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
Language German
Subject theology and comparative religion

Rudolf Otto (25 September 1869 – 6 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.[1] 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 (divine power). (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. 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."[2] Karl Barth did approve such a description of God as totaliter aliter,[3] aliud, aliud valde (Augustine of Hippo, Confessions 7.10.16).[4] Otto 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, and written about by Karl Rahner's presentation of man as a being of transcendence.


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, Carl Jung (borrowing the concept of the numinous), Karl Barth, 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 and Hans Jonas. Ideas of Otto have been discussed also by Jewish thinkers, like Joseph Soloveitchik and Eliezer Berkovits.[5]


  • 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


  1. Lindsay Jones (ed. in chief). Encyclopedia Of Religion: Second Edition. Thomson Gale, 2005, p. 6926. ISBN 0-02-865743-8.
  2. 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. |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> 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 0-567-52728-X; ISBN 978-0-56752-728-8. Retrieved 10 May 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Webb, Stephen H. (1991). Re-figuring Theology. The Rhetoric of Karl Barth. Albany, New York: SUNY Press. p. 87. ISBN 1-438-42347-0; ISBN 978-1-43842-347-0. Retrieved 10 May 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Vessey, Mark, ed. (2012). A Companion to Augustine. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons. p. 107. ISBN 1-405-15946-4; ISBN 978-1-40515-946-3. Retrieved 10 May 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. God, Man and History, pp. 166, 170


  • 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