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Saturday, March 24, 2007

Religious Experience - Spirituality

This is a review of the new biography of William James, author of
"Varieties of Reigious Experience"

William James:
In the Maelstrom of American Modernism
By Robert D. Richardson
Houghton Mifflin 2006 521 pages $30.00

Religion, philosophy, psychology, physiology, and medicine were William James life long interests. This biography deals with them in reverse order. James began a peripatetic life studying here and there in New England and Europe in grammar school through college. He got a degree in medicine at Harvard and then taught there most of his adult life. Born in 1842 in New York City, he died in 1910 in New Hampshire.

Best known for his best selling Varieties of Religious Experience, he did not think of himself as a religious man in any conventional sense. Apparently he was not baptized nor a member of any denominational church, unusual for a man in the 19th Century. He was married to Alice all of his life and had five children and a famous brother, novelist Henry James. He enjoyed poor health and tried all sorts of unconventional cures in the United States and abroad. He had serious heart problems, although he was robust and energetic as a scholar, hiker and traveler. He loved the out of doors and escaped often to Vermont and the Adirondacks when he could get away from teaching at Harvard.

He moved from his interest in pure science to the healing possibilities of psychology and ended teaching philosophy and psychology in his career at Harvard.

Invited to give the Gifford lectures in Edinburgh, Scotland, he prepared for two agonizing years for the work that made him rich and even more famous, namely Varieties…. The lectures were given in 1902. He lectured about and then wrote his conviction that humans have had powerful religious experiences. He had one of his own in the mountains of New York. “The moon rose and hung above the scene before midnight, leaving only a few stars visible, and I got into a state of spiritual alertness of the most vital description.” As a scientist he had always sensed a religious awareness in others, never put it down and always took interest and examined the experiences as they came up. He frequented séances and showed many as charlatans, but was still interested in the ideas and possibilities.

Richardson writes, …[James had a] “moment of certain but inarticulate knowledge that real religion is religious feeling, and that it can be experienced by anyone, even a sleepless wanderer in the gorgeous Adirondack night.”

James’s style was to make a point and then provide the listener and reader with accounts by famous and not so famous people witnessing to a religious experience, Like Tolstoy, Bunyan, St. Augustine, Emerson, Robert Louis Stevenson, Luther, Sophocles, Goethe, Spinoza, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jonathan Edwards, Mary Baker Eddy, Walt Whitman, St. Teresa, Plato, Havelock Ellis, Kant, Thoreau and George Fox, a partial list from the text. I didn’t find any Episcopalians in the list. He amassed testimony, “fifty-five different sources are cited or quoted in his lecture on mysticism alone.”

The biography does not skip over James’s view of the dark side of life. One lecture is “The Sick Soul” but another is discussion of healthy-mindedness. James is not interested in the institutional side of religion, but the experience of religion.

His two fundamental teachings about religion are something is wrong and something is to be made right. James was a virulent critic of American war fever in the 1890’s when Americans attacked Cuba and the Philippines and set up protectorates over the will of the people.

James saw the connection between sex and religious experience. He says,
“The key to the universe lies in the body of the lover. When lovers bare their bodies they have sex. When lovers bare their souls they have Godhead.” “If you are touched by love or desire, you are touched by the divine.”

James the philosopher points out, “You take your life between the God of reason and the God of unreason.”

Richardson quotes Isaac Beshiva Singer in explaining James’s view of free will. “Do you believe in free will? Of course I do. Do I have a choice?”

James believed in action, he did not care much about motivation.
“By their fruits ye shall know them, not by their roots.” He quotes General William Booth of the Salvation Army on helping outcasts. “The first step in saving outcasts consists in making them feel that some decent human cares enough for them to take an interest in whether they are to rise or sink.”

On life: “Lives based on having are less free than those based on either doing or being.”

There are thousands of conjunctions in which a wealth bound person must be a slave, while a man for whom poverty has no terror is a free man.”

“Humanity…refuses to enjoy what others don’t have.”

“The world survives by those who have generosity of spirit but is ruled by those who have none.”


James also loved a good story:

A Montana settler who met a grizzly bear so formidable that he fell to his knees saying, “Oh, Lord, I ain’t ever asked you for anything before and I ain’t gonna ask you for nothing now. But for pity sake, Oh Lord, don’t help the grizzly bear.”

Billy Sunday said, “What the church needed was fighting men of God, not “hog-jowled, weasel-eyed, sponge-columned, mushy-fisted, jelly-spined, pussy-footing, four-flushing Charlotte-russe Christians.”

This is a valuable book for those of us interested in religion. James’s work brings us back to the roots of religion, the experience of the divine, a sense of transformation, a physical and emotional response to the powers we sense beyond our own life, as delicious and important as that is.

The book helps the preacher wrestle with the intellectual problems of mysticism and the religious experience. James gives substance to the ideas of religion, going beyond, yet living in the scientific world. He provides a wonderful overview of the religious, philosophical and scientific discussions of the 19th Century. I enjoyed the book, but it is not an easy read. James the man shines brightly and I’d love to have had a chat with him. I am sure I’d be overwhelmed with his intellect and wisdom.
James does not give much room for the intellectual wrestling with doubt, theology and liturgy as areas of life where one may have a religious experience. New England Protestant churches of the 19th century were not breeding grounds for art, music and finery where religious experience might occur. My own religious experience happened in church and liturgy as well as in listening through the logical positivism debates of the 1940’s and ‘50s. It deepened in the rights movements for African Americans and homosexuals in the 60’s and 70’s and 80’s.

This biography is valuable in putting in perspective the spirituality movement in our time. Others and I see the emphasis on interior experience becoming more important than action in the world. James was a man of the world, an intellectual, scholar and a professor at Harvard convinced of the values of varieties of religious experience.

Let me close with some words by James from the Gifford Lectures. “The mother-sea and fountainhead of all religion lies in the mystical experiences of the individual, taking the word mystical in the very widest sense. All theologies and all ecclesiasticisms are secondary growth superimposed.” The mystical experiences “have no proper intellectual deliverance of their own, but belong to a region deeper, and more vital and more practical than that which the intellect in habits….We are thus made convincingly aware of the presence of a sphere of life larger than our usual consciousness….”

RWC

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