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The Significance of Religious Experience
The Significance of Religious Experience
Howard Wettstein
Oxford University Press, 2012
240 pp., 86.00

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David L. O'Hara


In Awe of the Living God

Against reducing religion to belief.

I began to study philosophy in earnest when, as a recent college graduate, I became interested in Christian apologetics. In retrospect, I now realize that this was only my formal introduction to the study of philosophy. In fact, I came to think philosophically in a number of other contexts. When I was twelve I picked up a copy of the Penguin edition of The Last Days of Socrates at a garage sale because it had the names "Plato" and "Socrates" on the cover, and they sounded important. I read it and enjoyed it even though I—much like the young men that Socrates so influenced in his time—was drawn to Socrates not because of what he said but because of the beauty of the way he thought. The attraction was seductive rather than simply rational. Or perhaps the very rationality of Socrates was the thing I found so alluring.

Something similar hit me in my middle school geometry class when I realized that I wasn't just doing math but learning how to reason. A few years later in college, Professor Pardon Tillinghast gave me my first taste of history that didn't boil down to memorization of names and dates. Tillinghast was a hagiographer, a historiographer, and a philosopher of history. As we read multiple versions of the same historical events, I slowly came to realize that history was not a neutral practice but one charged with purposes, and that the idea of history itself can be studied in its historical development. These courses weren't just training, they were inductions into communities of thought.

Looking back on it, I realize now that I came to philosophy through love, and through the practices of communities. It's helpful for me to remember this as I attempt to teach philosophy to my students. It would be a shame to transform the discipline I love and turn it into just a set of propositions and arguments to be memorized for an exam. My hope is that the study of philosophy will inform my students' whole lives, enriching their thinking and giving them tools for solving problems they have not yet even imagined.

Which brings me to Howard Wettstein's enticing and brilliant new book, The Significance of Religious Experience. Wettstein is a philosopher who hopes to reform philosophy of religion by teaching it to hear the language of the Bible anew. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say by teaching it to hear the language of the Bible in a very old, pre-philosophical way, and by inviting philosophers of religion to consider religion and religious practices in their native environment and not merely as dessicated lab specimens.

I began by thinking that Wettstein and I would have a lot to disagree about, since we belong to such different communities. He is an analytic philosopher, and I am trained in the traditions of European phenomenology and American pragmatism. He's a Wittgenstein scholar with a deep concern with the philosophy of language; I'm a Peirce scholar and really more of a historian of ideas. He's Jewish; I'm Christian. He is a naturalist; I find it hard to dismiss the supernatural. And so on. And yet, as I read this book I kept finding myself nodding my head in deep agreement. My reading notes go beyond my usual summaries of the arguments and are full of bold yeses, questions I'd like to ask Wettstein, lists of books I'd like to discuss with him. Despite our obvious differences, I have the sense that Wettstein and I are working toward the same goal. How could this be?

I think the best way to answer that question is to turn not to Wettstein's first chapter, but to his last. The book ends in a way that I'll call confessional, though I should be careful to point out that I don't mean that it gives a profession of faith. I mean it more like Augustine means it: Wettstein ends by reflecting on what he believes, and on what he thinks he can reliably say about that.

In this last chapter, Wettstein recounts his own journey and what it has been like telling his friends about his religious views. Early in life he was religious. Later he left religion, and in the most recent stage of life he has returned to religion. He doesn't call himself a believer in God, but he is committed to the religious life of his tradition.

Some of his friends who have outgrown their religion are envious of his return to religion and its comforts, but they can't imagine affirming religion because it looks to them like religion is simply false. Others suspect he has bought his return to religion too cheaply: Wettstein gets to pray and attend religious services without having to make a commitment to religious metaphysics. But the most interesting conversation he recounts is one he has with an Orthodox Jewish friend. Wettstein admits to this friend that even though he does not believe in God he still prays. "To my surprise, he was not so sure how far apart we were even on questions of basic theology. The reason was, he said, that he is not at all sure what he is speaking of when he speaks of God, and not at all sure to whom he is speaking when he speaks to God."

This kind of talk makes many Christians leery, and makes philosophers of religion shake their heads, but it's also very Augustinian, and in that sense akin to both Christian faith and to philosophy. For Augustine, "confession" means not only confession of faith but confession of ignorance. Augustine famously asks, "What do I love when I love my God?" Augustine is far more aware of the lived experience of his own love than he is of the one to whom his love is directed. Of course, Augustine, who was once "in love with love itself," knows that love can be a dangerous master. And yet it can also be a marvelous guide, and the best thing we do. Jesus frames the greatest commandments—all three of them—in terms of love, after all.

The idea of religion as love informs much of Wettstein's book. The texts of the Bible are like love letters; the prayers of religious communities aren't doctrines disguised as prayer, but the love-language of a people and their God, one that may seem silly to those who aren't in love; religious life is not about settled knowledge but about love, gratitude and awe. Wettstein begins his last chapter like this:

During my first sojourn in religious life, I dreamed that religion and I would part ways and I would be bereft. It brought to mind a line from our evening prayers in which we implore God not to remove his love from us …. At some point afterward, I left religious life, but certainly did not feel bereft. Now that I am back, I feel profoundly enriched. I have the sense that my religious life puts me in contact with deep truths and equally deep perplexities.

Wettstein didn't return to religion by believing but by coming to stand in awe of God. How important is it to know what God is like when you love God? Is it possible to stand in awe of God without believing in God? Wettstein believes that it is: "In prayer … I have the sense of the presence of the divine, of making contact. But ask me about the party on the other end of the line and one of two things will happen: either I will beg to be excused for not having much to say, or else we will have a very long talk about how difficult a matter it is that is in question."

