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The Varieties of Religious Experience

by William James

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A Religious State of Mind

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William James begins his fourth lecture in The Varieties of Religious Experience with the question, ‘‘What is human life’s chief concern?’’ Shortly thereafter he provides the answer, which is ‘‘happiness.’’ Happiness, James tells his readers, is the source behind everything that an individual does, so much so that the overall goal of life is to gain, keep, or recover happiness. It is not mere laughter of which James speaks. It is something that goes much deeper. It goes so deep that this kind of happiness might even be referred to as a religious experience. James clarifies that happiness itself is not religion, but ‘‘we must admit that any persistent enjoyment may produce the sort of religion which consists in a grateful admiration of the gift of so happy an existence.’’ Although happiness is not a religion, the ‘‘more complex ways of experiencing religion’’ are ways of ‘‘producing happiness.’’ But to what kind of happiness is James referring?

To better understand happiness, it might be a good idea to uncover first what James refers to as unhappiness. One of the best examples of this emotional state, or what James calls a ‘‘religious melancholy,’’ is provided through an excerpt from My Confession (1887) by famed Russian author Leo Tolstoy. Before offering Tolstoy’s words, James, who defines Tolstoy’s mental condition as anhedonia, or the ‘‘passive loss of appetite for all life’s values,’’ expounds on Tolstoy’s state of mind by describing how the world might have appeared to Tolstoy when he was in the midst of his depression.

In this state, familiar things that used to inspire him suddenly lost all value. In such a world of no meaning, emotions are drained from the objects and experiences that surround the person involved. For example, where once the sunset might have stirred the emotions of someone, with its beauty or overwhelming sense of romance, it no longer holds significance. In its place is only the fact that the sun is setting; a rainbow of colors tints the sky; and night falls. That is it. It is an event that does not elicit any feelings. There is no importance in one event over another. James compares the ability of an object to stir emotions to the power of love. A woman can stand in front of a man whom she does not love and no matter what that man does in her favor, if love is not there, it will never be there. It cannot be rationalized into existence. Conversely, if a woman loves a man, no matter what he does, he arouses her emotions. In other words, mental states come involuntarily. However, when certain emotions take over a person’s mind, they change that person’s life. The emotions, or passions of life, are gifts, James writes. They are also ‘‘non-logical.’’ They cannot be explained by the intellect.

Tolstoy seems to agree with James, as he relates that his depression made no sense to him at all. There were no elements in his life on which the melancholy could be blamed. It came over him at a time in his life when he was enjoying tremendous success. He was also very much in love with his wife; his children were healthy; and the family lived in a beautiful home. However, for some reason the value of these things was totally withdrawn from him, to the point that Tolstoy considered suicide. What did it matter that he had all these things, St. John of the Cross, a sixteenth-century cleric and mystic theologian discussed by James in his lectures on saintliness Tolstoy began to wonder, when in the end...

(This entire section contains 1651 words.)

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he would die and all these things would fade away? No matter how hard Tolstoy tried to reason with his despair, the only concept that came to him was, as quoted in James, ‘‘the meaningless absurdity of life.’’ So why continue it?

Tolstoy had lost the gift, the abstraction that gives value to life, and no matter what he did with his rational mind, he could not find it. His passageway out of his depression came to him gradually, in what he refers to as a thirst for God, a feeling that rose out of his heart, not his intellect.

So there are now two aspects that help to define this feeling of happiness that motivates all beings. First it is not something that can be thought up. It has nothing to do with the intellect. Rather, it comes from the heart and it comes as a gift. James also relates that this gift—which physiologists of his day stated came from the personal organism, while theologians said it came from the grace of God— will give the lucky person who receives it ‘‘a new sphere of power.’’ When all else fails in the outward world, the person on whom this gift is bestowed will have an inward ‘‘enthusiastic temper of espousal’’ Cooper finds evidence to the contrary, demonstrating that James writes on different levels at different times, incorporating his doctrine of pure experience into his theories of psychology and pragmatism.

James adds more information about this emotion that colors and fills life with value by giving it the attribute of solemnity. The concept of solemnity, James admits, is hard to define, but nonetheless, he attempts to shine a little light on the topic. ‘‘It is never crude,’’ he writes. It is also never simple. He states that ironically ‘‘it seems to contain a certain measure of its own opposite in solution.’’ In other words, within this state of solemn happiness is also the state of sadness, as if the two define one another. This gives the reader a better grasp on the depth of happiness to which James refers. It is now easier to understand how this happiness is not the simple laughter at some joke. Solemn happiness is not caused by what James refers to as any of the animal pleasures of life, those of the body. It is something more sublime and sustaining. ‘‘This sort of happiness in the absolute and everlasting,’’ James writes, ‘‘is what we find nowhere but in religion.’’

Only as a religious experience does happiness penetrate a person so deeply. This religious happiness is not a momentary escape from a person’s hardships or fears. Again James states that it is hard to explain this kind of happiness; that a person will only understand it if she or he experiences it firsthand. However, he does say that solemn happiness is so great that it causes a person to not even consider escape, because somewhere deep inside, this person knows that whatever is presently considered a challenge has already, on some other level, been overcome. It gives the individual a sense that ‘‘a higher happiness holds a lower unhappiness in check.’’ An individual who experiences this kind of happiness is also not afraid of challenges and in many instances welcomes them. Along with the gift of solemn happiness also comes the willingness for self-sacrifice and surrender. Without the gift, a person might be willing to sacrifice and might even do so without complaint; but the person who has this form of sublime happiness will go out of his or her way to seek such challenges, believing that in doing so his or her happiness will increase.

Returning to Tolstoy’s story, readers will find that in his healing process, Tolstoy rekindled his sense of faith. ‘‘Faith is the sense of life,’’ he writes. ‘‘It is the force by which we live.’’ Taking Tolstoy’s comment and adding it to James’s concept that happiness underlies everything that people do, readers have to conclude that faith and happiness are related. James actually insinuates this in his narrative on Tolstoy when he writes that Tolstoy struggled with his depression because he was only considering the finite objects of life. This was all that his rational mind could do. It was not until Tolstoy freed his thinking to include the emotions, or irrational sentiments, that he was able to allow faith to enter his consciousness. Not until Tolstoy recognized that the emptiness he was feeling was due to his concentration to please only his ‘‘animal needs’’ was he able to release himself. By changing his focus to his higher, more sacred needs, Tolstoy was able to restore his faith. James writes, ‘‘therein lay happiness again.’’

