The Religious Life

The Insights of William James

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Donald Capps
  • Cambridge, UK: 
    The Lutterworth Press
    , October
     264 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Religious Life: The Insights of William James is a work of scholarship that contains strikingly personal elements. Donald Capps writes that he is “deeply grateful” to James (1842-1910) for his insights (vii) and provides close readings of his psychology of religion, especially The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902, The Works of William James, Frederick H. Burkhardt, et al., eds., Harvard University Press, 1985). The title of James’s classic text, “Varieties of Religious Experience,” shows his psychological purpose in evaluating the lives of those driven by religious interests, and his subtitle, “A Study in Human Nature,” shows his interest in the spiritual insights of those personal experiences, which engage people’s subconscious depths. The book was a pioneer in the modern interest in spiritual approaches to religion, beyond or within institutions and theological commitments.

This hybrid approach suits Capps who “dedicated [his] vocation . . . to the religious life” (vii) with an impressive range of scholarship and a career of teaching pastoral theology at Princeton Theological Seminary since 1981. Uncannily, Capps was “proof-reading this book the . . . day he died” (vii). His son, John, completed it, as a welcome “filial [and] philosophic duty,” to borrow from James’s own edited collection of his father’s woks (Literary Remains of the Late Henry James, James Osgood, 1885, 8). The Religious Life is a fine last word and testament of an exemplary religious scholar and seeker.

Capps does not break new investigative grounds but unpacks James’s insights in compelling ways. He provides an apologia for “spirituality,” what James called “personal religion,” with respect for the feelings at the heart of churches and sometimes flourishing outside them (see Catherine Albanese, ed., American Spiritualities, Indiana University Press, 2001).  

Capps follows the conventional wisdom in attributing James’s 1902 report of personal crisis to a particular event in January 1870, during his youthful troubles and search for intellectual and personal direction (1868-1873). Capps calls this a moment of “Enlightenment, with its connotations of insight, understanding, and illumination” (90). And indeed, this is how James uses his own case, among many within his study of religious experiences, to illustrate the “real core of the religious problem,” the human call for “Help!” (87, quoting Varieties, 135).

James was the first American to review the work of Sigmund Freud (review of Joseph Breuer and Freud, Ueber den psychischen Mechanismus hysterischer Phãnomene [On the Psychical Mechanism of Hysterical Phenomena, 1893, Essays, Comments, and Reviews, Works of William James, 1987, 474-75). While Freud emphasized aggressive aspects of the unconscious mind and bodily appetites, with dismissive views of religion, James used the research of Frederic Myers to depict realms “outside . . . primary consciousness” as “subliminal” sources of energy with religious possibilities (Varieties, 190 and 170).

James identified an “exemplary . . . ‘spiritual person’” of his own acquaintance, the Episcopal preacher Phillips Brooks. James admired his insistence that “all individuals possess greater inner resources than they realize” (217 and 225). James likewise perceived that every person, in degrees, possesses subliminal realms with potential doorways to “more,” even if those realms generally remain overshadowed by focus on everyday waking consciousness (Varieties, 400)

Capps also explains how James shows the subliminal playing out in conversion, saintly character, and prayer. Like James, Capps recognizes non-religious people with limited access to the subliminal because “anesthetic on the religious side” (128). In contrast with their stories of people showing limited recognition of religion, they also both attend to the psychological conditions, such as split personality, that contribute to extreme religious conversions (207-15). And the subliminal provides a way to address questions about the objective truth of religion. Neither James nor Capps accept naturalistic reduction of religion, even as the subliminal serves as an objective psychological first step for understanding religious experiences.

After my productive re-reading of James’s religious thought with Capps as my guide, I feel ungracious in pointing out errors. Perhaps another session of proof reading would have caught them. Insightful Professor Capps would likely have appreciated this factual accounting. In particular, when James was in his teens, the family lived in Newport, Rhode Island (not Connecticut, 6); his brothers Wilky and Bob heroically volunteered to serve in African-American Civil War regiments (they were not drafted, 6); his dear friend and confidante Oliver Wendell Holmes, Junior, was a student at Harvard Law school (not the medical school, 7); and Principles of Psychology was published in 1890 (not 1887, 231)

More substantially, Capps observes James’s searching question, “what do we mean by matter?” (228, quoting Pragmatism, 1907, Works of William James, 1975, 50). James answered with openness to both material and spiritual readings of the world but went beyond tolerance in proposing integration of both perspectives. He sought to “widen . . . the field of search for God” to include an “idealist pantheism” beyond the “dualistic theism” of most Western religions (Pragmatism, 44 and 39). He even thought of the divine as “an essentially finite being” (A Pluralistic Universe, 1909; Works of William James, 1977, 54). James maintained that these unorthodox views “are the terms in which common men have usually carried on their active commerce with God” in contrast with the “colder addition[s]” of theological abstractions (A Pluralistic Universe, 141).

The religious life of James that Capps depicts is a worthy companion to all—orthodox and unorthodox—with curiosity about humanity’s great religious quests.  


About the Reviewer(s): 

Paul J. Croce is Professor of History and Director of American Studies at Stetson University and recent past president of the William James Society.

Date of Review: 
October 12, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Donald Capps (1939–2015) was William Harte Felmeth Professor of Pastoral Theology (Emeritus) and Adjunct Professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. He is the author of At Home in the World (2013), Still Growing (2014), and The Resourceful Self (2014). He is co-author with Nathan Carlin of The Gift of Sublimation (2015).




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