William James, religion, and spiritual transformation

Definitions and hypotheses: William James, religion, and spiritual transformation

Christopher Stawski

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.

In “Circumscription of the Topic,” James breaks down his hypothesis on religion by examining the demeanor of the believer and the idea of the divine. The divine connotes “any object that is godlike, whether it be a concrete deity or not” (8). The demeanor of the believer entails “something solemn, serious, and tender” (9). This solemn ethos involves an acceptance of the universe where “the service of the highest never is felt as a yoke” (10) An acquiescent attitude in the service of a godlike object produces a “happy state of mind” where fear is “positively expunged and washed away” (11). This religious feeling grants a “new sphere of power” to the believer that produces an “added dimension of emotion,” an “enthusiastic temper of espousal,” a “new reach of freedom” (12). But the solemn state of mind also entails a helpless and sacrificial attitude because the believer is still dependent upon the mercy of the godlike to save his soul (13). Thus, James begins his third lecture, “The Reality of the Unseen,” by characterizing the religious life as consisting of “the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto” (14).

The thoughts on religion that James sketches in the “Circumscription” guide his existential investigation through the religion of healthy-mindedness and of the sick soul and through discussions on conversion, saintliness, and mysticism. It is in his nineteenth lecture, “Other Characteristics,” that James begins to address his concluding remarks. James brings up the subject of prayer, which he calls the “very soul and essence of religion” (15). Quoting a French liberal theologian by the name of Auguste Sabatier, James includes the statement that “prayer is real religion” (16). He continues the quote:

Religion is nothing if it be not the vital act by which the

entire mind seeks to save itself by clinging to the principle

from which it draws its life. This act is prayer, by which term

I understand no vain exercise of words, no mere repetition of

certain sacred formulae, but the very movement itself of the soul,

putting itself in a personal relation of contact with the

mysterious power of which it feels the presence. (17)

It is in this concept of prayer that James locates the experience of transaction in the consciousness of the individual as the root of religion: “The conviction that something is genuinely transacted in this consciousness is the very core of living religion” (18). This process of transacting is understood to be both “active and mutual” (19), but all we can speak is of the effects of this movement in the phenomenal world. James sees that the communion of the individual with the divine, or the More, in prayer entails an infusion of spiritual energy from the higher power that becomes real in the world (20). The infusion is made through “openings” (21) in the subconscious part of individuals where it is “played upon by powers beyond their will” (22). It is in this play about the margins of consciousness that enlivens the factual reality of the individual through its mandate on conduct.

Lecture XX, which he officially titles as “Conclusions,” James summarizes where he has been and continues to elaborate on the conceptions of religion that he developed in Lecture XIX. In repudiating the survival theory of religion, James understands religion as being concerned with questions of private, individual destiny (23). This concern means that religion “must necessarily play an eternal part in human history” (24) because the thoughts and feelings in relation to questions of personal destiny determine conduct (25). It is in this sphere of conduct that God, divine, or the More is used for the benefit of the individual. Quoting Professor Leuba, James states: “God is not known, he is not understood; he is used” (26). James continues the quote from Leuba to express that the purpose of religion is to experience a more satisfying life: “The love of life, at any and every level of development, is the religious impulse” (27). Improvement of life and, ultimately, the hope of salvation are the desired effects or values of transaction with the divine. The recognition of the divine as “conterminous and continuous with a MORE” (28) that is “on its hither side the subconscious continuation of our conscious life” (29) is necessary to realize the objective and factual basis of transaction. Communion with this “wider self” (30) through the individual consciousness regulates conduct and exercises the power of conviction. James emphasizes that “we belong in the most intimate sense wherever our ideals belong.” (31)

In comparing James’s provisional thoughts in the “Circumscription” with those elaborated in his conclusions, it becomes clear that there is an element of continuity in his existential analysis. The solitude and solemnity of the individual that he declares at the outset as necessary components of the religious life seem to quite clearly have the activity of prayer in mind. James’s idea of a religious acquiescence to the world under spiritual direction and adjusting ourselves to that spiritual leadership is continuous with his later assertions on how religion affects the individual’s notion of personal destiny, but it is also where James differs from his provisional hypothesis. In his conclusions, James grants more power to the individual to utilize the divine. The believer is not just simply acted upon, but also has a love of life that yearns to be free and to exist in a satisfactory manner. The individual transacts with the divine through prayer and communion in order to live life more fully. It is the spiritual value of immediate luminousness that produces the fruits of life for the individual.