The infinite, as represented by the concept of an everlasting God, allowed Tolstoy to broaden his ideas about life. Once he concentrated on the feeling of God’s presence, ‘‘glad aspirations towards life’’ arose inside of him. After this, Tolstoy simplified his life. He dropped out of the society of intellectuals whose main purpose was to understand living only in context of the rational. He was then able to better understand and appreciate the life of the ‘‘peasants, and has felt right and happy . . . ever since.’’

James claims that Tolstoy’s change in life was based on an inner conflict. His soul craved more than the surface happiness of the intellectual society of which he was a major member. He needed a period of deeper inner reflection in order to fully comprehend how shallow his happiness was. He needed to discover his soul’s ‘‘genuine habitat and vocation,’’ as James puts it. He had to find the truth of his soul. With this statement, James seems to be inferring that it is in finding the truth of one’s soul that one finds happiness—the deep, spiritual, and sublime form of this emotion. If happiness is a gift that one cannot find merely in a rational exploration, maybe James is implying that through deep introspection, a person might, in the least, prepare the way for that gift to appear and thus create his or her own variety of religious experience.

Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on The Varieties of Religious Experience, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, Gale, 2003.

Recurring Issues in Debate Over Religious Experience

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No book becomes a classic unless it has something to say to generations of readers. One of the remarkable things about The Varieties of Religious Experience is how much of it is still timely one hundred years after its first publication, in spite of massive changes in society, culture, and science.

An important reason for the book’s lasting relevance is that it deals with many of the polarities that perennially characterize debate about religious experience: psychology versus spirituality, naturalism versus supernaturalism, and so on. Even more important, though, is how James deals with these issues. His rational, detached approach sets him apart from a large majority of commentators both in his own time and today, making his book a useful tool for thoughtful readers seeking to make sense of religious arguments that are often fueled more by emotions than facts.

The defining characteristic of discussions of religious matters is that they tend to be extremely polarized. The people who bother to debate religion at all are people who have strong feelings about it. As well, most of them have entrenched positions that they are committed to defending. For example, many commentators are members of the clergy. Whatever opinions they hold have been taught to them by authority figures at least from their school days and possibly from their childhoods. Their careers, their paychecks, their acceptance in their social circles and even within their families are all dependent upon their continued embrace and energetic defense of whatever religious ideas they profess. If they were to admit uncertainty or error on any substantive issue, all the structures of their lives would crumble. This is why religious debate is so often highly emotional and even vicious. The participants have everything to lose, and therefore they defend their long-held beliefs at all cost. Too often, facts and realities that seem to contradict their beliefs are suppressed, denied, or twisted beyond recognition; objective reality is sacrificed to subjective beliefs.

Of course, the same phenomenon occurs on the side of anti-religionists. Psychologists, for example— whose careers and social networks often also depend upon their loyalties to certain beliefs—may set themselves up against religious interpretations of life (more about this below), refuse to confront facts that do not fit their dearly held theories, and label religious experience as ‘‘disease.’’

This makes James a rarity. He is an objective, emotionally detached commentator. He was a man who, by his own account, did not experience the supernatural and ecstatic states he writes about, yet he had no desire to deem them invalid or pathological just because they were foreign to him. He was a psychologist who was more interested in an accurate understanding of human experience than he was in elevating his own discipline above the claims of religion. He comes to the discussion not as someone with a position to defend but as someone seeking to understand a particular dimension of human experience. This makes James a valuable mediator of ideas that are often spoken of as being irreconcilable. He subjects the polarities of religious debate to logic and observation. In some cases, he finds that what had seemed to be opposing ideas can be reconciled. In others, he makes a clearly reasoned case for one idea over another.

The remainder of this essay will briefly examine five issues that are as divisive today as they were when James wrote, and James’s position on each one.

In James’s day, psychology and religion regarded each other as irrelevant at best and as destructive at worst. The leading voices of the two disciplines saw themselves as being engaged in a battle for the same turf, which psychologists called the psyche and religionists called the soul. Each side claimed to have the authoritative truth about the nature of the psyche/soul. To give one important example, conversion experiences sprang from the individual’s own mind and were often pathological according to psychology, but had a divine source and a supremely beneficial purpose according to religion.

Although James was a psychologist (among other professions), his conclusions are that there is no real, inevitable polarity between psychology and religion and that religion has things to teach psychology. James reiterates throughout his book that psychology, like other sciences, is incomplete; it does not yet understand all human phenomena. Therefore, he reasons, it is inappropriate for psychology to diagnose and label religious experiences; and it is highly inappropriate to label as pathological a phenomenon such as conversion that has beneficial results. (James’s definition of a conT version experience is limited, and he is well aware that not every emotional experience is in fact a spiritual experience that bears the expected fruit.)

Readers who are familiar with the tenor of modern psychology know that it still is often in conflict with religion. In his introduction to a collection of essays on The Varieties of Religious Experience that appeared in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, editor Michel Ferrari writes that one of the essayists ‘‘notes that Varieties promotes the radical idea that religious experience has something important to contribute to psychology and wonders why we are no closer to implementing this idea one hundred years after the publication of Varieties.’’

James’s efforts at peacemaking may have been ignored by psychology and religion as institutions, but they have no doubt been helpful to countless individuals seeking to make sense of the institutions’ competing claims.

The debate between naturalism and supernaturalism raged in James’s times and rages on today. Some people believe in supernatural forces and events; some do not. James patiently explains that if an idea or hypothesis cannot be proven, it does not logically follow that the idea is false. It may be that the available methods of seeking proof are inadequate. The history of the humble aspirin tablet is often used to explain this idea. Unlike today’s new medications, aspirin was widely used for about a century before it was subjected to any controlled testing, because such tests simply had not yet been developed. During this time, some physicians and others claimed that aspirin had no efficacy beyond that of a placebo; no one could prove that it worked, they reasoned, and therefore it did not work. When more sophisticated tests were finally available, researchers were able to discover exactly how aspirin worked to alleviate pain and to understand why it was so effective, as millions of ‘‘faithful’’ users had long known. James makes a similar case for the possibility of supernatural forces and experiences; the fact that science cannot (yet) apprehend them is not proof that they are not there.

The medical scientists and intellectuals of James’s day generally thought that so-called supernatural experiences were actually side effects of physical disturbances such as fever or trauma. In addition to being a psychologist, James was also an expert in anatomy, and so the medical scientists were part of his intellectual community. Once again, however, he was willing to part ways with them when logic and facts led him to do so. He took the view that science should not call invalid what its methods were incapable of measuring, and based on his own observations and research (and against his own lack of experience of the supernatural) he concluded that the supernatural does exist apart from natural causes such as illness.

