R. Otto's 'creature feeling'

[From Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, pages 8-11]



THE reader is invited to direct his mind to a moment of deeply-felt religious experience, as little as possible qualified by other forms of consciousness. Whoever cannot do this, whoever knows no such moments in his experience, is requested to read no farther; for it is not easy to discuss questions of religious psychology with one who can recollect the emotions of his adolescence, the discomforts of indigestion, or, say, social feelings, but cannot recall any intrinsically religious feelings. We do not blame such an one, when he tries for himself to advance as far as he can with the help of such principles of explanation as he knows, interpreting 'aesthetics' in terms of sensuous pleasure, and 'religion' as a function of the gregarious instinct and social standards, or as something more primitive still. But the artist, who for his part has an intimate personal knowledge of the distinctive element in the aesthetic experience, will decline his theories with thanks, and the religious man will reject them even more uncompromisingly.

Next, in the probing and analysis of such states of the soul as that of solemn worship, it will be well if regard be paid to what is unique in them rather than to what they have in common with other similar states. To be rapt in worship is one thing; to be morally uplifted by the contemplation of a good deed is another; and it is not to their common features, but to those elements of emotional content peculiar to the first that we would have attention directed as precisely as possible. As Christians we undoubtedly here first meet with feelings familiar enough in a weaker form in other departments of experience, such as feelings of gratitude, trust, love, reliance, humble submission, and dedication. But this does not by any means exhaust the content of religious worship. Not in any of these have we got the special features of the quite unique and incomparable experience of solemn worship. In what does this consist?

Schleiermacher has the credit of isolating a very important element in such an experience. This is the 'feeling of dependence'. But this important discovery of Schleiermacher is open to criticism in more than one respect.

In the first place, the feeling or emotion which he really has in mind in this phrase is in its specific quality not a 'feeling of dependence' in the 'natural' sense of the word. As such, other domains of life and other regions of experience than the religious occasion the feeling, as a sense of personal insufficiency and impotence, a consciousness of being determined by circumstances and environment. The feeling of which Schleiermacher wrote has an undeniable analogy with these states of mind: they serve as an indication to it, and its nature may be elucidated by them, so that, by following the direction in which they point, the feeling itself may be spontaneously felt. But the feeling is at the same time also qualitatively different from such analogous states of mind. Schleiermacher himself, in a way, recognizes this by distinguishing the feeling of pious or religious dependence from all other feelings of dependence. His mistake is in making the distinction merely that between 'absolute' and 'relative' dependence, and therefore a difference of degree and not of intrinsic quality. What he overlooks is that, in giving the feeling the name 'feeling of dependence' at all, we are really employing what is no more than a very close analogy. Anyone who compares and contrasts the two states of mind introspectively will find out, I think, what I mean. It cannot be expressed by means of anything else, just because it is so primary and elementary a datum in our psychical life, and therefore only definable through itself. It may perhaps help him if I cite a well-known example, in which the precise 'moment' or element of religious feeling of which we are speaking is most actively present. When Abraham ventures to plead with God for the men of Sodom, he says (Gen. xviii.27): 'Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes.' There you have a self-confessed 'feeling of dependence', which is yet at the same time far more than, and something other than, merely a feeling of dependence. Desiring to give it a name of its own, I propose to call it 'creature-consciousness' or creature-feeling. It is the emotion of a creature, submerged and overwhelmed by its own nothingness in contrast to that which is supreme above all creatures.

It is easily seen that, once again, this phrase, whatever it is, is not a conceptual explanation of the matter. All that this new term, 'creature-feeling', can express, is the note of submergence into nothingness before an overpowering, absolute might of some kind; whereas everything turns upon the character of this overpowering might, a character which cannot be expressed verbally, and can only be suggested indirectly through the tone and content of a man's feeling-response to it. And this response must be directly experienced in oneself to be understood.

