on the Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. Are you ready?
Religion and Neurology
After some introductory remarks, James begins his book with a discussion with the manner in which he delivers his lectures: by examination psychologically of “subjective phenomena recorded in literature produced by articulate and fully self-conscious men, in works of piety and autobiography.” (p.3) He arrogantly declares his lack of theological training. He distinguishes between two types of inquiry into religious experience: What is its nature (essence)? And what does it mean? Science can help with the first, and he will not really look at the second. He compares this type of inquiry with methods of historical interpretation and exegesis of the scriptures, one is an existential judgment; the other a value judgment. He acknowledges that the existential facts are not enough to make that value judgment for one is purely existential and the other is spiritual. His intent is then to examine subjective religious experience via scientific and rigorous methods. He makes distinctions between first order and second order religious experience and will only examine closely first order experiences which burn within those who experience them. The pathology of the person having these experiences can be included in the discussion, but do not invalidate the experience; i.e. art should be examined for its own merits rather than the mental stability of the artist. When examining these experience he tells us that the intellect will first class it among those things that we understand and then secondly look at from whence it comes, its point of origin. He also discusses the origin of religious experience: medically – is there a medical reason? but rejects medical materialism because it avoids a judgment of value. Or can the roots ever be known? Perhaps then the fruit of the experience should be examined; are they useful for the long run? He suggests a new criterion: immediate luminousness, philosophical reasonableness and moral helpfulness.
The Circumscription of the Topic
James begins an attempt to define “religion” noting that it is a complex subject that can tend to oversimplification which then can lead to absolutism and dogmatism. Religion should not stand for one single concept but a collection of concepts. Similarly is considered the term “religious sentient.” Religious experience is not a separate emotion, but consists of the full range of human emotion. For his purposes, James will examine only personal religious experience and eschew the institutional because the institution (i.e. the church) consists almost entirely of second-hand experiences. “Religion, therefore, as I shall ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they consider the divine." (p. 31) In James opinion, what distinguishes religion from humanism is the passion with which is it embraced and yet the passivity it accepts suffering.
The Reality of the Unseen
James intends to explore “some of the psychological peculiarities of such an attitude as this, or belief in an object which we cannot see.” (p. 53) He states that religion seems to be the ordering of a reality that is unseen and placing ourselves in subjugation to that order. The actual objects of worship are known to us only in idea (bringing to mind his discussions of percepts and concepts). God, the soul, design of freedom and eternal life are some of these concrete ideas – that in turn are full of abstract properties or objects (along with religion itself); abstractions like God’s holiness, his justice, his mercy, his absoluteness, and so on. He reflects that Kant said that these concrete objects are not objects at all because they cannot be known by human senses – that they have no sense content and thus are void of significance. Yet we can act as if – we can act as if there is a God, we can acts as if we possess a soul, we can act as if we there is an after life and our actions can lend meaning to our lives – they can make a difference in our moral life. This is not a new idea – “Plato gave so brilliant and impressive a defense of this common human feeling, that the doctrine of the reality of abstract objects has been known as the platonic theory of ideas ever since.”
James looks at case studies of “hallucinations” – an awareness of a “presence” in a room localized and seemingly real, but cannot be sense by any of the ordinary human senses, recounting experiences of his acquaintances and in books. In one, a hallucination communicated to his acquaintance a sense of “horribleness” – he states that his friend did not interpret this as the presence of God, but it would have not been unnatural to do so. He recounts other experiences like this; first recounting some that do not have religious overtones, then some that do. He notes that these experiences have a “sense of reality”; some negative, some positive and he actually uses the word “haunted” on page 63. They are utterly real to the person having the experience. He sums up these cases by saying, “Such is the human ontological imagination, and such is the convincingness of what it brings to birth.” (p. 72) He then concludes the lecture stating that reason and rationalism are limited: the rational only begin to describe these experiences that are not explainable by sensory data.
The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness
In this lecture, James starts to look at religious optimism. He notes two types of religious optimism: simple and complex. Simple religious optimism comes from those who are naturally that way, complex religious optimism is obtained by effort. For simple people, “happiness is congenital and irreclaimable.” (p. 79) In simple once-born people, regeneration is not necessary for they do not understand sin, but this can be taken to near pathological extemes. He speaks of Walt Whitman as incapable of feeling or understanding evil. He then turns to complex optimism – the deliberate adoption of an optimistic mind, calling it a voluntary healthy mindedness. Here, the person deliberately turns a blind eye to evil, in fact, the only true evil is calling things evil. (p. 89) Simple optimism seems pagan and full of bravado; complex is akin to denial “so that the world we recognize officially in literature and in society is a poetic fiction far handsomer and cleaner and better than the world that really is.” (p. 90) He examines the “mind cure” – a deliberately optimistic scheme of life that has a speculative and practical applications. James cites several cases. He calls the movement “moonstruck optimism” but notes it has had practical fruit. He compares Methodism and Lutheranism to this mind-cure religion, without the conviction of sin, just free grace. He looks at primitive thought – where a savage will personalize forces of nature which are really impersonal for personal ends and compares this to the “mind cure” which it is diametrically opposed, that personal thoughts are forces that one can control. All that can be said, truly, is that “The experiences which we have been studying … plainly show the universe to be a more many-sided affair than any sect, even the scientific sect, allows for.” (p. 122)