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The Varieties of Religious Experience

by William James

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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 594

When the world celebrated the one-hundredth anniversary of the publication of James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, it seemed upon rereading that James had written the book not only for the turn of the twentieth century but also for the turn of the twenty-first century. Listed as one of the most read books of the twentieth century, The Varieties of Religious Experience is experiencing a rebirth and new understanding. This reawakening to James’s work has been so strong that it is described by Erin Leib in an article for the New Republic as a ‘‘recent blizzard.’’ In her article, Leib describes James as an ‘‘obsessively religious man, who was committed to devising a philosophy that would provide a foundation for spiritual experience, and to opening up room for faith in an increasingly secular world.’’ In mentioning James’s book in particular, Leib comments that The Varieties of Religious Experience ‘‘became one of the most widely read and most highly influential treatises on religion by an American.’’ It did so, Leib notes, by ‘‘inaugurat[ing] a Copernican turn in religious studies away from the objective terms of religion—God, the cosmos— toward the subjective human experience of religion.’’

Charles Taylor—a professor of philosophy who, like James, has delivered the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh—has written a book on James titled The Varieties of Religious Experience Today: William James Revisited (2002). In an article for Commonweal, Taylor explains:

It is almost a hundred years since William James delivered his celebrated Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh on The Varieties of Religious Experience. I want to look again at this remarkable book, reflecting on what it has to say to us at the turn of a new century.

Taylor continues, ‘‘In fact it turns out to have a lot to say. It is astonishing how little dated it is. You can even find yourself forgetting that these lectures were delivered a hundred years ago.’’

In the same article, Taylor states, ‘‘James is our great philosopher of the cusp,’’ referring to the space between the definition of religion as created by institutionalized religious practice and the ‘‘gut feeling’’ of the individual. The reason James’s work remains so vibrant today, Taylor claims, ‘‘is because James stands so nakedly and so volubly in this exposed spot.’’ The book, says Taylor, has ‘‘resonated’’ for over a century and ‘‘will go on doing so for many years to come.’’

Carol Zaleski, a professor at Smith College, wrote an article about The Varieties of Religious Experience for First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life. In this article Zaleski states that The Varieties of Religious Experience may not be James’s best book, ‘‘but it is our best book about religious experience, our best defense against skeptics, and our surest incitement to a genuine public dialogue about the significance of personal religious experience for our common life.’’ Although Zaleski is a little disappointed that James does not find spiritual comfort in any organized religion, she nonetheless claims that James’s ‘‘great contribution is to make religion a live option for those estranged from traditional faith.’’

Zaleski wrote another article for the Christian Century, in the form of a letter to James. In the beginning of her letter, she acknowledges that The Varieties of Religious Experience is ‘‘the greatest modern book on personal religion.’’ One of the reasons for this, she writes to James, is that ‘‘You remain the unsurpassed defender of religious experience against theories that reduce it to the product of this or that implacable force.’’

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Essays and Criticism