The concept of transaction mediates the “prayerful communion” between the individual and the divine. Transaction combines both the elements of existential description and spiritual value. Existentially, transaction entails the movement of energy across the marginal regions of the individual consciousness from the divine energy source. Spiritually, this movement provides a luminous encounter that creates a new way to see the world and to act within it. James’s provisional hypothesis only accounts for the existential part of his conclusions. The spiritual component does not become explicitly evident until his discussion of prayer, which directly locates the value of interaction with the divine. James does not disprove the provisional hypothesis in his conclusions, but offers a more rounded hypothesis that accounts for the power of the individual to affect communion with the divine. The combination of the existential and the spiritual judgments of the individual promote good conduct and the production of fruits in this life. It is what leads James to offer a “real hypothesis” of religion as a “postulator of new facts” (32).

Spiritual Transformation, Transaction, and Moral Helpfulness

Here is the working definition of spiritual transformation displayed on the Web site for the Spiritual Transformation Scientific Research Program (STP):

Spiritual transformations are dramatic changes in world and self

views, purposes, religious beliefs, attitudes, and behavior. These

changes are often linked to discrete experiences that can occur

gradually or over relatively short periods of time. This change

usually occurs within three contexts:

(i) As an intensified devotion within the same religious structure;

(ii) A shift from no spiritual commitment to a devout spiritual


(iii) A change from one faith tradition to another.

These changes are sometimes precipitated by stress and anguish,

induced through rigorous practices, and can also occur spontaneously

without apparent corollaries.

While this definition of spiritual transformation seeks to encompass as many aspects as possible of the phenomenon, it shares both similarities and differences to James’s approach to religious experience in the Varieties. Similarly, it is looking at the feelings, acts, and experiences of people in an existential fashion. It seeks to facilitate the project of looking at those existential factors toward an explanatory, scientific hypothesis on the given phenomenon. For both James’s definition of religion and STP’s definition of spiritual transformation, the term “hypothesis” can be correctly used when talking about trying to understand the substance of the phenomenon and when talking about the definition itself. Each definition signals a point of embarkment that both guides the journey of the research project and is revisable in the light of new evidence and conclusions from the journey.

Divergently, there are several factors to consider. First, the STP is seeking to look at “spiritual” transformations while James looked at “religious” experiences. Although James used the word “spiritual” to connote a certain type of value judgment, he couched this understanding within the phenomenal expression of spiritual values, which is religion. In addition, James plainly admitted that he put forth a narrow definition of religion that emphasized “personal” religion as opposed to “institutional” religion. For the purposes of his discussion of religious experience in the Varieties, he used the term religion to denote experiences that were both solemn for the individual and oriented toward a divine object (33). For the STP, what makes an experience “spiritual” is not that it is oriented toward a divine object, but that it resides within a context that would be profoundly important to the person undergoing the experience. By not discussing a divine object, an “unseen order”, or a “More” within the definition of spiritual transformation, the STP creates a broader ground for discussing experiences that could be located in religious or non-religious contexts. The STP is less concerned with the possible attribution of supernatural origins to a given experience and more concerned with how this experience is of the utmost importance to that individual or group and the process involved with the given experience. This strategy attempts to avoid long-time academic debates on whether religion is a “sui generis” phenomenon or purely a “naturalistic” phenomenon, while it also seeks to preserve the integrity of the experiences and the experiencers being examined. By not espousing a neat delineation between the sacred and profane, STP’s definition of spiritual transformation lets spiritual events come from many different contexts within the human predicament.

Second, where James is interested in experience, the STP is interested in transformation. Though, in his Lecture on Conversion, James puts forth a conception of transformation:

whenever one aim grows so stable as to expel definitively its

previous rivals from the individual’s life, we tend to speak of the

phenomenon, and perhaps to wonder at it, as a ‘transformation’. (34)

Indeed, the theme of spiritual transformation could be said to underlie the entirety of the Varieties, especially in the lectures on mysticism and conversion, since James is concerned with the power of religious experiences on the individual’s life. But, what is important for the STP is the “dramatic change” and the process that occurs in the wake of the experience, not just the experience itself. To put it in James’s terms, while James comes to consider the spiritual judgment of immediate luminousness as important for the transactional nature of prayer for the religious individual, the STP is concerned with the spiritual value of moral helpfulness as it reorients the direction of the individual.

Third, while James’s investigation in the Varieties was concerned solely with the “personal” religious experiences of individuals, the STP is looking at both the experiences of individuals and groups and the interaction between the two. Although the experiences of individuals underlie group dynamics, there are plenty of examples of charismatic and nationalist movements which hinge not only on the transformations of individuals to develop the group, but which aim to spiritually transform society more generally. Additionally, within many religious traditions, there are techniques and practices in place that aim to spiritually form the adherent and sometimes open pathways to transformative experiences. STP is cognizant of the complex relationship and forces among individuals, groups, and religious institutions that have shaped the historically infused backdrop of what we may consider “religious” or “spiritual”.

