The Varieties of Religious Experience – Lecture 2

Chapter-by-chapter thoughts on William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience (hardcoverKindle).

Lecture II – Circumscription of the Topic

guidobrunimichaelJames has set himself a daunting task. But first things first: definitions. Religion can mean many things to many people, but he defines it thusly: “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” That’s a mouthful! But what is divine? Several pages later, James responds, “The divine shall mean for us only such a primal reality as the individual feels impelled to respond to solemnly and gravely, and neither by a curse nor a jest.” In other words, in James’ world, religion and the divine are serious business. No laughing Buddhas here, I assume.

James himself is not without humor, however. In discussing how people react to the harsh realities of the universe, he cites the American transcendentalist Margaret Fuller’s “I accept the universe,” and Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle’s pithy response, “Gad! she’d better!” He also contrasts Marcus Aurelius’ Stoic resignation to fate (i.e. accept what comes as being all for the good) to the typical Christian embrace of reality as an opportunity for spiritual enlightenment and earthly action.

So what kind of religious experience is James interested in? Certainly not the mundane habits of those born and raised in a particular religion, who adhere to their inherited orthodoxies more or less out of ignorance and conformity. No, James believes one can understand a phenomenon best by investigating its extremes, he wants to look at “those religious experiences which are most one-sided, exaggerated, and intense.” Hey, at least it’ll be exciting!

It’s often been said that we wouldn’t know what good is without also knowing the bad. James says that religious happiness is bolstered by the knowledge that unhappiness is held at bay. He describes a painting by Guido Bruni of the angel Michael, standing triumphant with his foot on a prostrate Satan’s neck. “The world is all the richer for having a devil in it,” says James, “so long as we keep our foot upon his neck.”

James provides a few lines of verse in German, which I discovered are from Goethe’s Faust. In English, it roughly translates:

Deny yourself! You must deny yourself! / That is the song that never ends, / Which sounds in everyone’s ears / Because, all our lives / We sing hoarsely every hour.

Returning to the second of James’ original questions regarding religious experience…of what use is it? Per James, “Religion thus makes easy and felicitous what in any case is necessary.” Is he saying religion enables us to endure the unendurable?

On to Lecture III!

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