Classics Review: The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James

William James (January 11, 1842 – August 26, 1910). Houghton Library, Harvard University

William James (January 11, 1842 – August 26, 1910). Houghton Library, Harvard University

Just for scope and ambition The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James is an amazing book: One man takes on the vast oceans of the human spiritual experiences and attempts to describe and categorize them, analyzing written records for pattern and meaning, and finally coming to some very interesting if tentative theories about what is really going on in the hearts and minds of the human race. I decided I needed to read this book because in the course of my never-ending and ever receding search for truth I kept running across references to it. It is apparently a classic among theologians, philosophers, and truth seekers of all stripes.

Still I admit I prepared myself of a long dry read. But happily, I was pleasantly surprised by the beauty and readability of the text as well as the fascinating nature of the subject matter. The tone is surprisingly warm, friendly, and respectful. William James seems  like a just really kind man who is truly interested in our experiences and sincerely seeks to find their significance both for the individual and society. I only wish all discussions of religious could be this pleasant. Of course it does help that I listened to the audio version narrated in the pleasant voice of John Pruden. I also read a Kindle version that  I downloaded from Project Gutenberg. So take note: you can read The Varieties free of charge! With complex books I process the information more quickly and easily when I engage a multimedia experience. Thanks to technology we have the means for varieties of mental processes that Mr. James never imagined.

Varieties coverThe book is an edited series of lectures James delivered to an esteemed audience at the University of Edinburgh in 1901 and 1902 when the age of empiricism was in full swing and respectable men of science pooh-poohed anything that was mystical or emotionally based. Even in 2015, arguably the pinnacle of the post–modern era, I know many persons of scientific bent who are very rigid in their materialist philosophy. But James, a philosopher and psychologist, wanted to broaden the empirical method to include the whole of human experience. He provides substantial historical evidence that religious, or mystical, experience is part of being human and also has had a huge influence on the development of human civilizations and cultures. Therefore, he believes religious experience is a worthwhile topic or serious study.

Whatever the ultimate truth may or may not be, it is certainly true that humans frequently have experiences which they honestly perceive as something from outside the material world. Often the experience has profound effects on their perceptions on the world thereafter and often their lives are forever changed. The meaning people assign to their experiences differs according to belief, culture, and tradition, but the experiences seem to show certain consistent patterns over the span of human history. I was particularly fascinated by James’ concepts of the “once born” and the “twice born” types of people. Once born people accept the world as they find it and find adequate meaning therein to sustain them from birth to death. Twice born people are those whose original world has fallen, ripped open, or crashed. They have seen that the wizard behind the curtain and must therefore look to a deeper or higher place for meaning.

James makes a sharp distinction between institutional religion with its codified doctrine and ceremonies and personal encounters with the divine. His emphasis is on religion of the personal type. Organized religion, in his view, is the result, the monument, and often the dying ember of the flame ignited by someone’s direct personal experience with God. Did the personal encounter really happen? Well, James says, no one can know the answer to that question in a strictly factual way, but if the person experienced it as real and if there are tangible results in the person’s life, that in itself makes it true enough. William James is considered a great thinker, possibly the greatest philosopher America has produced, and was a proponent of the philosophical school of thought called Pragmatism, which I understand to mean that beliefs have truth value if its results are desirable.

This book is a treasure trove of discussion fodder. It might be a great book club choice except that it might to a long time before your club can move on to another book. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the spiritual/religious dimension of humanity. Personally I find that humanity minus this dimension is flat and limited. Imagination and art can stand in the place of religion but artistic imagination is better and richer when it serves as a bridge between the material and the higher realities.

Topics covered in The Varieties of Religious Experience include:

  • Religion and Neurology: In which James discusses religious urges in terms of psychology. Some people, for example, are religious “geniuses” – the religious part of their minds are highly developed.
  • Circumscription of the Topic: Instead of rigidly defining the topic James draws a wide circle around it to encompass the vast mental and spiritual territory he intends to discuss. He leaves outside the circle all aspects of institutional religion including theology (for the most part), ceremony, and traditions. Doctrine can enter the circle only insofar as it intersects with a particular personal experience. James does an entire lecture explaining this approach to the subject and not one sentence of it is boring.
  • The Reality of the Unseen: What makes people insist on the reality of experiences and perceptions that are outside the scope of the five senses? James examines this questions from several angles. He also brings up Kant.
  • The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness: Current and recent American movements that promoted positive thinking, mind healing, and ignoring anything negative. People who embrace healthy-minded philosophies tend to be once-born types.
  • The Sick Soul: A study of the religious experiences of those who are too compassionate to ignore the reality of evil, are naturally melancholy or depressed, and/or have gone through some dark times. Sick souls who recognize and confront evil are always twice-born types.
  • The Divided Self and the Process of its Unification: Lots of descriptions of both serious psychological issues and profound mystical experiences. I found this section particularly fascinating.
  • Conversion: Dramatic life-changing experiences in which people suddenly see the light. More profound mystical experiences.
  • Saintliness: James devotes three lectures to the this study of different types of saints and the sorts of things all saints tend to have in common. Includes some really bizarre stories and fascinating analysis.
  • The Value of Saintliness: James spends two more lectures discussing whether any of this strange behavior has real value to the world at large or if it is only of value to the individual saint. He concludes that saints do contribute to the quality, standards, and general soundness of society.
  • Mysticism: James presents his study of characteristic patterns and qualities of mystical experiences which include: ineffability (they are hard to put into words), transience (they do not typically last more than maybe 30 minutes), passivity (the person does not do anything to make them happen), and noetic quality (they impart some sort of deeper knowledge).
  • Philosophy: Discusses the relationship between intellectual philosophy and religion.
  • Other Characteristics: In this section James acknowledges that certain aspects of institutional religion do play a part in the individual experience. He discusses how this might be the case with poetic liturgy, magisterial architecture, pomp and ceremony, sacrifice, and confession. He also discusses his ideas about what might really be going on when people pray.
  • Conclusion: James ties it all together and presents his concluding theories about the significance, reality, and uses of the many varieties of religious experience.

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Posted on May 22, 2015, in Classics, Reading Life and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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