Numinous Experience

Ok, so it’s time to move on to numinous experience, otherwise I won’t cover all the topics I said I would before the exam on Wednesday.

I thought up the question ‘Numinous experience is incapable of supporting belief in God’. Discuss, firstly because I don’t think a question on it has ever come up before, and also because I think there is a strong argument that the concept of numinous experience (as devised by Rudolf Otto and set out in The Idea of the Holy) is not really capable of being an argument for God’s existence. I am fairly sure Otto didn’t intend any explicit ‘argument from religious experience’ anyway, but there is obviously an implicit thread about experience pointing to God in his book which can be picked up and evaluated.


In order to understand the numinous a passage from The Wind in the Willows may by useful:

“’This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me,’ whispered the Rat, as if in a trance. ‘Here, in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him!’
Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror— indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy— but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend. and saw him at his side cowed, stricken, and trembling violently. And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew.”

Whilst this is children’s literature and not a ‘real’ experience, it nonetheless conveys powerfully the sense of otherness, awe-inspiring and majestic, which characterises the numinous.

The term numinous is derived from the Latin word numen meaning ‘divine power’. The numinous really refers to the non-rational element of religion, which is properly the object of mysticism. The concepts of religion, the doctrines and moral codes, are the rational element, which according to Otto, derive ultimately from the non-rational numinous element.

The element of absolute otherness associated with the numinous leads to the experience of ‘creature-feeling’ in the worshipper, where the overpowering element of the numinous causes us to experience our own feeling of dependence, that we are mere creatures, “submerged and overwhelmed by our own nothingness in contrast to that which is supreme above all creatures.”

This notion of ‘creature-feeling’ is clearly influenced by Schleiermacher’s (more on him in the next post) ‘feeling of absolute dependence’, but Otto is keen to distinguish the two from each other. Schleiermacher meant by his term the feeling of contingency dependent on being the creation of a creator. Otto argues that the conceptualisation of overpoweringness in terms of a causal relationship between creator and created misses out an important aspect of the numinous experience. He says:

“In one case you have the fact of being created; in the other, the status of the creature…with this latter type of consciousness, we are introduced to a set of ideas quite different to those of creation or preservation. We come upon the ideas, first, of the annihilation of self, and then, as its complement, of the transcendent as the sole and entire reality.”

Essentially Otto believes that the numinous, at its base, goes beyond the feelings of trust and love of Schleiermacher’s analysis into a non-rational sphere that occupies the entire being with a bewildering strength. “If a man does not feel what the numinous is, when he reads the sixth chapter of Isaiah, then no ‘preaching, singing, telling,’ in Luther’s phrase, can avail him” Otto writes.

Therefore the numinous experience is ineffable, and indeed the via negativa of the mystics may be a particularly useful way of trying to grasp what Otto means for the student who has completed the Religious Language topic.

Continued in the next post – evaluation of Otto.

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