Religion and Reason: Variety of Religious Experience #2

William James Idealitachristopher_hitchens5-620x412 Religious people often have difficulty communicating about their faith with people who, on the basis of reason, have already rejected religion.  Usually, both sides are to blame, less interested in understanding the other’s point of view than in winning a theological or philosophical debate.  Thus, the conversation deteriorates into assertions of unprovable “truths”. In the Varieties of Religious Experience, William James offers a totally different approach.  He looks at private, inward experiences, as reported by people in their letters, journals and autobiographies, with the analytic eye of a philosopher and scientist.  In doing this, he provides a ground that can be shared by both the skeptical and the faithful. For example, when he talks about God, James does so as an empiricist, without asserting more than he can prove.  After discussing extended quotations of first hand reports from various saints, he says the following: [pg. 271-3] The saintly character is the character for which spiritual emotions are the habitual centre of the personal energy; and there is a certain composite photograph of universal saintliness, the same in all religions, of which the features can easily be traced.

  1. A feeling of being in a wider life than that of this world’s selfish little interests; and a conviction, not merely intellectual, but as it were sensible, of the existence of an Ideal Power.  In Christian saintliness this power is always personified as God; but abstract moral ideals, civic or patriotic utopias, or inner visions of holiness or right may also be felt as the true lords and enlargers of our life … 
  2. A sense of friendly continuity of the ideal power with our own life, and a willing self-surrender to its control. 
  3. An immense elation and freedom, as the outlines of the confining selfhood melt down. 
  4. A shifting of the emotional centre towards loving and harmonious affections, towards ‘yes, yes’ and away from ‘no, no’. …

I have heard religious people struggle unsuccessfully to explain what they meant by the “Will of God” and why someone would submit to it.  In the above passage, James explains this beautifully, without resorting to religious clichés. Of course, it is this very impulse toward self-surrender which many, particularly atheists like Christopher Hitchens, find so abhorrent, and which, to be honest, ecclesiastical hierarchies, charlatans, and cults have sometimes perverted to their own advantage.  For the most part, James does not discuss this problem, but after one particularly powerful first hand account, he writes the following:

[pg. 337]

A genuine first hand religious experience like this is bound to be a heterodoxy to its witnesses, the prophet appearing as a mere lonely madman.  If his doctrine prove contagious enough to spread to any others, it becomes a definite and labeled heresy. But if it then still prove contagious enough to triumph over persecution, it becomes itself an orthodoxy; and when a religion has become an orthodoxy, its day of inwardness is over: the spring is dry; the faithful live at second hand exclusively and stone the prophets in their turn. The new church, in spite of whatever human goodness it may foster, can be henceforth counted on as a staunch ally in every attempt to stifle the spontaneous religious spirit, and to stop all later bubblings of the fountain from which in purer days it drew its own supply of inspiration. 

When people today say they are “opposed to organized religion”, I think that are instinctively reacting to the characteristics that James has described above. One worry that religious people often have with atheism in particular is that they think it undermines the basis for moral behavior: life without faith means life without a moral compass. Although James deals morality primarily as an outward expression of a person’s inward state, when he does address it, he does so in terms that the non-theist would find congenial:

[pg 278-9]

Let me pass next to Charity and Brotherly Love, which are a usual fruit of saintliness…. When Christ utter the precepts: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you,” he gives for a reason: “That ye be the children of your Father which is in heaven; for he maketh the sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” One might therefore be tempted to explain both the humility as to one’s self and the charity towards others which characterize spiritual excitement, as results of the all-leveling character of theistic belief. But these affections are certainly not mere derivatives of theism. We find them in Stoicism, in Hinduism, and in Buddhism in the highest possible degree. They harmonize with paternal theism beautifully; but they harmonize with all reflection whatever upon the dependence of mankind on general causes; … Religious rapture, moral enthusiasm, ontological wonder, cosmic emotion, are all unifying states of mind, in which the sand and grit of the selfhood incline to disappear, and tenderness to rule.

Thus, James frames the teachings of Christ in a way that separates it from the theological dogmas of Christianity.  The faithful and agnostic alike can read such a passage and find agreement, perhaps with reservations, but without feeling that their core beliefs are being challenged. A similar discussion follows the first hand reports of mystics from various traditions.  Here James evaluates their significance to the rest of us, pinpointing what we can learn from the experience of religious mystics, even though we might not have directly had such experiences ourselves.


My next task is to inquire whether we can invoke [mystic consciousness] as authoritative.  Does it furnish any warrant for the truth of the twice born-ness and supernaturality and pantheism which it favors? …

  1. Mystical states, when well developed, usually are, and have the right to be, absolutely authoritative over the individuals to whom they come.
  2. No authority emanates from them which should make it a duty for those who stand outside of them to accept their revelations uncritically. 
  3. They break down the authority of the non-mystical or rationalistic consciousness, based upon the under standing and the senses alone.  They show it to be only one kind of consciousness.  They open out the possibility of other orders of truth, in which, so far as anything in us vitally responds to them, we may freely continue to have faith.

