These notes come from my reading of William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience. It is the first “classic” read I have endeavored on in quite some time. I look forward to interacting with it and seeing what possibilities it opens. Perhaps it’ll be crap, but things tend to be classics for a reason. We’ll see.
The Nature of His Inquiry
William James indicates from the beginning of his lectures on The Varieties of Religious Experience that they will not proceed through the methods of theological, anthropological, or comparative religions inquiry, but through that of psychology, a description of religious propensities (2-3).
What are religious propensities? James asserts that inquiry is broken down into two necessary and indissoluble categories. The first he terms the “existential” by which he means a topic’s origins, history, and nature/composition. Today we might term this category “naturalistic” or “critical.” The second, what today we might call “existential,” he termed “spiritual” (his terms, hereafter, in italics). By this he means a topic’s meaning, significance, or importance (4-6). These two, he says, should not detract from one another (6). It seems that he will primarily focus on the first order of inquiry, since the second order tends to toward the theological and philosophical. I’m not sure; I’ve only read the first lecture/chapter
As James operates in classifying a religious topic with something else (for that is what one does in classification), some might be offended at his attempt to classify something held to be unique. But such is the nature of inquiry (9). James argues that once one understands the similarities between multiple religious phenomena, one is more able to appreciate the uniqueness of each item in that comparison (24). Many have had the experience of having the spiritual side of inquiry upended by the existential (10). This was done in his day by those he called medical materialists. These tried to reduce all religious phenomena to bodily functions, so that that’s all religion was: a sensory illusion (11-12).
Does an existential explanation of something preclude its spiritual import? For example, some try to explain religion away as a result of biological processes or personality malfunctions. James contends that not only can religion be explained by bodily processes but the whole of human existence: its beliefs in science, theism and atheism, literature—all of it (14). Most will not contend that the whole of human being is meaningless. Concerning religious founders being unhinged, many have called their entire systems into question accordingly. But that might be too quick. Some have offered real “light” to humanity. Consider a non-religiously affiliated, but unhinged person such as Van Gogh: do we judge his paintings by his mental state or by the work he put forth? No one ever offers this type of criticism toward those in the natural sciences, so why other fields (17; his reasoning, not mine)?
James wishes to focus on the religious “geniuses,” the trend-setters—rather than “ordinary” believers—“for whom religion exists not as a dull habit, but as an acute fever rather” (6). These types tend to be unstable persons, prone to depression and other pathologies (6-7). He finds these the most fascinating to study (16-17; I agree- milk toast don’t make for no fast paced readin’). The spiritual criteria James offers for evaluating such gurus are:
- ”immediate luminousness”
- ”philosophical reasonableness,” and
- ”moral helpfulness” (18)
The more exaggerative and extreme representations of religious experience tend to “isolate special factors of the mental life” (22), or remove impediment of the “normal.” It gives context to the thing’s significance, to what normalcy even means.
My first reaction was to James’s argument about the two orders of inquiry. I’ll use my language instead of his. He argues that nothing that can be called inquiry is complete without escaping both critical and existential questions. In considering religious phenomena, I had always assumed that the critical enterprise necessarily undermined the existential importance of the subject: if one is always and ever questioning the origins, institutions, history, etc. of a subject, how can one base one’s life around it without an ever present anxiety because of constant change? Perhaps his standpoint allows for questions to be asked while, at the same time, allowing a sort of grounding to exist as one engages the critical quest. Let’s take Jesus for example. Let’s say our critical examination turned up that he never existed. What would that do to the existential questions? Would the literary figure’s teachings still hold significance? Would giving someone a second, third, and many chances be automatically null and void? Perhaps it would affect some of the metaphysical teachings of Jesus, but certainly not the moral, for the voice/values of the author would still come through.
Secondly, I wondered again about my use of Occam’s Razor. I think it is a useful tool. It simplifies things into workable explanations. But maybe I’ve invariable cut off a torso, or some important organ, in trying to save the body from cancer (untruth, incoherence, etc.). What if I have gone too far in using it? Have I gone far enough? I think only time will tell. When I considered James’s argument that all experiences could be reduced to bodily dispositions, it did give me pause. Is everything merely chemical reactions in my brain? I don’t know if I’m that nihilistic. Yet 🙂
Lastly, I had the most fun with his talk on religious geniuses and their general instability. It does tend to be true. John the Baptist wore a camel’s hair tunic and his diet consisted of bugs. Jesus was a single
white Jewish male who roamed around in the desert not eating much, extolling the virtue of eunuchs. But does that weirdness, that instability make everything that came out of their mouths bunk? I knew a famous guy from the modern age who wrote a bit about gravity….and was an alchemist, but we don’t throw away the awesomeness he put forth concerning science.
Maybe I’m being too easy on the religious guys, but certainly, at least some of the things they said are worth considering. I’ll let the atheists who read my blog for the first time be the judge of that.
Thoughts? I’m excited for them.
Source: William James. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. Ed. by Martin E. Marty. New York: Penguin Books, 1982 (original 1902).