Date of Award
Dissertation - Restricted
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Thomas L. Prendergast
William C. Starr
Andrew F. Tallon
Stanley M. Harrison
T. Michael McNulty
Several contemporary thinkers argue that reflection on experience reveals a dimension of transcendence by leading to fundamental questions about one's life, raising the issue of a reality beyond human experience. Langdon Gilkey in Naming the Whirlwind maintains that this dimension of transcendence as revealed in experience is a necessary starting point for theology in a secular world, rather than beginning with the reality of God accepted in faith or reasoned to by metaphysical analysis. This dissertation is a study of the philosophy of William James as an alternative to the phenomenological method Gilkey uses in analyzing experience. Specifically, is James' notion of experience helpful in discovering a transcendent dimension of experience as a starting point for theology?
Chapter I contains an argument for beginning theology by attempting to uncover a transcendent dimension of experience. Chapters II and III describe the richness of James' view of experience and the role of selective attention and human activity. Chapter IV investigates his notion of belief, and Chapter V his view of religious
experience, arguing that his religious investigations are consistent with his view of experience described earlier. Chapter VI summarizes his view of experience and his later religious thought and argues for his notion of experience as a starting point for contemporary theology.
My conclusion is that James' view of experience does include a transcendent dimension that provides a starting point for theology. An opening to a transcendent dimension is present in his description of experience as a field with relations to a "more" that extends beyond the immediate, as well as in his argument that at times we need to go beyond the evidence to raise fundamental questions and to form theories to explain our experience. In addition to this opening to transcendence due to the richness of experience, James describes ordinary experiences that provide a basis for a specifically religious dimension. For example, mysticism and religious conversion have "traces" in more ordinary experience. In particular, his description of the subconscious self allows for an opening to a wider reality and provides a basis for interaction between the human and the divine. While his view of experience provides a starting point for theological reflection, that reflection must remain open to verification and possible reformulation on the basis of further experience, because of the richness and complexity of experience and reality. James' own religious investigations led him to pluralistic pantheism, but his view of experience can also be the starting point for theological reflection that draws upon the revelation accepted by a particular religious tradition.