ReRead W. James 2.0

A Sunday morning post about reading more in William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience.  I am somewhat surprised and pleased to realize that what I first read in 1971 has influenced my thinking over the years and I believe I am closer in sentiment to it now than ever.  One theme for James is that religion is different for different people.  He considers many examples of conversion, the transition from disbelief to belief, and focuses on the difference between those who come to belief more easily in an expansive mood and those who first descend into suffering and contractive depression before their conversion and rise to a more blessed state.  He finds that these differences correspond to personality types and thus conjectures that religion serves different psychological needs for different people.  Further, as many examples of the second conversion show a rapid transition, James thinks such changes, unknown to the owner prior to the overt conversion experience, must have been preparing in the ‘subliminal’ or unconscious part of the mind.  Remember that in 1906 subconscious processes were just beginning to be understood.  Okay.  Some preachers back in his day (and in my youth for that matter) thought that the second type where the person hit bottom and then was redeemed signaled a more genuine or holier or deeper conversion than those who believed without the depressive phase.  James, while acknowledging he is no theologian, questioned whether there are in fact two levels of salvation and what would that mean about God, heaven and hell, etc.

Also in 1906 a movement James characterized as the religion of healthy mindedness was very prominent at least in America and some parts of Europe.  These proponents, such as Mary Baker Eddy of Christian Science, believed that as you thought so would it go.  To be healthy, then, demanded that you think healthy and positive thoughts and banished negative thoughts about ill health.  In considering this phenomena James finds two sorts of religious attitudes, this one focused on a happy place to the exclusion of the problems of the world and its converse that’s focused on the problems.  In his judgement, James believes that given the state of the world and reality, the second to be more comprehensive.  James discusses Walt Whitman and his poetry here, saying that Whitman “owes his importance to literature to the systematic expulsion from his writings of all contractile elements . . . many persons today regard [him] as the restorer of the eternal natural religion.”  The term ‘contractile’ refers to the sorrowful negative focus of some religious thinking (and ‘expansive’ refers to a joyous positive focus).

The ‘eternal natural religion’ goes back to James’ view that the inception of all religious feelings (and there is a variety) lies in the human sense of a reality behind the one apparent to our senses.  There is “an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in adjusting ourselves harmoniously thereto”.  Again, James is careful to frame his discussion in descriptive and scientific terms and separately from his own beliefs.  Why?  Because “No one organism can possibly yield to its owner the whole body of truth”.  Amen.


James himself struggled with ill health and depression.  He endured painful back problems and was chronically suicidal during part of his youth.  He initially prepared to be an artist but changed in his late teens to pursue medicine and psychology, such as it was in his day.  He attended Harvard, or its schools of science and medicine, which was not well respected back then.  Darwin had published Origin a few years earlier and many of the professors were not enamored of it nor of the developing scientific positivism.  James negotiated this circumstance by educating himself when he thought his instruction was lacking and so came to contribute mightily to philosophy and the science of psychology.  He also negotiated the influence of his father, a very intelligent man who was a disciple of Swedenborg, an arcane theologian who preached, based upon visionary revelations, that the kingdom of god was already at hand (sort of, my memory of this is weak).  Anyway, a very interesting guy (I am also reading a bio, Robert Richardson’s William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism).  Next post on truth and grammar.

One thought on “ReRead W. James 2.0

  1. A nice summary of one of my favorite books of all time!

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