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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...

Saturday, April 27, 2013


Happily this will be the last post wholly concentrated on Rudolf Otto's THE IDEA OF THE HOLY, though I plan to draw upon Otto to finesse aspects of my NUM formula in future posts.

I would be less than honest if I didn't say I was getting a little weary of Otto's book in the last few days, even though he's a breath of fresh air next to dogmatic positivists and Marxists.  The fact that I'd devoted a post to three individual chapters from THE IDEA OF THE HOLY made me worry that I might be giving Otto far more explication than he deserved; certainly far less than I've given the superior work of, say, Ernst Cassirer.

But Chapter 8 was something of a turning point, as I began to take the measure of Otto's argument.  Ultimately I realized that although he had rejected the empiricist interpretation of religion,  he was offering in its place a modified version of Aristotle's "teleological evolutionism," seen through the prism of an apologist for the Christian religion.  Just as Aristotle felt that tragedy was a superior form of art to its crude "goat song"plays that preceded it, Otto believes that "the cruder phases" (which phrase comprises the title of Chapter XVI)  of mankind's religious development were a necessary prelude to the growth of genuine religion.  This apparently includes Judaism, Islam and Buddhism as well as Christianity, though presumably the latter still outshines its rivals.  Otto expilicitly states the superiority of Christianity in Chapter 8, and he devotes several chapters to the special quality of numinosity in different branches of the Christian faith, ranging from particular parts of the Bible to exponents like Martin Luther.  Because I discerned that his investigations of Christian numinosity were all pretty much of a piece, I merely skimmed them, given that they're irrelevant to my more pluralist project. 

The most I can say of Otto's interpretation of "the cruder phases" of early religion is that I enjoyed seeing him reject empiricism's reductionist explanation of humankind's early religious practices.  Interestingly, this occurs only after Otto begins to apply sustained Kantian concepts to his basically Rationalist philosophical outlook:

To try, on the other hand, to understand and
deduce the human from the sub-human or brute mind is
to try to fit the lock to the key instead of vice versa ; it is to
seek to illuminate light by darkness.
And later, he gives "the cruder phases" of religion their due-- or what he deems their just desserts-- at the beginning of Chapter XVI, by way of demonstrating his conviction that religious feeling deserves the status of an *a priori* quality, even in its lower manifestations.

It is not only the more developed forms of religious experience
that must be counted underivable and a priori. The same
holds good throughout and is no less true of the primitive,
crude , and rudimentary emotions of daemonic dread which,
as we have seen, stand at the threshold of religious evolution.
Nevertheless, it's clear that Otto prefers the "more developed forms" of religion, and his description of the early religious manifestations shares the provincialism of many other writers of the period.

The numinous only unfolds its full content by slow degrees, as
one by one the series of requisite stimuli or incitements becomes
operative. But where any whole is as yet incompletely
presented its earlier and partial constituent moments or elements,
aroused in isolation, have naturally something bizarre, un-
intelligible, and even grotesque about them...[Daemonic dread]
looks more like the opposite of religion than
religion itself. If it is singled out from the elements which form
its context, it appears rather to resemble a dreadful form of
auto-suggestion, a sort of psychological nightmare of the tribal
mind, than to have anything to do with religion ; and the
supernatural beings with whom men at this early stage profess
relations appear as phantoms, projected by a morbid, unde
veloped imagination afflicted by a sort of persecution-phobia.
One can understand how it is that not a few inquirers could
seriously imagine that * religion began with devil-worship,
and that at bottom the devil is more ancient than God.
Compared to the sort of "inquirers" who believed that all pagan faiths were inspired by the Christian Devil, this is a fairly liberal outlook.  Of course it's also special pleading from a believer who must perforce to see archaic religions as stepping-stones to true religiosity.  Nevertheless, his take on the "uncanny" nature of early religion compares favorably with my usage of "the uncanny" as a category of literary phenomenality.  That's a separate essay, however.

In the final analysis, the most impressive aspect of Otto's "teleological evolutionism" is that it gives him the leeway to suggest that the Christian God may be the "end-result" toward which the numinous feeling strives, though Otto does not make his argument dependent on the reality of that deity.  Since as I noted earlier Otto does not draw comparisons in depth, he merely implies Judaism, Islam and Buddhism qualify as "developed religions" without stating that they are precisely equal of the one he considers "a more perfect religion."  No one will see in Otto anything comparable to Joseph Campbell's view that all religious paths lead to the same destination.

