The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature
The Varieties of Religious Experience was first presented as a series of lectures at the University of Edinburgh in 1901. To prepare for the talks, Harvard psychologist William James had read widely in the religious classics, including the personal accounts of various saints and mystics.
His decision to look at spiritual experience from a psychological point of view seemed very new at the time, even blasphemous. Mountains of books were still being churned out on the finer points of dogma and theology, but James was more interested in individual experience. His purpose in writing the book was to convince the reader that although religion itself often seemed absurd, the spiritual impulse was what made us human. James wanted to know why man was a religious animal, and what practical benefits spirituality brought us, assuming that we would not engage in it if it did not do us some good.
The book's insights are wrapped in prose as elegant and forceful as anything written by his novelist brother Henry James, and it was recognized as a classic virtually from the day of publication. The book's great service was to make the religious reader see spiritual matters from a more rational, objective perspective, and to persuade the scientifically-minded that religious experience had its value and was a 'fact'.
The science of spirituality
James wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience at the end of a century of scientific advance that reacted against the unthinking faith of earlier times. In this milieu, the Bible was newly appreciated as just a collection of stories, and in the new science of psychology, religious experience could be explained away as a creation of the mind. Yet James was skeptical of the idea that all religious experience could be reduced to states of the brain, what he calls the 'Nothing-but' view of spirituality.
James wrote that spiritual ideas should be judged on three criteria: 1) Immediate luminousness; 2) Philosophical reasonableness; and 3) Moral helpfulness. Put simply, do they enlighten us, do they make sense, are they a good guide to living?
He quotes a passage from St Teresa of Avila's autobiography, in which she talks about her visions. At the time some suspected she was seeing the devil, not God, but she protested that what she saw could not be just the work of the imagination, since it had made her a much better person ("uprooting my vices, and filling me with a masculine courage") - and her confessors confirmed it. Teresa also made a distinction between imaginings and spiritual reality, pointing out that while pure imagination weakens the mind and soul, 'genuine heavenly vision' revitalizes and strengthens the subject. In Teresa's case, she felt that her visitations guided her towards the reform of the Carmelite order, of which she was a member.
This was the practical effect of religious experience that James was so fascinated by. These 'visitations' may have come from inside a saint's own mind, or they may indeed have been from God. But as the cases such as St Paul's, St Augustine's or Teresa's demonstrated, what was sure was that they could transform a life.
The motivation of the convert
Both psychology and religion, James observes, agree that a person can be transformed by forces apparently beyond their normal consciousness. But while psychology defines these forces as 'unconscious' i.e. within the self, in religion redemption comes from outside the person, is a gift from God.
To the rational or scientific frame of mind, the 'born again' person or garden-variety religious convert may seem imbalanced, a nut even. Conversion can be sudden, James points out, but it does not mean it is pathological. To the onlooker, it may look like the patching on of a holy outlook to a person's existing life, but to he or she experiencing it, it is a total transformation. Suddenly, it is other people who are in the dark.
James recognized a pattern in conversion experiences. It tended to happen when people were so low that they just 'gave up', the vacuum of hope providing space for revelation. The religious literature is full of stories along these lines, in which the constrictions and negative aspects of the ego are finally discarded; one begins to live only for others or for some higher goal. The compensation for becoming dependent upon God is a letting go of fear, and it is this that makes conversion such a liberating experience. It is the fearlessness and sense of absolute security in God that gives the convert their breathtaking motivation. An apparently perfectly normal person will give up everything and become a missionary in the jungle, or found a monastery in the desert, because of a belief. Yet this invisible thing will drastically change their outward circumstances, which led James to the unavoidable conclusion that for such a person, their conversion or spiritual experience was a fact, indeed more real than anything which had so far happened in their lives.
Why religion has a transforming power
James offered the idea that religion does not have to be worship of a God. It can be simply the belief in an unseen order, to which our task was to 'harmoniously adjust ourselves'. He notes that, "Religion, whatever it is, is a man's total reaction upon life, so why not say that any total reaction upon life is a religion?" Under this appreciation, atheism could be a religion. The fervor with which some atheists attack Christianity, he noted, is religious in nature. People take on religion for personal reasons, James argues - it must serve them in some way. He quotes J H Leuba, an early psychologist of religion: "God is not known, he is not understood; he is used."
The religious attitude, though, is normally associated with a willingness to leave the self behind in the cause of something greater e.g. God, country. This denial of the self is what makes the religious impulse different from all other types of happiness, and so uniquely uplifting. A religious feeling can be distinguished from other feelings because it ennobles the feeler, giving them the sense that they live according to larger forces, laws or designs.
We all want to connect with something 'more', whether that is something great inside us or an external Higher Power, and religion provides a framework for people to experience the better things which come from living by faith instead of our more natural state of fear. "Not God", James states, "but life, more life, a larger, richer, more satisfying life, is, in the last analysis, the end of religion."
Inserted into the text of The Varieties of Religious Experience is the mention of a man who managed to save himself from insanity by anchoring his mind to powerful statements from the Bible. It so happens that this person, referred to as a 'French correspondent', was the author himself.
James' conclusion was that a state of faith could transform a life utterly, even though what is believed strictly speaking may not exist. Religion can genuinely heal a person, integrating what before was fragmented. For the author, who fell in and out of depression and endured a sense of alienation for many of his years, this alone justified religious activity. While he admitted to being far from spiritually advanced himself, it was clear to him that belief in the Unseen had unleashed in many the great forces of individuality and purpose.
James acknowledged that science would be forever trying to blow away the obscuring mists of religion, but in doing so it would totally miss the point. Science could only ever talk in the abstract, but personal spiritual experience was the more powerful precisely because it is subjective. Spirituality is about the emotions and the imagination and the soul - and to a human being these are everything.
Source: Tom Butler-Bowdon, 50 Spiritual Classics: 50 Great Books of Inner Discovery, Enlightenment and Purpose (London & Boston: Nicholas Brealey)
"Were one to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it exists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves hereto."
James was born in the Astor Hotel in New York in 1842. His grandfather was a strict Presbyterian who had created a fortune in the years following his arrival in America in 1789. William's father, Henry Snr., embraced the philosophy of the mystic Emanuel Swedenborg and encouraged his four sons and a daughter to be independently minded when it came to religion. The family environment was intellectual and cosmopolitan.
In his late teens James had wanted to be painter, but with his father's encouragement enrolled in courses at Harvard, studying chemistry, anatomy and later medicine. Though a late-starter professionally, in 1872 he gained an appointment in anatomy. A decade later he was made a professor of philosophy, before changing his professorship to psychology.
The author's landmark Principles of Psychology, published in 1890, spanned 1400 pages and took twelve years to write. Other key books included The Will to Believe (1897) and Pragmatism (1907).
James was plagued by poor physical health and depression. The Varieties of Religions Experience was written while he was still recuperating from an illness which began while he was on a trip to the Adirondack mountains in 1898.
James married Alice Howe Gibbens in 1878, and they had four sons and one daughter.
© COPYRIGHT TOM BUTLER-BOWDON, 2023
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