Fourth, whereas James’s definition of religion sets the stage for a psychology of religious experience that might lead to a “science of religions” (35), the STP definition is supporting a variety of investigations from across the social and natural sciences, using qualitative and quantitative methods, in a collaborative environment. Rather than hoping for a “science of religions”, the grant initiative aims to contribute to the effort of broad scientific research on religious and non-religious phenomena. James was able to use the narratives of religious “geniuses” (36) to investigate his phenomena; STP investigators will be actively engaged with individuals and groups who have had spiritually transformative experiences.

Reduction, Tradition, and Negative Transformations

In his seminal book, Religious Experience, Wayne Proudfoot critiques the idea of separating the explanation of the phenomenon of a religious experience from evaluating it. Though this ethos of separation is present in James’s Varieties, I have tried to show that James’s recognition of the spiritual value of prayer testifies to the difficulty, maybe even the impossibility, of separating the two. As the STP has also attempted to separate the two by not acknowledging the existence of a “sacred” in its definition, this also may prove to be problematic.

Proudfoot points out that for those who claim to have had religious experiences, there is often an “assumed causal relation” (37) between the individual and other forces or (divine) objects. While it is possible for the researcher to identify religious experiences without endorsing the cause of that experience, the religious perspective of the experiencer needs to be taken into account when discussing the experience. To deal with this problem, Proudfoot advocates a method of “explanatory reduction” (38) for religious studies, which accounts for the perspective of the person who has undergone the experience, but allows for the researcher to recontextualize the experience into a different explanatory discourse. Just as the STP is employing a strategy to try and protect the integrity of the people under study while opening up the space for rigorous scientific research, this strategic attempt may show that definitional neutrality on naming a “sacred” is not possible because the subject’s point of view needs to play some role in defining the phenomenon. When taking into account the ethical concerns of doing research on human subjects, as specified by Institutional Review Boards around the country, a new kind of “protective strategy” (39) may need to be formulated for scientific research on religious phenomena.

While most of the research projects being supported by the STP employ methodologies that allow the subject’s voice to play a role in determining the results of the research (i.e., ethnographic and survey methods), investigators may also need to be attentive in their “explanatory reduction” to the “embodied knowledge” of the population under study. The notion of “embodied knowledge”, which derives from the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Pierre Bourdieu, refers to the intersubjective nature of knowledge as meaning is constructed through the contextual and habitual practices of the body in the world: “habit is knowledge in the hands, which is forthcoming only when bodily effort is made, and cannot be formulated in detachment from that effort” (40). For prayer, meditation, spiritual healing, and other forms of ritual practice, adherents often have developed bodily habits and techniques that are not as amenable to analytical or verbal description. This can make it difficult for the investigator to make reductive explanations and hypotheses on the experiences under study. Though the STP is looking at the “dramatic change” that signals a transformation, the investigator needs to be aware that the experiencers may be unable to adequately describe their experience due to the inability to articulate what is contextually embodied.

If we are to admit that scientific research on religious phenomena has to be, in some sense, reductive, then that reductive endeavor needs to be attenuated by a live conversation with the historical development of religious traditions and the histories of the individuals and groups under study. This conversation needs to be mindful of the variation not only among religious traditions, but also within them. The heterogeneous character of traditions, as well as the embodied knowledges of the experiencers, may preclude the possibility of positing a general phenomenology of spiritual transformation across and within religious traditions and other non-religious contexts.

Attention to the diversity within traditions also reveals that spiritual transformation can lead to radically negative outcomes. The moral and political justifications for martyrdom, suicide bombing, genocide, and nationalist violence often are drawn from spiritually transformative experiences. Bruce Lincoln, in his treatment of the term “Transformation” in Critical Terms for Religious Studies, speaks of the recent transformation of supporters of the Catholic Medjugorje shrine in Bosnia. Since the outbreak of war in 1992, Catholic missionaries who once spoke out against communism were transformed by ethnonationalist ideology to oppose the Serbian Orthodox and the Bosnian Muslims. (41) While some of the research that will be conducted within the STP will utilize recent studies within criminology and spirituality and health that attempt to show the benefits of religious faith and practice, the definition of spiritual transformation should be broad enough to include the negative and political character of religious and non-religious transformations.

