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Ways of Conceiving the Divine: Part One

What you need to know: By the end of this unit, you should be able to describe and define the following concepts and terms:

Rudolf Otto

The Idea of the Holy


Mysterium tremendum









First-level discourse

Second-level discourse




Polytheistic Deism

Dualistic Deism


Dualistic Pantheism




Karl Marx

Transcendent, Immanent




Our consideration of sacred places leads us to a discussion Rudolf Otto’s “Idea of the Holy” (1923).  As part of the unit’s survey of “The Divine Expressed in Religious Text” we will explore the concepts of canon and scripture. We will then review conceptions of the deity and conclude with a brief survey of the concept of “spirit” in various traditions.

Rudolf Otto

Rudolf Otto called sacred power the  “numinous.”  Objects or persons with this exceptional sacred power both create a feeling of avoidance and attraction.  On the one hand, the power is so wonderful and awesome that one feels drawn to it.  Even though it is OTHER – beyond what we are, we feel attracted to it with a sense of wonder, adoration, enthusiasm and amazement.  On the other hand, the power is so great and so different, that it instills a certain amount of fear within us. There is danger in this power:  danger that we will be overwhelmed and consumed by it; danger that, in contrast to the sacred, we are weak, unworthy and impure.


Otto calls the experience of the holy/sacred power Mysterium Tremendum: a “great mystery.”   A mysterious sense of dread, awe, majesty and wrath as well as love, pity, mercy, joy, peace and a blessedness.



1.      awe-inspiring (a profound unease)

2.      overpowering (inspires a feeling a humility)

3.      energy (an impression of immense vigor)


1.      the numinous is experienced as 'wholly other.' It is something truly amazing, as being totally outside our normal experience.

2.      fascination: one who experiences the numinous is “caught up” in it.


According to Otto, one can find the beginning of religion in this experience of the numinous.  The sense of dread and awe results in worship acts:

expiation (an act of sacrifice to remove pollution or sin)

propitiation (sacrifice to appease the deity)


Examples of mysterium tremendum include:

            The “call” of Isaiah: (Isaiah 6:1-8) (Notice the reaction of Isaiah, followed by acts of worship).

            Krishna’s self-revelation in the Bhagavad-Gita

Note: The Bhagavad_Gita is part of an epic that was composed between the 2nd and 6th Centuries AD. The portion known as the Bhagavad-Gita tells the story of how the god Vishnu incarnated himself as Krishna.  Krishna serves as the charioteer for a warrior named Arjuna. Much of the Bhagavad-Gita recounts the dialog between Arjuna and Krishna.