Christian Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 278

In his attempt to identify the psychological basis for the variety of religious experience, James delineates the following principles, which reflected a growing need to explain spirituality in general, and Christian spiritual life in particular, in the context of a growing secularism at the beginning of the twentieth century:Neurological and physiological conditions are as irrelevant in evaluating a person’s religious experiences as they are in evaluating a scientist’s physical hypothesis. Religious experiences should be evaluated in terms of their philosophical reasonableness and moral helpfulness. A person’s psychological makeup contributes to the more specific characteristics of a person’s religious experiences, and this accounts for the variety among religious experiences. An examination of the reports of religious experience discloses three general beliefs and two psychological characteristics. The beliefs are: (1) the visible world is part of a more spiritual universe from which it draws its significance; (2) that union or harmonious relations with that higher universe is our true end; and (3) that prayer or communion with the spirit thereof is a process in which spirit energy produces effects within the phenomenal world. The two psychological characteristics are: (1) a new zest that adds itself like a gift to life; and (2) an assurance of safety and a temper of peace, and in relation to others, a preponderance of loving affection. The differences between religious beliefs are differences in over-beliefs, the way in which the vaguer and more general beliefs are made specific and the spiritual is related to the cosmos. Religious experiences are primarily concerned with individual feelings and destinies, but this is not to be deplored; such experiences deal with realities in the completest sense of that term.

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1188

In order to talk about religious experience, James must first define the term religion. He quickly points out that the main theme of his lectures is not the institution of religion but rather the personal experience of it. His focus is on the psychological aspects of religion, and to do this, he must deal with the individual. Following the same premise, he also states that it is not the rules and rituals of religious experience in which he is interested but the religious feelings and the emotions of the individual. To this end, he relies on stories about people he has known and works of literature and autobiography he has read. He writes that he does not want to use examples from religious people who follow ‘‘the conventional observances’’ of their country. In other words, he does not want to use examples of people who comply with the dictates of their church. Rather, he wants to use only people who have what he calls original experiences. The religion he refers to is that which ‘‘exists not as a dull habit, but as an acute fever.’’ Having established this definition, James then tackles all aspects of the personal religious experiences.

There is a sense of an unknown reality or power that exists in religious experiences. This sense is the basis of belief. Whatever this feeling is, it cannot be seen and yet it gives the believer the idea that there is some mystical order in life. As James writes, religious experience imparts the desire to align oneself with this power, as it is the source of supreme good in which all things are harmonious. This belief, James states, is the ‘‘religious attitude of the soul.’’ Belief in general, James writes, is like stating ‘‘as if.’’ Taking the concept from philosopher Immanuel Kant, James offers the conclusion that belief consists of...

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