Now that my daily gripe and a truly crappy day is out of the way….
First of all, for those who love historical fiction, the e-book of I, Claudius is on sale for $2.99.
It is one of the best pieces of historical fiction, as fun to read as it was to watch.
I am *this close* to being done with the last book in the Dire Earth Cycle, The Plague Forge. Then I have to re-read this:
Otto, The Idea of the Holy.
I have taken my current professor for another religions class six years ago. He relies heavily on Otto’s concepts and will do so for the class I am in now. Now, I will not recommend reading the book to any layman. While Otto’s basic concept is very compelling, the book itself is filled with dry, overly intricate examinations of philosophical and theological minutia that works as an excellent cure for insomnia. And the book is not even that long.
BUT…his core concept is fascinating and makes a lot of sense. At least as I understand it.
And if I’m preaching to the choir here, please let me know. I just find this sort of thing fascinating.
First of all, we start with the idea that there is a divine force of some kind in the universe, an “ultimate reality” beyond the scope of any human ability to conceptualize in and of itself. We can only grasp towards it with associations and metaphor, we can’t understand it on its own. It is something that exists just utterly, without being tied into the conditional universe as we understand that. (Or at least if you are an atheist studying religion you can look at it as the people in the religions you are studying believe there is this ultimate reality, or the ultimate reality is some sort of profound semi-Jungian species-unconsciousness thing.) It is undefinable except that the experience (not the being, but the experience of the being) is one of “creature feeling,” that one is in the presence of something infinitely greater than themselves that gives them an idea of their own insignificance. And that you are in the presence of something wholly “other,” something completely alien to one’s existence. Not intellectually, but at the most core level of human awareness.
Now in order discuss the divine without specific cultural connotations or definitions, he created the word “Numen.” (The only reason I can find for not using the word “Divine” is that he was German and Germans like creating silly words.) The Chinese sort of did this as well when Taoists steered clear of existing words for “God” or “Gods” and instead used “Tao:” “The Way.”
Otto posits that religion is not begun so much through speculation as by “personal religious experience.”
So in his theory it was not so much, “Why does the sky boom, crash and rumble during a storm? What are these bolts of light? …. It must be the work of a god.” But that someone had an intense personal religious experience related to thunder and lightning and thought they had encountered the “Numen.” (Or they encountered the Divine as related to thunder and lightning, however you want to look at it.)
Now, that “numinous” experience is processed through that person (who is now a “Mystic,” at least in the context of this hypothetical) by their physical senses, their conceptual thought and symbolic language, their culture and their personality. For instance, you would associate the Divine with the lightning and thunder you just heard, saw and felt. If you lived in a culture that had the worship of many gods and goddess, say in ancient Europe, you would think you had encountered one of them. One of many. (If you are in a monotheistic culture, like modern the Europe, then you would assume that you had encountered God “himself.” One of one.) If you are an an ancient Scandinavian culture that relies heavily on raiding to support their community, then you associate thunder and lightning with the crash of battle. If you had a powerful male figure in your life, a warrior, someone loud and raucous who loved to fight, who loved storms and used to get drunk and bellow at the thunder, or if you were such a person, then you will associate thunder and lightning with a man with those attributes.
You just created Thor.
And of course other cultures and individuals have completely different attitudes and histories in which they would approach the exact same experience, resulting in something entirely different.
(Though there do seem to be some species-wide tendencies. In poking around a bit, I found most deities associated with Thunder and Lightening across the world are masculine. And think about how many cultures across the world associate the Moon with the feminine.)
So already there is spin on the experience. It does not mean that experience is not valid. They did encounter the Divine, but what everyone around them is getting “straight from the horse’s mouth” is that one person’s perception of a very personal experience. And there is no other way they can communicate it.
So the Mystic then goes out with the Message. Society hears the Message and reacts. They can reject it outright or accept it. In accepting it, no matter how faithfully to the original Mystic’s vision they try to be, the message is invariably poured through the additional filters of the group’s culture and history, etc..
Sometimes it’s consciously made more palatable to the masses to encourage conversion.
Congratulations. You have a religion. What began as a deeply personal experience of something beyond description is soon a culturally shaped pack of ideals, morals, rituals and dogma which has little to do with the Mystic’s intent (See: Buddhism) and even less to do with the Ultimate Reality of the universe. Or at least, it only contains a tiny facet of it.
That’s how Rudolph Otto saw it anyway. Makes a lot of sense to me.