The Varieties of Religious Experience | Study Guide

William James

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The Varieties of Religious Experience | Lecture 10 : Conversion—Concluded | Summary



Lecture 10 covers in greater detail the "conversion of self-surrender," beginning with Henry Alline's account (the evangelist previously mentioned in Lecture 8), in which his "poor divided mind became unified for good." Alline continues to feel tortured by his sinful state and cries out to God in an extended prayer until he surrenders entirely and then experiences "redeeming love," which "broke into my soul, [which] seemed to be melted down with love." After this experience Alline, who had no training of any kind, became a successful Christian minister and lost his taste for "carnal pleasures."

James provides additional personal accounts of conversion stories, and in his psychological analysis notes that if he were looking at such accounts from a "purely natural-history point of view," he would still have to admit that the phenomenon of sudden conversion was a noteworthy peculiarity. He asks whether the "phenomenon of regeneration," in both its abrupt and gradual forms, is a "natural process, divine in its fruits ... but in one case more and in another less so, and neither more nor less divine in its mere causation and mechanism than any other process ... of man's interior life."

Before attempting to answer this question, the author returns to the notion of a field of consciousness. Each field has a center of interest around which objects not being attended to fade to the margins of the field. James points out that, while previously it was believed that consciousness existed only as focal points and margins (which might not be immediately accessible), psychology has recently discovered (in 1886) that in some people, extra-marginal content exists. These are memories, thoughts, and feelings outside of primary consciousness. The discovery of subliminal consciousness has implications for religious biography, James says. He speculates that probably everyone has some amount of "extra-marginal life," and those with a large amount of it are liable to "incursions from it of which the subject does not guess the source." These incursions can take the form of impulsive ideas, inhibitions, obsessive ideas, or hallucinations and may manifest in "automatism"—for example, automatic speech or writing. James mentions a number of psychologists, including Sigmund Freud, who were in the process of exploring subliminal consciousness with hysterical patients, revealing "a whole system of underground life." (James uses the term "subconscious" and "subliminal consciousness" interchangeably.)

From a strictly psychological perspective, sudden conversion can be viewed as eruptions from the subconscious mind. Thus, the difference between gradual conversion and sudden insight might be that in the second case the subconscious mind had been working in the background, which then manifested as sudden religious insights presented to the conscious mind. This notion need not upset the religiously minded: if the fruits of conversion are good, then "we ought to idealize and venerate it, even though it be a piece of natural psychology." Moreover, the idea of a subconscious mind need not "exclude all notion of a higher penetration. If there be higher powers able to impress us, they may get access to us only through the subliminal door."

James continues to discuss types of sudden conversion, stressing how afterward people sense a higher controlling agency at work. Martin Luther, an exemplar of the melancholic "sick soul," preached that the more lost a person was, the more they were meant to be saved by "Christ's sacrifice." The second key tenet of his faith was that each individual is already saved "now and forever." Such a state of assurance attained through conversion is characterized by a loss of worry, and that all will be well. The converted sense truths that were previously hidden, and the world appears new to them. James gives additional examples of excerpts written by the converted and demonstrating these traits. He ends the lecture by briefly turning to the question of the "transiency or permanence of these abrupt conversions." He cautions against not taking such experiences seriously just because people often "backslide": If conversions "for even a short time show a human being what the high-water mark of his spiritual capacity is, this is what constitutes its importance—an importance which backsliding cannot diminish."


James further discusses his notions of the field of consciousness, which he describes as having focal points and margins. When he alludes to the discovery of extra-marginal content in 1886, he is referring to a hypothesis formed by Frederic W.H. Myers, the founder of the Society for Psychical Research; this hypothesis states that a subliminal consciousness exists, containing contents that the conscious mind is not aware of, although the conscious mind might receive messages from it. Psychologist Sigmund Freud used the terms "unconscious mind" and "subconscious mind" interchangeably to refer to the same idea that James has formulated in his use of the term subliminal consciousness and extra-marginal content.

Most psychoanalysts and psychologists today refer to this part of the mind to which people do not have immediate access as the unconscious mind. This rich area of memory, thoughts, and feelings was the place where James situated religious experiences. James speculates that probably everyone has some degree of subliminal consciousness, and of course, today's psychologists would agree that everyone has an unconscious mind, although cognitive neuroscientists would point out that there is no specific location in the brain associated with it.

Carl Jung, the father of analytic psychology, proposed that the unconscious mind was made of both personal and transpersonal content, which he called the collective unconscious. According to this theory, the collective unconscious is shared with all members of the human species (meaning everyone's is the same) and has latent memories from our evolutionary past. Jung posits that the collective unconscious contains universal archetypes, images, or patterns which are the mental counterpart of instincts. The archetypes are models for typical roles people play or the psychological stances they take, and Jung says they appear in all cultures, in their myths, art, and even in dreams. Four common archetypes are the hero, the evil one, the trickster, and the sage.

James says that people, especially the religiously minded, are subject to incursions from the subconscious or subliminal consciousness; people who subscribe to Jungian psychology would claim that incursions of a spiritual nature often arise from the collective unconscious. James notes that the sudden conversion is similar to an automatism, such as when a person is suddenly seized by an obsession, which may not be religious in nature at all. In such instances it might be argued that the subconscious mind is "in possession of a large region in which mental work can go on subliminally." But James reassures the reader that even if that is the case, it doesn't preclude the possibility that Divinity would choose to manifest itself to the subconscious rather than conscious mind. "If the fruits for life of the state of conversion are good, we ought to idealize and venerate it, even though it be a piece of natural psychology," he says. Thus, James returns here and elsewhere in The Varieties to his pragmatic test of religious experience by looking at the fruits of religion. After conversion people sense that a higher power has been controlling them, and both here and elsewhere he gives examples of conversions that were both sudden and permanent. Henry Alline, whom James discusses in this lecture and elsewhere, is one example. He begins as an unlettered man who, after conversion, becomes a well-known preacher in the "New Light" movement and part of the Second American Awakening, a religious revival occurring in the 18th century.

At the same time James takes pains to point out that just because some people may revert to their old forms of behavior after a sudden conversion experience, it doesn't make it any less valid, and should not be dismissed out of hand by the skeptic. To do so would be to slip into the same kind of error people make after they have had a radical change of heart about something, often claiming they never experienced the feeling that has now undergone a transformation. "Love is, for instance, well known not to be irrevocable, yet, constant or inconstant, it reveals new flights and reaches of ideality while it lasts," James says. The same can certainly said for a profound religious experience, even if the effect of it fades.

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