The Psychology of Belief, Part 5: William James, T.S. Eliot, faith, mysticism, and pragmatic belief

I began this week thinking about Sam Harris' critique of religion. I suggested we take Harris seriously insofar as he is a goad to get us to think afresh about the light and dark sides of religious belief. This week I've painted the dark side and now I want to start working toward a positive response to Harris. I want to begin with the greatest American psychologist, William James.

A lot of philosophers are ambivalent about James' legacy and pragmatism (James’ philosophy). But in my area of research--the psychology of religion--James remains a towering figure. This influence is mainly through his book THE VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE.

Looking back on our last few posts I want to use some of James' approach in VARIETIES to deal with this question of belief.

A common theme in my last four posts is the role of certainty in belief. One way to look at Harris' critique is his complaint that religious fundamentalists are certain that they know something that non-believers do not. Further, in my post on moral conviction we saw how holding moral convictions can create group hostilities. Recall from that post that moral convictions are experienced as facts about the world. Again we see the role of certainty here. Further still, in my post on evil, we saw how, once people get moral justifications on their side, they can do some pretty horrible things. Not because they are evil, but because they are certain that they have good reasons for their behavior. Particularly if they start to feel victimized. Finally, we saw in my last post that people who hold different convictions other than my own are considered infrahumans. For example, perhaps these people don't see the moral "facts" they way I do because they just aren't as smart, or honest, or righteous as I am. That is, something must be wrong with those people.

So, the way I see it, the root of the problem in religion is this conviction that I am in possession of the Truth. It is the certainty of religion that makes it dangerous.

What I like about James' pragmatism and the VARIETIES is his dismissal of very detailed metaphysical claims that can be known with any certainty. For example, what is the spiritual/metaphysical realm like? How many Gods are there? One, two, or a million? Are there angels? If so, how many? Are there demons? If so, what are their names? Is there a hell? If so, what exactly is it like? These questions roll on and on.

What is problematic about religion is that there are people who, by reading a sacred book, claim to know IN GREAT DETAIL what that spiritual realm is like. Just like I can walk you through my house pointing out all the rooms, these people can take you on a tour of the metaphysical region as if they had lived there all their life.

I have no problem with people BELIEVING the heavens are this way or that. But I do have problems with people claiming they KNOW how the heavens are configured. First, how can they know this? Second, once they KNOW, all the dark things of religion start to surface: I can kill/hate/dismiss you in THIS world because I know you've run afoul of how THAT world mandates life to be.

My point is, none of us knows, with absolute certainty, how the spiritual realm is configured. And that lack of knowledge should make us humble.

How does the VARIETIES fit into all of this? Well, in the VARIETIES James takes as his data the mystical experiences of religious people. The VARIETIES is mainly James' categorization and analysis of religious mystical experience.

I like James' focus on mysticism because that is all I think we can claim as religious believers. Our faith is not built on personal tours of heaven and hell. No one I know has been on that side of the veil. No, all we get are encounters and hints. We get mystical experiences. I don't mean having visions or hearing God's voice, although that can be a part of it. For most of us the "religious experience" is just a feeling we've had, maybe only once in our life, that gave us the unmistakable feeling that "something is out there." Almost every believer I know roots their faith in this kind of experiential substrate. They have "sensed" something. They haven't seen it first-hand, but they think they have bumped into it. In the words of T.S. Eliot:

"These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action."

When we look at the Bible all we get is mysticism. In reading the Bible all we really have are reports of other people's mystical experiences. Sometimes these people were alone (e.g., Moses and the burning bush, Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, Mary at the tomb of Jesus, Paul's vision on Damascus) and sometimes these people were in groups (e.g., Pentecost, Peter and John at the tomb). My point is, we don't KNOW that the Ten Commandments are God's Laws handed down from heaven. They could be. All we really KNOW is that the Ten Commandments are Moses' REPORT of his experience with God. Truly, that is the situation. Moses goes up. Moses comes down. And he tells us what he experienced. The Ten Commandments are his experience. Now, you might believe that his experience is TRUE, that those words are GOD’S WORDS. That is fine, but you’ve got to admit that you don’t know that for a fact. You are taking Moses’ word for it.

Christians happen to believe that the OT and NT reports of mystical experience add up to something. That, if you read the Bible, the experiences aren't wholly random. They add up to something, namely a witness about Jesus of Nazareth. But, historically, what we have done is codified the experiences recounted in the Bible into creeds, propositions about the configuration and destiny of the heavens. But all I’d like to say is that, when push comes to shove, all that "orthodoxy" is built atop mysticism, generally private encounters with that other world. I don't think we should lose sight of this fact because it implies that no one knows for sure how the world really is. Based on the reports in the Bible we have some good guesses and ample room for hope. But we don't have certainty. All we can do, to quote Eliot again, is follow the "hints" and "guesses" with "prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action."

This "action" following only a "hint" James calls, borrowing from Kant, "pragmatic belief." Often in life we just don't know, but we have to act and make choices. We always choose with less than 100% of the information in hand. For example, an emergency room doctor has a critically ill patient come in the door. The doctor doesn't have all day to run all kinds of tests to determine exactly what is wrong. By the time all the information is in, the patient would be dead. So, the doctor has to act with the limited information on hand. The doctor acts on his "pragmatic beliefs." This is what I think faith is like, pragmatic belief. You can't wait around until you are dead to see how the Other Place is configured. You have to choose a life today. So, you read those mystical experiences in the Bible and reflect on your own experiences and then you make your choices. You choose to believe. But neither you nor the doctor can act pridefully. You're just doing the best you can with what you have experienced. And so are other people.

A lot is lost in this vision of faith, but some things are also gained. I’ll flesh more of this out next week. Have a great weekend.

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3 thoughts on “The Psychology of Belief, Part 5: William James, T.S. Eliot, faith, mysticism, and pragmatic belief”

  1. I probably won't be commenting very often, but I wanted to let you know that I have been keeping up with your blog for the last several weeks. The topics you discuss are fascinating! Thank you for sharing your research and thoughts with others.

    Who am I? I graduated from ACU with a Masters in Missions in December and I'm planning to move to the Czech Republic in the fall to, I hope, plant a few churches.

    Thanks again!

  2. This post goes hand in hand with your first post in the series, "Practicing Christianity." I'm reminded a bit of The Screwtape Letters when Wormwood delights that the man's faith appears to be wavering, but Screwtape points out that Wormwood hasn't achieved much because the man still continues to attend church.

    In regards to "hints," what makes faith even more of a quest is that those hints don't come in regular intervals.

    You mentioned that in reading the Bible we read accounts of other people's experiences--some alone and some in groups. In some cases, we get experiences of people told by people who weren't there. For example, the account of Christ's temptation in the wilderness has always befuddled me. Did Christ relate the experience to Matthew? Are the Synoptic writers creating an allegory of sorts to explain Christ's sinless life?

  3. I am strongly reminded of the book How (not) to Speak of God by Peter Rollins. This helps to further my understanding a lot - thank you for sharing this.

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