In a lecture entitled “Philosophy”, James examines attempts to prove the validity of religion through purely rational arguments.  He concludes:

[pg. 455]

In all sad sincerity I think we must conclude that the attempt to demonstrate by purely intellectual processes the truth of the deliverances of direct religious experience is absolutely hopeless. 

Thus, religion is not purely rational, and attempts to make it so, in James’s view, ultimately fail.  However, the thrust of James’s investigation is that religious experiences, though irrational, transitory and irreproducible, are both real and important to the human condition.  No purely rational approach is sufficient to fully understand human nature.  For a rational person who has not directly experienced such things for himself, James says that accepting their authority is a matter of choice, of faith. Nonetheless, ignoring religious experience, as many empiricists are wont to do, simply leaves one with a philosophic point of view that is incomplete and hollow.

Observations on George Fox: The Varieties of Religious Experience #1

William_James  George_Fox


In the Varieties of Religious Experience, the philosopher and psychologist William James focuses on those intense, personal experiences that he sees as the core of all faiths, eschewing the creeds and theology that usually dominate comparative studies of religion.  Quakers will find this approach congenial, and indeed, James expresses admiration for our religious society.  Among the many first hand accounts that he quotes in these lectures are three extended passages from the Journal of George Fox. I have collected these here, along with James’s observations, not as a summary of the book, but as a slice of particular interest to Friends.

The first is from the opening lecture, on “Religion and Neurology”.

[pg. 6-8]

There can be no doubt that as a matter of fact a religious life, exclusively pursued, does tend to make the person exceptional and eccentric.  … [They have] presented all sorts of peculiarities which are ordinarily classed as pathological. …

If you ask for a concrete example, there can be no better one than is furnished by the person of George Fox.  The Quaker religion which he founded is something which it is impossible to overpraise.  In a day of shams, it was a religion of veracity rooted in spiritual inwardness, and a return to something more like the original gospel truth than men had ever known in England.  So far as our Christian sects to-day are evolving into liberality, they are simply reverting in essence to the position which Fox and the early Quakers so long ago assumed.  No one can pretend for a moment that in point of spiritual sagacity and capacity, Fox’s mind was unsound.  Every one who confronted him personally, from Oliver Cromwell down to county magistrates and jailers, seems to have acknowledged his superior power.  Yet from the point of view of his nervous constitution, Fox was a psychopath or détraqué  of the deepest dye. His Journal abounds in entries of this sort: —

“As I was walking with several friends, I lifted up my head, and saw three steeple-house spires, and they struck at my life.  I asked them what place that was?  They said, Lichfield.  Immediately the word of the Lord came to me, that I must go thither.  ….till I came within a mile of Lichfield; where, in a great field, shepherds were keeping their sheep.  Then I was commanded by the Lord to pull off my shoes. I stood still, for it was winter: but the word of the Lord was like a fire in me.  So I put off my shoes, and left them with the shepherds; and the poor shepherds trembled, and were astonished.  Then I walked on about a mile, and as soon as I was got within the city, the word of the Lord came to me again, saying: Cry, ‘Wo to the bloody city of Lichfield!’  So I went up and down the streets, crying in a loud voice, Wo to the bloody city of Lichfield!  It being market day, I went into the market-place, and to and fro in the several parts of it, and made stands, crying as before, Wo to the bloody city of Lichfield! …. But afterwards I came to understand, that in the Emperor Diocletian’s time a thousand Christians were martyr’d in Lichfield.  …. So the sense of this blood was upon me, and I obeyed the word of the Lord.”

James goes on to say that it is ludicrous to reject an idea because of the medical condition of its author:

[pg. 14]

According to the general postulate of psychology just referred to, there is not a single one of our states of mind, high or low, healthy or morbid, that has not some organic process as its condition. Scientific theories are organically conditioned just as much as religious emotions are; and if we only knew the facts intimately enough we should doubtless see ‘the liver’ determining the dicta of the sturdy atheist as decisively as it does those of the Methodist under conviction anxious about his soul .

A second George Fox excerpt is from the lectures on Saintliness.  Here James is discussing the desire of the devout to live in harmony with their calling.

The ascetic forms which the impulse for veracity and purity of life may take are often pathetic enough. The early Quakers, for example, had hard battles to wage against the worldliness and insincerity of the ecclesiastical Christianity of their time. Yet the battle that cost them most wounds was probably that which they fought in defense of their own right to social veracity and sincerity in their thee-ing and thou-ing, in not doffing the hat or giving titles of respect. It was laid on George Fox that these conventional customs were a lie and a sham, and the whole body of his followers thereupon renounced them, as a sacrifice to truth, and so that their acts and the spirit they professed might be more in accord. 

