Rudolf Otto

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Rudolf Otto
Born (1869-09-25)25 September 1869
Peine, North German Confederation
Died 6 March 1937(1937-03-06) (aged 67)
Marburg, Germany
Religion Christianity (Lutheranism)
Academic background
Alma mater
Influences Immanuel Kant, Jakob Fries
Academic work
Discipline Theology and comparative religion
Notable works The Idea of the Holy
Notable ideas The numinous
Influenced Eliade, Jung, C. S. Lewis, Tillich, Barth, Rahner, Heidegger, Gadamer, Wach

Rudolf Otto (25 September 1869 – 6 March 1937) was an eminent German Lutheran theologian, philosopher, and comparative religionist. He is regarded as one of the most influential scholars of religion in the early twentieth century and is best known for his concept of the numinous, a profound emotional experience he argued was at the heart of the world's religions.[1]


Born in Peine near Hanover, Otto was raised in a pious Christian family.[2] He 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 (Die Anschauung von heiligen Geiste bei Luther: Eine historisch-dogmatische Untersuchung), 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. Otto's fascination with non-Christian religions was awakened during an extended trip from 1911-1912 through North Africa, Palestine, British India, China, Japan, and the United States.[3] He cited a 1911 visit to a Moroccan synagogue as a key inspiration for theme of the Holy he would later develop.[2] 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 suffering serious injuries falling about twenty meters from a tower. Persistent but unconfirmed rumors identified this as a suicide attempt.[4] He is buried in Marburg cemetery.

The Idea of the Holy[edit]

Otto's most famous work, The Idea of the Holy, was first published in German in 1917 as Das Heilige - Über das Irrationale in der Idee des Göttlichen und sein Verhältnis zum Rationalen. 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 first English translation was published in 1923 under the title The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational. Otto was influenced by the rationalist approaches of Immanuel Kant and Jakob Fries, and he stated that his previous works had focused on the rational aspects of the divine.[5] He felt people should first do serious rational study of God, before turning to the non-rational element of God as he did in this book.[5]

The book defines the concept of the holy as that which is numinous, a term Otto coined based on the Latin numen ("divine power"). (The term is etymologically unrelated to Immanuel Kant's noumenon, a Greek term referring to an unknowable reality underlying all things.) Otto explained the numinous as a "non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self". The numinous is a mystery (Latin: mysterium) that is both terrifying (tremendum) and fascinating (fascinans) at the same time.[6] This mental state "presents itself as ganz Andere, wholly other, a condition absolutely sui generis and incomparable whereby the human being finds himself utterly abashed."[7] Otto argued that because the numinous is completely irreducible and sui generis it cannot be defined in terms of other concepts or experiences, and that the reader must therefore be "guided and led on by consideration and discussion of the matter through the ways of his own mind, until he reach the point at which 'the numinous' in him perforce begins to stir... In other words, our X cannot, strictly speaking, be taught, it can only be evoked, awakened in the mind".[8]


Otto left a broad influence on theology and the philosophy of religion in the first half of the 20th century. In The Idea of the Holy and other works, he set out a paradigm for the study of religion that focused 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 became more apparent.

The eminent Romanian-American philosopher Mircea Eliade used the concepts from The Idea of the Holy as the starting point for his own 1957 book, The Sacred and the Profane. Others to acknowledge Otto were, for instance, Carl Gustav Jung (borrowing the concept of the numinous), Martin Heidegger, Leo Strauss, John A. Sanford, Richard Rohr, Hans-Georg Gadamer (critical in his youth, respectful in his old age), Max Scheler, Ernst Jünger, Joseph Needham, W. T. Stace, Joachim Wach and Hans Jonas. Ideas of Otto have been discussed also by Jewish thinkers, like Joseph Soloveitchik and Eliezer Berkovits.[9]

Karl Barth, an influential Protestant theologian contemporary to Otto, acknowledged Otto's influence and approved a similar conception of God, as totaliter aliter,[10] and aliud, aliud valde ("other, completely other"), the latter phrase being taken from Augustine of Hippo's Confessions (7.10.16).[11] Otto was also one of the very few modern theologians to whom C. S. Lewis indicates a debt, particularly to the idea of the numinous in The Problem of Pain. German-American theologian Paul Tillich acknowledged Otto's influence on him, as did Otto's most famous German pupil Gustav Mensching (1901–1978) from Bonn University. More recently, Otto's views can be seen[clarification needed] in Karl Rahner's presentation of man as a being of transcendence.


