Rudolf Otto

Rudolf Otto

Rudolf Otto (September 25 18696 March 1937) was an eminent German Lutheran theologian and scholar of comparative religion.


Born in Peine near Hanover, Otto attended the Gymnasium Andreanum in Hildesheim and studied at the universities of Erlangen and Göttingen, where he wrote his dissertation on Martin Luther's understanding of the Holy Spirit, and his habilitation on Kant. By 1906, he held a position as extraordinary professor, and in 1910 he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Giessen. In 1915, he became ordinary professor at the University of Breslau, and in 1917, at the University of Marburg's Divinity School, then one of the most famous Protestant seminaries in the world. Although he received several other calls, he remained in Marburg for the rest of his life. He retired in 1929 and died of pneumonia eight years later, after he had suffered serious injuries falling some 20 m from a tower. Persistent but unconfirmed rumors identified this as a suicide attempt. [Lindsay Jones (ed. in chief). "Encyclopedia Of Religion: Second Edition". Thomson Gale, 2005, p. 6926. ISBN 0028657438. ] He is buried in Marburg cemetery.

"The Idea of the Holy"

Otto's most famous work is "The Idea of the Holy", published first in 1917 as "Das Heilige - Über das Irrationale in der Idee des Göttlichen und sein Verhältnis zum Rationalen" ("The Holy - On the Irrational in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational"). It is one of the most successful German theological books of the 20th century, has never gone out of print, and is now available in about 20 languages. The book defines the concept of the holy as that which is numinous. Otto explained the numinous as a "non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self". He coined this new term based on the Latin numen (deity). This expression is etymologically unrelated to Immanuel Kant's noumenon, a Greek term referring to an unknowable reality underlying all things. The numinous is a mystery (Latin: "mysterium") that is both terrifying ("tremendum") and fascinating ("fascinans") at the same time. It also sets a paradigm for the study of religion that focuses on the need to realize the religious as a non-reducible, original category in its own right. This paradigm was under much attack between approximately 1950 and 1990 but has made a strong comeback since then, after its phenomenological aspects have become more apparent.


Otto left a broad influence on theology and philosophy of religion in the first half of the 20th century. German-American theologian Paul Tillich acknowledged Otto's influence on him, as did Romanian-American philosopher Mircea Eliade and Otto's most famous German pupil Gustav Mensching (1901-1978) from Bonn University. Eliade used the concepts from "The Idea of the Holy" as the starting point for his own 1957 book, "The Sacred and the Profane". Otto was one of the very few modern theologians to whom C. S. Lewis indicates a debt, particularly the idea of the numinous in The Problem of Pain. Others to acknowledge Otto were, for instance, Martin Heidegger, Leo Strauss, John A. Sanford, Hans-Georg Gadamer (critical in his youth, respectful in his old age), Max Scheler, Ernst Jünger, Joseph Needham and Hans Jonas.

Partial bibliography

*"Naturalism and Religion" (1907), London: Williams and Norgate, [ Full text online] at Google Books
*"The Life and Ministry of Jesus, According to the Critical Method" (1908), Chicago: Open Court, ISBN 0-8370-4648-3. [ Full text online] at Google Books
*"The Idea of the Holy" (1923), Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-500210-5
*"Christianity and the Indian Religion of Grace", Madras 1928
*"India's Religion of Grace and Christianity Compared and Contrasted", New York 1930
*"The philosophy of religion based on Kant and Fries", London 1931
*"Religious essays: A supplement to The Idea of the Holy", London 1931
*"Mysticism east and west: A comparative analysis of the nature of mysticism", New York 1932
*"The original Gita: The song of the Supreme Exalted One", London 1939
*"The Kingdom of God and the Son of Man: A Study in the History of Religion", Boston 1943
*"Autobiographical and Social Essays" (1996), Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, ISBN 3-11-014518-9



*Gooch, Todd A. (2000). "The Numinous and Modernity: An Interpretation of Rudolf Otto's Philosophy of Religion". Preface by Otto Kaiser and Wolfgang Drechsler. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-016799-9.

External links

* [ Brief page on Otto]
* [ Otto and the Numinous]
* [ Applications of Otto's term 'numinous']

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