Numinous Experience – Evaluation

Does Rudolf Otto’s idea of the numinous stand up to critical scrutiny? Here are some thoughts:

1. The numinous seems to point to a perhaps near-universal experience – a feeling of awe in the face of realities greater than oneself. But does this common human experience necessarily point to a divine reality?

This feeling is certainly fairly widespread as a reaction to the natural world, a starry sky etc. Even Richard Dawkins talks about a sense of wonder as he contemplates the amazing complexity of the natural world. So there is clearly no need for such a feeling to point in any kind of theistic direction.

A naturalistic theory could entirely account for the feeling of the numinous in terms of human being’s own creativity and desire for self-transcendence.

2. The basis of numinous experience is ‘feeling’. Or at least, if what is experienced in itself is beyond all description, the marks it leaves on the person are certain strong feelings of awe, fear, overpowering ‘otherness’, and so on. If this is the case, then it certainly seems true that numinous experience is non-cognitive in that it is not necessarily capable of being ‘true’ or ‘false’. Feelings in themselves don’t give us knowledge of states of affairs, however they can be good indicators of ‘something’ being experienced. The question is, as it is so often in this topic, whether that has any reality outside of the experiencer.

Take the example of the feeling of movement you get when travelling on a boat. Even when the boat stops and you disembark you can often feel the movement. This shows the problem of trying to decide whether an experience has a ‘real’ cause or not. R W Hepburn uses this example to show the problem with distinguishing between feelings directly caused by an external reality (the current movement of the boat), and feelings which have no direct external cause. How are we meant to judge, on the basis of the feeling itself, whether the experience is veridical?

3. This attempt to make religious feeling self-authenticating has its roots in an earlier theologian called F D E Schleiermacher (1768-1834). Any attempt to explain religious experience after Kant had to take into account the far-reaching changes in epistemology which he brought about. Kant showed that all experience was my experience, and as such, limited by my own perceptual equipment. I cannot step outside of this equipment to see the world ‘as it is in itself’ (the ding an sich for Kant).

Kant therefore divides what we can experience (the phenomenal), from what actually is (the noumenal). We cannot get at the noumenal, because our rational, discursive understanding has to chop up the noumenal in order to grasp it. Schleiermacher said there was a way however, to get at the noumenal, and that is to go back to the experience before it is grasped by the understanding. In this sense, he thinks you can have a pre-rational experience, pure, and unmediated by reason. This, for Schleiermacher, was what mystical experience is.

And this is what Otto is doing with numinous experience. He is claiming that it is pre-rational, more original, purer, a direct experience of the world without the usual filters. As such, it can authenticate itself, and does not need to be judged by reason from outside.

4. There are some problems with this. Otto and Schleiermacher, in attempting to transcend the Kantian epistemological straitjacket, are nonetheless agreeing with the basic structure of his epistemology. But Kant, whilst influential, has been fairly strongly challenged by modern philosophy, especially deconstructionism. Subtler epistemological pictures have come along, which show that we do not just use our reason on packets of sense data – we are not detached observers of the world, but new players being inducted into old games. Just see Heidegger or Wittgenstein for more of this kind of thing.

So Otto may be going down the wrong route entirely. Why does numinous experience have to be an individual, personal feeling? Many philosophers of religion would argue that mystical experience for most of the medieval period was understood by mystics themselves in an entirely different way, as a corporate response to the Eucharist in Mass for instance, or even as the attempt to rise above the feelings and reason into the pure world of intellect, in which one contemplates the divine.

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