An intellect perplexed and baffled, yet a trustful sense of presence—such is the situation of the man who is sincere with himself and with the facts, but who remains religious still.
Religion is at once the most divisive and the most essential of human characteristics. It is the gateway to philosophy and freedom, yet may also be a conduit for conformity and oppression. The seminal psychologist and philosopher William James encapsulates the religious journey of mankind more sufficiently in his brief statement above than I have seen others achieve in whole volumes. Fortunately for us all, he expounded brilliantly on the subject in his century-old work The Varieties of Religious Experience, a book I now regard with the greatest possible esteem.
Throughout these compiled essays, James expresses many of the same ideas I consider fundamental to my own worldview, chiefly the concepts of ROPE, balance, and shifting moods. Additionally he weaves the threads of pragmatism and common sense into his profound subject matter, but with a level of erudition and magnanimity that would be difficult for anyone to reproach. His chief method is compiling individual case studies to form a consistent model of the religious mindset, even in the midst of their inherent variety. Because the patterns of experience that emerge are thus based on straightforward observation, they provide incredible insight into our common humanity.
James necessarily draws an early distinction between one’s existential judgment and one’s spiritual judgment of any object or idea. The first merely describes its physical makeup and origins, while the second dictates its meaning and significance. The distinction is vitally important because it accurately reflects our attitude towards everything we encounter—just because we know the materials that constitute a tree, a mountain, or a fellow human being, they contribute negligibly to our feelings or regard for them, whether those feelings be of awe or disdain. James then applies this theory against religious skeptics by reasoning that the Bible “may well be a revelation in spite of errors and passions and deliberate human composition, if only it be a true record of the inner experiences of great-souled persons wrestling with the crises of their fate.” He dismisses those who rely solely on existential judgments of religion, calling them medical materialists and insisting they do not similarly critique their own strongly held beliefs. Eventually we all make spiritual judgments about the truths we hold dear, and of this we should be candid with ourselves and others.
When we think certain states of mind superior to others, is it ever because of what we know concerning their organic antecedents? No! it is always for two entirely different reasons. It is either because we take an immediate delight in them; or else it is because we believe them to bring us good consequential fruits for life.
In covering the topic of religion, James plainly states that he is interested only in the individual, not the institution. The history of religion demonstrates that churches and congregations arise only after a “religious genius” has had an intense personal experience with a divine presence, whatever we might say of the identity (or reality) of that presence. While churches hold a special cultural significance and can certainly steer people toward their own private conversions or mystical encounters, it is the individual believer who holds the key to understanding these deeper experiences.
When I was a twenty-year-old college student on the brink of withdrawing from the university I was attending, I experienced the sort of encounter that James recounts from his dozens of case studies, and now I find it strangely reassuring to read of such epiphanies many years after my own. On that otherwise quiet night, I was very suddenly seized by powerful emotions and, when I was finally able to stop weeping for just a moment, began muttering phrases of gratitude incoherently. My entire body was trembling, and I was unable to move from my seated position at the desk chair in my room. What I felt was helplessness and ecstasy all at once. When at long last it was over, I was fatigued and dumbfounded at what had just occurred. But in my mind, I felt very strongly that I had been in the presence of God. I even made personal vows that I was able to keep for a long time afterwards. Now more than a decade later, I recall that hour with a sense of wonder, and I am fully aware that those who do not have such a memory of their own may be skeptical of the conclusions I drew from it. But as William James discovered, many people have had this sort of encounter, and they are forever changed by those indelible moments.
It should go without saying that not every one of James’s case studies was Christian or even particularly joyful after these events. So they are not meant to be infallible proof for a particular set of beliefs. But they do indicate how truth and meaning may rightfully be assigned to them, and how our common humanity is diminished if we prematurely discard the possibility of a divine reality. By honestly assessing these events and indeed the whole of our intuitively held convictions, we can concur with James, “Our impulsive belief is here always what sets up the original body of truth, and our articulately verbalized philosophy is but its showy translation into formulas.”
Conversion is momentous enough while it transpires, but what of its lasting effects? James gives ample treatment to this question as well, evaluating the personality traits that often become an integral part of the converted. He refers to the combined manifestation of these traits as saintliness, and goes on to describe several of its aspects, including the watershed idea, “Love your enemies.”
… If radically followed, it would involve such a breach with our instinctive springs of action as a whole, and with the present world’s arrangements, that a critical point would practically be passed, and we should be born into another kingdom of being. Religious emotion makes us feel that other kingdom to be close at hand, within our reach.
