A Walk with William James, Part 11: A Critique of Pure Saintliness

This will be our last post about William James. I hope you've enjoyed it.

After discussing saintliness in the The Varieties of Religious Experience, James adds two lectures (XIV and XV) on The Value of Saintliness. In his opening paragraph James states: ...we have to ask whether the fruits in question can help us to judge the absolute value of what religion adds to human life. Were I to parody Kant, I should say that a 'Critique of Pure Saintliness' must be our theme.

Thus James begins one of the first purely psychological analyses regarding the functionality of religious faith. It is a much better analysis than the ones that follow. For example, James kicks Freud's butt. Specifically, James is willing to weigh both the good and the bad of religion, whereas Freud was just grinding an axe.

As James begins his analysis he states that he will focus on the individual rather than the group. That is, he does not ask if religion is sociologically functional. Rather, he asks if religion improves the functionality of individual persons.

In the end, James concludes that religion presents us with a mixed bag. Clearly, religious faith can inspire and create lives that even atheists recognize as exemplary, deeply meaningful, and even "holy." But just as clearly, religion can also produce all sorts of dysfunction and destruction.

James roots this dysfunction in notions of excess. That is, according to James faith becomes poisonous when it becomes unbalanced: The fruits of religion, in other words, are, like all human products, liable to corruption by excess...We find that error by excess is exemplified by every saintly virtue. Excess, in human faculties, means usually one-sidedness or want of balance; for it is hard to imagine an essential faculty too strong, if only other faculties equally be there to cooperate with it in action. Strong affections need a strong will; strong active powers need a strong intellect; strong intellect needs strong sympathies, to keep life steady. If the balance exist, no one faculty can possibly be too strong--we only get the stronger all-around character...Spiritual excitement takes pathological forms whenever other interests are too few and the intellect too narrow.

To illustrate this idea, James looks at the virtues of saintliness and examines what happens when they become unbalanced. Take his analysis of Devoutness. Generally, being devout is a fine virtue in a religious person. But when devoutness becomes extreme and unbalanced it becomes fanaticism, in James' words a "loyalty carried to a convulsive extreme." How can this drift from devoutness to fanaticism occur? James offers an analysis: "When an intensely loyal and narrow mind is once grasped by the feeling that a certain superhuman person is worthy of its exclusive devotion, one of the first things that happens is that it idealizes the devotion itself."

When devotion becomes an end in itself, nasty things begin to occur. For example, James states "an immediate consequence of this condition of mind is jealousy for the deity's honor. How can the devotee show his loyalty better than by sensitiveness in this regard? The slightest affront or neglect must be resented, the deity's enemies must be put to shame. In exceedingly narrow minds and active wills, such a care may become an engrossing preoccupation; and crusades have been preached and massacres instigated for no other reason than to remove a fancied slight upon the God. Theologies representing the gods as mindful of their glory, and churches with imperialistic policies, have conspired to fan this temper to a glow, so that intolerance and persecution have come to be vices associated by some of us inseparably with the [religious] mind. They are unquestionably its besetting sins. The [religious] temper is a moral temper, and a moral temper is often cruel. It is a partisan temper and that is cruel."

Okay, how freaking amazing is that passage? What an amazingly fresh and timely analysis offered in 1902! Have you noticed any of the following in the contemporary religion milieu?

Jealousy over the deity's honor?

A hyper-sensitiveness about affronts or neglects to the deity?

Movements to shame the irreligious for fancied slights toward God?

Theologies that present a view that God is overly mindful of His glory?

Churches with nationalistic and imperialistic interests?

Religious intolerance and persecution of the irreligious?

Cruelness in the name of morality?

Cruelness due to partisanship?

Again, I'm just struck by James' acuity and continued relevance.

In the end, James' verdict is that religion is a mixed bag and that its value, functionality, and health are to be judged contextually. James uses the idea of adaptation, of "fit" with the surrounding envrionement. Thus, "the individual saint may be well or ill adapted, according to particular circumstances. There is, in short, no absoluteness to the excellence of [religion]...How is success to be absolutely measured when there are so many environments and so many ways of looking at the adaptation? It cannot be measured absolutely; the verdict will vary accordingly to the point of view adopted."

And you know, I think this is a fair assessment. What is "good" and "holy" cannot be defined in absolute terms. It's a matter of context and discernment. Which, I think, makes holy living fun and interesting. I'm not following a rulebook. I'm seeking to find a way of life that is true to all I find within me and with what I see around me.

