Saturday, July 5, 2008

Cliff Notes: The Reality of the Unseen

I failed to include in the last summary a crucial idea for James: that religious joy is chiefly a solemn joy, not marked by giggles or wry mischief- it is a rather more sober reaction to the joy of divine reality experienced. The notion remains important for the next three lectures, the first of which is about that reality that provokes the joy of authentic religion.

And the reality of that object is strange, because "the concrete objects of most men's religion, the deities whom they worship, are known only in idea." That is that religious experience offers a curious contradiction: that the reality which the religious hold in higher esteem is that of the abstract, the unseen, that without any physical manifestation. This counters our own tendencies in the West to hold the concede, the observable as the more ultimate reality.

And yet the primacy of the unseen is not unnatural, and not unprecedented. Religious belief, for James, is merely a particular expression of a broader propensity. Ideas have always powerfully moved and influenced the lives of many people. Our notions of beauty, justice, goodness, depend entirely on abstraction and cannot exist without them- as the Ancient Greeks knew through Plato and Aristotle.

So we find that despite the lack of positive content, abstractions matter more than the concrete. As Kant noted, we can behave as if there were God, and as if we were free, and as if we were immortal, only to find that this way of believing, this way of acting in good faith, can indeed radically transform our lives, especially in the moral sphere.

This mode of belief seems to work because humans have a "sense of reality, a feeling of objective presence, a perception of what we may call 'something there,' more deep and more general than any of the special and particular 'senses' by which current psychology supposes existent realities to be originally revealed."

This means that what James calls "hallucinatory" experiences become the prime religious experience, and he includes no few vivid examples worth reading in their own right. These moments mater because they are the points at which people access this 'something there' (or are accessed by it). And while it is not necessary to interpret these experiences of the 'quasi-sensible' religiously, it is certainly not unnatural to do so.

And it is, again, precisely these experiences which have radically transformed the lives of the religious- the various types of these transformations become the subject of the next several lectures.

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