The chapter entitled "Its Earliest Manifestations" spotlights the contradictions of Otto's special pleading.  In this chapter Otto moves Heaven and Earth trying to prove that primitive man did not have any sort of belief in the supernatural as we moderns understand the concept.  I theorize that though he wants to give some degree of respect to primitive man's religious aspirations, he cannot allow even the slightest possibility that primitive gods were anything more than "psychological nightmares" or "phantoms... afflicted by a sort of persecution-phobia."  Although Otto is striving to place this gut reaction within a greater "context," he isn't precisely rejecting this aesthetic response to the "bizarre, unintelligble, and grotesque" elements of primitive religious belief.  Pagan religions are "bizarre" and "grotesque" because they're incomplete parts of a greater whole, or at best dead-end alleys on the pathway of proper teleological development.   In this he's identical to the Biblical prophets who define the heathen as "bowing down to idols of wood and stone."

In Part I of this series I said:

...I also reject Otto's tendency to group the religons of "primitive" man with the level of the merely "weird" and "eerie," particularly revolving about "the fear of ghosts."
Though I didn't mention it earlier, I was rather amazed that Otto would suggest that primitive religions were centered around a "fear of ghosts."  I've seen this opinion expressed by empiricists, but Otto is hardly that.  But the later comment-- that the "supernatural beings" seem "projected by a morbid, undeveloped imagination"-- illuminates this "fear of ghosts" in terms of Otto's Christian priorities.  As a monotheist, he must reject any notion of "the miraculous" that is not Heaven-sent, though instead of attributing the gods of other religions to Satan, as many early Christians did, Otto follows the lead of empiricism by attributing those gods to psychological and materialistic factors. 

In similar fashion Otto attempts to dismiss the idea that primitives recognized any sort of spirits or souls:

We consider next ideas of souls and spirits . It
would be possible to show, did not the subject lead us too far
afield, that these were not conceived by the fanciful processes
of which the animists tell us, but had a far simpler origin...
The essence of the soul lies
not in the imaginative or conceptual expression of it, but
first and foremost in the fact that it is a spectre , that it
arouses dread or awe , as described above.
And he also denies, with extremely poor logic, those anthropologists who attested to a primitive belief in "supernatural force" under such names as "mana" and "orenda."

We turn to the idea of power , the mana of the Pacific
Islands and the orenda of the North American Indians. It
can have its antecedents in very natural phenomena. To
notice power in plants, stones, and natural objects in general
and to appropriate it by gaining possession of them ; to eat the
heart or liver of an animal or a man in order to make his
power and strength one s own this is not religion but science.
Our science of medicine follows a similar prescription. If the
power of a calf s glands is good for goitre and imbecility,
we do not know what virtue we may not hope to find in frogs
brains or Jews livers.

By the transparent nonsensicality of this argument-- of arguing that a belief in a pervasive supernatural force must stem from observations from primitive "science"-- one can see how extremely important it was to Otto, to rationalize anything in primitive faith that smacked of God or the Spirit as dependent upon mere contingent factors, even if the primitive religious experience of "daemonic dread" itself was *a priori.*

In conclusion, though Otto's "Christianity is Number One" arguments became tiresome, I can appreciate the sheer ambition of his attempt to borrow both from both of the parties opposing Rationalism-- Empiricism and Kant's "transcendental idealism"-- and to use them to support his particular Rationalist agenda.  His reference to "slow degrees" of numinosity parallels a similar observation by Schopenhauer regarding sublimity, and I fully approve of his argument that religion has an *a priori* element, even though I see it, as did Jung, as an element that interpenetrates aesthetics, art, and philosophy as well, rather than being exclusive to religion.  Otto does make a few mentions of aesthetics and literature in the course of HOLY, and in this his book is somewhat the reverse of Todorov's THE FANTASTIC, which is concerned only with "the uncanny" and "the marvelous" in literature, with no appreciation of his categories' application to myth and religion.


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