Significance of the Sense of Holiness



The German theologian Rudolf Otto, in his classic study on holiness (Das Heilige, 1927 – freely translated into English as The Idea of the Holy), states that “Holiness is a category of interpretation and valuation peculiar to the sphere of religion.” This unquestionably has been the place of the concept of holiness in western thought. The holy is a quality attributed to the presence of God in situations in which holiness is felt. Otto stresses the fact that holiness is a feeling and not a rationally conceived thought. According to the theologian-philosopher Paul Tillich, a sacred realm is established wherever the divine is manifest. The divine is the holy. These ideas about the nature of holiness are found in theological works and in discussions within religious seminaries, rather than in the domain of secular philosophy.


But it does not necessarily follow that the feeling of holiness as a phenomenon of the human mind is a sign of some divine presence. Consideration of the meaning of this phenomenon for the human condition is a legitimate subject for philosophy outside of the sphere of seminaries. It is important to consider this special human quality without the bias of long-standing religious dogmas. If one believes unreservedly that the sense of holiness attached to images of Christ suffering on the cross stems from the presence of an almighty God – no matter how one conceives this presence – then no possibility of philosophical inquiry exists. On the subject of holiness, one cannot serve both the dogmas of religion and independent philosophical thought.


The phenomenology of holiness is as diverse as human experience itself. The conventional idea of holiness is associated with the Christian sacraments but also may be associated with other forms of religious experience such as mere entrance into a church or listening to sonorous church music. The Cathedral at Chartres or the Requiem of Fauré may elicit a sense of holiness unmatched by the more common forms of religious expression. The feelings are described as awe, mystery, fear, exaltation, love, fascination or mixtures of all of them. Otto uses the term numinous because he thought the idea of holiness was erroneously associated with morality and needed to be distinguished from it. Mysterium, Tremendum, Fascinosum were the Latin terms he used to describe numinous feelings. They all refer to the fact that the feeling of holiness is something set apart from the ordinary mundane experiences of life. William James, in his monumental work Varieties of Religious Experience, provides a whole host of reported personal experiences indicating the range and depth of the experience of holiness. He relies on these to make his points because for James, the quintessential critical thinker of American philosophy, abstract formulations in this area cannot take the place of personal experience.


The sense of holiness is not limited to religious artifacts or activities. The New England Transcendentalists brought into American consciousness the idea that holiness is to be found in nature. “The happiest man is he who learns from nature the lesson of worship” was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s pithy formulation in his essay entitled Nature. Human beings are part of nature and it should not be overlooked that one who experiences holiness can include his own self in the “numinous feeling” evoked by natural phenomena. As an aside, it may be stated that Eros is one of the natural sources from which numinous feelings are produced in certain fortunate individuals.


A different take on holiness is had by those who feel it to be solely a tool of institutionalized religions using it to implant fear in the mind of believers ensuring that they will remain faithful. These skeptics believe holiness promotes superstition and terror of the unknown. The need for a higher authority on earth is implanted in those who dread the implacable mystery of human mortality. Children are especially susceptible to what the skeptics look upon as the organized humbug of religions. Schopenhauer says somewhere that if a child is given over to religious education before he is eight years of age, there is no hope for him in the future.


One can hardly quarrel with the assertion that a great deal of humbug is tied up with the sense of holiness. Since Voltaire, generations of intellectuals have sharpened their literary knives on the inanities, meanness, cruelties and tyrannies of organized religion, mainly Christianity, sparing neither Roman Catholicism nor Protestant sects. Lately, a similar trend has appeared regarding the Muslim faith but the fear of assassination has inhibited this trend. One can expect it to increase, however, in future years. The literary masterpiece of this approach is Dostoevsky’s “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” found within his novel The Brothers Karamazov. Jesus’ second coming is made to take place in Spain during the period of the Inquisition – “The Holy Office” – when the Savior is promptly thrown into a dungeon by the Grand Inquisitor because of his fear that Jesus’ reappearance will disturb the public order. A similar legend but without Jesus was told by Samuel Butler in Erewhon Revisited.


