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«Howard Wettstein University of California, Riverside Crimes and Misdemeanors, Woody Allen: His kind of faith is a gift. It’s like an ear for music ...»

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The Significance of Religious Experience

Howard Wettstein

University of California, Riverside

Crimes and Misdemeanors, Woody Allen:

His kind of faith is a gift.

It’s like an ear for music or the talent to draw.

I. Introduction: Proofs, Old and New

Occasionally one meets or reads about people who were, as we say, born at

the wrong time or place. Their gifts, tendencies, and ways, awkward in the context

of their lives, would have seemed natural at some other time or place. The classical proofs for the existence of God suffer a different fate. Born at precisely the right time and place, they now seem out of context, no longer compelling in the way they must have been. At least they seem that way to many of us.

The natural habitat of the proofs was the medieval philosophical world, an intellectual culture in which philosophical justification of the religious fundamentals 1 was just what was needed.1 If one moves back some centuries to ancient Israel and its Jewish and arguably early Christian aftermath rational justification of religion is not on the horizon. To defend belief in God’s existence would have seemed bizarre, like defending belief in the existence of the weather.

Indeed, strange as this seems to our ears, belief itself is never mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. There is talk of believing in God, i.e. trusting, relying upon God.

But no talk of believing doctrines, believing that something is the case;2 no commandmentȺno explicit one at leastȺto believe anything.3 However by the early middle ages in Jewish religious cultureȺearlier in ChristianityȺbeliefs, thoughts, and the like become very much the center of attention and there is a felt need to justify religious belief.4 1 The motivation for the production of the proofs seems mixed. For some, e.g. in the 10th century, Saadia Gaon, The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, trans. Samuel Rosenblatt (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948), Introduction, pp. 6-9, part of the motivation seems to have been to assist those in doubt and to defeat heresies. The proofs were also thought (by various medieval philosophers and theologians) to help purify the opinions of the masses by providing insight and understanding, to supply intellectual foundations for opinions that were otherwise held on faith or on the basis of revelation, to provide the sort of foundations that intellectual virtue requires of a reputable theology.

2 It does not follow that the ascription of beliefȺutilizing our notionȺto the ancients is illegitimate. But the matter is delicate. I return to it in Section VI.

3 Medieval interpretations are another thing. Maimonides, for example, hears a commandment to believe in the first of the Ten Commandments (more literally and correctly, the ten statements or pronouncements): “I am the Lord, your God, who ….” Similarly with respect to the prohibition to worship other gods; for Maimonides this concerns certain false beliefs. Cf.

Halbertal and Margalit, Idolatry (Harvard University Press, 1998). The Bible’s preferred approach is in terms of illicit intimacy, adultery as it were. For an almost overdramatized biblical example, see the Book of Hosea.

4 Robert Bellah, in Beyond Belief (University of California Press, 1991), Chapter 13, “Religion and Belief: The Historical Background of “Non-Belief” arguesȺand I have thought this for some timeȺthat the emphasis on belief that, as opposed to belief in, is a function of the influence of Greek philosophical thought. I argue for this in “Against Theology,” in Philosophers and the Jewish Bible, Robert Eisen and Charles Menekin (eds.) Philosophers and the Bible: General and

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the belief that God exists as a sine qua non of religious commitment. The Hebrew Bible’s interest is rather in one’s overall stance, the essential components of which are rather affective and behavioral, most importantly awe/fear and love of God as realized in lived experience.

But while belief has become central, the proofs of the medievalsȺthe classic philosophic defenses of that beliefȺhave lost their punch. The considerations to which they appealȺlike the order and beauty of the universeȺhave by no means lost their suggestiveness, their relevance to and significance for religious thought and feeling. But proof is another thing.5 My aim here is to reflect on a relatively new style of proofȺa distant relative of the classical argumentsȺcurrent throughout the twentieth century and in recent decades even more vital, the argument from individual religious experience. Here too, or so I will argue, we should distinguish the alleged proof’s cogency from the religious significance of the considerations to which the proof appeals.

Jewish Perspectives (University Press of Maryland, 2008); available also on my website:


My focus in “Against Theology” is the Hebrew Bible, but Bellah speaks more generally:

even in the New Testament the dominant notion of belief is belief in. At the conclusion of the present paper, I quote Buber in Two Types of Faith (Macmillan Publishing Company, 1951), according to whom belief in is indeed the dominant notion until the Gospel of John.

5 It has been suggested that perhaps the proofs were an intellectualized (and historically conditioned) mode of expressing religious affect. For example, one could see the argument from design as the intellectualized expression of awe towards God concerning the order of the universe. It is plausible that propounders of the proofs were in part expressing such things, but one does not want to minimize the intellectual work that the proofs attempt to do on the face of it.

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religious orientation. Not that individual religious experience is a mere afterthought in the other monotheisms. Indeed the proof’s advocates appeal to religious experiences in a variety of traditions. Likewise advocates of the argument include philosophers as diverse as William Alston and Richard Swinburne on the Protestant side, Gary Gutting, a Catholic, and Jewish thinker Jerome Gellman.6 For the most part, however, contemporary discussions of proofs of God’s existence in the Catholic, Jewish, or Muslim traditionsȺas I say, they are hardly the central topic nowadaysȺare of the classical arguments.

My aim here is to explore the fundamental ideas of the argument, this as opposed to the numerous sophisticated variations that have emerged. I begin with William James, early in the 20th century. Whatever the specifics of his religious views, James emerges from the American Protestant world and gives such proofs a great deal of respect. It’s good to begin with James moreover since he has a gift for raising fundamental questions in an intuitive, technically unencumbered way. In this way he is like later philosophers P. F. Strawson and Harry Frankfurt;

penetrating minds whose insights give rise to rather technical literatures.