Having set himself against his own professional and intellectual communities by making a case for spirituality apart from psychology and for the supernatural, James goes on to set himself against the mainstream religious authorities of his time by endorsing religious pluralism over the exclusive truth-claims of any one religion.

James’s research showed him that adherents of many different religions—Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and others—have remarkably similar religious experiences with virtually identical results in the lives of the affected individuals. Therefore, he concluded that it is not logical that one of these religions is true and the others are false.

On this issue, the passage of time has brought a shift toward James’s point of view. But the issue is still a divisive one in an American culture that is home to many religions, some of which make competing claims to exclusive truth. Here, too, James’s voice is one of calm reason amid a sea of shouts.

Positive thinking, then called ‘‘mind-cure,’’ was all the rage in James’s day. In the simplest terms, the idea of mind-cure is that evil does not really exist except as an idea in people’s minds and that to banish thoughts of evil from one’s mind is to be free of all evil. The definition of evil is broad, including physical injury and illness as well as acts of violence. According to mind-cure, any person who never thinks of such things will never fall victim to them.

This issue remains relevant and much debated today because a strain of mind-cure thinking runs through many ideas and philosophies that come under the broad heading ‘‘New Age.’’ In the last half of the twentieth century, much of American society embraced, or at least flirted with the idea that all morality is relative and nothing is good or evil in an absolute sense. Often bundled with this philosophy was the concept that individuals were the creators of their own destinies and had the power, through positive thinking and other similar methods, to determine what would happen to them.

As he often does, James takes a middle course. He acknowledges that the many firsthand reports of success with these methods are evidence that there is some truth in the philosophies underlying them. But he concludes that these philosophies give only a partially accurate view of reality; evil does have objective existence, he argues, and cannot always be escaped under any circumstances. His brief discussion of evil is a valuable contribution to humankind’s efforts to answer what may be the most difficult questions of all: Does evil exist, and if so, why?

Finally, there is one further often-debated issue that James addresses in a way that can provide guidance to today’s readers. It was true in his time as it is now that people who are trying to evaluate the claims of religion are often faced with a stark contrast between what a religion teaches and how its members behave. Religious seekers who have been assured that adopting a religion will make them better people are more than occasionally disappointed to find that long-time adherents of that very same religion are no better than they themselves are, and perhaps worse. In recent years, Americans have seen some of their most respected religious authorities arrested for horrific crimes and humiliated in the media for immoral behavior. Understandably, this causes some people to conclude that religion has no power to improve people.

James confronts this issue in its particularly American form. American Christianity, more than that of other countries, has focused on the conversion experience as the culmination of spiritual life. So James tackles the question of why people who claim to have had such experiences sometimes behave no differently than they did in the past. The painful spectacle, for example, of baseball player Daryl Strawberry’s serial conversions and alternating periods of drug abuse and criminal activity leave many sincere seekers either deeply confused or completely skeptical about the reality and meaning of religious experience.

James’s discussions of the nature of the conversion experience and its place in the larger context of spiritual life, and of the broader issue of emotional experience and its relation to moral and behavioral reform, help readers grapple with these issues in a thoughtful, sophisticated way.

Religion and religious experience are difficult subjects to come to terms with, as even James acknowledges. Yet the urge to come to terms with them is virtually universal. A large majority of individuals, at some time in their lives, find themselves engaged with these issues. James’s book is a true classic in that it provides valuable help in thinking about complex issues that, in various guises, face every generation of readers.

Source: Candyce Norvell, Critical Essay on The Varieties of Religious Experience, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, Gale, 2003.

Risking Belief: Why William James Still Matters

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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.

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.

What was James’s take on religion? What was the wider agenda of which it was part? Like any sensitive intellectual of his time and place, James had to argue against the voices, within and without, that held that religion was a thing of the past, that one could no longer in conscience believe in this kind of thing in an age of science. A passage in Varieties gives a sense of what is at stake in this inner debate. James is speaking of those who are for one reason or another incapable of religious conversion. He refers to some whose ‘‘inaptitude’’ is intellectual in origin:

Their religious faculties may be checked in their natural tendency to expand, by beliefs about the world that are inhibitive, the pessimistic and materialistic beliefs, for example, within which so many good souls, who in former times would have freely indulged their religious propensities, find themselves nowadays, as it were, frozen; or the agnostic vetoes upon faith as something weak and shameful, under which so many of us today lie cowering, afraid to use our instincts.

A fuller discussion of these ‘‘agnostic vetoes,’’ and the answer to them, occurs in James’s essay ‘‘The Will to Believe.’’ Here it is plain that the main source of the vetoes is a kind of ethics of belief illustrated, James contends, in the work of English mathematician and philosopher William Clifford (1845–79). Clifford’s The Ethics of Belief starts from a notion of what proper scientific procedure is: Never turn your hypotheses into accepted theories until the evidence is adequate. It then promotes this into a moral precept for life in general.

The underlying picture of our condition, according to Clifford, is that we find certain hypotheses more pleasing, more flattering, more comforting, and are thus tempted to believe them. It is the path of manliness, courage, and integrity to turn our backs on these facile comforts, and face the universe as it really is. But so strong are the temptations to deviate from this path that we must make it an unbreakable precept never to give our assent unless the evidence compels it. James quotes Clifford: ‘‘It is wrong always, and everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.’’

James opposes to this his own counterprinciple:

Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds; for to say, under such circumstances, ‘‘Do not decide, but leave the question open,’’ is itself a passional decision—just like deciding yes or no—and is attended with the same risk of losing the truth.

Backing this principle is James’s own view of the human predicament. Clifford assumes that there is only one road to truth: We put the hypotheses that appeal to us under severe tests, and those that survive are worthy of adoption—the kind of procedure whose spirit was recaptured in our time by Karl Popper’s method of conjectures and refutation. To put it dramatically, we can win the right to believe a hypothesis only by first treating it with maximum suspicion and hostility. James holds, on the contrary, that there are some domains in which truths will be hidden from us unless we go at least halfway toward them. Do you like me or not? If I am determined to test this by adopting a stance of maximum distance and suspicion, the chances are that I will forfeit the chance of a positive answer. An analogous phenomenon on the scale of the whole society is social trust; doubt it root and branch, and you will destroy it.

