CONVERSION & William James on Religious Experience #HarvardCrimson

By WILLIAM D. PHELAN JR., The Harvard Crimson, May 14, 1963.

Even as a phenomenon for study, institutionalized religion did not attract James. Religious experience, he felt, should be first-hand, vital, and the remedy for otherwise incurable maladies of the soul. “At bottom the whole concern of both morality and religion is with the manner of our acceptance of the universe. Do we accept it only in part and grudgingly, or heartily and altogether?” Assuredly the moralist assents to the reigning order, but he may endure it with “the heaviest and coldest heart, and never cease to feel it as a yoke.” The religious man, on the other hand, in his strongest and most fully developed form, never feels the demands of life as an odious burden. “Dull submission,” according to James, “is left far behind, and a mood of welcome, which may fill any place on the scale between cheerful serenity and enthusiastic gladness, has taken its place.

When James received his appointment to the Gifford Lectureship at Edinburgh University, he viewed it, firstly, as an opportunity for an act of filial devotion. Immediately after his father’s death in 1882 he had written his wife: “you must not leave me till I understand a little more of the value and meaning of religion, in Father’s sense, in the mental life and destiny of man. It is not the one thing needful, as he said. But it is needful with the rest. My friends leave it altogether out. I as his son (if for no other reason) must help it to its rights in their eyes.” Twenty years later he orally fulfilled the pledge and subsequently published the lectures as The Varieties of Religious Experience.

By way of introduction James admits in The Varieties that the incidence of abnormal psychical conditions among religious leaders has been exceedingly high. He even grants that the “pathological” aspects of their personalities have contributed greatly to their prestige and authority. Nonetheless, James insists that the prevalence of such traits and tendencies does not constitute a refutation of their teachings.

Ultimately, he declares, good religious beliefs must be determined by the empiricist criterion. “By their fruits ye shall know them, not by their roots.” “Their value can only be ascertained by spiritual judgments directly passed upon them, judgments based on our own immediate feeling primarily; and secondarily on what we can ascertain of their experiential relations to our moral needs and to the rest of what we hold as true.”

Another Dichotomy

Just as James divides thinkers into the tough-minded and the tender-minded, he categorizes religious believers as healthy-minded or sick-souled. It is with the religion of healthy-mindedness–ranging from the creeds of professional mind healers to the poetry of Whitman–that he deals first. “It is to be hoped that we all have some friend, perhaps more often feminine than masculine, and young than old, whose soul is of a sky-blue tint, whose affinities are rather with flowers and birds and all enchanting innocencies than with dark human passions, who can think no ill of man or God, and in whom religious gladness, being in possession from the outset, needs no deliverance from any antecedent burden.”

Healthy-minded individuals, James notes, possess temperaments “organically weighted on the side of cheer.” For some people healthy-mindedness consists simply of involuntarily feeling happy about things–it occurs as an immediate, spontaneous response…

Conversion Experience

Regeneration by the conversion experience, James felt, is what enables the sick-souled individual to escape from the dark nights of his soul. He found this type of experience particularly fascinating but, as usual, treated the grandiloquent claims of “twice-born men” with pragmatic reservations:

“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; if not, we ought to make short work with it, no matter what supernatural being may have infused it.” The then newly proposed theory of subconscious mental processes appealed to James as highly useful for understanding the sudden shifts in character that often attend conversion experiences. Indeed, he lauds the discovery of phenomena outside the “primary consciousness” as “the most important step forward that has occurred in psychology since I have been a student of that science.”

A person with a strongly developed, intrusive subliminal region, James argues, will have a proclivity for hallucinations, obsessive ideas, and automatic actions that seem unaccountable by ordinary experience. As a simple illustration, he cites the phenomenon of post-hypnotic suggestion. In addition, he refers to the work of Freud, Janet, and Prince on hysteria. Though James explicity credits this research with shedding “a wholly new light upon our natural constitution,” he refuses to employ it to “explain away” conversion.

“Just as our primary wide-awake consciousness throws open our senses to the touch of things material,” he writes, “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. The hubbub of the waking life might close a door which in the dreamy Subliminal might remain ajar or open.”

…For James the basic concern is always with the whole personality in its functional relationship to its environment. In The Varieties he therefore presents innumerable “case histories” of concrete individuals. Carlyle, Bunyan, Tolstoi, St. Teresa–all receive warm and sensitive treatment.

Nothing bears truer witness to James’s compassion than these skillfully rendered descriptions. And nothing provides a better indication of the ultimate aim of his inquiry: transcendence of one’s own limitations through familiarity with the entire spectrum of human experience. “Religious rapture, moral enthusiasm, ontological wonder, cosmic emotion, are all unifying states of mind, in which the sand and grit of the self-hood incline to disappear, and tenderness to rule.”

(This is the fifth in a series of six articles on William James)

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