We have now to note a second defect in the formulation of Schleiermacher's principle. The religious category discovered by him, by whose means he professes to determine the real content of the religious emotion, is merely a category of self-valuation, in the sense of self-depreciation. According to him the religious emotion would be directly and primarily a sort of self-consciousness, a feeling concerning oneself in a special, determined relation, viz. one's dependence. Thus, according to Schleiermacher, I can only come upon the very fact of God as the result of an inference, that is, by reasoning to a cause beyond myself to account for my 'feeling of dependence'. But this is entirely opposed to the psychological facts of the case. Rather, the 'creature-feeling' is itself a first subjective concomitant and effect of another feeling-element, which casts it like a shadow, but which in itself indubitably has immediate and primary reference to an object outside the self.*)

Now this object is just what we have already spoken of as 'the numinous'. For the 'creature-feeling' and the sense of dependence to arise in the mind the 'numen' must be experienced as present, a numen praesens, as is in the case of Abraham. There must be felt a something 'numinous', something bearing the character of a 'numen', to which the mind turns spontaneously; or (which is the same thing in other words) these feelings can only arise in the mind as accompanying emotions when the category of 'the numinous' is called into play.

The numinous is thus felt as objective and outside the self. We have now to inquire more closely into its nature and the modes of its manifestation.

*) This is so manifestly borne out by experience that it must be about the first thing to force itself upon the notice of psychologists analyzing the facts of religion. There is a certain naïveté in the following passage from William James's Varieties of Religious Experience (p. 58), where, alluding to the origin of the Grecian representations of the gods, he says: 'As regards the origin of the Greek gods, we need not at present seek an opinion. But the whole array of our instances leads to a conclusion something like this: It is as if there were in the human consciousness a sense of reality, a feeling of objective presence, a perception of what we may call 'something there', more deep and more general than any of the special and particular 'senses' by which the current psychology supposes existent realities to be originally revealed.' (The italics are James's own.) James is debarred by his empiricist and pragmatist standpoint from coming to a recognition of faculties of knowledge and potentialities of thought in the spirit itself, and he is therefore obliged to have recourse to somewhat singular and mysterious hypotheses to explain this fact. But he grasps the fact itself clearly enough and is sufficient of a realist not to explain it away. But this 'feeling of reality', the feeling of a 'numinous' object objectively given, must be posited as a primary immediate datum of consciousness, and the 'feeling of dependence' is then a consequence, following very closely upon it, viz. a depreciation of the subject in his own eyes. The latter presupposes the former.

'Mysterium tremendum'

'We are dealing with something for which there is only one appropriate expression, 'mysterium tremendum'. The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide, pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing, as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its 'profane', non-religious mood of everyday experience. It may burst in sudden eruption up from the depths of the soul with spasms and convulsions, or lead to the strangest excitements, to intoxicated frenzy, to transport, and to ecstasy. It has its wild and demonic forms and can sink to an almost gristly horror and shuddering. It has its crude, barbaric antecedents and early manifestations, and again it may be developed into something beautiful and pure and glorious. It may become the hushed, trembling, and speechless humility of the creature in the presence of - whom or what? In the presence of that which is a mystery inexpressible and above all creatures.'
(Rudolf Otto, 'The Analysis of Tremendum,' Chapter Four, Das Heilige, The Idea of the Holy, translated by John W. Harvey (London: Oxford University Press, 1958)

'Mysterium fascinans'

'These two qualities, the daunting and the fascinating, now combine in a strange harmony of contrasts, and the resultant dual character of the numinous consciousness, to which the entire religious development bears witness, at any rate from the level of the 'daemonic dread' onwards, is at once the strangest and most noteworthy phenomenon in the whole history of religion. The daemonic-divine object may appear to the mind an object of horror and dread, but at the same time it is no less something that allures with a potent charm, and the creature, who trembles before it, utterly cowed and cast down, has always at the same time the impulse to turn to it, nay even to make it somehow his own. The 'mystery' is for him not merely something to be wondered at but something that entrances him; and beside that in it which bewilders and confounds, he feels a something that captivates and transports him with a strange ravishment, rising often enough to the pitch of dizzy intoxication; it is the Dionysiac-element in the numen.'
(Chapter VI, 'The Elements of Fascination.' The Idea of the Holy, translated by John W. Harvey (London: Oxford University Press, 1958)

'Finer than the fine yet am I greatest,
I am the All in its complete fullness,
I, the most ancient, the spirit, the Lord God.
The golden-gleaming am I, of form divine.
Without hand and foot, rich in unthinkable might,
Sight without eyes, hearing without ears,
Free from all form, I know. But me
None knows. For I am Spirit, am Being.'
- Kaivalya, II, 9. Quoted in Mysticism, East and West, by Rudolph Otto, 98, 99.

