Definitions and Hypotheses: William James, Religion, and Spiritual Transformation

By Stawski, Christopher | Cross Currents, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Definitions and Hypotheses: William James, Religion, and Spiritual Transformation


Stawski, Christopher, Cross Currents


For two years, I have been working with the Spiritual Transformation Scientific Research Program (STP), a novel research initiative, inspired by the work of William James's Varieties of Religious Experience and hosted by the Metanexus Institute on Religion and Science. The STP seeks "rigorous investigation on various aspects of the sociocultural, psychological and neurological factors that undelie the processes of spiritual transformations of individuals and groups." (1) We knew the program was of widespread interest when we received 470 letters of intent from 22 countries in response to the Request for Proposals.

The applicant pool included investigators from just about every major research university in the United States. The STP offered a round of grants to investigators researching this phenomenon, as well as put together a conference on the scientific research of spiritual transformation. The Request for Proposals targeted a diverse array of academic fields and the awardees reflect that diversity. The STP is funding anthropologists, neuroscientists, physicians, psychologists, religionists, and sociologists to conduct research on this phenomenon, looking at the various pathways, contexts, and outcomes of spiritual transformation experiences. The projects range from neuroscientific research on Carmelite Nuns to an ethnography on children in Buddhist monasteries to the transformation experiences of AIDS patients to a national survey of spiritual transformation experiences.

In order to support such a wide-ranging social scientific and natural scientific research initiative, it was necessary for the STP to provide a working definition of spiritual transformation for each of these prospective investigators. William James also offered a provisional hypothesis on religion for his investigation of religious experience in the Varieties. How does the concept of religion for James relate to the STP's notion of spiritual transformation? This paper will offer a close reading of the Varieties to discuss the development of James's conception of religion and religious experience within the text and then discuss the character of the STP's working defnition of spiritual transformation, unveiling some of the conceptual tensions at stake in conducting natural and social scientific research on religious phenomena.

A Provident Process of Transaction

Despite preparing only the first four lectures for his Gifford Lectures before beginning the series (2), William James conveys a hypothesis concerning religion in Lecture II, "Circumscription of the Topic," that bears the schematic for his treatment of religious experience throughout the lectures. By concentrating on "personal religion" (3), James is able to validate a definition of religion that consists of "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine" (4). This hypothesis frames the existential and descriptive judgments that James establishes to consider the nature of religion. Through this lens, James sees spiritual judgments on religion as independent from existential judgments because spiritual judgments rely on criteria of value: the degree of immediate luminousness, philosophical reasonableness, and moral helpfulness (5). In his concluding remarks, James bridges his existential and spiritual judgments on religion by positing religion as "prayerful communion" (6) with the divine, located in the transmarginal or subliminal field of human consciousness (7). Prayer is the essential, existential experience of solitude with the divine, while communion with the divine establishes the spiritual relation of transaction and value that propels the religious life and conduct of the individual. James's conclusions on religion broaden and enrich his original hypothesis and thoughts on religion by combining existential and spiritual judgments to explain the richness of the religious life through transaction. …

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