The Varieties of Religious Experience | Study Guide

William James

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The Varieties of Religious Experience | Lectures 14 and 15 : The Value of Saintliness | Summary



While the previous three lectures were primarily descriptions of saintly behavior, the next two turn to appreciation of saintly behavior to determine "whether the fruits in question can help us judge the absolute value of what religion adds to human life." These lectures, along with the next two on mysticism, are the heart of The Varieties, where James clearly presents his ideas about the value of religion. James reminds the reader that he will not take a theological, but rather an empirical approach. The author explains how people's ideas about God evolve over time, and he confesses that, despite his "pretensions to empiricism," he will use "a standard of theological probability" when judging the fruits of religion. Thus, he proposes to test the value of saintliness by using common sense and prevailing human standards to judge "how far the religious life commends itself as an ideal kind of human activity." He will then "accredit" the beliefs that inspire such ideal activity.

In judging the value of "religious phenomena," he reminds readers he is interested in individual religion rather than the "institutional, corporate, or tribal product." Religious geniuses are often called heretics in their own lifetime, although they may end up the founders of institutions. James explains how, if such a person's doctrine proves "contagious" enough, an unorthodox (outside of the norm) approach becomes an orthodox faith. Such experiences—the private experience of God—is at the heart of religion. The "ecclesiastical spirit"—or the spirit of a church—is a mixture of these original experiences and the petty-mindedness and wickedness of the corporate desire to dominate through dogma. Thus, it is important not to lay the sins of organized religions—the persecution of those who do not follow their creed—at the feet of personal religion.

Nonetheless, the charge of "over-zealousness or fanaticism" is a "liability" of religion, and James provides examples of such spirituality taken to an extreme. For example, devoutness can become fanaticism, and followers of a religious leader "are incrusted with a heavy jewelry of anecdotes which are meant to be honorific but are simply ... silly, and form a touching expression of man's misguided propensity to praise." Jealous guarding of a deity's honor has led to more than one crusade or massacre. And religious geniuses are not immune to such excesses of zeal. James gives some examples—such as Saint Catherine of Siena, who called for a crusade against the Turks, and Martin Luther, who did not speak out against the torture of Anabaptist dissenters to his form of Christianity. When fanaticism is practiced by those with a gentle nature and a "feeble" intellect, it takes the form of absorption in God "to the exclusion of all practical human interests," which while "innocent" is "too one-sided to be admirable." James then provides excerpts demonstrating the "theopathic condition." One example is Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque, who saw visions of Christ's "sacred heart," and Saint Gertrude, who reported Christ's "caresses and compliments," which James deems "puerile" and "absurd." He puts Saint Teresa in this category—although he says she was an able woman with "a powerful intellect of the practical order." Nonetheless, he faults her for "an endless amatory flirtation ... between devotee and the deity" and judges that apart from inspiring others by "her example and instruction, there is absolutely no human use in her."

The next "saintly virtue" sometimes practiced in excess is purity. James uses Saint Louis of Gonzaga as his first example, who consecrated to "the Mother of God his own virginity." Louis joined the Jesuits when he was a teenager and refused to take pleasure in even the fragrance of a flower. He cultivated silence and imposed on himself bodily penances (activities that stress or hurt the body), restrained only by the commands of his superiors. James finds no fruit in such practices.

Tenderness and charity in excess are the next two virtues examined by James. He notes that the idea of not resisting evil or turning the other cheek go against our natural inclinations. Yet most people would agree that the world would be a worse place if there were not some people willing to help first and ask questions later, risk being duped, or treat others generously instead of cautiously. Saints have often stimulated otherwise unworthy people to be worthy through their charity, transforming people through their "radiant example." Thus, James concludes the "human charity which we find in all saints, and the great excess of it which we find in some saints to be a genuinely creative social force, tending to make real a degree of virtue which it alone is ready to assume as possible." Thus, such people increase the goodness in the world, a genuine fruit of religion. "The saints ... are the great torch-bearers ... the clearers of the darkness ... They show the way and are forerunners."