But can the same kind of logic apply to religion, that is, to a belief in something that by hypothesis is way beyond our power to create? James thinks it can.

What is created is not God or the eternal, but there is a certain grasp of these, and a certain succor from these that can never be ours unless we open Jonathan Edwards, whose teachings James draws on throughout his lectures ourselves to them in faith. James is, in a sense, building on the Augustinian insight that in certain domains love and self-opening enable us to understand what we would never grasp otherwise.

What does that tell us about what the path of rationality consists in for someone who stands on the threshold, deciding whether he should permit himself to believe in God? On one side is the fear of believing something false if he follows his instincts here. But on the other there is the hope of opening out what are now inaccessible truths through the prior step of faith. Faced with this double possibility it is no longer so clear that Clifford’s ethic is the appropriate one, because it was taking account of only the first possibility. As James notes,

I, therefore, cannot see my way to accepting the agnostic rules for truth-seeking, or willfully agree to keep my willing nature out of the game. I cannot do so for the plain reason, that a rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule.

The minimal form of James’s argument is, then, that the supposed superior rationality of the ‘‘agnostic veto’’ on belief—don’t believe in God until you have overwhelming evidence—disappears once you see that there is an option between two risks of loss of truth.

Everybody should be free to choose his own kind of risk. But this minimal form easily flips into a stronger variant, which is captured by the italicized clause I have just quoted. Taking the agnostic stance could here be taxed as the less rational one.

This is similar grounds to those laid out in Pascal’s famous wager. James evokes this early in Varieties and treats it rather caustically. But on reflection, this may be because the Pascalian form is specially directed to converting the interlocutor to Catholicism, to ‘‘Masses and holy water.’’ But if one takes the general form of Pascal’s argument here—that you should weight two risks not only by their probabilities but also by their prospective ‘‘payoffs’’—then James himself seems to entertain something of the sort. Religion is not only a ‘‘forced option,’’ that is, one in which there is no third way, no way of avoiding choice, but it is also a ‘‘momentous option. We are supposed to gain, even now, by our belief, and to lose by our nonbelief, a certain vital good.’’ The likeness increases when we reflect that Pascal never thought of his wager argument as standing alone, appealing as it were purely to the betting side of our nature, to the instincts that take over when we enter the casinos at Las Vegas. He, too, holds the Augustinian view that in matters divine we need to love before we know.

But the issue could be put in other terms again. The single-risk view of the agnostics seems more plausible than James’s double-risk thesis because they take for granted that our desires can only be an obstacle to our finding the truth. The crucial issue is thus the place of ‘‘our volitional nature’’ in the theoretical realm. The very idea that things will go better in the search for truth if you keep out passion, desire, and willing seems utterly implausible to James—not just for the reason he thinks he has demonstrated, that certain truths only open to us as a result of our commitment, but also because it seems so clear to him that we never operate this way.

So one way he frames the issue is that the agnostic vetoers are asking that he ‘‘willfully agree to keep my willing nature out of the game.’’ But from another standpoint, neither side is really doing this. Agnosticism ‘‘is not intellect against all passions, then; it is only intellect with one passion laying down its law.’’ To put it in the harsh language of a later politics, those who claim to be keeping passion out are suffering from false consciousness. This is not the way the mind works at all. Rationalism gives an account of only a part of our mental life, and one that is ‘‘relatively superficial.’’

It is the part which has the prestige undoubtedly, for it has the loquacity, it can challenge you for proofs, and chop logic, and put you down with words. But it will fail to convince or convert you all the same, if your dumb intuitions are opposed to its conclusions. If you have intuitions at all, they come from a deeper level of your nature than the loquacious level which rationalism inhabits. Your whole subconscious life, your impulses, your faiths, your needs, your divinations, have prepared the premises, of which your consciousness now feels the weight of the result; and something in you absolutely knows that that result must be truer than any logic-chopping rationalistic talk, however clever, that may contradict it.

James has in a sense opened up to view an important part of the struggle between belief and unbelief in modern culture. We can see it, after a fashion, from both sides of the fence: even though James has himself come down on one side, we can still feel the force of the other side. Of course, the objections to belief are not only on epistemological grounds. There are also those who feel that the God of theism has utterly failed the challenge of theodicy: how we can believe in a good and omnipotent God, given the state of the world?

But if we keep to the epistemological-moral issue of the ethics of belief, James clarifies why it always seems to end in a standoff. (1) Each side is drawing on very different sources, and (2) our culture as a whole cannot seem to get to a point where one of these no longer speaks to us. And yet (3) we cannot seem to function at all unless we relate to one or the other.

The reason the argument is so difficult, and so hard to join, is that each side stands within its own view of the human moral predicament. The various facets of each stance support each other, so that there seems nowhere you can justifiably stand outT side. The agnostic view propounds some picture (or range of pictures) of the universe and human nature. This has going for it that it can claim to result from ‘‘science,’’ with all the prestige that this carries with it. It can even look from the inside as though this was all you need to say. But from the outside it isn’t at all clear that what everyone could agree are the undoubted findings of modern natural science quite add up to a proof of, say, materialism, or whatever the religion-excluding view is.

From the inside the ‘‘proof’’ seems solid, because certain interpretations are ruled out on the grounds that they seem ‘‘speculative’’ or ‘‘metaphysical.’’ From the outside, this looks like a classical petitio principii. But from the inside the move seems unavoidable, because it is powered by certain ethical views. These are the ones that James laid bare: It is wrong, uncourageous, unmanly, a kind of self-indulgent cheating, to have recourse to this kind of interpretation, which we know appeals to something in us, offers comfort, or meaning, and which we therefore should fend off, unless absolutely driven to them by the evidence, which is manifestly not the case. The position holds firm because it locks together a scientific-epistemological view and a moral one.

From the other side, the same basic phenomena show up, but in an entirely different shape. One of the crucial features that justifies aversion to certain interpretations from the agnostic standpoint, namely that they in some way attract us, shows up from the believer’s standpoint as what justifies our interest. And that very much for the reasons which James explores, namely that this attraction is the hint that there is something important here which we need to explore further, that this exploration can lead us to something of vital significance, which would otherwise remain closed to us. Epistemology and ethics (in the sense of intuitions about what is of crucial importance) combine here.

From this standpoint, the agnostic’s closure is self-inflicted, the claim that there is nothing here which ought to interest us a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. A similar accusation of circularity is hurled in the other direction. The believer is thought to have invented the delusion that beguiles him.

