Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Cliff Notes: The Varieties of Religious Experience

The American psychologist and philosopher William James penned the classic The Varieties of Religious Experience in 1902, establishing a uniquely scientific and charitable method of thinking about religion.

Originally delivered as a series of the renowned Gifford lectures, the chapters of the Varieties examine the lives of more than two hundred believers who had known profound religious transformation. Few other works have so quickly become canon for both psychology and philosophy, and the text was crucial to James’s developing Pragmatism, America’s sole contribution to formal philosophy. It is still in print today, more than 100 years later.

Focusing on individual experience and respectfully analyzing common themes and elements in believer’s own powerful words, James changed the way generations of scholars and Christians alike have thought about the elements of faith.

Join me over the next few weeks at Curious Monk, as I walk through this modern classic. Tonight I address James’s own introductory remarks.

James begins the Varieties by insisting that his own approach to examining religion has been and will be reliant on the literature of individual believers. This is opposed to what would have been more common approaches to examining faith via physiology, as connected to upsets of digestion or organs (persons in extremis).

He also asserts that he will be disregarding the faith of most believers, who practiced a hereditary and cultural form of faith, a second-hand religion that would reveal little about transformative psychological experience. Rather, he will focus on “religious geniuses,” those relatively few believers who have had profound experiences of faith, and who could relate those phenomena articulately.

That these individuals have also often been linked to psychological neuroses does not bother James at all, as he dismisses “medical materialism,” the belief that the factuality of physical causes bears direct relation to the value of its result. That is, hallucinations produced by hunger, in James’ estimation, would be no less valid, and would relate no less truth, than those explained in other ways. Biology does not dismiss religion, in James’s view.

Rather, he pursues precisely those individuals otherwise aberrant, first, because psychological aberration can illuminate psychological normalcy, and second, because those people who have been profoundly and strangely transformed by religion have been precisely the ones to contribute the most to it.

This is true most famously in the case of George Fox, the founder of the Quakers; in the 1600’s Fox famously decried the bloody town of Lichfield without knowing until much later that 1000 Christians had been martyred there under the Roman Empire. Fox believed he had been led by Spirit to make the prophecy.

This is precisely the sort of man, and the sort of experience, that The Varieties has in mind.


Anne G G said...

Oooh, William James. I didn't know anything about his studies of the psychology of religion when I picked up the book "Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death." The book is a fascinating, fun read and from my point of view interfaces substantially with what you've described here. I suspect that reading more primary sources by James would shed a lot of light on my secondary look at his interest in the paranormal.

brd said...

Gee, perhaps I better pull out my old copy of Varieties.

Curious Monk said...

please do! lord knows i've struggled with it. why shouldn't someone else :)