Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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William James (1842-1910)
One of the myths often held by Christians is that the Church's doctrines begin and evolve over time without being deeply and sometimes decisively altered by non-Christians. Even a rudimentary study of Christian origins reveals this perception to be incorrect. 

The influence on the Church by modern philosophers over the last 100 years has been great. William James (brother of the novelist Henry James) is a prime example. His writings on religion  have shaped and moulded the thoughts of generations of Christian thinkers.

Wealth is a useful thing when preparing for a life's work - and the James family had plenty of that. The young William James was taught at home, at various private schools in the USA and England, and later in France, Switzerland and Germany. As his brother's novels illustrate, William was thoroughly in touch with the intellectual life of two continents - a quite rare thing at the time.

Having decided that he would never become a top-quality painter, James studied chemistry and comparative anatomy at Harvard University. He then went into the medical school. His life-long ill health dates to a trip he made to Brazil where he contracted smallpox. Marriage in 1878 helped him overcome tendencies which today would probably be linked to hypochondria.

James qualified as a doctor in England in 1869 and by 1879 he was lecturing in philosophy and psychology at Harvard. His scientific background is critical to his work as a philosopher. It prevented him from adopting a highly abstract approach to life's mysteries along traditional European and Platonic lines. 

Christian theologians tend to take issue with those who seek to confine knowledge to what can be "proved". Life is more than assembling "facts" about the world, they would say. Beyond the facts lie the truths of faith. James might have agreed with them - but in a particular way. Our descriptions of "phenomenal facts", said James, turn out to be based upon and moulded by our assumptions about reality. We can never reach "the facts" because we ourselves and the way we perceive things get in the way [1].

The implications of James' stand in this respect are considerable. First, his position implies that the only way Christian teaching can stay constant over millennia is if our culturally-conditioned perceptions also stay constant. If they don't, and if our assumptions about the world do change over the ages, then the so-called unalterable verities of faith change with them. Alternatively, I suppose, Christians might somehow appreciate truth intrinsically differently from everyone else - and that is, I think, unlikely.

Second, the type of thought which proposes axioms and then works out a philosophical system according to those axioms (a priori metaphysics) is, thought James, illegitimate. Those who do this - as most European philosophers have done - are guilty of vacuously elaborating their assumptions without reference to real-life experience (a posteriori metaphysics).

So theologians and others who create complex systems congruent with some doctrinal platform are missing the point. Such systems can be beautifully internally consistent - and beautifully wrong because they have no pragmatic referent in the lives of ordinary people. 

We can take it, then, that James would exclude a theology of hell or heaven, for example, because nobody alive has experienced them. He would also exclude a theology of Jesus because nobody alive has known him. Any theology of Jesus must therefore be a theology about Jesus in the gospels, not about Jesus the real person. The gospels, not the person of Jesus, are the setting of our assumptions about such matters as free will and sin, to take but two possible referents.

So when James approaches the question of religion, he doesn't focus on theology. Nor does he try to work out how the Church should regulate itself (bishops, baptism and the like). He's more interested in describing the kinds of human experience we call "religious". He did this is a book which a hundred years later remains as fresh and relevant as when it was written in 1902 - The Varieties of Religious Experience. It has proved enormously influential during that time.

The overall climate in relation to Christianity now has not changed much in some important aspects. Then as now, a large body of scholars concentrated on showing that it and all religion is a subjective state. It has no objective relationship to the real world. 

Another large body in opposition insisted that Christianity and (from their points of view) other religions derive their truths from God's various revelations to humanity. On the contrary, wrote James, religion

... must be sifted and tested, and run the gauntlet of confrontation with the total context of experience, just like what comes from the outer world of sense. Its value must be ascertained by empirical methods ... [2]

In contrast with Christian teaching about the certainties of revelation, and the consequent rightness of belief, James thought belief should always be conditional.

Some think that belief should stick as much as possible to the facts. What we take to be objective - whether revealed or otherwise known - is what we should build on. James suggested in The Will to Believe (1897) that belief is better thought of as the same sort of hunch a person has when conceiving a scientific hypothesis. This belief must be strong enough to result in action to test the hypothesis, but not so rigid as to inhibit changing existing theories.

