The Redemptive Religion

From “The Idea of the Holy”
by Rudolf Otto, 1869-1937

Christianity, as it stands before us today in present actuality as a great world religion, is indubitably, so far as its claim and promise go, in the first and truest sense a religion of redemption. Its characteristic ideas today are salvation, over-abounding salvation, deliverance from and conquest of the world and from existence in bondage to the world, and even from creaturehood as such, the overcoming of the remoteness of and enmity to God, redemption from servitude to sin and the guilt of sin, reconciliation and atonement and, in consequence, grace and all the doctrine of grace, the Spirit and the bestowal of the Spirit, the new birth and the new creature. These conceptions are common to Christendom, despite the manifold cleavages that divide it into different confessions, churches and sects, and they characterise it sharply and definitely as a religion of redemption par excellence, setting it in this respect on a level with the great religions of the East, with their sharp, dualistic antithesis of the state of liberation and bondage, nay, justifying its claim not to fall short of these in regard to the necessity of redemption and the grant of salvation, but to surpass them, both in the importance it gives to these conceptions and in the richness of meaning it finds in them. It cannot be doubted that here, in these elements, is to be found the inner principle and essence of contemporary Christianity and what we have to ask is whether the wealth of mental and emotional content was in very truth the principle of that plain religion of Jesus long ago, whose establishment must be termed the first and most immediate achievement of Christ.

In answering this question in the affirmative, we would point to a parable which, intended to have reference to the kingdom of God, fits the principle of Christianity equally well: the parable of the grain of mustard seed and the tree that grew therefrom. This parable hints at a change and alteration, for the grown tree is something different from the seed, but an alteration that is no transformation, no transmutation or epigenesis, but genuine evolution or development, the transition from potentiality to actuality.

The religion of Jesus does not change gradually into a religion of redemption; it is in its whole design and tendency a religion of redemption from its earliest commencement, and that in the most uncompromising sense. Though it lacks the theological terms which the Church later possessed, its redemptive character is manifest and unambiguous. If we try to determine as simply and concisely as possible what really characterised the message of Jesus, ignoring what was historically inessential, we are left with two central elements. First, there is the proclamation of the kingdom of God, as no mere accessory, but the foundation of the whole gospel. This is characteristic of his ministry from the beginning and throughout its course. Second, there is the reaction against Phariseeism and, in connexion with this, Jesus ideal of godliness as the attitude and mind of a child when its fault has been forgiven. But both points comprise in principle everything which later became separately formulated in the specifically redemptive doctrines of Christianity: grace, election, the Holy Ghost and renewal by the Spirit. These were possessed by and experienced by that first group of disciples as truly as by any later Christians, though in an implicit form. A closer consideration may make this plainer.

To speak of a religion of redemption is, one may say, to be guilty of redundancy, at any rate, if we are considering the more highly developed forms of religion. For every such religion, when once it has won its autonomy and freed itself from dependent reference to an ideal of merely worldly welfare, whether private or public, develops in itself unique and over-abounding ideals of beatitude which may be designated by the general term "salvation." Such salvation is the goal to which the evolution of Indian religions has tended ever more markedly and consciously, from their beginning with the notion of deification of the Upanishad-Pantheism on to the bliss-state of the Buddhist Nirvana, which is negative only in appearance. It is also the goal of the religions of redemption, specifically so-called, which spread with such vigour over the civilised world from Egypt, Syria, and Asia Minor about the beginning of our era. Further, it is obvious to an examination sharpened by the comparative study of religions that the same tendency to salvation is operative also in the vesture of eschatology that gives form to the religion of Persia. Islam, too, embodies the longing for and the experience of salvation. In this case salvation is not simply in the hope of the joys of Paradise: rather the most vital element in Islam is Islam itself, i.e. that surrender to Allah which is not merely the dedication of the will to him, but also at the same time the entering upon the Allah state of mind here and now, the object of longing and striving, a frame of mind which is already salvation and which may possess and enrapture the man like an intoxication and can give rise to a mystic transport of bliss.

But if the idea of salvation thus lies at the base of all higher religion everywhere, it is manifested quite unmistakably and in supreme fashion, both in intensity and intrinsic purity, in the kingdom of Heaven of Christianity, which is at once a tenet of faith, an object of desire and a present experience.

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