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 .
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
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 ... 
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
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.
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. 
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
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
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
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
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 ... 
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 ... 
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.
 The Principles of Psychology 1890
 The Varieties of Religious Experience, Longmans, 1907
 In The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Collier & Macmillan, 1967
 Selected Papers in Philosophy quoted by J Macquarrie in
Twentieth Century Religious Thought, SCM Press Ltd, 1963
 The Will To Believe in Historical Selections in the
Philosophy of Religion, SCM Press, 1962