The Significance of Religious ExperienceReview - The Significance of Religious Experience
by Howard Wettstein
Oxford University Press, 2012
Review by Sharon Packer, MD
May 28th 2013 (Volume 17, Issue 22)

In the sixties, when I was an undergraduate, "everyone" seemed to be reading William James' Varieties of Religious Experience. Along with Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice, Fanon's Wretched of the Earth, the somewhat later-appearing anthology, Sisterhood is Powerful, and perhaps a few Tibetan-themed titles by Leary and Alpert, James' Varieties ranked high among the books that shaped the era and reflected the zeitgeist.

Try as I might, I could not comprehend James' book on religious experience back then, not by a long shot. Sociology and proto-psychopharmacology could be digested, even if I disagreed with some basic premises. Yet James wrote about another realm, a realm that was unknowable (maybe ineffable) to someone whose worldview had been shaped by traditional Jewish educational systems and little else. 

James trained as a physician and taught physiological psychology and went on to open America's first experimental psychology laboratory at Harvard, well before Wundt or Hall. He made his most permanent mark in philosophy. His last book about Varieties of Religious Experience perturbed his supporters, although it gained immortality through later generations. His early endeavors in experimental psychology would be entombed in the annals of history, remembered by those who cherish the roots of knowledge rather than its leaves and the flowers. For Freud scholars (or detractors), James' contact with Freud, during Freud's visit to America, ensured that his name would resurface in future studies of psychoanalytic history.

It bothered me that James' landmark book, which was hailed by so many members of my generation, eluded me. It was not until I taught a course on Psychology of Religion some decades later that I came to understand that James was not writing about universal religious experience. Rather, his primary point of reference was Protestant religious experience (even though he mentions Eastern religions in passing as well as ether-aided mystical moments and theosophy and other interesting ideas).

However, traditional Jews are grounded in law and ritual-based religious practice that is far-removed from Christianity's (and James') unio mystica. Jewish tradition cherishes study and learning as it bypasses individual epiphanies in our post-prophetic times.  True, there have been fleeting moments in history when experiential religious movements emerged in Judaism, and went head-to-head with mainstream currents that value cognition over emotion. Yet, by and large, the type of religion described by James is far-removed from Jewish spheres. James also makes it clear that his book bypasses group-based religious movements and focuses on the individual only. In contrast, Judaism, as a collective religion that revolves around a sense of peoplehood, can clash with individual, idiosyncratic ideas. 

How much I would have appreciated a book like Wettstein's The Significance of Religious Experience back then. Admittedly, Professor Wettstein never aspires to write a Jewish version of James' classic on the Varieties of Religious Experience. What he does do, quite obviously and unabashedly, is to use Jewish traditional as its starting (and ending) point.  This book is grounded in philosophy and is written for philosophy students and scholars. It makes no pretense of speaking to the masses. That should not be surprising, since its author has chaired philosophy departments at major American universities. Wettstein's dedication, before the book begins, prepares us for his specific slant. He credits his rabbis.

Wettstein does use some clever and contemporary turns of speech that speak to everyman (or every woman). When talking about Job's travails, he refers to Job's "hitting bottom" and so makes him sound like a contemporary character. He devotes part of a chapter to Woody Allen and later alludes to The Best Years of our Lives (Wyler, 1948), a classic post-WWII film that addresses generational changes in small-town America. Pop culture does not permeate this essay collection, but it is not absent, either.

In the very last essay, Professor Wettstein hints at his own personal peregrinations through the winding roads of religious tradition and philosophy.  As a psychiatrist, I would like to hear more about his own struggles and reflections, maybe in an Augustinian sort of way. Perhaps that book will appear in the future. However, this book is a collection of dispassionate essays previously published in philosophy journals and anthologies, and it is to those audiences (and not to psychiatrists) that it is addressed.


© 2013 Sharon Packer


Sharon Packer, MD is a psychiatrist who is in private practice in Soho (NYC) and Woodstock, NY. She is an Asst. Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Her books include Dreams in Myth, Medicine and Movies (Praeger, 2002), Movies and the Modern Psyche (Praeger, 2007) and Superheroes and Superegos: The Minds behind the Masks (Praeger/ABC-Clio, 2010). In press or in production are Sinister Psychiatrists in Cinema (McFarland, 2012) and Evil in American Pop Culture (ABC-Clio, 2013, co-edited with J. Pennington, PhD.) She can be contacted at .


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