Over the course of the book it is plain that while Wettstein does not want to say much about God, he has a lot to say about this difficult matter of religion. And not being willing to say much about God is not the same as saying nothing about God. If anything, Wettstein's reluctance to make positive claims about God helpfully refocuses our attention, diverting it from metaphysical proofs to the practices of awe and worship. Wettstein's thinking is reminiscent of the spirit of historians and classicists who are haunted by the thought that we have not yet plumbed all the depths of the ancient world.

The book is a collection of lectures and essays, each of which stands alone, and most of which have been published elsewhere. Its chief fault is that some of the essays cover very similar ground. This complaint is nonetheless greatly mitigated by the inviting smoothness of Wettstein's prose. Even his footnotes are interesting and well-written.

So instead of a chapter-by-chapter account, let me highlight a few of the points that emerge repeatedly throughout the book. Wettstein asks philosophers not to reduce religion to religious beliefs, but to concern ourselves with the actual practices of religion. Wettstein says that a pre-philosophical, biblical religious life does not depend upon settled metaphysical doctrines about God. Wettstein's orientation to religion is naturalistic, but his naturalism doesn't try to do away with God-talk. Liturgy and prayer are essential to religious life. They free us from dependence on feelings of awe, and allow us to enact the values that arise from awe even when we don't feel it. When belief becomes an obligation, we become epistemological legalists. The Bible is not a list of God's qualities we must believe; it is a collection of narratives about God's roles that helps us to live in awe of God. Liturgies are not a telescope by which our gaze can escape the world and see only heaven. Rather, the prayers and stories of the Bible are the means of standing in awe of God, fostering love for neighbors, and practicing gratitude.

In biblical communities, awe (Wettstein prefers "awe" as a translation of the Hebrew yirah rather than "fear") is more important than belief, because belief is concerned with cognition, while awe is a matter of one's whole life. Wettstein reminds us several times throughout the book that it is quite possible to engage in real and fruitful practices without firm knowledge of the metaphysical fundamentals, as we do in mathematics.

The late physicist Richard Feynman once said that he lived in and among numbers. Wettstein quips, "If one were to ask Feynman about the reality of numbers, I imagine him unhesitating in his affirmation. If one were to ask, in a philosophical vein, about their existence as abstract entities, I imagine him scratching his head in wonder about what exactly was in question." It is one thing to be able to use mathematics competently, and quite another to have knowledge of the metaphysics of numbers. Do numbers exist? Are there Platonic forms of numbers? We have theories about the metaphysics, but we don't know for certain. And most of us don't need to know. Wettstein suggests that it is much the same in religion: "I have known people with a genuinely deep grasp of religion 'from within'; only some of them have any taste or feel for philosophy." Thankfully, Wettstein is blessed with both a grasp of religious practice and a "feel for philosophy."

What is surprising is that someone as passionately in favor of religion and religious experience as Wettstein should fall so solidly in the naturalist camp. "Naturalism" is a broad term, but it entails a refusal to make the supernatural a definitive element of the world. This has often meant reductionism—that is, the reduction of all supernatural terms to natural terms, like trying to explain religion entirely in terms of neurology, cultural norms, or evolutionary psychology—or eliminativism, the attempt to simply eliminate supernatural talk altogether. Wettstein argues that naturalism simply makes sense to us, living in this age. It is hard not to think like a naturalist in a time when the natural sciences are ascendant and lab coats have all but replaced albs and chasubles, but naturalistic reductionism and eliminativism miss the heart of religion.

One of Wettstein's intriguing suggestions is that philosophers of religion might have missed it, too. Philosophers have come to treat God as a concept to be cognized, abstracting God from biblical religion and from the literary and liturgical life of the communities to whom God most matters. In giving this abstract God-concept so much of our attention, philosophy has neglected the practices of religion almost altogether. As Wettstein puts it, "Concern with what seems fundamental—the existence of God—often has been all-absorbing, and I would argue, distracting." That is, distracting from the real work and life of the religious community. The danger is that we turn God into a thing we find in the world, a resource at our disposal. Religious epistemology takes center stage, focusing on legal notions like warrant, justification, duty, and obligation. Arguably, much of the scientism that informs one version of modern atheism is the offspring of this legal-epistemological approach to philosophy of religion, where religion is evil because religious belief is irresponsible, unscientific, or indefensible.

Reducing religion to belief can also make it seem that biblical authors were really frustrated philosophers. The Hebrew Bible isn't an anthology of poorly written propositions about God. Its chapters are the stories and poems and prayers of communities of people who stand in awe of God, people enveloped in a religious life. If the alleged propositions about God found in the Bible seem at times to contradict one another it is because they were never intended to be a scientific, coherent, and complete description of God. To stand in awe of God, Wettstein says, is not a matter of knowing awesome things about God so much as it is to feel privileged, to be overwhelmed, to feel humility without being diminished. The biblical texts attempt to express this, not by cataloguing God's properties but through narratives about God's roles. Wettstein puts it like this:

We often speak of the biblical narrative, and narrative is another aspect of the Bible's literary character. The Bible's characteristic mode of "theology" is story telling, the stories overlaid with poetic language. Never does one find the sort of conceptually refined doctrinal propositions characteristic of a doctrinal approach. When the divine protagonist comes into view, we are not told much about his properties. Think about the divine perfections, the highly abstract omni-properties (omnipotence, omniscience, and the like), so dominant in medieval and post-medieval theology. One has to work very hard—too hard—to find even hints of these in the Biblical text. Instead of properties, perfection and the like the Bible speaks of God's roles—father, king, friend, lover, judge, creator, and the like. Roles, as opposed to properties; this should give one pause.

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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