Department of Religion and Philosophy
Augustine and William James on the Rationality of Faith
Augustine and William James are among the greatest defenders of religious faith in the history of thought. Their arguments on behalf of faith mark important connections between theology and philosophy, with further links to psychology, history, and social and political thought. Augustine argues that religious faith is trust and that trust is a normal and necessary way of believing, foundational to family and social life. It is also the proper way for us to get to the truth when we lack knowledge. Beginning with faith, we then work towards knowledge by means of philosophical contemplation. James, in ‘The Will to Believe,’ makes two pragmatic arguments for the rationality of faith. We do not know (yet) whether God exists, but faith meets a well-established criterion for rational decision-making. It is, at least for many of us, a highly consequential choice we must make between multiple possibilities which are open to us; it is a choice between the risk of believing something false and the risk of not believing something true, and in the absence of very clear evidence we may decide for ourselves which risk we prefer. James further explains that we may be able to experience God in the future and thereby gain knowledge, yet even this may be contingent on our willingness to believe.
I am not aiming to break any new ground on Augustine or James or to directly confront any scholarly debates on their texts; rather, I aim to compare and contrast their religious epistemologies, with a brief look towards future possible synthesis. This will help us to understand both thinkers better, and promises to enrich contemporary discussions of faith and reason through a better awareness of the past dialogue on the subject.
In both thinkers, faith is understood to be rational, to be practical, and to precede knowledge. Yet there are key differences. The object of faith in Augustine is Christian testimony from Christ, Scripture, and the church. James, however, is defending the rationality of whatever religious commitment may be of interest to us. Moreover, the eventual acquisition of knowledge, according to Augustine, relies mainly on philosophical contemplation whereas, according to James, it relies on experience. In other words, Augustine’s analysis of faith and rationality is distinguished from James’ in that the former is a Christian somewhat under the influence of Neo-Platonist rationalism. James, however, is an empiricist and a Pragmatist. These differences, however, may be less significant than they first appear, as I will show. After explaining Augustine and then James I will draw out the major points of comparison and contrast and suggest a few reasons their insights might be at least partially synthesized.
Source Publication Title
The Heythrop Journal
Link to Publisher's Edition
Boone, M. (2018). Augustine and William James on the Rationality of Faith. The Heythrop Journal. https://doi.org/10.1111/heyj.13123