As we saw, the attraction of certain feelings and intuitions has a totally different significance in the two stances. This totality forces a choice; one cannot accord the two rival meanings to these crucial features at the same time. You can’t really sit on the fence, because you need some reading of these features to get on with life.

And yet both these stances remain possible to many people in our world. Secularists once hoped that with the advance of science and enlightenment, and the articulation of a new, humanist ethic, the illusory nature of religion would be more and more apparent, and its attractions would fade, indeed, give way to repulsion. Many believers thought that unbelief was so clearly a willed blindness that people would one day wake up and see through it once and for all. But this is not how it has worked out, not even perhaps how it could work out. People go on feeling a sense of unease at the world of unbelief: some sense that something big, something important has been left out, some level of profound desire has been ignored, some greater reality outside us has been closed off. The articulations given to this unease are very varied, but it persists, and they recur in ever more ramified forms. But at the same time, the sense of dignity, control, adulthood, autonomy, connected to unbelief go on attracting people, and seem set to do so into an indefinite future.

What is more, a close attention to the debate seems to indicate that most people feel both pulls. They have to go one way, but they never fully shake off the call of the other. So the faith of believers is fragilized, not just by the fact that other people, equally intelligent, often equally good and dedicated, disagree with them, but also by the fact that they can still see themselves as reflected in the other perspective, that is, as drawn by a too-indulgent view of things. For what believer doesn’t have the sense that her view of God is too simple, too anthropocentric, too indulgent? We all lie to some extent ‘‘cowering’’ under ‘‘the agnostic vetoes upon faith as something weak and shameful.’’

On the other side, the call to faith is still there as an understood temptation. Even if we think that it no longer applies to us, we see it as drawing others. Part of the great continuing interest of James’s centuryold work is that it lays out the dynamics of this battle so well and clearly. He is on one side, but he helps you imagine what it’s like to be on either. In one way, we might interpret him as having wanted to show that you ought to come down on one side, the stronger thesis I offered above; but the weaker reading is just that he wanted to rebut the idea that reason forces you to the agnostic choice. As Edward Madden puts it in his introduction to The Will to Believe, James might be seen as arguing really for a ‘‘right to believe’’; the right to follow one’s own gut instinct in this domain, free of an intimidation grounded in invalid arguments.

What is especially striking about this account is that it brings out the bare issue so starkly, uncomplicated by further questions. It gives a stripped-down version of the debate; and this in two ways, both of which connect centrally to James’s take on religion as experience. First, precisely because he abandons so much of the traditional ground of religion, because he has no use for collective connections through sacraments or ways of life, because the intellectual articulations are made secondary, the key point—what to make of the gut instinct that there is something more?—stands out very clearly.

And this allows us to see the second way in which James focuses the debate. It is after all to do with religious experience, albeit in a sense somewhat more generic than James’s. As one stands on the cusp between the two great options, it is all a matter of the sense you have that there is something more, bigger, outside you. Now whether, granted you take the faith branch, this remains ‘‘religious experience’’ in James’s special sense, steering clear of collective connections and over-theorization, is a question yet to be determined. But as you stand on the cusp, all you have to go on is a (very likely poorly articulated) gut feeling.

James is our great philosopher of the cusp. He tells us more than anyone else about what it’s like to stand in that open space and feel the winds pulling you now here, now there. He describes a crucial site of modernity and articulates the decisive drama enacted there. It took very exceptional qualities to do this. Very likely it needed someone who had been through a searing experience of ‘‘morbidity’’ as James had been, and had come out the other side. But it also needed someone of wide sympathy and extraordinary powers of phenomenological description; further, it needed someone who could feel and articulate the continuing ambivalence in himself. It probably also needed someone who had ultimately come down, with whatever inner tremors, on the faith side; but this may be a bit of believers’ chauvinism that I am adding to the equation.

In any event, it is because James stands so nakedly and so volubly in this exposed spot that his work has resonated for a hundred years, and will go on doing so for many years to come.

Source: Charles Taylor, ‘‘Risking Belief: Why William James Still Matters,’’ in Commonweal, Vol. 129, No. 5, March 8, 2002, pp. 14–17.

Introduction by John E. Smith

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I. The Experimental Approach and the Generic Meaning of Religion
Whatever philosophical conclusions were to result from his inquiry, James was convinced that a psychological approach was necessary because of the intimate connection religion bears to individual, personal experience. It was for this reason that he turned to works of piety, autobiographies, confessions, and diaries for his primary material. He made clear at the outset that the question as to what the religious propensities are and what their philosophical significance may be represent two distinct and different orders of question. This distinction in turn translates itself into the difference between determining the origin and nature of something and seeking for its meaning or importance. The former he called an existential proposition and the latter a judgment of value. James held that neither ‘‘can be deduced immediately from the other,’’ but that the two can be connected through a theory specifying what peculiarities a feeling, state of mind, or belief taken as fact would have to possess in order to have value for some purpose.

As is well known, James rejected ‘‘medical materialism,’’ by which he meant the attempt to ‘‘explain’’ states of mind and their significance for the one who has them through the individual’s physical constitution. The conversion experience of Saint Paul, for example, would, on this approach, be understood through his epileptic symptoms. In opposition to this type of analysis, James insisted that causes and origins do not furnish the key to the meaning and value of experience; we must look instead to the fruits of our experience, not excluding the immediate delight we take in it. James’s three criteria for judging these fruits—immediate luminousness, philosophical reasonableness, and moral helpfulness—owe much to what he had learned from such works as Edwards’ Treatise Concerning Religious Affections and the writings of Saint Teresa. James was under no illusion about the difficulty of applying these criteria. These tests, as Perry has pointed out, have roots in James’s own philosophy, but it would be a mistake to suppose that he imposed them solely on his own initiative, for they reflect as well the criteria he saw being used by those engaged in assessing the validity of their own religious experience.

In marking out the topic, James made it clear that his central concern would be religion as it appears in the life and experience of the individual, in contrast to institutional and theological concerns. This emphasis is most evident in the well-known working definition of ‘‘religion’’ proposed for the purpose of the lectures—‘‘the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.’’ In a way that is reminiscent of Tillich’s characterization of religion as ‘‘ultimate concern.’’ James supplemented his definition by calling religion ‘‘a man’s total reaction upon life,’’ but with the understanding that it must be ‘‘solemn’’ as opposed to a trifling or cynical type of response. In his contrast of religion with morality, James, seeking to lay hold of what is distinctive of religion, set forth one of his deepest insights into the religious dimension.