The last saintly virtue James considers is asceticism, which is perhaps most liable to excess. James notes, as he has elsewhere, that the extremes of bodily mortification that were taken as virtue in earlier centuries are criticized by modern people. In the modern view such ascetic practices are hypocritical; someone "genuinely emancipated from the flesh" would not need to torture it. James cites an important text associated with Hinduism and Yoga, the Bhagavad Gita, which notes that renunciation is necessary only for those still inwardly attached to the world. Saint Augustine, one of the architects of Catholic dogma, says a similar thing, which is that if a person loves God enough, they may safely follow all their inclinations. James also mentions the Indian saint Ramakrishna and the Buddha who held similar views. Moreover, as ascetic saints grow older and more mature, they themselves put less stress on bodily mortifications.

In summary, most people see "the general tendency to asceticism as pathological." But James asks the reader not to dismiss asceticism out of hand, since it is the "essence of the twice-born philosophy," symbolizing, albeit imperfectly, the wrongness in the world that must be "met and overcome by an appeal to the soul's heroic resources, and neutralized and cleansed away by suffering." The common instinct of humankind is that the world is "a theater for heroism," in which "life's supreme mystery is hidden." In James's view there is a "metaphysical mystery" in the sense that "he who feeds on death that feeds on men possesses life supereminently and excellently, and meets the secret demands of the universe." Asceticism champions this idea, which can also be seen in the "vital meaning" of Christ's crucifixion.

It remains for modern people to find "saner channels for heroism." Secular channels that attempt to do so include "athletics, militarism, and individual and natural enterprise and adventure." In considering war as "a school of strenuous life and heroism," however, it is necessary to think about whether "irrationality and crime" should be the "only bulwark against effeminacy." Humanity needs something in the social sphere to replace war, "something heroic that will speak to men as universally as war does, and yet will be compatible with their spiritual selves as war has proved itself to be incompatible." James also recommends a reconsideration of the value of poverty, since it simplifies the inner life and provides people with a special kind of freedom.

In summary, saintliness produces excellent qualities, including "felicity, purity, charity, patience, and self-severity." On the other hand, saints are not infallible and are subject to excesses, such as "fanaticism, theopathic absorption, self-torment, prudery, scrupulosity, gullibility, and morbid inability to meet the world." James mentions the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche as one of the enemies of saintliness. James sees the feud with saintliness, as expressed by Nietzsche, as the differing responses to two questions: "Shall the seen world or the unseen world be our chief sphere of adaptation? and must our means of adaption in this seen world be aggressiveness or non-resistance?" In considering these questions he concludes each person must decide for themselves what kind of religion best fits their abilities and mission and vocation.


Before James delivers his judgment of the "absolute value of what religion adds to human life," which seems a tall order indeed, he at least admits that his "empirical" approach is provisional at best, and in fact, he will be testing the value of saintliness with common sense and the use of "prevailing human standards."

James rightly brings to the reader's attention the idea that people's conceptions of God change with their notions of morality, and "after an interval of a few generations the mental climate proves unfavorable to notions of the deity which at an earlier date were perfectly satisfactory." He also again calls attention to the fact that the prophets of religion are generally persecuted, but if their doctrine proves popular enough, their heterodoxy becomes the new orthodoxy—which is to say their eccentric view becomes the norm. This train of thought ends in James again reminding the reader not to lay the sins of institutionalized religion at the feet of the religious prophets.

But James in a sense tries to have it both ways, because when he passes judgment on the first fruit of religion—devoutness—which can easily lead to extremism and fanaticism, he downplays the destructive zeal of Martin Luther and Saint Catherine of Siena. The latter spoke regularly to her divine Beloved, even as she was calling on kings, statesmen, and military leaders to go to war with Muslims to take back the Holy Land. At the time that Martin Luther and Saint Catherine were calling for the deaths of those whom they considered heretics or infidels, they were the spiritual eccentrics James referred to earlier as the ones who founded new religious movements. Thus, by his modern value system, he should condemn certain of their acts more strenuously and perhaps revise his assessment about how much religious prophets are to blame for the excesses of organized religion.

