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The Idea of the Holy 2nd Edition

4.4 out of 5 stars 45 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0195002102
ISBN-10: 0195002105
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Editorial Reviews


"This translation has firmly established its position as an authoritative and lucid representation of an acknowledged classic of religious thought."--London Quarterly Review


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Product Details

  • Series: Galaxy Books (Book 14)
  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 2 edition (December 31, 1958)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195002105
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195002102
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 0.5 x 5.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (45 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #231,514 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By David Graham on March 15, 2001
Format: Paperback
C.S. Lewis once wrote, "I believe that many who find that 'nothing happens' when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand." This pronouncement applies to Rudolf Otto's classic The Idea of the Holy (which Lewis had read.) This book explores the esoteric and ineffable, and is best approached with a pen or pencil in hand to underline passages and write in the margins. It is not a lengthy book (less than 200 pages in the edition I own) but chewing the sinewy theology takes some work to digest.
Traditional theology has usually concerned itself with doctrine, with focus on the rational aspects of God. Otto, following the tradition of mystics, gave careful consideration to an oft-neglected aspect of theology: the non-rational aspects of God. In doing so, he coined the word "numinous" to depict that which transcends or eludes comprehension in rational terms. It suggests that which is holy, awesome, and 'wholly other.' He also applies the expression "mysterium tremendum" to the numinous, describing that which is hidden, esoteric, beyond conception or understanding, awe-inspiring, fear-instilling or uncanny, an absolute overpoweringness of an ineffable transcendent Reality.
Otto illustrates his concepts with scripture passages such as Isaiah 6, where the vision of the Lord and his robe filled the temple. God's holiness overwhelmed Isaiah, who cried, "Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.
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Format: Paperback
Few theological books have made the impact on the fields of theology and philosophy that this one has. Its impact and importance are for good reason.
"The Idea of the Holy" is not a terribly long book, but it is certainly not a casual or quick read. It is not aimed at a popular audience, and for many people it will require a dictionary close at hand.
In this book Otto embarks on the paradoxical task of describing the incomprehensible qualities of God. It is not written as a Systematic Theology categorizing doctrines that can be deduced from Scripture. Rather, it describes philosophically what it means for God to be "wholly other", or transcendent. Often the technical language is difficult to process and the ideas are not simple ones to grasp, but still it is worth wrestling with.
As Otto describes the Mysterium Tremendum, he examines the emotional response of humans as we encounter God in his Holiness. The reader is reminded of the Awe-Inspiring God who we claim to believe in and serve. This is perhaps the most memorable and humbling aspect of the book.
Take a copy of this book on a long trip and spend some time with it. Expect it to be difficult and when you're tempted to quit... keep reading!
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book, first published in 1917, is rightly regarded as a classic of religious philosophy.

Otto's great contribution to Christianity was to assert the importance of a non-rational approach to the divine. Christianity, which is the most dogmatic and moralistic of the major world religions, needed the corrective. Otto created the word "numinous" to stand for the sense of a divine presence that operates beyond rational understanding. He also coined the term "mysterium tremendum" to connote the inchoate sense of awe and dread that humans feel in the presence of the divine. To him, both of these ideas were essential to a full expression of the religious spirit.

One reaction to this book over the years goes something like this: either you've been knocked off your horse like St Paul, in which case you already have a direct experience of the numinous, or you haven't. Why bother to analyze something that by its very nature can't be put into words? Here Otto makes a subtle but crucial distinction. He's not talking about a numinous feeling, but about a feeling of the numinous. In other words, the numinous exists out there, not inside us, so we can approach it as an object to be observed and, at least by analogy to the sensations it excites with us, described.

Otto didn't reject the rational, though. Without rationality, he says, we can't have belief, only feelings. In his view of religion, the rational and non-rational interpenetrate each other like the warp and woof of a fabric, which can't be separated without destroying the very garment it makes. He points out several times that fully understanding the non-rational conception of god deepens our rational religious ideas.
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Format: Paperback
I decided to read The Idea of the Holy by Rudolf Otto when I saw that it was on C.S. Lewis' top-ten list of books that influenced him, reasoning that if it was good enough for Lewis, it was probably worth my time to read. All I can say after having read several of the list's books is that Lewis has strange tastes!

The Idea of the Holy is Otto's attempt to pick up where systematic theology leaves off. That is to say, while systematic theologies treat the rational aspects of God, The Idea discusses the non-rational divine aspects. How does one describe that which is by definition indescribable? Otto does so by using the via negativa (what it is not), metaphor (what it is like) and appeal to personal experiences in the believer's life, including one's a priori understanding of the holy. For Otto, the non-rational aspects of God, which he dubs "the numinous," can be explained (as best as one can) by the mysterium tremendum. Mysterium refers to the "wholly other" aspect of God--elements that differ in essence from everything that humans know and can describe. Tremendum refers to God's awefulness, His majesty, His overpoweringness, and all that causes humans when confronted with Him to experience what the Bible calls "the fear of the LORD." Taken together, we see that deep in God's nature there is something that we cannot ever fully understand, something which instills soul-shaking fear and respect, yet something for which we yearn, and indeed something which we as a race have felt from the beginning of history.

After discussing the concept--or feeling--of the mysterium tremendum and its means of expression in some detail, Otto turns to the expressions of the numinous in the Old and New Testaments and in Luther's works.
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