For James the moral personality is one motivated by objective ends and not merely by personal considerations; dedication to these ends he saw as heroic because it calls for energy and may bring hardship and pain. James saw morality as a kind of cosmic patriotism always in need of volunteers. He chose that term advisedly because it focuses on the distinctive feature of the moral hero—‘‘the effort of volition.’’ ‘‘The moralist,’’ writes James, ‘‘must hold his breath and keep his muscles tense’’ in a stance toward life which is akin to an ‘‘athletic attitude.’’ This attitude, in James’s view, has its own value and is sufficient if all goes well, but it seemed to him that the moral personality lacks something that the religious man enjoys. James believed that the insufficiency of morality becomes manifest when the athletic attitude breaks down in the face of the decay of our bodies, or when a morbid fear arises from a sense of powerlessness and the failure of our purposes. To sustain life under these circumstances we need consolation in our weakness and a feeling that there is a spirit in the universe that recognizes and secures our life despite our shortcomings. James saw at this point what many have come to recognize as the absolutely distinctive feature of the religious: ‘‘There is a state of mind known to religious men, but to no other, in which the will to assert ourselves and hold our own has been displaced by a willingness to close our mouths and be as nothing in the floods and waterspouts of God. . . . Fear is not held in abeyance as it is by mere morality, it is positively expunged and washed away.’’ This religious feeling, the ‘‘gift of grace’’ which cannot be commanded at will, James regarded as an addition to the person’s life in the form of a special happiness that goes beyond finite escapes, reliefs, and liberations. As James correctly saw, those who think of religion largely in terms of an ‘‘escape’’ miss the essential point; from the religious standpoint there is no need for escape because of the firm conviction that the evil of the world has been permanently overcome. How religion annuls annihilation is said to be ‘‘religion’s secret,’’ and to understand it one must be a religious person of ‘‘the extreme type.’’

We shall, of course, have more dealings with surrender in connection with the sick soul and regeneration. It is sufficient now to emphasize James’s concern to grasp what belongs, to religion as such, in contrast to those states of mind which ‘‘fall short’’ of that mark. James was well aware that morality requires a surrender of petty and egotistical concerns, but he regarded the form of the surrender in religion as unique. In religion, he claimed, surrender is ‘‘positively espoused’’ in an attitude of joy; in other frames of mind surrender may be accepted as a necessity and sacrifice endured without complaint, but the surplus of joy is missing. It is remarkable indeed and a testimony to James’s willingness to follow the facts that, despite his strong commitment to the moral and strenuous life, he nevertheless recognized the limits of moral endeavor and had a genuine appreciation for the religious insight that tells us there are goods in human life only to be attained by surrender or ‘‘letting go.’’

As James rightly saw, religion is not something that can be understood by attending only to the individual self, a fact underlined in his working definition. There he refers to the individual standing in relation to whatever is taken to be ‘‘the divine,’’ and this means a response to a reality standing beyond the self—the unseen order. Religion in the broadest terms involves the belief that there is, an unseen order and that our supreme good is found in harmoniously adjusting ourselves to it. Here he was echoing the view, well established among philosophers and historians of religion, that the most ancient and pervasive conception of the divine is to be found in the idea of a sacred order embracing justice and truth and presiding over human destiny. James repeatedly insisted that whatever other beliefs religion may include, the conviction that reality is not exhausted by the visible world is absolutely essential.

Belief in the unseen world has special signifi- cance for James because it shows our capacity to respond to what is in consciousness as an object not of the senses but of thought alone, and he was interested in determining how the sentiment of reality gradually adheres to what comes before us in the form of pure ideas for which there is no corresponding model in any past experience. In passages that may indeed sound strange coming frown an ‘‘empiricist,’’ James argued that not only in religion but in our knowledge of nature abstract ideas ‘‘form the background for all our facts’’ and that through them we are able to understand and to deal with the world. That our minds can be so determined by abstractions he took to be one of the cardinal ‘‘facts in our human constitution.’’ In the realm of religion this background shows itself in the form of an object of belief—the unseen world—calling forth such a powerful sentiment of reality that a person’s entire life is affected by it, even though that ‘‘object’’ is not present to our mind in the sense that we could give it a definite description. In support of his claim, James perceptively pointed out that there are ‘‘ethical societies’’ or ‘‘churches without a God’’ where the moral law is regarded as more real than the objects of ordinary experience and that many scientists look upon the ‘‘laws of nature’’ with a reverence that borders on the religious. We shall have occasion later to see the significant role that the idea of the cosmic order came to play in James’s development of his hypothesis about the ‘‘More’’ and the individual’s relation to it.

James had his ambivalences and ambiguities; he could, for example, denounce rationalism and the a priori while commending an experiential approach and yet at the same time side with the a priorists in their account of basic categories and necessary truths, concluding that in this matter ‘‘the so-called Experience philosophy has failed to prove its point.’’ Therefore we must not be misled by the emphasis he placed on the role of pure ideas in support of his claim about the unseen world. For we are also told that the feeling of reality is more like a sensation than an intellectual function and that feelings of this sort are more convincing than the results of reasoning. It would appear, then, that reason is not the source of the sense of reality nor can it help buttress that sense. According to James, the convictions about what is real that determine the course of lives derive from a level deeper than argument. He was quite confident that we know that those premises prepared in our subconscious life which now impinge on our consciousness are truer than any arguments to the contrary. Bradley once remarked that metaphysics consists in finding bad reasons for what we all believe on instinct; similarly, James maintained that in religion and metaphysics, rational articulation has its force only when feelings of reality ‘‘have already been impressed in favor of the same conclusion.’’ This would certainly suggest that, despite James’s talk about our intuitions and reason working together, the relation between the two is more akin to that of master and slave; ‘‘Our impulsive belief,’’ James writes, ‘‘is here always what sets up the original body of truth, and our philosophy is but its showy verbalized translation.’’

To consider the issue posed here at any length would take us too far afield; one point, however, must be noted in an effort to avoid confusion. James could have retained his view that the sense of reality attaching to belief in the unseen is not the product of coercive argument and even retained his claim that religious experience has no intellectual content of its own, without also assigning a status to concepts and arguments which ipso facto excludes them from making any positive contribution to the interpretation and appraisal of religious experience. This point is crucial, and it stems entirely from James’s failure to develop a consistent theory of the nature and role of concepts; at times he held a positive view according to which concepts perform the valid function of articulating meaning implicit in direct experience, while at others he saw concepts as mere surrogates for such experience, second-hand and derivative forms of expression to be set, as dead formulas, against the individual’s living encounters with reality. The latter view, if pushed consistently, would militate against James’s own analyses in Varieties itself. It is most likely that he did not feel the need to consider the matter further because, as he said, his claim is not that it is better for the subconscious and nonrational to hold primacy in religion, but rather ‘‘that they do so hold it as a matter of fact.’’ Fact, it would seem, is as capable of ending an argument as it is of supporting one.