Along with including negative outcomes of transformations in the definition, it is also possible that a fourth context could be added to the list: ‘a shift from a spiritual life to no spiritual commitment, entailing the loss of a moral bearing’. This ‘loss’ of faith could be understood as the pathos of traumatic life events from which the individual or group never recovers to a ‘normal’ or ‘better’ state. It could also refer to the distinct state that occurs in the process of changing from one faith-state to another, rather than subsuming it within the event of transforming from one stable spiritual outlook to another. Charles Taylor, in his recently published lectures on William James entitled Varieties of Religion Today, speaks of a “melancholy” that is particular to our modern predicament, the fear of ultimate meaninglessness. Citing Baudelaire as an example of this specifically modern form of melancholy, Taylor describes it as, “the intimation of what may be a definitive emptiness, the final dawning of the end of the last illusion of significance.” (42)


But solemnity, and gravity, and all such emotional states, admit

of various shades; and, do what we will with our defining, the

truth must at last be confronted that we are dealing with a field

of experience where there is not a single conception that can be

sharply drawn. The pretension,under such conditions, to be

rigorously “scientific” or “exact” in our terms would only stamp us

as lacking in understanding of our task. (43)

Beyond the problems of definitional specificity and hypothesis formation, the STP also has to solve other methodological problems: How does the investigator get at the process of spiritual transformation when the investigator and the subject are often looking retrospectively at the phenomenon? How do you isolate the “spiritual” factors of a “transformation” from other types of intervening variables? How long does a transformation have to last in order for it to be a transformation? These questions, as well as our discussion of definitions and hypotheses, are healthy reminders of the limits of the scientific paradigm and point toward the necessity for a collaborative and multidisciplinary approach for looking at religious phenomena.

I am sure if William James were around today, he would be encouraged and excited by the development of the STP. His Gifford lectures are a paradigmatic journey of exploration and discovery that has inspired the STP. Although James’s Protestant intellectual context is different than ours, James’s text is incredibly rich and foreshadows many of the problems of conducting research on experience in a postmodern context. I echo Charles Taylor’s pronouncement of James as “our great philosopher of the cusp.” (44)


(1.) Web site for the Spiritual Transformation Scientific Research Program, www.spiritualtransformationresearch.org

(2.) David Lamberth, William James and the Metaphysics of Experience, (Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press, 1999), 101. For a discussion of the historical and philosophical context of James’s writing of the Varieties, see 97-145.

(3.) William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, (New York: Modern Library Edition. Random House, 1994), 34-35.

(4.) Ibid., 36.

(5.) Ibid., 21.

(6.) Ibid., 533, 568.

(7.) Ibid., 526.

(8.) Ibid., 40.

(9.) Ibid., 44.

(10.) Ibid., 48.

(11.) Ibid., 54.

(12.) Ibid., 55,

(13.) Ibid., 59.

(14.) Ibid., 61.

(15.) Ibid., 505.

(16.) Ibid.

(17.) Ibid., 506.

(18.) Ibid., 507.

(19.) Ibid.

(20.) Ibid., 519-520.

(21.) Ibid., 520.

(22.) Ibid., 521.

(23.) Ibid., 544.

(24.) Ibid., 546.

(25.) Ibid., 548,

(26.) Ibid., 550.

(27.) Ibid., 551.

(28.) Ibid., 552.

(29.) Ibid., 556-557.

(30.) Ibid., 559.

(31.) Ibid., 560.

(32.) Ibid., 562.

(33.) The working definition of spiritual transformation can be found at the program Web site, www.spiritualtransformationresearch.org. The definition used by the program was first developed by Arthur Schwartz of the John Templeton Foundation, [see The Nature of Spiritual Transformation: A Review of the Literature (2000) available for download at www.spiritualtransformationresearch.org] and then adapted and expanded by the Principal Investigator, Solomon Katz, and the Advisory Board of the Spiritual Transformation Scientific Research Program.

(34.) James, Varieties, 45.

(35.) Ibid., 215.

(36.) Ibid., 497.

(37.) Ibid., 9.

(38.) Wayne Proudfoot, Religious Experience (Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1985), 177.

(39.) Ibid., 197.

(40.) Ibid., 199.

(41.) Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, translated from the French by Colin Smith, (New York, The Humanities Press, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962), 144. For a discussion of religious experience that takes the notion of embodied knowledge into account, see Ann Taves, Fits, Trances and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James.

(42.) Bruce B. Lawrence, “Transformation”, in Critical Terms for Religious Studies, Mark C. Taylor, ed., (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1998), 334-348, 345.

(43.) Charles Taylor, Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited, (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2002), 40.

(44.) James, Varieties, 45.

(45.) Taylor, Varieties, 59.

Christopher Stawski is Program Associate for the Spiritual Transformation Scientific Research Program of the Metanexus Institute on Religion and Science. He lives and works in Philadelphia, PA.

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