The Varieties of Religious Experience | Study Guide

William James

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The Varieties of Religious Experience | Quotes

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1.

If there were such a thing as inspiration from a higher realm, it might well be that the neurotic temperament would furnish the chief condition of the requisite receptivity.


Narrator, Lecture 1

James makes this statement at the end of his discussion on why he has chosen to use so many cases of extreme religiosity in his examination of religious experience—examples that could be labeled as perverse or pathological. He argues that the "psychopathic temperament" (by which he means one outside the norm) is sensitive and emotional enough to be receptive to religious states. Moreover, such people's love for metaphysics and the possibility of union with a divine presence make them more likely to be the conduit for inspiration from a higher realm.

2.

The word "divine" ... shall mean ... only such a primal reality as the individual feels impelled to respond to solemnly and gravely.


Narrator, Lecture 2

James is discussing the parameters of what he considers to be religion, and as part of that process he defines the divine. The divine is necessarily part of religious experience. But the divine does not necessarily have to be a self-conscious or omniscient god-like being. Rather, the divine has to be some form of essential reality that a person establishes a relationship with. This relationship is one in which the individual acts solemnly and gravely toward the divine and shows it the utmost respect.

3.

Like every other instinctive eagerness and impulse, [religion] adds to life an enchantment which is not rationally or logically deducible from anything else.


Narrator, Lecture 2

Before James makes this statement he is waxing poetic on how even the sanest and best of people are of the same clay as lunatics, and all are finite and provisional. This is where religion comes to the rescue. Here he describes how passionate people can be about religion and how, like other enterprises fraught with emotion, it adds meaning to life that cannot be explained rationally.

4.

This absolute determinability of our mind by abstractions is one of the cardinal facts in our human constitution.


Narrator, Lecture 3

James is arguing against the idea that abstract religious conceptions are not "real" because they have no material reality. Rather, like other abstractions, religious ideas are used by human beings to make sense of the world. In fact, people treat abstractions as if they were "concrete beings," seeking them, holding them, hating them, and blessing them.

5.

What, in the end, are all our verifications, but experiences that agree with ... isolated systems of ideas ... that our minds have framed?


Narrator, Lectures 4 and 5

James gives numerous examples of people apparently cured, by their own testimony, through some form of divine intervention. If this is their true experience, then it doesn't make sense to call them liars. The degree of knowledge that humanity has about the way the universe works is actually very small. Moreover, methods of verification are generally tainted according to what people believe ahead of time.

6.

We need ... a kind of good that will not perish, a good in fact that flies beyond the Goods of nature.


Narrator, Lectures 6 and 7

Regarding the sick soul, James points to the central spiritual and existential problem of humanity, which is that we get sick, suffer, and die. It is here that religion must begin its work. Religion gives consolation, either by providing people with assurances of eternal life after death or by giving them the means to experience eternal life in this life, through mystic union with the Divinity.

7.

There are two lives, the natural and the spiritual, and we must lose the one before we can participate in the other.


Narrator, Lecture 8

This statement is made at the beginning of the lecture on the divided self. James describes people who are torn between worldly desires and the higher life of the spirit. To get access to the higher life, the spiritual seeker must first let go of attachment to the secular life and carnal desires.

8.

To be converted ... [is] the process, gradual or sudden, by which a self ... becomes unified and consciously right superior and happy.


Narrator, Lecture 9

To be converted means to receive grace or to experience the Divinity in some form and to no longer be torn between conflicting desires and emotions. Conversion can happen either suddenly—as in Saint Paul's conversion on his way to Damascus, when he heard Jesus speaking to him, or gradually, as in the case of John Bunyan, in which he gradually let go of his religious fears and obsessions and became comfortable in his new life in God.

9.

At that instant of time when I gave all up to him to do with me as he pleased ... redeeming love broke into my soul.


Henry Alline, Lecture 10

Henry Alline is describing a mystical experience in which he completely surrenders his will to God, with the result that he has an experience of a total and sudden conversion and an experience of unity with God.

However, he had been working his way up to conversion, since he had been torn for a long time between his desire to engage in "frolics" (socializing involving music and dance) and his desire to live an entirely pious life. When he stops fighting and hands himself over to God, he experiences grace.

10.

The highest flights of charity, devotion, trust, patience, bravery to which the wings of human nature have spread themselves have been flown for religious ideals.


Narrator, Lectures 11, 12, and 13

James intends to describe the various manifestations of saintliness. He shows in this quote how highly he thinks of religion, which he believes draws out of human beings the best they have to offer in their character—when religion is rightly applied.

11.

Treating those whom they met ... as worthy, they have stimulated them to be worthy, miraculously transformed them by their radiant example.


Narrator, Lectures 14 and 15

On the value of saintliness, James finds much that is not of practical value to the world at large. But he also finds that the saintly qualities of tenderness and charity are very useful, and that when saintly or spiritual people give others the benefit of the doubt, they will often rise to the occasion. Thus, charity adds to the general goodness.

12.

We now need to discover in the social realm ... something heroic that will speak to men as universally as war does ... [but be] compatible with their spiritual selves.


Narrator, Lectures 14 and 15

James makes this comment after he tells the reader not to dismiss asceticism out of hand as having no practical value as a quality of saintliness. In fact, asceticism is practiced in the secular realm, he says, since people naturally aspire to heroism. Heroism is connected with asceticism, and asceticism is a quality found in the military. James counsels that humanity must find something as equally compelling as war in the social realm to exercise people's heroism.

13.

With these come what may be called a sense of immortality, a consciousness ... that he has [eternal life] already.


Richard Maurice Bucke, Lectures 16 and 17

Richard Maurice Bucke describes a mystical experience that came upon him suddenly when he was not expecting it. In his union with Divinity, he experienced the immortality of consciousness, which was also him. He also describes a feeling of ecstasy and moral exaltation, since this experience of immortality took him out of his ordinary awareness and into the realm of cosmic consciousness.

14.

Thus does God, when he raises a soul to union with himself, suspend the natural action of all her faculties. She neither sees, hears, nor understands.


Saint Teresa of Ávila, Lectures 16 and 17

Saint Teresa describes one of her experiences of union with God, which James quotes. In this experience, Teresa no longer experiences herself as "I" consciousness but loses contact with her senses and the discursive mind. Teresa calls this the "orison of union."

This experience of contemplation is so deep that she doesn't remember herself in it, but when she comes back to normal consciousness, she knows she has been with God.

15.

It is the terror and beauty of phenomena ... and not the physical laws ... these things follow, by which the religious mind still continues to be impressed.


Narrator, Conclusions

In his conclusions, James disagrees with the idea that somehow science will move human beings beyond their need for religion, since as science progresses people will understand more and more about how the universe works. But human beings are not moved by the scientific explanations of natural phenomena; rather they are moved by the possibility of experiencing divine nature within those natural phenomena.

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