The Varieties of Religious Experience | Study Guide

William James

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The Varieties of Religious Experience | Main Ideas

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Universality

James argues that the personal experience of those who are gifted with religious apprehensions or who experience communion with the Divinity have commonalities, regardless of creed or religion. He also argues that the fruits of such religious experience are similar as well. The author supports these arguments with copious examples of first-hand accounts of religious experience as well as with information from religious experts and psychologists of religion. For example, those who have experienced Divinity share the conviction that an ideal higher power exists, and it is friendly to humankind. They feel willing to surrender to this power, and they feel great joy and freedom when their boundaries of self dissolve in the arms of their God. They also feel, following these experiences, increased love for other fellow beings and are less worried about their own petty concerns. Similarly, mystical states share ineffability, a noetic (mental) quality, transiency, and passivity. In mystical states, people universally return not being able to adequately describe in words what happened to them. The states provide insights unavailable to the ordinary conscious mind. The states are brief, and finally, mystics experience a suspension of their own will in these passive states.

Once- and Twice-Born

Religious people can be of the once-born or twice-born variety, according to James's classification of religious experience. The once-born are optimistic people who take a positive view of life, even if they have been through great hardship. Mary Baker Eddy, who experienced many trials and founded Christian Science, is such an example. She was convinced that people become physically ill because disease is deeply rooted in the mind, but God does not want it that way. She used this belief to cure herself and founded a religion on this principle. The once-born refuse to see evil or the wrongness of the world and instead focus on the good, seeing God as an "animating spirit of a beautiful harmonious world." The twice-born are those who begin with more neuroses and see the world as a place in which evil or wrongness holds sway. They wish to overcome that wrongness, either in themselves or in the world, through religion. The twice-born character has a "heterogeneity ... an incompletely unified moral and intellectual constitution" through which they experience conflicting desires. The twice-born must go through a conversion experience, in which they unify their divided selves through either a gradual process of religious understanding or through a sudden bolt of religious lightning, as it were, which makes all things clear.

Proof in Fruits

The truth of religious experience should be judged according to its fruit, rather than its origin. James applies his pragmatic criteria to religious experience and argues that while religious experience cannot be proven because a person cannot show it to you, it can be judged as truth because of the effect it has on religious people. Thus, the health-minded religious people who experience a cure of their physical or mental diseases, assisted by divine intervention, are proof of the efficacy of a religious cure. Furthermore, "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," the author says. He further argues that "the best fruits of religious experience are the best things that history has to show," and include "the highest flights of charity, devotion, trust, patience, and bravery." The truth of religion is proved in its value to those who undergo religious experiences as well as to the world at large, since saintliness adds to the common good when the saintly treat their fellow beings with compassion and tenderness and thereby help them rise to a higher level of goodness.

Role of Subliminal Regions of the Mind

Religious experience occurs in the subliminal regions of the mind. James uses the terms subliminal, subconscious, and trans-marginal more or less interchangeably. In his view the conscious mind is that part of the mind in which thoughts are clearly in view to an individual. He says that on the margins of the mind are those things less easily accessible but still within the purview of consciousness. He notes that the most important step forward in psychology was the discovery of "memories, thoughts, and feelings which are extra-marginal and outside of the primary consciousness altogether, but yet must be classed as conscious facts of some sort, able to reveal their presence by unmistakable signs." Those with a more active subliminal consciousness, which more easily leaks into the conscious mind, are more likely to have religious experiences, in James's view. Furthermore, he does not see this psychological origin as excluding the possibility that a religious person has been touched by Divinity. He says: "Just as our primary wide-awake consciousness throws open our senses to the touch of things material, so it is logically conceivable that if there be higher spiritual agencies that can directly touch us, the psychological condition of their doing so might be our possession of a subconscious region which alone should yield access to them."

Religious Experience and Personal Transformation

Religious experience has the power to effect radical transformations in individuals. Personal transformation is most clearly seen after the conversions of the twice-born, in which a previously divided self becomes unified and people experience themselves as if they are new. James provides examples of conversions in which people were able all at once to give up vices such as drunkenness or sexual excess, or in which the unlettered suddenly become successful preachers. Those who have been transformed by religious experience often willingly suffer persecution if the world does not understand them. For example, Madame Guyon, a frail woman, went through many trials with equanimity, including being put into prison. John Bunyan went to prison for 12 years rather than give up his preaching.

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