The Varieties of Religious Experience…

Another interesting discussion on the radio this morning courtesy of Melvin Bragg’s programme ‘In Our Time’.

It centred around the work of Doctor, psychologist and ‘natural theologist’ William James– brother of novelist Henry James.

In 1901 William James began a series of lectures in Edinburgh, which came to be collected together as a book entitled ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’.

It seems to me that James is of our time more than his. The modern obsession with logic and scientific reason- as the proper object and arbiter of all human endeavour- has been eroded by the events of the end of the 20th Century. Perhaps above all the fact that science has not delivered answers to the human condition, but rather has brought  us huge environmental, moral and ethical problems that we all live in the shadow of- Ozone holes, radiation, global warming, the failure of free market economics etc.

In a world where the Zeitgeist was (and perhaps still is) overwhelmingly concerned with the rational and logical, even our approach to religion, James stood out as proposing a totally different way to understand faith. Rather than focus on doctrine and dogma, solidified and codified within religious texts, or in the institutions of faith, he suggested that only valid way to understand faith was in individual subjective experience. He went further and suggested that the faith experience was at the heart of what it meant to be human- and to understand this was to understand better who we are.

This led James to investigate mystical experiences, including by using hallucinogenic drugs. He was less interested in whether faith was ‘true’, or whether God existed, but more in the effect and usefulness that transcendent experience had on those who experienced it. This individualistic and self-centred version of religious seeking feels very post modern.

“Not God”, James states, “but life, more life, a larger, richer, more satisfying life, is, in the last analysis, the end of religion.”

James was also interested in how personality and ‘spiritual health’ interacted with our choice of faith (which resonates with this post) and he spent a lot of his time in the lectures discussing people who had undergone conversion experiences.

A couple of quotes from here

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.

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.

I find myself both in sympathy and at odds with James- in much the same way as I am with the pluralist times we live in. For him, religion was about personal transformative experience, a little akin to a piece of remarkable cognitive behavioural therapy. God became portable and useful- perhaps even something to be cherished as a way of giving life direction and meaning.

But I have this feeling that the Lion of Judah is no tame lion…

2 thoughts on “The Varieties of Religious Experience…

  1. one of the core texts of alcoholics anonymous… as well as his Moral Equivalent of War for experiential educators…

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