Rudolf Otto, Rudolf Bultmann, and the “Wholly Other”
Ok, so that phrase usually signals a corny joke. But in this case, it might have been true! Bultmann and Otto used to take walks together in Breslau and, being good Germans, at least one of those walks had to include popping in for a stein. In any case, on one of those walks in 1916 Otto explained to Bultmann the contours of the project that would become The Idea of the Holy, published the next year. Otto’s text is well known in both theological and religious studies circles, and its primary concern is to elucidate the concept of the “numinous”—also referred to as the “Wholly Other”—and how it encounters humanity through religion (which it does either as mysterium tremendum or mysterium fascinosum).
God’s status as “Wholly Other” is something that often gets associated with early 20th century Dialectical Theology. I have seen this phrase used as a primary descriptor of Barth’s theology, for instance. But it is important to remember that it actually comes from Otto, and that when the DT guys use it they do so in a very particular way.
It turns out that Bultmann read Otto’s book and wrote a letter (in 1918) to the author asking some pointed questions. Here is how Hammann describes the contents of the letter. This discussion contains some very important lessons for those who would properly understand Dialectical Theology. Of course, it also comes from early in Bultmann’s career.
Konrad Hammann, Rudolf Bultmann, 122–23. Bold is mine. Quotes are to Bultmann’s letter to Otto.
First, Bultmann complains that Otto has passed off merely psychic phenomena as presumably genuine religious states of feeling, but that in so doing has clearly not grasped the essence of religion. Over against such a psychological misunderstanding of religion, it must be insisted that religion consists in an inward and personal experience that knows itself constituted through the relation “th an otherworldly reality of life.” The religious individual experiences this reality, as Bultmann formulates it following Schleiermacher, “in the feeling of absolute dependence.” However, this feeling does not, as Otto believes, correspond to a psychic state, nor does it denote “the faculty of judgment of the aesthetic reason.” It is rather to be characterized, following Schleiermacher, as a form of self-consciousness. Bultmann locates Otto’s understanding of religion in the area of Paul Natorp’s neo-Kantian philosophy of religion. But Natorp’s idea of religion as “a registering of an otherworldly world,” a concept that strongly affected Otto, represents a projection of psychic states, and therefore Bultmann must reject it as a denial of the transcendental reference of religion. Contrary to such a dissolving of religion into illusion, Butlmann’s interpretation of the feeling of absolute dependence leads him to assert the validity of its “objective relation” to otherworldly reality. To be sure, it may not be possible to comprehend this relation to its object rationally; but viewed from the opposite direction, the otherworldly reality may reveal itself as mysterium—mystery in the positive sense, inasmuch as such a revelation opens up an ever-increasing appreciation of existence. Accordingly, what Otto sees as the psychic states in which a person’s sense of being rises to a feeling of self-realization would not be significant for the understanding of religion. What remains decisive is the dual orientation of the religious self-consciousness. On the one side, it “consists in relations to the this-worldly world and in the participation in formulating the material of experience through the faculties of reason.” On the other, it is experienced precisely in this relation to this same world, so that “into one’s individual life” there pours a content that grounds one the certitude of a life grounded in the transcendent.”