“When the Lord sent me into the world” says Fox in his Journal, “he forbade me to put off my hat to any, high or low: and I was required to ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ all men and women, without any respect to rich or poor, great or small.  And as I traveled up and down, I was not to bid people Good-morning or Good-evening, neither might I bow or scrape with my leg to any one. This made the sects and professions rage. Oh! the rage that was in the priests, magistrates, professors, and people of all sorts: and especially in priests and professors: for though ‘thou’ to a single person was according to their accidence and grammar rules, and according to the Bible, yet they could not bear to hear it: and because I could not put off my hat to them, it set them all into a rage. … Oh! the scorn, heat, and fury that arose! Oh! the blows, punchings, beatings, and imprisonments that we underwent for not putting off our hats to men! Some had their hats violently plucked off and thrown away, so that they quite lost them. The bad language and evil usage we received on this account is hard to be expressed, besides the danger we were sometimes in of losing our lives for this matter, and that by the great professors of Christianity, who thereby discovered they were not true believers. And though it was but a small thing in the eye of man, yet a wonderful confusion it brought among all professors and priests: but blessed be the Lord, many came to see the vanity of that custom of putting off hats to men, and felt the weight of Truth’s testimony against it.”

James follows this with a passage from the autobiography of Thomas Elwood, who was at one time secretary to John Milton. James concludes, “These early Quakers were Puritans indeed. The slightest inconsistency between profession and deed jarred some of them to active protest.” [pg. 294] James then continues with an excerpt from John Woolman, an eighteenth century American Friend.

James’s other extended quotation from Fox’s journal is one that many of us would choose in an introduction to Quakerism.  Here, Fox describes the moment when he received the inspiration that launched the Religious Society of Friends.

[pg 335-7]

But in this course of lectures ecclesiastical institutions hardly concern us at all.   The religious experience which we are studying is that which lives itself out within the private breast.  First hand individual experience of this kind has always appeared as a heretical sort of innovation to those who witnessed its birth.  Naked comes it into the world and lonely; and it has always, for a time at least, driven him who had it into the wilderness, often into the literal wilderness out of doors, where the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, St Francis, George Fox, and so many others had to go. George Fox expresses well this isolation; and I can do no better at this point than read to you a page from his Journal, referring to the period of his youth when religion began to ferment within him seriously.

“I fasted much,” Fox says, “walked abroad in solitary places many days, and often took my Bible, and sat in hollow trees and lonesome places until night came on; and frequently in the night walked mournfully about by myself; for I was a man of sorrows in the time of the first workings of the Lord in me.

“During all this time I was never joined in profession of religion with any, but gave up myself to the Lord, having forsaken all evil company, taking leave of father and mother, and all other relations, and traveled up and down as a stranger on the earth, which way the Lord inclined my heart; taking a chamber to myself in the town where I came, and tarrying sometimes more, sometimes less in a place: for I durst not stay long in a place, being afraid both of professor and profane, lest, being a tender young man, I should be hurt by conversing much with either. For which reason I kept much as a stranger, seeking heavenly wisdom and getting knowledge from the Lord; and was brought off from outward things, to rely on the Lord alone. As I had forsaken the priests, so I left the separate preachers also, and those called the most experienced people; for I saw there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do; then, oh then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Jesus Christ, that can speak to thy condition’. When I heard it my heart did leap for joy. Then the Lord let me see why there was none upon the earth that could speak to my condition. I had not fellowship with any people, priests, nor professors, nor any sort of corruptions. I was afraid of all carnal talk and talkers, for I could see nothing but corruptions.  When I was in the deep, under all shut up, I could not believe that I should ever overcome; my troubles, my sorrows, and my temptations were so great that I often thought I should have despaired, I was so tempted. But when Christ opened to me how he was tempted by the same devil, and had overcome him, and had bruised his head; and that through him and his power, life, grace, and spirit, I should overcome also, I had confidence in him. If I had had a king’s diet, palace, and attendance, all would have been as nothing; for nothing gave me comfort but the Lord by his power. I saw professors, priests, and people were whole and at ease in that condition which was my misery, and they loved that which I would have been rid of. But the Lord did stay my desires upon himself, and my care was cast upon him alone. ”

George Fox: Journal, Philadelphia, 1800, pp. 59-61, abridged.

A genuine first hand religious experience like this is bound to be a heterodoxy to its witnesses, the prophet appearing as a mere lonely madman.  If his doctrine prove contagious enough to spread to any others, it becomes a definite and labeled heresy. But if it then still prove contagious enough to triumph over persecution, it becomes itself an orthodoxy; and when a religion has become an orthodoxy, its day of inwardness is over: the spring is dry; the faithful live at second hand exclusively and stone the prophets in their turn. The new church, in spite of whatever human goodness it may foster, can be henceforth counted on as a staunch ally in every attempt to stifle the spontaneous religious spirit, and to stop all later bubblings of the fountain from which in purer days it drew its own supply of inspiration. 

This book contains many passages that are just as provocative as those above. I hope this taste has whetted your appetite, because I plan to write more about James’s ideas.