6 William Alston, Perceiving God. Cornell University Press, 1991; Gary Gutting, Religious Belief and Religious Skepticism. University of Notre Dame Press, 1983; Jerome Gellman, Experience of God and the Rationality of Theistic Belief. Cornell University Press, 1997 and Mystical Experience of God, a Philosophical Enquiry. Ashgate Publishers, 2001; Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God. Oxford University Press, 2004.

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James characterizes experiences that purport to be of GodȺ he includes them in the category of mystical experiencesȺas “gifts to our spirit.” “No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these … forms of consciousness quite disregarded.” Such experiences for James bespeak quite literally another form of consciousness. It is an open question, he supposes, as to whether such forms reveal worlds, as it were, that are ordinarily beyond our reach. It’s difficult to know what to do with James’s seemingly extravagant notion of forms of consciousness. This raises issues of the paranormal; James was a founder of the American Society for Psychical Research in 1885.

Whatever one thinks about the paranormal, James’s remarks about “gifts to the spirit” are themselves gifts. Here James evinces an appreciation of religion that is nowadays lost to many. John Dewey, a similarly sympathetic critic of religion, 7


A writer says: “I broke down from overwork and soon came to the verge of nervous prostration. One morning after a long and sleepless night…I resolved to stop drawing upon myself so continuously and begin drawing upon God. I determined to set apart a quiet time every day in which I could relate my life to its ultimate source, regain the consciousness that in god I 7 As opposed to a flurry of recent books by Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchins, and Richard Dawkins that are critical of religion in a more wholesale fashion.

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This [life story constitutes] an impressive record. I do not doubt its authenticity nor that of the experience related. It illustrates a religious aspect of experience. But it illustrates also the use of that quality to carry a superimposed load of a particular religion. For having been brought up in the Christian religion, its subject interprets it in the terms of the personal God characteristic of that religion.8 Dewey’s expression, “a religious aspect of experience” is no throwaway; he emphasizes the reality and significance of such aspects. In this passage he suggests and in the sequel he greatly expands upon the power of religion and its potential for influencing positively the course of life. At the same time he much more clearly and forcefully than James rejects the supernaturalist metaphysics associated with traditional religion. Nevertheless I suspect that James’s phrase “gifts to the spirit” would sit well for Dewey.9 Speaking for myself, I very much like James’s characterization. This is in part because I think with Dewey that such peak moments, and religious life more generally, can have a beneficial influence, including one’s psychological balance, ability to negotiate life’s challenges, the significance one accords to one’s life, and the 8 A Common Faith (Yale University Press), 1934, Pp. 11-12..

9And, perhaps surprisingly, even for Nietzsche who, in Human, All Too Human (Prometheus Books, 2009), p. 40, refers to religion as among “the blossoms of the world.” This does not mean, he adds, that this blossom is close to the root of the world, that through religion one can better understand the nature of things.

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albeit one that I find difficult to express.

What makes “gifts to the spirit” so difficult to explicate is “spirit.” I could explain James’s idea if I could explain the concept of the spirit, and related idea of the spiritual. There is significantly more to these ideas than the largely psychological dimension that Dewey emphasizesȺthe various beneficial effects mentioned above as well as “the unification of the self” of which Dewey speaks.

The quotation from Crimes and Misdemeanors at the head of this paper suggests that an affinity for things of the spirit is grounded in a natural gift, a human capacity, analogous to, in the aesthetic domain, having an ear for music or the talent to draw. I’ll begin with the latter and return to religion shortly. As we will see, there is more to mine here than a mere analogy. The aesthetic dimension has its own ties to matters of the spirit.

One obstacle to establishing the link I am after is that “aesthetic” is often heard in a reductive way; ascriptions of beauty, for example, are sometimes thought of, dismissed as, merely subjective. This is a function, I believe, of thinking too abstractly about this sphere. Consider by contrast actual aesthetic gifts, like musical talent or even having an ear for music. These abilities are far along the continuum from subjective towards objective, which is not to suggest that this distinction is either sharp or clear. Surely musical talent, an ear for music, and the like are no less aspects of the world than other abilitiesȺincluding those in the domain of 10Thisis not to deny the awfulness unleashed in human history by the religions. Religion represents and unleashes powerful forces, potentially and actually in many directions.

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that one, otherwise sound in auditory capacities, can systematically miss something important.

One who is musically advanced may hear the same performance as the rest of us but may alone penetrate to profound levels of appreciation. Similarly, one advanced in the appreciation of the visual arts may bring something very different to, and take something very different from, a painting, or indeed a natural scene, for example a landscape with its play of light, shadow, color, and the like.

Profound aesthetic experiences, no less than the religious experiences of which James wrote, deserve to be thought of as gifts to the spirit. They may engender a sense of awe and mystery, and of the sublime; they may provoke a feeling of being privileged and so of gratitude. The experience may be at once elevating and humbling. These represent important points of contact with religious moments.

The points of contact are not limited to such reactions. Artistic and religious virtuosity both involve, even begin with, natural aptitude, as noted in the quotation from Crimes and Misdemeanors. Some are more given to these things than others. And in both domains, hard work, genuine focusȺat times single-mindedȺis essential if one is to approach one’s potential. We are less apt to think this way about the religious domain than the artistic. But a religious giant, a Mozart of the spirit, is a rare find; she is (certainly typically) one who has labored strenuously in pursuit of

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responding to something of substance, one who is less able than another in matters of the spirit can recognize the latter’s accomplishment. Needless to say, being tonedeaf is a rare condition in either domain. Ordinarily people occupy an intermediate position within a wide spectrum of which being tone-deaf is at one extreme.

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