II. The Sick Soul, the Divided Self, and the Process of Regeneration
The key to understanding what James meant by the sick soul has two aspects: first, the idea is intimately related to his distinction between the ‘‘once-born’’ and the ‘‘twice-born,’’ and, second, the predicament of the sick soul stands in marked contrast to what James called ‘‘the religion of healthy-mindedness.’’ The onceborn dwell on the cheer, the goodness, the light, the beneficence, and the kindness in the world and envisage no obstacles that cannot be overcome by holding fast to the attitude of optimism. The twiceborn are acutely aware of the darker aspects of the universe, the evil it contains, and the human propensities that contribute to sorrow, suffering, sin, and corruption; they, moreover, find no resolution for this situation either in the denial of the reality of these facts or in the belief that they can be overcome by human resources alone. The sick soul obviously falls within the second category and finds the world’s meaning not in any turning away from or denial of evil, but rather in coming to terms with it in the fear and anguish of personal life. The once-born, on the contrary, look upon the expressed concerns of the sick soul as ‘‘morbid’’ and self-defeating, ills that are easily vanquished by firmly adhering to the optimistic frame of mind so well exhibited by Walt Whitman, whom James described as a ‘‘paradigm’’ of this outlook on life.

Here James made everything depend on the two basically different ways in which we regard evil. There are those, James wrote, for whom evil means ‘‘only a mal-adjustment with things’’ and hence is something that is curable though change and readjustment. At the other pole are those who do not envisage evil as primarily a relation between the self and particular external things, but as ‘‘something more radical and general, a wrongness or vice in [one’s] essential nature,’’ not to be cured by rearranging the environment or even the inner self because it ‘‘requires a supernatural remedy.’’ Ever sensitive to the nuances, James laid hold here of an important and often neglected distinction: those who regard evil as ills and sins in the plural, he said, invariably see them as ‘‘removable in detail,’’ while those for whom sin is singular, something ineradicably ingrained in our natural subjectivity, see no resolution in terms of ‘‘superficial piecemeal operations.’’

From his study of the profound experiences of Tolstoy and Bunyan, James was convinced that our entire emotional state, by which he meant a person’s total to the world, basically affects the sort of world we encounter. If we were to strip ourselves of all the emotion the world inspires in us and try to experience the world as it exists purely in itself, the deadness that would result would be unimaginable— there would be no significance, no character, no perspective, no concern. The world would just be ‘‘there’’—a medley of many colorless things. Tolstoy’s temporary anhedonia, his experience of the world as remote, sinister, strange, and dull, had, in James’s view, the powerful effect of changing his experience of reality because this negative perception induced him to seek a resolution beyond the estrangement that had thrown him into despair. James’s chief complaint against the healthy-minded attitude is that it prevents us from ever seeing the force of this predicament. When failure, the awareness of the transiency of things and goods, the disappearance of youth, and the specter of death press upon us, the healthy-minded, sustaining their happy-go-lucky attitude, can say no more than ‘‘Cheer up, old fellow,’’ and James regarded that as no answer at all. Unlike Tolstoy, who confronted his disenchantment with life by posing questions— Why should I live? Why should I do anything? Is there in life any purpose?—and who, through the very concern manifest in these candid questions, sought for and found a resolution overcoming melancholy, the healthyminded can but resign and settle for an Epicurean refinement or a Stoic moral purity, the highest level possible for the once-born. James declared this way of confronting the negative aspects of life as totally inadequate because it leaves the world in ‘‘the shape of an unreconciled contradiction’’ and seeks ‘‘no higher unity.’’

James’s appraisal of the impasse that exists between the healthyminded and those who take the experience of evil seriously throws further light on the criteria of judgment he employed. After concluding that ‘‘morbid-mindedness ranges over the wider scale of experience,’’ James went on to say that, regardless of the extent to which healthymindedness ‘‘works’’ or fulfills a psychologically important function (and he admitted that for certain purposes it does), it nevertheless breaks down and shows its impotence when melancholy settles upon us. In addition, and this is the important point, James declared healthy-mindedness to be wanting as a ‘‘philosophical doctrine’’ because the evil it refuses to account for or even acknowledge is a genuine part of reality. Since, he argued, the reality of evil cannot be denied, there is a philosophical presumption that it should have some rational significance, and hence those who disregard evil adopt an outlook less comprehensive than one finds in systems that try to include the negative elements in human life. This shows that, for all his criticism of abstract rationality, James had not abandoned it altogether in order to assess beliefs solely in terms of their satisfying certain human needs. There is, in fact, a most interesting mixture of the psychological, the philosophical, and the religious in this part of the argument. Healthy-mindedness has been acknowledged to have a certain legitimacy in meeting psychological needs, but it falls short philosophically in its failure to come to terms with the reality of evil. Finally, the optimistic attitude is subject to religious criticism as well. For in James’s view the most complete religions ‘‘are those in which the pessimistic elements are best developed,’’ and he cited Buddhism and Christianity as meeting the standard because both are religions of deliverance wherein one must die to an unreal life in order to enter into the real existence. For the once-born there is nothing insurmountable to be delivered from, no unreal life in the first place.

A reader of Varieties wonder whether James thought of the sick soul and the divided self as the same. The answer is that he did, but there is some difference of emphasis in his discussion of them. To begin with, both conceptions refer to the twiceborn, but in considering the sick soul James paid more attention to the actual variety of psychological states and moods involved, whereas in his account of the divided self the focus is on a more abstract feature—the fundamental nature of the discordance in the self and on the ways in which the self may be unified in conversion. The point becomes clear when one considers James’s choice of a passage from Saint Augustine’s Confessions as a cardinal example of the divided self. Reflecting on his vivid awareness of the conflict within him between two wills, the carnal will (well established through habit) and the spiritual will (which should have mastery but proves to be too weak), Augustine wrote, ‘‘It was myself indeed in both the wills, yet more myself in that which approved in myself than in that which I disapproved in myself.’’ What more candid acknowledgment of this predicament could there be? Augustine was, as he confessed, convinced that he should surrender to divine love, but he was unable to give up the self that pleased him more, and hence he remained in bondage. His anguish stemmed from the shame he felt in the face of his ambivalence; he knew that the spiritual self should triumph, but he also knew that he was unable to will the victory. This experience served to focus the central concern manifest in James’s account of conversion: How is the divided self to be unified and the inner discord overcome so that the higher self may emerge in the process?