  • A full bibliography of Otto's works is given in Robert F. Davidson, Rudolf Otto's Interpretation of Religion (Princeton, 1947), pp. 207–9

In German

  • Naturalistische und religiose Weltansicht, (1904)
  • Das Heilige - Über das Irrationale in der Idee des Göttlichen und sein Verhältnis zum Rationalen, (Breslau, 1917)
  • Die Kant-Friesische Religions-Philosophie

English translations

  • Naturalism and Religion, trans JA Thomson and MB Thomson (London: Williams and Norgate, 1907), [originally published 1904] – Full text online at Google Books
  • The Life and Ministry of Jesus, According to the Critical Method (1908), Chicago: Open Court, ISBN 0-8370-4648-3Full text online at Internet Archive
  • The Idea of the Holy, trans JW Harvey, (New York: OUP, 1923; 2nd edn, 1950; reprint, New York, 1970), ISBN 0-19-500210-5 [originally published 1917] – Full text online
  • Christianity and the Indian Religion of Grace, (Madras 1928)
  • India's Religion of Grace and Christianity Compared and Contrasted, trans FH Foster, (New York; London, 1930)
  • 'The Sensus Numinis as the Historical Basis of Religion', Hibbert Journal 29, (1930), 1-8
  • The philosophy of religion based on Kant and Fries, trans EB Dicker, (London 1931) [originally published 1909]
  • Religious essays: A supplement to 'The Idea of the Holy', trans B Lunn, (London, 1931)
  • Mysticism east and west: A comparative analysis of the nature of mysticism, trans BL Bracey and RC Payne, (New York 1932) [originally published 1926]
  • 'In the sphere of the holy', Hibbert Journal 31, (1932-3), 413-6
  • 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
  • Autobiographical and Social Essays (1996), Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, ISBN 3-11-014518-9

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Adler, Joseph. "Rudolf Otto's Concept of the Numinous". Kenyon College. Retrieved 19 October 2016. 
  2. ^ a b "Louis Karl Rudolf Otto Facts". Encyclopedia of World Biography. Retrieved 24 October 2016. 
  3. ^ Meland, Bernard. "Rudolf Otto". Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. Retrieved 24 October 2016.  Text " German philosopher and theologian" ignored (help)
  4. ^ Lindsay Jones (ed. in chief). Encyclopedia Of Religion: Second Edition. Thomson Gale, 2005, p. 6926. ISBN 0-02-865743-8.
  5. ^ a b Ross, Kelley. "Rudolf Otto (1869-1937)". Retrieved 19 October 2016. 
  6. ^ Otto, Rudolf H. (1996). Alles, Gregory D., ed. Autobiographical and Social Essays. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. ISBN 978-3-110-14519-9. ISBN 3-11014519-7. mysterium tremendum et fascinans. 
  7. ^ Eckardt, Alice L.; Eckardt, A. Roy (July 1980). "The Holocaust and the Enigma of Uniqueness: A Philosophical Effort at Practical Clarification". Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Sage Publications. 450 (1): 165–178. doi:10.1177/000271628045000114. JSTOR 1042566.  P. 169. Cited in: Cohn-Sherbok, Dan, ed. (1991). A Traditional Quest. Essays in Honour of Louis Jacobs. London: Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 54. ISBN 978-0-567-52728-8. ISBN 0-56752728-X. 
  8. ^ Otto, Rudolf (1923). The Idea of the Holy. Oxford University Press. p. 7. ISBN 0-19-500210-5. Retrieved 19 October 2016. 
  9. ^ Eliezer Berkovits, God, Man and History, 2004, pp. 166, 170.
  10. ^ Webb, Stephen H. (1991). Re-figuring Theology. The Rhetoric of Karl Barth. Albany, New York: SUNY Press. p. 87. ISBN 978-1-438-42347-0. ISBN 1-43842347-0. 
  11. ^ Vessey, Mark, ed. (2012). A Companion to Augustine. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons. p. 107. ISBN 978-1-405-15946-3. ISBN 1-40515946-4. 


  • Almond, Philip C., 'Rudolf Otto: An Introduction to his Philosophical Theology' (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984).
  • Davidson, Robert F, Rudolf Otto's Interpretation of Religion, (Princeton, 1947)
  • Gooch, Todd A, 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, 2000). ISBN 3-11-016799-9.
  • Ludwig, Theodore M, ‘Otto, Rudolf’ in Encyclopedia of Religion, vol 11 (1987), pp139–141
  • Melissa, Raphael, Rudolf Otto and the concept of holiness, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997)
  • Mok, Daniël (2012). Rudolf Otto: Een kleine biografie. Preface by Gerardus van der Leeuw. Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Abraxas. ISBN 978-90-79133-08-6.
  • Mok, Daniël et al. (2002). Een wijze uit het westen: Beschouwingen over Rudolf Otto. Preface by Rudolph Boeke. Amsterdam: De Appelbloesem Pers (i.e. Uitgeverij Abraxas). ISBN 90-70459-36-1 (print), 978-90-79133-00-0 (e-Book).
  • Moore, John Morrison, Theories of Religious Experience, with special reference to James, Otto and Bergson, (New York, 1938)

External links[edit]