Varieties of Religious Experience

Anyone who has done some reading in religion, philosophy or psychology might know that the title for my inspirational piece is also the title of a very famous book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James.  This book was originally published in 1902.  Most things written that long ago I would not bother to read because the assumption is it’s outdated.  Sometimes being a classic means it is old, but someone thinks I should read it!  In James’ case it is old, but I read it and have re-read it.
I admit I had not thought about the book in some time.  But I recently read an account of a person who talked about how important the book was to her.  Sidney Callahan wrote a piece for a publication that regularly gives some attention to classic books.  In Callahan’s essay we find someone who writes appreciatively of having read James’ classic work and she describes in some detail the power and lasting effect the book had on her.  The precipitated my own musing about the influence of James’ thought on my own intellectual development.

The book James published was originally delivered as lectures for the famous Scottish series, The Gifford Lectures.  The lectures were founded by Lord Gifford to bring distinguished speakers to one of the four major Scottish universities to lecture on “natural theology.”  In other words Lord Gifford wanted to hear people talk about “knowledge of God.”  The first lecture was presented in 1888 and continues to this day.  I read James’ book in graduate school and have referred to it many times since.

I was first attracted to the book because James focuses on religious experience.  This is where my own Quaker tradition always begins---with experience.  I know this is different than many Christian traditions, which tend to begin with doctrine.  Certainly Quakers get to doctrine---statements of belief.  But behind doctrine we find experience---at least the experience of the earlier folks who gave us the doctrine.  What I appreciated about William James is his quest to get back to the primary religious experience people have.  And I liked what Callahan shares about her own reading of the classic piece.

James prepared for this task by reading and travelling very widely.  His father was a wealthy man who could afford his son’s delay into working for a living.  When William James finally settled into a teaching career, it was as a professor of psychology and philosophy at Harvard.  Here he became famous.  My own time on Harvard’s campus led me past a thirteen high rise building known as the William James Building, which housed philosophy, psychology and social relations professors.  One can say James left a lasting legacy on campus and around the world.

Callahan reminds me of the array of themes James pursues.  He talks about conversion, depression, and the neurological account of religious experience.  He considers whether we concoct our own religious experience or whether there is something “real” in those experiences.  He cites a range of people---historical and contemporary in his own time.  One of my favorites in his book was George Fox, the seventeenth century founder of Quakerism.  James thinks Fox was a kind of religious genius, but he also was probably slightly crazy.  I agree!

Callahan gives a good way to judge the merit of not only James’s efforts but the value of religious experiences and ideas in their own right.  She asks first, “are they morally helpful?”  The second question she asks is “do they make cognitive sense with everything else that is known?”  This seems to be a very valuable criterion even today.  In effect, this criterion says if our religious experience is so kooky as not to square with the world, as we know it, we better be cautious.  Her third question asks whether our religious ideas and experience are “immediately luminous?”  In effect this asks if they lead to good things, like goodness, joy and love?  If not, maybe they are not genuinely religious.

I appreciate a book like James’ Varieties because it does some hard work of investigating and legitimizing religious experience.  It affirms the mystery at work in our world, recognizing that mystery can be experienced, but not necessarily fully explained.  This means I can be content with science and its attempt to explain and elaborate more and more the world we live in.  I appreciate this and am thankful for science.

But I also realize there is a mystery at work in the world---call it God, if you want---that finally cannot be explained and elaborated.  We can experience God, we can talk about God and even follow and serve God.  This is a noble life---a God-directed life.  It is a life based on experience.  In my own life that religious experience contained a call, elicited commitment and resulted in a lifetime of service and ministry to many.  It has been a satisfying, open-ended journey.  It is a journey that will ultimately take me into my own death.  And mysteriously who knows beyond that.  But I am grateful.

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