William James: Spiritual But Not Religious

  • The text: The Varieties of Religious Experience
  • The author: William James, late 19th century psychologist
  • Notes: This book is made up of a series of lectures delivered in 1901, in Edinburgh. We’re taking bits from Lecture 18, ‘Psychology’.
  • Read it yourself: I’m using the Penguin Classics edition, but you can also read it online at Project Gutenberg.

Alright so I don’t know if this has been clear in my earlier articles, but William James hates theology as a discipline. Or – well, no, he does, actually. He discusses some different points of scholastic theology, and concludes – it all sounds pretty useless.

“Even though these attributes were faultlessly deduced, I cannot conceive of its being of the smallest consequence to us religiously that any one of them should be true. Pray, what specific act can I perform in order to adapt myself the better to God’s simplicity? Or how does it assist me to plan my behaviour, to know that his happiness is anyhow absolutely complete?”

James characterises the difference between academic theology and lived faith as the difference between people who go out and observe animals in the wild, and people who pin beetles onto cards, “the collectors and classifiers, and handlers of skeletons and skins.” Closet naturalists, he calls the second sort, “the vilest kind of wretch under the sun.” Systematic theologians in turn are described as the “closet naturalists of the deity,” people who are more interested in classifying and organising and arranging the qualities of God rather than going out and – you know, having some sort of meaningful encounter. James really puts the boot into these people: “what is their deduction of metaphysical attributes but a shuffling and matching of pedantic dictionary-adjectives, aloof from morals, aloof from human needs.” He concludes that “from the point of view of practical religion, the metaphysical monster which they [academic theologians] offer to our worship is an absolutely worthless invention of the scholarly mind.”

Obviously this is what we refer to as a Hot Take. It maybe has some bearing in reality – for example, James argues that “What keeps religion going is something else than abstract definitions and systems of concatenated adjectives, and something different from faculties of theology and their professors.” That’s probably true. When the New Atheists came after religion, it was always going to be ineffectual – because they were only attacking the intellectual grounds of the faith. Even before people got bored with them, the broad approach of ‘religion is illogical’ simply didn’t touch on the parts of religion that people held dear – on the experiential, pre-theoretical encounter with the divine. The beating heart of the faith is not your local theology lecturer. Most believers will quite happily go through their lives without reading a jot of Aquinas, and it won’t have any impact on their faith or salvation.

There’s also a certain similarity between James’s argument and something I was writing about back in June. In my article ‘On the Hidden Things’, I noted that because this blog focuses on the theoretical side of Christianity, there’s a whole lived experience that I don’t really mention. James draws up the same divide – the difference is that he sees a value judgement between them. One is good, and one is bad. One is real, and the other is skeletons in a library. I don’t know that I’d be quite so harsh, but I get it. The experience feels like it should be prior to any theory. The theory can, in some cases, feel irrelevant to real life. That said, so-called spiritual feeling can often seem vague and woolly. Particularly among traditional religions, there is a perception of the ‘spiritual but not religious’ crowd as disreputable, as wafty and unserious. Similarly, even when you find religious people willing to validate the faith of adherents of other religions, it’ll usually come with doctrinal strings attached. You might have some form of relationship with God, people say, but it’s only in a confused or lesser fashion. You don’t know God as God is meant to be known – through the lens of my religion. One of my favourite points of theology, actually, I found it in a Catholic handbook; it said that while Catholicism was the only path to Christ, it would not deny that the Spirit sometimes roamed outside the Church. In other words, sometimes the Holy Spirit wanders off and picks up a stray Buddhist or something – and they’re still Buddhist, but they do have a genuine relationship with God, but it’s our God, and it’s – the Buddhist isn’t correct about anything, but they do also know God. It’s the sort of tortured, grudging concession that the Catholics specialise in. But it also raises a question for James’s argument.

Obviously James is focused on the psychology of religion. He puts psychology and so-called spiritual ‘feeling’ at the center of things, and leaves academic theology – maybe even doctrine more broadly – on the fringe. But isn’t our investment in doctrine arguably psychological? It seems clear that some people actively want their spirituality to be contained in a doctrinal framework, and consider that framework to be the thing that makes their spirituality true. Surely that’s a part of their religious psychology as much as any experience of God. And then, to take the next step, if doctrine has a psychological function, what makes the psychological function of spiritual feeling superior to the psychological function of religious doctrine? James would say that one’s direct experience and one is pedantic adjective shuffling, but isn’t pedantic adjective shuffling also a type of experience? Why assume that one is truer than the other, that one is more authentic? Who’s to say that God doesn’t want us to be pedantic adjective shufflers, or that pedantic adjective shuffling doesn’t bring us closer to His true nature? Even when James says that the deduction of God’s metaphysical attributes is aloof from human needs – isn’t it arguably serving its own type of human need?

We’re mucking around a bit here – I’m not really making these arguments in earnest. We’re just playing with the terms we’ve been given. But there are some underlying themes that are worth picking up on. Theology doesn’t just appear in a vacuum. It grows out of specific cultural and societal norms. Doctrinal claims are wrapped around our collective and individual experiences. They are, in the final analysis, much more psychological than James seems to realise.

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