The Varieties of Religious Experience | Study Guide

William James

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The Varieties of Religious Experience | Lecture 9 : Conversion | Summary



Conversion is the process by which a person gains grace or receives assurance, either gradually or all at once, about the truth of their spiritual or religious apprehensions. The self, "hitherto divided, and consciously wrong inferior and unhappy, becomes unified and consciously right superior and happy" as a result of its experience of a religious reality. James begins his further analysis of conversion, a topic he alluded to in Lectures 6 and 7 and in Lecture 8, by extensively quoting one such experience that appeared in a religious pamphlet in 1830. The religious seeker in question was visited by the Holy Spirit (the third person of God in Christianity).

In the context of conversion, James provides a psychological definition of "transformation." Ordinarily, people have diverse "aims," and when they are entirely absorbed in one aim, with its "excitements" and "associations," all other aims are "excluded from the mental field." The ordinary passing from one aim to another is not especially remarkable, but when one aim "grows so stable as to expel definitively its previous rivals from the individual's life, we tend to speak of the phenomenon ... as a 'transformation.'" Conversion occurs when, within the field of consciousness, a focus of excitement from which an aim arises becomes a permanent fixture. This term is applied when the change is religious in nature, and especially when it occurs suddenly or as a result of a crisis. Religious ideas previously on the periphery of consciousness now are front and center, and "religious aims form the habitual center of [a person's] energy."

Conversion from adolescence to adulthood is a normal occurrence, in which young people pass from "the child's small universe to the wider intellectual and spiritual life of maturity." James uses data from Professor Starbuck, an expert in the psychology of religion, to describe some of the manifestations of such ordinary transformations, beginning with "morbid introspection" and a "sense of sin" and ending with relief after experiencing some form of conversion.

Starbuck distinguishes between two types of conversions: the "volitional type" and the "type by self-surrender." In the first instance conversion is gradual and involves the evolution of moral and spiritual principles in an individual. But even volitional conversions involve partial self-surrender, in which a person submits to the power of the Infinite. The second type of conversion is when pent up psychic energy bursts through conscious barriers and floods an individual with "divine grace" in an instantaneous conversion.


A religious conversion is generally different from other types of unification of the divided self because the person in question receives reassurance about the truth of Divinity during the conversion process. When a person is visited by God, they feel tremendous gratitude. James's informant says, "My heart increased in its beating, which soon convinced me that it was the Holy Spirit from the effect it had on me. I began to feel exceedingly happy and humble, and such a sense of unworthiness as I never felt before ... It took complete possession of my soul." The person who receives such consolations feels unworthy; they have the sense that what has taken possession of them is so much greater than their ordinary consciousness. At the same time they are bolstered by such visitations and gain both happiness and confidence in their own goodness.

In this lecture, James takes the opportunity to introduce his ideas about consciousness. For him conscious life can be described as a field upon which diverse aims are acted out, after they are triggered primarily by emotions. He sees this as a successive process, in which one aim succeeds another. Transformation occurs when one aim entirely pushes all other aims out of the field of consciousness. James calls the "hot place" in a person's consciousness—the group of ideas he is devoted to—"the habitual center of his personal energy." When a person becomes converted, religious ideas that previously were on the margins of consciousness move to the center, and religious aims become primary.

Any type of conversion experience involves self-surrender, even the conversions James calls volitional. From a psychological perspective, conversion is letting go of all desires that conflict with the primary aim. From a religious perspective, divine grace floods the mind, and the individual surrenders to the power of the Infinite and allows it to do its work. For such a religious conversion to occur, however, a person must begin with some form of religious faith. It is only rarely that a conversion experience will occur without the groundwork being laid by the conscious and the subconscious mind. But when a conversion happens, seemingly out of the blue, there is a good chance that the subconscious mind was hiding its secrets from the conscious mind. In such instances the subconscious content breaks through and demands that the conscious mind turn over a new leaf.

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