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The Religious Life: The insights of William James by Donald Capps

27 October 2017

Anne Holmes on the subconscious and its spiritual significance

THE title of this book, with its mon­astic associations, comes as some­thing of a surprise, given that William James, its subject, was un­­easy about St Teresa’s “dedication to the insti­tutional branch of religion”.

This is a clue to the view of James that an individual can be “religi­ous”, in the personal sense of hav­ing an awareness of the presence of God, without being part of a reli­gious institution. By the end of the book, the reader has understood why Capps chose the title, as it sum­­ma­rises James’s lifelong interest in and preoccupation with the nature of religious experience.

The book is divided into two parts, “Varieties of Religious Experi­ence” and “Living in Hope”. The first part comprises eight chapters in which Capps sum­­mar­ises and com­­ments on various key sections with extensive quota­­tions from the core text. Examples are “the religion of healthy-mindedness”, “the sick soul”, “saintliness”, and “the prayer­ful consciousness”. The second part consists of three short chapters on themes from the core text.

A brief review can offer only one or two tasters to the whole book. Particularly relevant to an ongoing debate is James’s rejection of any dichotomy between religion and science as simplistic. His conclusion that they are “both of them genuine keys for unlocking the world’s treasure house” could still be offered as a valid response to the Dawkins rejection of faith more than 100 years later.

In a fascinating chapter on the psychology of religious conversion, Capps guides the reader to James’s argument that “a well developed subliminal self is a necessary con­­di­tion to being converted in an instan­way”.

In other words, what seems to be a sudden religious conversion was already prepared unconsciously. Writing in the 1890s, and aware of the work of Freud, Breuer, Myers, and others, James believed that the discovery of the subconscious mind was the most important develop­­ment in psychology to date.

This superb guide to the writings of William James is the last work of a renowned pastoral theologian. It acts as a signpost pointing in two directions: both to the seminal work of James and to other books by Capps. Not only is it a tribute to the author of the classic work The Varieties of Religious Experience, but it is a fitting finale to a life lived with a rare combination of scholarship and compassion.


The Revd Anne Holmes, a former NHS mental-health chaplain, works as a psychotherapist and self-supporting minister in the diocese of Oxford.


The Religious Life: The insights of William James

Donald Capps

The Lutterworth Press £19.50





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