The Experimental Theology Salon: Theology on the Subtle Edge

Note to Readers:
Frequently on this blog the comments to my posts are better than the posts themselves. I have learned an amazing amount by interacting with all of you.

Because of this there have been times when I've wanted some of the comments to come "out front" as it were. Recently, in response to my series on William James, Tracy asked me a few questions about my interpretation of James. As became quickly clear to me, Tracy was the better person to make these observations. So I asked Tracy to send me something to post for your consideration. Below you'll find his very interesting essay.

BTW, if others of you ever wish for have me or readers here interact with an essay of yours or poem or quote or book review, please feel free to send them to me. We can turn this place into a salon.

Theology on the Subtle Edge
Guest contribution by Tracy

Open a book by William James and you find a smorgasbord of enticing ideas and delectable quotes. Richard has served up some of James’ finest. But hinted at in various places is a dish of great delicacy that James never served, though its recipe can—I believe—be deciphered from a close look at two hints gleaned from the single passage below.

Commenting on the great range of religious and theological conceptions of the divine, James noted:

Some are gross and idolatrous; some are the most sustained efforts man’s intellect has ever made to keep still living on the subtle edge of things where speech and thought expire. (“Reflex Action and Theism” in The Will to Believe)

The first hint that we can take from this quote is that James seemed to think that it is the mark of excellence in theology to be located on that “subtle edge…where speech and thought expire.” The second is that this quote is found in an essay entitled “Reflex Action and Theism.” To begin, what did James mean by his “subtle-edge” comment?

It turns out that the comment is seasoned with a generous portion of Kantian metaphysical skepticism, a wonderfully subtle form of doubt. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781) influenced the entire century of work to follow in Western philosophy and theology, and his goal in the famous tome (stated in the Preface to his 1787 edition) was “…to remove knowledge, in order to make room for belief.” The statement is odd, in that knowledge would seem to be better than mere belief.

So, what’s up? It is in his section on “the antinomies” that Kant’s knowledge-removal operation takes place (a knowledgectomy?—sometimes it seems I’ve have had one!). There he incises—or so he thinks—the last presumptions of Medieval metaphysics from philosophy and theology. He does so by taking the famous arguments for the existence of God (and other metaphysical positions) and demonstrating that “reason” supports both sides of the big metaphysical debates equally. In fact, it is at the limit of “reason” where one sees that both positions (i.e., God/No God) are on the same, albeit equivocal, footing. Philosophers still debate the question of whether Kant accomplished his goal. But that does not matter to us. For us it is enough to see that Kant’s famous Critique informs James’ esteem for “the subtle edge” where thought expires.

But if reason no longer supplies a secure basis for knowledge about God, does that make belief and unbelief in God as arbitrary as it is equivocal, at least in Kant’s view? It’s a critical question, and the succeeding work to the Critique of Pure Reason was the Critique of Practical Reason, where Kant tackled that question. True to the title, he argues that belief in God is justifiable on practical grounds. Immediately a second connection to James’ thought jumps out. The Kantian turn from metaphysical speculation toward practical considerations informs the historical backdrop to James’ pragmatism—including, of course, his pragmatic assessment of religion and faith.

With this smidgen of historical context in place, we are ready to turn to the second hint, the unusual title, “Reflex Action and Theism,” of the essay where James admires theology done on the subtle edge. A quick and easy critique of Kant will help us see that there is also a post-Kantian aspect to the recipe we seek.

The quick and easy way to find fault with Kant is to simply note that his ideas about the human mind were quickly superseded. He thought that he had outlined the architecture of the human mind, in his first critique, thereby showing what it can hold and what it cannot (metaphysical knowledge). Unfortunately he took classical logic and geometry to be defining elements of the mind’s architecture. So when new ways of doing logic and geometry arose early in the century to follow, his monumental work took on the air of a Stonehenge or Great Pyramid. It is amazing, but it belongs to an earlier age.

Now I am an amateur scholar, meaning you should take my comments on advisement, but this is where I believe James’ equally monumental work—The Principles of Psychology—strikes a masterful historical counterpoint to Kant. For it equals Kant’s great Critique in its attempt to produce an exhaustive account of the human mind’s structure and functions. Only James’ account is not static, as if the human mind had architecture in the same way a house does. James’ account is plastic and assumes that the mind changes and adapts as each individual human being learns and develops habits of character and mind. If Kant drew the lineaments of the mind’s architecture and thought his job was done, James understood that the architecture is alive and grows and diversifies. Here is a snippet from the chapter on attention in the Principles to give you the flavor of James’ account: “…we can see why it is that sustained attention is the easier, the richer in acquisitions and the fresher and more original the mind. In such minds, subjects bud and sprout and grow.”

I here submit for your sustained attention that a religion that claims the critical need to believe in and attend to and be discipled in accord with the revelation of the Word of God needs a conception of the human mind and person that stresses how a subject under our sustained attention can “bud and sprout and grow” in us. In short, I submit that we need a faith that connects “Reflex Action and Theism.” I also submit that a religion that makes faith the crucial human response to the Word of God needs a theology that understands the crucial role that faith plays in human life, as James did. Last, I submit that if we value faith over knowledge in theology, as Christians must, we need a faith that stresses the fruits of belief, as James did. In short, we need the faith hinted at in James’ appreciation of theology that is “made to keep still living on the subtle edge of things where speech and thought expire.” I want a piece of that pie!