Life is much the same. For example, if we come up with a belief about God as "good" that belief can be tested only in real life. But we should not hold it so firmly that we don't admit the possibility that God may be evil or unconcerned. All belief, including that derived from scientific experiment, is provisional. W J Earle puts James approach like this:

For James, all genuine belief, including religious belief, must address itself to the tribunal of experiment. If all possible procedures of verification are irrelevant to some religious doctrine, then that doctrine cannot rightly be the object of any belief; such a doctrine, having no positive content, would be meaningless. [3]

James' approach falls in the philosophical category of "pragmatism" which is in general a reaction against metaphysics - that is, against abstract intellectualism. James and others are, in effect, saying, "If it doesn't work in real life, in the daily human joys and struggles, then don't pay too much attention to it." James states it thus::

It is astonishing to see how many philosophical disputes collapse into insignificance the moment you subject them to the test of tracing a concrete consequence. There can be no difference anywhere which does not make a difference elsewhere - no difference in abstract truth that does not express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somewhere, and somewhen. [4]

Understandably, the pragmatist line isn't popular with Christian theologians. For if such suggestions are taken up they might be applied to Christian teachings. It's not that ideas or doctrines are intrinsically misguided, nor that we should never take anything on faith. 

Rather, it should be possible to make belief an integral part of our experience. It should make our lives a working whole, leaving nothing out. And it should always submit itself to be tested by the court of experiment. A belief which doesn't work in real life should always be found guilty.

This is, I think, a difficult principle to apply to many traditional teachings. For what James says is that if we "ought" to believe something, then the "ought" should be subjected to a concrete explanation. And even then, the explanation can be held only provisionally. If anything is to be held as true, then, it is held because it compels us in spite of everything. When it ceases to do that it should be abandoned.

Many Church authorities today tend to panic if anyone suggests that there is no such thing as absolute truth. Traditional teaching rests upon an "ought" that we should believe Christian doctrines because they have been revealed by God. But if James and other pragmatists are correct, then we invent rather than discover truth. In other words, truth doesn't consist of doctrines or other propositions, but of things which work for us in real life, which bring satisfaction and success.

Lest we conclude that James was boringly mechanistic or merely a materialist, it has to be noted that he evolved a complex theory of human consciousness. He worked outwards from his ideas about the latter to an exposition of reality which extended far beyond mundane pragmatism.

He refused to accept a dualistic version of human nature. We're not, he said, made up of two parts - a mind or spirit inhabiting a body.

Consciousness isn't a separate part of us, a sort of substance which can be identified and analysed like the physical part of us. Working from of his study of psychology James asserted that consciousness is actually an aspect of the human being, a point of view, if you like. To state it in somewhat more modern terms, what we call the conscious mind is just one way of talking about the single, open system which is every human being.

Similarly, the unconscious (or the sub-conscious, to better name it) is the aspect of you and I as complete wholes. This part of us rests, as it were, on or in another dimension of existence:

The further limits of our being plunge, it seems to me, into an altogether other dimension of existence from the sensible and merely "understandable" world. Name it the mystical region, or the supernatural region, whatever you choose. The unseen region in question is not merely ideal, for it produces effects on this world. But that which produces effects within another reality must be termed reality itself. "God" is the natural appellation for the supreme reality ... [2]

But even then, James insists that our contact with the other dimension has practical effects. The proof of religion's validity is not the truth of its doctrines, but changed lives. What he called "saving experiences" come when we plunge into the wider self. In this sense, his speculations about "God" as something larger or deeper than ourselves are continuous with his ideas about psychology.

Some suggest that James' religion is one which seeks unity with the universe in a sort of nature religion. James wrote:

The universe is no longer a mere It to us, but a thou, if we are religious ... [5]

It is true that James could not envisage anything "outside" or other than the universe. And in that sense the Thou must be part of the universe. There may be some justice in the suggestion that James thought of "God" as part of nature. But I think he did so because he could not rationally conceive of anything other than "what is" - and whatever that may be, it must have its practical effects on us if it is to be real.

But on examination it turns out that James isn't set on a natural theology at all. He thinks that the universe is a "something" which can't be fully experienced by us. That is, we can never fully know it. It is impossible for a human being to be all-inclusive. That is, even a finite universe could never be known by us, just as "God" can never be fully experienced and therefore never fully known.

Anyone who has read James' brother's novels will know how exasperatingly opaque they can be. Fortunately, James' writing is clear and relatively easy to comprehend - which perhaps explains why he has turned out to be one of the most influential thinkers of our times.
[1] The Principles of Psychology 1890
[2] The Varieties of Religious Experience, Longmans, 1907
[3] In The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Collier & Macmillan, 1967
[4] Selected Papers in Philosophy quoted by J Macquarrie in Twentieth Century Religious Thought, SCM Press Ltd, 1963
[5] The Will To Believe in Historical Selections in the Philosophy of Religion, SCM Press, 1962

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