In my estimation a true saint is marked by a subjugation of pride and a preponderance of empathy, and this coincides squarely with the observations of the author. Giving special consideration to the characteristics of asceticism (self-surrender), strength of soul (courage), purity (separation from common worldly interests), and charity (love for all humanity), James sketches a complete picture of saintliness, then proceeds to evaluate the actual worth of these embodiments of religious zeal. Much as this analysis is the turning point of the book, it might also be a turning point in our own thinking about the religious mindset in its highest and noblest form. Despite every church-going hypocrite we can call to mind, we are still forced to consider fairly the historical and cultural impact of such saintly stalwarts as Martin Luther, Confucius, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, and indeed Jesus Christ himself.
Of course, such an endeavor can only be convincing to a wide audience if the method of evaluation is free from theological encumbrances. As correct as one’s theology may be, it is still based largely upon recorded assertions that have passed down through generations, and as stated earlier, it was likely adopted only after a more visceral assent was reached. As James states, “What I then propose to do is, briefly stated, to test saintliness by common sense, to use human standards to help us decide how far the religious life commends itself as an ideal kind of human activity.” In doing so, he employs a healthy skepticism that admits “liability to correction” while striving to avoid “wanton doubt.”
I do indeed disbelieve that we or any other mortal men can attain on a given day to absolutely incorrigible and unimprovable truth about such matters of fact as those with which religions deal. But I reject this dogmatic ideal not out of a perverse delight in intellectual instability. I am no lover of disorder and doubt as such. Rather do I fear to lose truth by this pretension to possess it already wholly.
So as before, the best method available is an examination of a wide array of case studies, and through these James is able to conclude that above all else, a careful balance must be attained by the very best saints in order that one of their attributes does not become extravagant. An individual’s affections, will, energy, intellect, and empathy should all exist in generally equal measure. Those individuals who fall short in one or more of these domains exhibit behavior that is predominantly judged as fanatical, while those who maintain the difficult balance achieve a nobility of character that is much more widely revered. Amusingly and pointedly, William James suggests that, as a first step towards the saintly life, we should begin with a willingness to embrace poverty. Such advice, so reminiscent of what Jesus offered in Mark 10:17-27, rings profoundly true to this day.
We have grown literally afraid to be poor… We have lost the power even of imagining what the ancient idealization of poverty could have meant: the liberation from material attachments, the unbribed soul, the manlier indifference, the paying our way by what we are or do and not by what we have… in short, the moral fighting shape.
He ultimately classifies saintliness as mostly the opposite of the strong-willed military leader, the traditional tribal chief. Making sure to castigate Nietzsche for his shameless adoration of the latter type at the expense of the former, James concludes that while both types have always been represented in civilization, a hypothetical choice between societies fully populated by each type yields a clear best case, one devoid of senseless competition: “The saint is therefore abstractly a higher type of man than the ‘strong man,’ because he is adapted to the highest society conceivable, whether that society ever be concretely possible or not.” On a more practical level, consideration must be made for the saint’s place in his present society and within the larger context of history.
From the biological point of view Saint Paul was a failure, because he was beheaded. Yet he was magnificently adapted to the larger environment of history; and so far as any saint’s example is a leaven of righteousness in the world, and draws it in the direction of more prevalent habits of saintliness, he is a success, no matter what his immediate bad fortune may be.
Beyond these pragmatic considerations of personal experiences, religion itself provides a vast sphere of information for careful scrutiny. Each of us employs ROPE to form our opinions on these matters, but it seems to me that James is correct in giving preeminence to personal experiences that ineffably alter one’s worldview and produce a real sense of divine presence. The subsequent mental extrapolations, which take the form of mythology or theology, are largely the work of our imagination. And while I most heartily endorse imagination, I recognize its place in relation to the sensory. As with most competing phenomena, they must balance each other accordingly. After all, the ultimate end of ROPE is when minimal effort is required to maintain balance, an equilibrium that doubtless is incredibly difficult to achieve.
With his cohesive study of all these religious experiences on an empirical basis, William James gives them legitimate treatment from an academic perspective so that they might not be deemed laughable or dangerous. Unfortunately several prominent writers today still seem content to dole out this sort of simplistic ridicule, when they might truly benefit from reading The Varieties of Religious Experience for themselves. As it contains abundantly more material worthy of commentary than I could feasibly elaborate upon at present—the healthy mind and the sick soul, feeling versus philosophy, the role of prayer, the primacy of abstract ideas, mysticism as it relates to drugs and music, and the author’s own religious beliefs—I would enthusiastically recommend it to anyone for further reading. Although the book is extolled by many, it would be an extraordinarily welcome addition to the standard high school or collegiate reading curricula. Having verified many of my own philosophical tenets, it excites me with its potential to lift humanity to a higher level of awareness, and yes—saintliness.