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5 thoughts on “The Experimental Theology Salon: Theology on the Subtle Edge”

  1. Tracy,

    I didn't sleep well last night and my brain is a bit foggy. I've been reading the last few paragraphs over and have been having a hard time deciphering them. I think I get your point on the difference between Kant and James, but where you try to apply James' superiority is where I get flummoxed. What exactly do you mean: "we value faith over knowledge"? Faith over reason? Perhaps some definitions would help me... starting with how you would define faith.

    Richard, good idea with this salon thing. You've stressed the importance of letting people let their voice be heard; this seems an appropriate way to put that into practice outside of the comments.

  2. Pecs,
    What I like about Tracy's essay is connection between Kant and James, as it is one often overlooked. Kant's Critique of Practical Reason is, in many ways, a precursor for pragmatism.

    Regarding the salon. You, obviously, and George, are two I'm thinking of as "contributors." For example, your recent e-mail to me about views of persons and views of scripture would be nice to post here.

  3. I may have come across as too critical in my post. I like the subject of the essay, but I know very little about Kant or James, outside of what I read here and philosophy 101 and the wiki. Next to nothing. I just needed that last paragraph rehashed a bit so I could understand it. I get the point of stressing the "fruits of belief" but what is the relationship between this and the connection between Kant and James?

  4. Pecs,

    Sorry about the late reply--long day for me...

    Your reply wasn't too critical. In trying to get as close to the style Richard uses in this blog I discovered how difficult it is to do well. On one hand it's important to say something substantial enough to be worth thinking about. On the other, blogs--I think--are "supposed to be" brief and informal. The old story about the man who apologizes to a friend for writing a long letter, because he didn't have time to write a short one rings true...

    To your Q's:

    1. My view of James' superiority:

    He defends a "high" view of faith--in contradistinction to most intellectuals since the Enlightenment. His view of human psychology is dynamic--which is needed for a faith that claims to make us new, or born again, or transformed, etc. Then the stress of the fruits of faith, as you indicated.

    But there is another, perhaps more significant, aspect to the Kant/James view that I left out, and that I think makes it superior as well. I'll take a minute to relate.

    A subtle edge/antinomy starting point for faith makes it a core existential marker for a person--in terms of their intellectual bearings and persona. Isn't that the very conception needed to make sense of the great claims made for faith in Scripture--a new person, child of God, etc.

    I'll leave off there, because this is not the time or place to develop the idea, but do you see the potential significance?

    2. Why do I say Christians value faith over knowledge? Because faith is the essential response to God in Scripture. Or is that just my Protestant upbringing (sola fide)?

    3. Define faith: I like James' definition, because it makes other views a subset of itself (except possibly Tillich's "ultimate concern"), and it's really simple: "belief where doubt is possible." I can't think of a single example of faith in Scripture where doubt is not a possibility. (There's a challenge for you!)

    BTW: I wrestled with Kant for about two years before I really "got" him. So either I'm really stupid, or you shouldn't feel bad about not feeling up to speed after reading a "Wiki" article.


    First, a big thanks! It was fun.

    Second, about the comment to Pecs above about the (possible) significance of the "subtle edge/antinomy" starting point for faith: I'm vague on this--it's at the level of an intuitive sense for me now--but I think it's behind the "faith as helping lay down the stream bed" metaphor I used a while back.

    Last, is there someone whose work in psychology today clearly bears James' influence?

    Thanks again!


  5. Tracy, Pecs, Richard,

    Try wrestling with Kant in German--I much prefer Nietzsche or Freud. Anyway . . . it seems to me that much of the faith/reason (faith/works?) debate derives from viewing reason as exclusively instrumental. Both Kant and James (a kind of crackerbarrel neo-Kantian) in their "critical" moments did precisely that. But "reason" possess both an instrumental quality (scientific)and a soulish or spiritual quality (analogical and anagogical), what Pascal termed esprit de finesse.

    Still, for me, James trumps Kant, despite Kant's piety and elegance, because he himself actually wrestles with human experience and confesses he is bewildered by its "variety" and tragedy.

    Philosophy from its beginnings in Plato has been problematic. Nietzsche puts it this way: "We have art in order not to perish from truth." Gil Bailie states: "However helpful philosophy might be for arranging certain observations and conceptualizing certain relationships, in the first instance philosophical reflection is a precaution taken to avoid a discovery that is philosophically unthinkable."

    What is that which is philosophically unthinkable? I think that can be illustrated by by Jared Diamond's experience in Zambia while filming a BBC/PBS companion to his book, "Guns, Germs, and Steel." There he visited a hospital filled with children dying of malaria (the number one killer in Africa of children under five). Viewing the suffering, he was overcome with sorrow and wept. He joined them in their suffering--like the mad prophets of the Hebrew Bible, like Jesus, like the Apostles. Diamond is, I suspect, agnostic, perhaps atheistic, in his thinking, like the rest of us sometimes. The program concluded this way.

    Jared Diamond: When we talk about history we talk about development, we talk about competition between societies and the wealth of nations, it can sound intellectual, but here in Africa there are human faces on it.

    Voiceover: And for Diamond, even after 30 years of thought and enquiry, the questions behind guns, germs and steel remain as important as they ever did. Why is our world divided between rich and poor, and how perhaps can we change it?

    Jared Diamond: I feel that whatever I work on for the rest of my life, I can never work on questions as fascinating as the questions of guns, germs and steel, because they’re the biggest questions of human history.

    Diamond exemplifies philosophy (or at least the "philosophical attitude" of modern science). It is, as Bailie notes, helpful, even very helpful. But it ignores the suffering of children and it cannot weep.


    George C.

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