidu may be doomed for such transgressions, but their relationships to the numinous are far removed from the "fear and trembling" of Abraham in the earlier-cited quote.  I seem to remember that at some point Otto mentions his awareness that one response to the numinous is a desire to become "godlike" oneself, but as yet I can't locate the  passage.  This would seem to be a natural extension of the idea of celebrating numinous "worth," however: not just feeling that Zeus is the mysterious creator of the universe, but that Heracles, begotten on a mortal by the Father of the Gods, can provide a conduit by which mortals can participate in that divine mystery.

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