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[7] The Varieties of Religious Experience – William James

William James’s position is simple: he claimed to have no living sense of commerce with a God, deity, and the Divine for his life was limited to impersonal and abstract concepts which, as ideals, interested and determined him. The Varieties of Religious Experience, therefore, in apropos to his living philosophy, is not a pedagogy of religious doctrines, creeds, and channel to salvation. It is rather an objective treatment of the various phenomena encountered in religions at a psychological perspective. James disclaimed to emphasize readers’ mind of the enormous diversities which the spiritual lives of different men exhibit. Each of the subtopics (i.e. healthy-mindedness, sick soul, conversion, saintliness, mysticism, and philosophy) contributes an extraction from the privacies of religious experience some general facts which can be defined in formulas upon which everyone may agree.

James has laid out the ultimate goal of the book in the first chapter: The quest for a mandatory general theory as to what the peculiarities in an entity should be which give it value for purposes of revelation. Such a theory, James throughout the book reminds and contends, should be a spiritual judgment according which an entity lays its foundation of values. Whatever conclusions one might arrive regarding religion, which is, after all, a private collection of a person’s thoughts, emotions, and feelings, can be reached only by spiritual judgments which prompts sobriety. James concerns religion only at a personal level for religion is nothing more than the inner dispositions of man himself which form the center of interest, his conscience, his virtues, his vices, his helplessness, and his incompleteness – aspects that are at complete contrariety to the ecclesiastical organization. Religion appeals more like man’s conscience or morality.

James for the purpose of better illustrating his points on many occasions throughout the book uses very extreme examples. For example, ascetism practiced by saints could be self-mortifying and pathological. But James constantly reminds us that only through the most eccentric and extreme case studies are we able to see the more profound and distinguishing information. The plethora of examples also safeguard the book from the common downfall of over-simplification in defining religion, which is the root of all absolution and one-sided dogmatism by which both philosophy and religion have been infested. The examples also demonstrate the reason for a variety of religions and the need of different religions. Lives of all men should not show identical religious elements because it is impossible that human beings in such different positions and with such different powers as human individuals are should have exactly the same functions and the same duties. Each from his peculiar angle of observation should take in a certain sphere of fact and trouble, challenges and goals, which each must deal with in a unique manner at the appropriate time.

Another battleground is the conflict between science and religion. Knowledge about life (which is usually corroborated by religion) is one thing, effective occupation of a place in life, James contends, with its “dynamic currents passing through” one’s being, is another. For this very reason, the science of religion may never be an equivalent of a living religion, which primarily concerns the interest of the individual in his private personal destiny and the thoughts that are carried on in terms of personality; and if one obdurately turns to the inner difficulties of such a science, one sees that a point comes when science must drop the purely theoretic attitude. Metaphysical attributes of God, so much as they are merited by the intellectuals, must go because the meaning of any thought that finds its rest in belief is only determined by the conduct it is fitted to produce. James believes feeling is the deeper source of religion, and philosophic and theological formulas are secondary products. Philosophy therefore can act as a mediator to redeem religion from unwholesome privacy and to give public status and universal right of way to its deliverances. For in theology, verbality has stepped into the place of vision and professionalism into that of life, resulting in a conglomeration of abstract, pedantic terms that have given the gist of one’s knowledge of deity. After all, what really sustain religion are the private emotions, feelings, and sentiment.

James also devotes a great deal of his book on mysticism and sub consciousness. Human beings are alive or dead to the eternal inner message of the arts according as they have kept or lost the mystical susceptibility. Mystical experiences are ineffable, transient and passive. They are like sudden invasions of vaguely reminiscent consciousness. The conviction that “something” is genuinely transacted in this consciousness is the very core of living religion. James explains that this subliminal region is a continuation of the ordinary consciousness and manifests in the shape of a set of thoughts, feelings, and memories which are extra-marginal and outside of the primary consciousness altogether, but yet must be classified as conscious facts of some sort. And this is the central idea with which James pieces everything together: In religion we have a department of human nature with unusually close relations to the transmarginal or subliminal region. This religion, which is obviously the larger, unplumbed part of each of us in regard to among all states of consciousness, is the abode of everything that is latent and the reservoir of everything that passes unrecorded or unobserved. It harbors the spring of all our obscurely motived passions, impulses, likes, dislikes, and prejudices. Our limitations, hypotheses, fancies, superstitions, persuasions, convictions and in general all our non-rational operations come from this region. People, regardless of what religions they belong, share this common trait in the subliminal region. In persons deep in the religious life, the door into this region seems unusually wide open.

The Varieties of Religious Experience gives a closer look in the behaviors evoked from the various religions. It is not meant to discredit any religions nor promotes specific faiths; it aims to map out how far certain attributes, be they metaphysical or moral, can be considered true.

One Response

  1. […] nowhere near it? This is a bit difficult. I thought I would never have finished I, Claudius and The Varieties of Religious Experience but I did. But I still don’t understand how I have got away with Lord of the […]

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