It is perhaps surprising that James finds so little value in the devoutness of certain saints, which engenders extreme absorption in God to the exclusion of all other interests. Previously he has praised such people, and later, in the chapter on mysticism, he praises them again. Yet here he finds Saint Gertrude's descriptions of the "caresses" of Jesus childish and absurd. He praises Saint Teresa on multiple fronts, yet he faults her "superficiality" and finds egotism in saints who claim God's partiality and his minute accounting of their shortcomings; he says such a God is "too small-minded" to be taken seriously. It would seem James is missing the point here, and the reader wonders why his own psychology does not come to the rescue. Surely the language of such encounters with God is symbolic on some level, and if James takes seriously the idea of union with the Divine, as he seems to do in the next chapter, then why wouldn't God appear to be in an intimate relationship with these mystics?

The author seems to object to the sexual imagery so obvious in such accounts, yet this linguistic usage is universal in descriptions of personal encounters with God. Both the Sufi and Indian saints refer to God as the Beloved, and the ecstatic poetry of the Indian saints who took to the path of bhakti (devotion) use the same kind of language that the Christian saints use. Sri Ramakrishna, a great Indian yogi and practitioner of bhakti, went so far as to dress up in women's clothes to worship God. Sigmund Freud was the first psychologist to write extensively about sublimation—the forcible channeling of the sexual drive (libido) into religion or art or other activities. But Carl Jung took the idea of sexual sublimation further. For Jung, libido went beyond sex, since it was the "life force." Thus, the energies of libido could be used, in Jung's view, to achieve individuation, the psychological equivalent of a spiritual transformation. Given the universality of sexual imagery in descriptions of mystical union and knowledge of psychology, the reports of people like Saint Teresa or Saint John of the Cross make perfect sense.

Not surprisingly, William James finds much in the virtues of tenderness and charity that are the fruits of saintliness, and his psychological analysis of the effects of kindness, as opposed to justice, are particularly astute. Certainly justice is needed in the world, but if justice is not tempered with compassion it becomes nothing more than self-righteous oppression. People who are given a second chance often reform themselves. Moreover, since it is natural for human beings to judge themselves largely by how others see them, they will often aspire to a higher standard when others treat them as if they are already good. Any teacher or parent has intimate knowledge of this phenomenon. Certainly the saintly virtue of compassion, another name for tenderness and charity, has transformative power and adds to the stock of goodness in the world. No wonder Jesus commands his disciples to love God and their neighbor. In the Yoga tradition the first moral precept is "ahimsa," or nonharming. And one powerful Tibetan Buddhist prayer begins, "May all beings have happiness and the cause of happiness."

The last saintly virtue, asceticism, is clearly liable to fanatical excess, but as James points out, this virtue represents the human aspiration for heroism and should not be abolished entirely, either from religious or secular life. What's important is to channel asceticism constructively and give it an arena in which it can accomplish some good.

When asceticism becomes fanatical, however, such as when a person becomes obsessed with bodily mortification, the practice can be viewed as just another form of attachment to the physical world. For the person truly detached, it is not necessary to separate themselves from the world so radically. James cites the Bhagavad Gita on renunciation, stressing that it is not the fruits of action (intellectual, sensual, emotional, or even spiritual) that get people into trouble, but attachment to those fruits: "Performing action with the body alone / Without wish, restrained in thought and self / With all the motivation of acquisition abandoned / He incurs no evil," says this classic text demonstrating a key concept in Indian philosophy.

James wraps up with a superficial summation of Friedrich Nietzsche's view of religion. For the German philosopher, the Christian religion was the path of slaves, with its humility, protection of the weak, and insistence of the equality of human beings in the eyes of God. Nietzsche preferred the religion of paganism, or what he took for paganism, which was the exaltation of the noble—the strong and the able, who took pleasure in exercising domination and gave charity only as a demonstration of their bountiful strength. According to James, Nietzsche expresses the diametrically opposed paths of aggressive expansion and renunciation, between inward religion and extroverted secularism. While James's purview in The Varieties is the religious path, he sees both views as necessary for the growth of civilization.
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