However, the disparagement of the sense of holiness because of its misuse by religious institutions throws out the baby with the bathwater. Rudolf Otto, in line with his Kantian orientation, asserts that the sense of holiness is “a purely a priori category.” In other words, the disposition to the feeling is inborn. It is already present in the mind of the individual – in the soul, if one is permitted to use this forbidden term in a philosophical essay. To make the concept of the a priori perfectly clear, Otto quotes the famous opening lines of the introduction to the Critique of Pure Reason:


That all our knowledge begins with experience there can be no doubt. For how is it possible that the faculty of cognition should be awakened into exercise otherwise than by means of objects which affect our senses? ...But, though all our knowledge begins with experience, it by no means follows that all arises out of experience.


The a priori concept asserts that what is made of empirical experience is not only dependent on the objects of experience but also on the constitution of the individual experiencing the objects. The sense of holiness, one may say, is an emotion issuing from the depths of cognitive apprehension. The Anlage is present prior to the experience.


What could be the significance of such a constitutional trait?  Such feelings as anger, fear, jealousy, acquisitiveness, sexual attraction, familial love all can be attributed to the instincts for survival and procreation. Nietzsche thought the will to power was at the bottom of all human emotions and activities. In recent years, the phenomenon of morality has been traced to the survival of social groups. But none of these biological explanations apply to the sense of holiness experienced by individuals in circumstances conducive to this feeling. It must stem from a different source.


I submit that the sense of holiness arises from a consciousness of the spiritual aspect of human existence. This latter term has almost as many connotations as the term metaphysical with respect to the uses that have been made of it. But there is an underlying meaning common to all uses of the word ‘spiritual,’ which is that empirical sensory experience, no matter how complex the instrumentation magnifying it, does not exhaust the entire realm of reality available to human beings. This additional reality is to be found in the spiritual domain.


The concept of dualism refers to the manner in which humans experience reality rather than referring to existence of two – or possibly more – distinct ontological realms. It may well be that there is a single Spinozist ‘substance’ underlying all existence. But by now it should be clear that neither subparticle physics nor deductive epistemology will ever provide satisfactory explanations of the nature of ultimate existence. The important thing to recognize is that we humans apprehend reality in essentially two different ways; empirically and spiritually. The former is the dominant mode because our lives literally depend on it. Yet there is a certain superficiality, even tediousness, associated with mere sensory experience. Human beings desire deeper knowledge; spiritual experience pertains to this desire. This type of experience is fragile and unpredictable, and needs protection from the mundane world. Gresham’s law of economics that bad money drives out good pertains equally to the mundane and the spiritual in the life of individuals. Emerson states in his essay on The Over-Soul that “our faith comes in moments, our vice is habitual.” By faith, Emerson means spirituality, by vice he meant the mundane.


The experience of holiness, whatever the context, is a reminder that there is a world of spirit needful of attention if the self is to be fulfilled. This form of experience is by no means uniformly present among all individuals. Rather it is idiosyncratic, stemming from profound depths of the self. One person’s sense of holiness is the occasion for boredom or cynicism in another. In Blasco IbaĖez’ novel La Catedral, the author unfolds the various ways in which the characters experience the cathedral of Toledo; for some it serves as a means for earning a living, others view it with curiosity or disdain; it serves as a source of antiquarian study for those inclined in that direction and, for the bishop of the diocese, it is an eternal budgetary problem. But for some it elicits the feelings of mystery, awe, other-worldliness and spiritual attraction that is encompassed by the term ‘holiness.’ This aspect of the human condition deserves the attention of philosophers as well as theologians. The mystical aspects of the mind deserve attention as much as the rational. As William James put it in his treatise previously cited, “Philosophy lives by words but truth and fact well up in our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation.” The sense of holiness is one of these ways.


Richard Schain

October 2007