Thus, I embrace the Jamesian wisdom of Qoheleh, the writer of Ecclesiastes:

Do not be too righteous, and do not act too wise; why should you destroy yourself?
Do not be too wicked, and do not be a fool; why should you die before your time?
It is good that you should take hold of the one, without letting go of the other.

Yes, the optimal religious path, for me at least: Don't be too wicked.

But don't be too righteous either...

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8 thoughts on “A Walk with William James, Part 11: A Critique of Pure Saintliness”

  1. Great Post. On the appropriation of balance in both religious and material affairs, I have found Walter Brueggemann's book, In Man We Trust, to be extremely helpful. He examines the wisdom tradition in Old Testament to propose a balance between religious fear of the mystery of the divine and the secular materialism of science.


  2. It just seems to me that the problem with "fanaticism" isn't so much in the devotion of oneself but rather what are you truly devoted to? Can one love too radically? Can one give to the poor too radically? Can one stand up for the widowed and orphaned too radically? I wouldn't know how.

    Religion goes wrong when either it's used selfishly and the real object is ones selfish desires rather than pleasing God OR just a lack of understanding (intellect?) of who God is. Radical Islam is about politics and power, not holiness. The Crusades: same thing. Inquisition: ditto.

    Those Islamist, Crusaders, etc., that sincerely thought they were serving God by their actions didn't know God or had some twisted view of who God is.

    The Apostle Paul is one of the best examples. He was a zealous Pharisee who persecuted the Church. He was sincere. He was sincerely wrong. It took a pretty radical intervention for him to understand God better. But after he did his zealousness was not different just redirected.

    So I bristle a bit when "zealousness" is chastised. Zeal without knowledge, yes, bad. But whole-hearted devotion to the Christ of the gospels is what God would desire, right?

    Richard, you've really sucked me in to your blog. I've got to get some work done!

  3. I've been reading a bit of Sam Harris lately. He argues that moral absolutes can exist outside of divine revelation, in effort to show the superiority of atheism over religion with morality. What do you think of his arguments?

  4. Long time reader, first time commenter here. Yes, I have enjoyed the tour of all things William James. I can recall his stuff resonating with me in the early 80s as a psych major at Harding. It still does.

    As I read this, that passage from Ecclesiastes was running through my mind. Lo and behold, there it was waiting for me at the end, just like an old friend at the end of a long journey.

  5. Richard,

    Fun, funny, and informative as usual, and this latest series was focused on one of my favorite characters ever.

    You post on the seeker-friendly church movement being a ripp off of James should really find a bigger readership...

    Thanks so much!


  6. Dave,
    I had not read that book by WB, tho I'm a big fan of his. BTW, it really is a sad thing that the Wisdom literature is de-emphasized in many evangelical churches. A lot of rich stuff is being marginalized.

    Well, I can relate. This blog sucks up way to much time of mine as well!

    I think if we nuance James, we are in agreement. A fanatic about LOVE is non-problematic. But too often, I think we can all agree, this is NOT what Christians have been fanatical about.

    I don't think there are moral absolutes outside of a metaphysical structure. But I do think an ethics outside of a belief in God can be coherent and praise-worthy. In fact, most of the great and grand ethical theories are non-theistic.

    Hi Mike,
    Thanks for letting me hear from you and letting me discover your blog. I'll try to visit in between writing article length blog posts!

    BTW, to all readers: I'm very appreciative for you following Experimental Theology. My posts are long and full of jargon. I'm still trying to perfect the short blog entry. But I can't see to pull it off. So, thanks for reading such long posts.

    You know, I have hopes for some of these posts. I wish, every once in awhile, that I could get an idea or post more "out there." But I'll take any readers I have!

  7. Richard, don't you think when you are immersed in service that pretty much takes care of much of that other crap? Well, I suppose it could be argued that one who is serving may become puffed up but generally I am not to worried about all the crap when I am taking care of someone less fortunate or the bleeding, and the wounded.
    I have had some eye opening experiences this year involving religious people..its been a bit disillusioning. I grew up in the church and have always, and you could probably psychoanalyze me on this one, felt that religious people were in a higher class, if you will, and of course being a bit of one who does hang on to the Jamieson wisdowm you speak of I would feel a bit lower even though I sat in the same pew. Is this crazy that I have realized this last year that we are all the same..I mean those who are "in the church" and those who are not? It looks so simple and ludacris when I write it in black and white.
    But I think (my own interpretation) that maybe that is why Jesus came down on the "religious' population because they in fact did think themselves better.
    Anyways..random thoughts...

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