As a prelude to considering this question, James made two observations based on the cases he studied. The first is that the unification of the divided self may occur in more than one way: gradually or abruptly, through alterations in our feelings or powers to act, through new intellectual insights, or through mystical experience. In short, there are varieties in the forms of conversion and no single standard pattern. Second, and more important, James conceived the problem of reaching unity out of discord in such general terms that the religious solution is made to appear as but one type among others. New birth may even take the form of a move away from religion, into an attitude of disbelief, or newness of life may be found in abandoning a rigorous morality for a life of liberty and license. Nor are these all the possibilities he envisaged. Firmness and stability in life, he claimed, may result from any number of stimuli—love, ambition, revenge, or patriotic devotion—because we are dealing with the ‘‘same psychological form of event,’’ an equilibrium following a turmoil of conflict and inconsistency. Having conceived the situation in such broad terms, James then faced the new problem of distinguishing the specifically religious form of conversion from other types.

By ‘‘conversion’’ James meant a regeneration or renewal of life whereby the person acquires assurance that the divided self has been overcome. Transformation of the self means essentially the establishing of a dominant aim that expels all rivals and becomes the habitual center of a person s energies. Religious conversion means that religious beliefs previously dormant or merely peripheral now become central and dominant. It is noteworthy that James described the mind of the candidate for conversion in much the same terms he would later employ in his summary statement about the nature of all religion. The individual, he wrote, starts with an awareness of incompleteness, wrongness, and sin, and sin, and from this consciousness springs the desire to escape; the transformation is effected when the ‘‘positive ideal’’ for which the person longs becomes the center of life. We have here nothing other than the ‘‘uneasiness’’ and the ‘‘resolution’’ formula that James held to be the ‘‘uniform deliverance in which religions all appear to meet.’’ We shall return to this contention; at this juncture, however, we should note that the ‘‘uniform deliverance’’ helps us to understand the nature of specifi- cally religious conversion. As James repeatedly emphasized, the type of defect in man envisaged by such religions as Buddhism, Judaism, and Christianity is not to be abolished by an act of will stemming from the same self that is in need, and this dearly suggests that religious conversion is essentially of the involuntary type. As James’s many examples show, the emergence of the regenerated self cannot be conceived as a wholly volitional affair.

One of the most instructive parts of James’s psychological account of self-surrender has to do with the new light that it throws on the limits of the will to believe. When we find a man who is inconsolable, caught in a web of sin and want, James wrote, it is simply absurd to tell him that all is well and that there is no reason for worry. For the only consciousness he has tells him that all is not well; such advice is not only inappropriate but simply false. ‘‘The will to believe,’’ James freely acknowledged, ‘‘cannot be stretched as far as that.’’ We may strengthen our faith in an incipient belief already possessed, but ‘‘we cannot create a belief out of whole cloth,’’ especially when our experience tells us the opposite. The reason that the voluntary solution cannot work is that the better attitude proposed for overcoming the predicament is a negation of the only mind we have and, as James maintained, ‘‘we cannot actively will a pure negation.’’ This should help to dispose of the widely held belief that James had an extravagant conception of the scope within which the will to believe can be effective. He was here making the same point he had made at the beginning of his essay ‘‘The Will to Believe.’’ As regards a present fact, the mind is bound down, and the will cannot force belief to the contrary. As he wrote, a man with a high fever may say that he is well, but he is powerless to believe it. Similarly, the person in despair is unable to believe that his despair is illusory and that he lives in a world of hope.

James’s concern to persuade his audience expressed itself repeatedly in attempts to anticipate objections. In this instance he considered the possibility that the whole phenomenon of regeneration might be a strictly ‘‘natural’’ process, divine in its fruits, but neither more nor less so in its causation and mechanism than any other process of man’s inner life. Although he referred to ‘‘the whole phenomenon of regeneration,’’ the basic question he raised was prompted by a consideration of ‘‘instantaneous conversion’’ accompanied by the belief that a special miraculous visitation from the divine is in evidence. Here the ‘‘field’’ theory of consciousness, according to which a complex mental episode replaces the singular ‘‘idea’’ that was the focus of associationist psychology, provided him with a means of clarifying what might be involved in supposed sudden transformations of the self. Since this field is not determinate, there is in addition to the ordinary field of consciousness an extramarginal one that remains related to the primary consciousness and makes its presence felt. This extramarginal consciousness is what James called the ‘‘subconscious self.’’ His main contention with regard to sudden conversion is that the subject must have a well-developed subconscious self congenial to influences from beyond it and that when this essential condition is fulfilled there may come a critical point at which the subconscious takes command and the new self is born. James, however, speaking as a psychologist, did not claim that describing the process in these terms precludes the presence of the divine. On the contrary, he saw the subliminal as a door that might remain ‘‘ajar or open’’ to higher spiritual influences, but he insisted that without that door these powers would be lost in the ‘‘hubbub of the waking life.’’

Now, we may ask, what contribution does this excursion into the matter of sudden conversion make to answering the question of whether the process of regeneration is a ‘‘natural’’ one or not? The answer is that the psychologically acceptable theory of the subliminal self provided James with the mechanism for describing the process of conversion in terms consistent with ‘‘natural’’ explanation, but he clearly understood that the subconscious does not of itself generate the powers that may impinge on it from without. This ‘‘supernatural’’ dimension was to enter the picture later on when James dealt with the idea of the ‘‘More’’ in reality, especially on its ‘‘far’’ side. At this point, however, it needs to be stressed that, despite what James said about Jonathan Edwards’ failure to show that any chasm exists between a supernatural state of grace and an ‘‘exceptionally high degree of natural goodness,’’ he did not deny that the ‘‘perception of external control,’’ the sense of being related to a transcendent reality beyond our will, is an essential element in any account of regeneration. For after all, James never gave up his contention that the divided self, understood in the religious sense, is unable to unify itself from its own resources.

Source: John E. Smith, ‘‘Introduction by John E. Smith,’’ in The Varieties of Religious Experience, Harvard University Press, 1985, pp. xi–li.


Critical Overview