Dr. Otto in The Idea of the Holy says that man:

'must 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 [128] the 'numinous' in him perforce begins to stir, to start into life and into consciousness.'
- Otto, Rudolf, The Idea of the Holy, page 7.

The word 'numinous,' we are told, comes from the Latin numen, meaning supernatural divine power. It stands for 'the specific non-rational religious apprehension and its object, at all its levels, from the first dim stirrings where religion can hardly yet be said to exist to the most exalted forms of spiritual experience.'
- Otto, Rudolf, Ibid., page XVII of Translator's Preface.

His translator, Dr. Harvey, Professor of Philosophy at Armstrong College, adds that there develops in man a

'growing awareness of an object, deity... a response, so to speak, to the impact upon the human mind of 'the divine', as it reveals itself whether obscurely or clearly. The primary fact is the confrontation of the human mind with a Something, whose character is only gradually learned, but which is from the first felt as a transcendent presence, 'the beyond', even where it is also felt as 'the within' man.'
- Otto, Rudolf, Ibid., page XV of Translator's Preface.

'divination,' that capacity to recognize with awe and wonder the essential holy and beautiful behind all forms.
- Otto, Rudolf, The Idea of the Holy.

In 1911 Rudolf Otto, a young German lecturer in Theology, undertook a journey to North Africa, India and the Far East. The Day of Atonement that year found him, a Christian, in the Moroccan town of Mogador, where he visited the local synagogue. Amidst the material squalor of the setting, Otto was overwhelmed by the grandeur of the Hebrew chanting, particularly of the "Kedushah," that sublime prayer in which the community emulates the angelic adulation of the Almighty as portrayed in the mystic visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel: "Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts!"

In this experience were sown the seeds of Otto's lifelong fascination with the experience of holiness in world religions. In his seminal work The Idea of the Holy he explored the essence of the "mysterium tremendum" that engulfs individuals when they stand before the power of a "wholly other" majesty that transcends rational understanding.

In Otto's analysis of the holiness experience, it is the process of atonement that allows us to bridge the chasm of profane unworthiness and enter into relationship with God.

'La religion est, ainsi que l'exprime le mot latin religere, une prise en consideration attentive, une observation consciencieuse de ce que Rudolf Otto a appele le "numen", ou le "numineux" (das Numinosum), c'est a dire une puissance qui domine l'homme independamment de sa volonte, et qu'il attribue a une presence invisible.'
L'herne - C.G. Jung / realise par Michel Casenave. - Paris : L'Herne, 1984.

Les 2 polarités sont jointes " au milieu " (conjonction). De plus, cet ensemble obtenu par une longue évolution avec un " but " purement fonctionnel n'a aucune raison de ressembler de près ou de loin à ce que nous rencontrons dans notre univers tridimensionnel. C'est ce que Rudolf Otto a qualifié de " tout autre " et qui est selon lui à l'origine du sentiment religieux. En tout cas, l'idée de surnaturel, de choses totalement incompréhensibles, doit en découler. R. Otto parle bien du Sacré en tant que catégorie a priori et il évoque Kant et le début de la Critique de la raison pure. Etant donné le rôle biologique que doit jouer le cerveau, il est tout à fait logique qu'il s'enracine dans l'organisme, qu'il en ait sa propre représentation et qu'il y ait une transition progressive entre ses représentations (pulsions, affects) et le fonctionnement des organes du corps, comme ce que prévoyait Jung.

En opposition au rationalisme, le philosophe allemand Schleiermacher, déjà au siècle dernier, essaya de montrer le caractère particulier du facteur religieux. Mais il fallut attendre un autre penseur allemand, Rudolf Otto avec son ouvrage célèbre, Le Sacré (1917) et les découvertes de la phénoménologie religieuse avec G. Van der Leeuw, N. Söderblom et le roumain Mircea Eliade, pour faire apparaître le caractère originel, primordial et irréductible de l'élément religieux.

Rudolf Otto a désigné cet élément par le terme " le sacré ", (Das Heilige). Selon lui, ce mot exprime une donnée originelle qui ne peut être dérivée de rien d'autre. Elle est pleine de sens et elle donne un sens à la vie de l'homme qui y participe. C'est l'expérience religieuse dans son sens premier et authentique.