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The Significance of Religious Experience
The Significance of Religious Experience
Howard Wettstein
Oxford University Press, 2012
240 pp., $77.00

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David L. O'Hara


In Awe of the Living God

Against reducing religion to belief.

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Obviously, Wettstein's title is a nod to William James. Wettstein confesses an admiration for James, Dewey, and Santayana, all of whom "took religion seriously as a central human concern." They lacked philosophical rigor, perhaps, but they had "vision." This book attempts to combine that vision with rigor by renewing our concern for the practices that matter most to religious communities.

Those practices and experiences are significant, Wettstein insists. They aren't just wallpaper on the metaphysical living room wall; they are the living room itself, the place where the community lives and moves and has its being. Religion doesn't depend on proofs; it depends on Haggadah, on narrative. Perhaps it's this sense of the deep significance of narrative that makes Wettstein such a good writer; in almost every chapter he shifts easily from narrating his own experience to discussing Wittgenstein, Aristotle, or Spinoza, and then to a broader narrative about religious life in general.

This is one of the best books I've read in a long time. It's well-written and well thought out, but more than that, it's promising and genuinely helpful. It promises a renewal of the vision of the classical American pragmatists who saw that the lived experience of religion—as it is lived, breathed, sung, and prayed in communities of awe—matters at least as much as settling metaphysical doctrines. This is not to say that theology is unimportant, but that it is helpful to remember that affirming systems of propositions is no substitute for learning to live in awe of God.

David L. O'Hara is associate professor of philosophy and classics at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

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