Patricia Hofer

Rudolf Otto

Excerpt from Living Large, pages 96-97

According to Rudolf Otto, religious worship requires the “warp and woof” of two essential threads—rational and non-rational believing (xvii). In the rational approach to religion, the focus is on God’s attributes. These help us to view God “conceptually,” with doctrines that focus on His justice or goodness or spirit. Taken to the extreme, however, such a rational or intellectual focus leads to a “wrong and one-sided interpretation of religion” (Otto 1).

Rudolf Otto—a noted theologian and scholar at the beginning of the 20th century who wrote The Idea of the Holy, an acknowledged classic of religious thought.

In the Pharisees’ zeal to serve God to the letter, they ignored its inward intent for the heart. They then interpreted these rational forms of worship in a way that would justify the most indulgent and selfish practices. This is a subtlety that staunch believers easily slip into. Some of Jesus’ sharpest and most well known teaching highlighted their hypocrisy—and ours.

The other essential thread of religious believing, God’s “wholly other” presence, is non-rational. From it we know that God can’t be captured or contained within attributes or doctrines or concepts. His presence with us is “purely a felt experience” (Otto 59).

Chasing this non-rational experience, however, leads us to another “one-sided interpretation of religion.” The rigid asceticism of John the Baptist had him living in the wilderness, wearing a “camel’s hair” shirt and living off “locusts and wild honey” (NIV Matt. 3:3-4). Seeking this non-rational or “wholly other” presence of God, many believers, mystics in particular, reject not only fleshly comfort but seek discomfort. They, and we, fall into the trap of thinking that the unseen spirit of God will draw closer to us if we continually prove our sincerity with physical trials.

Between these two groups, between these extremes of a too rational or a too non-rational worship of God, walks our Lord. He rejected the currents of religious legalism that circled around him. And he did not practice the physical deprivations that had found their way into John’s followers. He went where people were. And he ate what they ate, drank what they drank, and wore what they wore.