This is an abridged version (or in-depth review) of William James’ classic “The Varieties of Religious Experience.” Along with the content from James’ book, included are numerous brief biographies of individuals featured in his book (for example, Tolstoy, Voltaire, Cromwell, Tennyson, Hegel, Martin Luther). A reader of this work should find it of historical social, as well as religious, or spiritual, significance. It is also, at times, a humorous piece therefore, it is not only intellectually enlightening but an exceedingly enjoyable read. James is an extraordinary intellect and communicator and thus it is a humble task to dare to contract, and sometimes rework (although infrequently) in contemporary parlance his ingenious work.
I must also add, for this is important, that this work, “The Varieties of Religious Experience” is not at all intended as a promulgation of the Christian faith. Let us remember that it was produced over a hundred years ago and William James is an American and, the book is based on lectures, the Gifford Lectures, given by him at the University in Edinburgh, Scotland. Christianity is the common faith of that time and geography. I should also state that, whereas a writer today might use the word ‘spiritual’ in place of the word ‘religious’ (as James so often uses) here again we should not let our contemporary and personal views interfere with the meaningfulness and importance of the author’s treatise.
Another important qualification that I must make has to do with the numerous quotations in the work. James relies on a number of sources; excerpts from various books, letters, and other documents, to illustrate his points. While I find it necessary to, at times, alter the wordage from these sources (ever so slightly and always true to the statements made) for the sake of clarity, brevity and flow I maintain the use of the quotation marks to denote the many sources of testimony other than those statements made by William James. I regret tainting the intended genuineness of a quoted statement but, in this particular case, I can see no other, better way.
This is an intellectual piece; not quick and easy information. It’s worth the investment of time and effort to learn of the many fascinating accounts of religious and mystical experiences of [for the most part western culture] renown individuals and their subsequent influence on humankind’s, including the reader’s, spiritual evolution. James’s book is probably the best (and truly fascinating) source for this study.
* Also, in general, the italicized text indicates my comments [prefaced by an L.T.]. Although, on occasion, James italicized words which I kept as they are in his book.
Leslie Taylor – October 2015
William James (1842 – 1910) was a psychologist and American philosopher and also trained as a physician. He was the first educator to offer a psychology course in the United States. James is believed by many to be one of the leading thinkers of the late nineteenth century and one of the most influential philosophers in the United States. Others consider him the father of American psychology.
He was born into a wealthy family in the Astor House in New York City; the son of a prominent and independently wealthy Swedenborgian theologian Henry James Sr. (see Emanuel Swedenborg at the end of Lecture l) who was well acquainted with the literary and intellectual elites of his day. William James was the brother of the prominent novelist Henry James (i.e.,“The American,” “Portrait of a Lady,” “The Wings of the Dove”) and the diarist Alice James (her diary, which she kept towards the end of her life, was published posthumously). James wrote on many topics including epistemology, education, metaphysics, psychology, religion and mysticism. His most renown and influential books are: “The Principles of Psychology,” “Essays in Radical Empiricism,” and “The Varieties of Religious Experience” which is an investigation into the different forms of the religious experience, and the subject of this review.
THE VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- Preface – Page 1
- Lecture I – Religion and Neurology – pages 1 – 5
- Lecture II – Circumscription of the Topic – pages 6 – 10
- Lecture III – The Reality of the Unseen – pages 11 – 14
- Lectures IV and V – The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness – pages 15 – 21
- Lectures VI and VII – The Sick Soul – pages 22 – 23
- Lectures VIII – The Divided Self and the Process of Its Unification – pages 23 – 36
- Lecture IX – Conversion – pages 36 – 42
- Lecture X – Conversion (continued) – pages 43 – 53
- Lectures XI, XII, and XIII – Saintliness – pages 54 – 76
- Lectures XIV and XV – The Value of Saintliness – pages 77 – 90
- Lectures XIV and XV – The Value of Saintliness (continued) – pages 91 – 98
- Lectures XVI and XVII – Mysticism – pages 99 – 117
- Lecture XVIII – Philosophy – pages 118 – 136
- Lecture XX – Conclusions – pages 137 – 148
- Postscript – pages 149 – 151
The “Varieties of Religious Experience” is the series of lectures given by William James who had been honored as Gifford Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, 1901 – 1902. The description of man’s religious constitution is the subject of the twenty lectures.
The author chooses to acquaint his readers with specific examples of the religious personality rather than an abstract, philosophical, however deep, analysis believing this will make us wiser on the topic. And, has chosen the known, or concrete, incidents amongst reports of the more extreme examples of the religious temperament, or personality. The reader may eventually regard the book as “to supply a caricature of the subject.” James states, “Such convulsions of piety, they will say, are not sane. If, however, they will have the patience to read to the end, I believe that this unfavorable impression will disappear …”
Lecture I – RELIGION AND NEUROLOGY
The author begins by stating, “I am neither a theologian, nor a scholar learned in the history of religions, nor an anthropologist. Psychology is the only branch of learning in which I am particularly versed. To the psychologist, the religious propensities of man must be at least as interesting as any other of the facts pertaining to his mental constitution. And, if the inquiry be psychological, not religious institutions, religious feelings and impulses must then be its subject.”
Therefore James confines himself to those developed subjective phenomena recorded in literature produced by articulate and fully self-conscious men, in works of piety and autobiography. It then follows from this, the documents that will most concern us will be those of the men who were most accomplished in the religious life and best able to give an intelligible account of their ideas and motives. These men are either relatively modern writers or else such earlier ones as to have their works become religious classics.
What are the religious propensities and, what is their philosophical significance? In books on logic, distinctions are made between two orders of inquiry concerning anything. First, what is its nature (its existential – in other words, its empirical, observational, qualities) and how did it come about (its origin and history)? And secondly, what is its importance, its meaning or significance now that it is here? If judged existentially (it’s observational qualities) only, we might then induce a spiritual judgment on the Bible’s worth. For, it must contain no scientific or historical errors and express no regional or personal passions. Thus then, the Bible would fare ill at our hands. On the other hand, a book may very well be a revelation in spite of errors and passions and deliberate human composition; that is, if it be a true record of the inner experiences of great-souled persons wrestling with the crises of their fate, the verdict would then be much more favorable. Thus, you can see here that the existential, observational facts by themselves are insufficient for determining value.
There can no doubt that a religious life, exclusively pursued, does tend to make the person exceptional and eccentric whether he be Buddhist, Christian or Mohammedan. For the ordinary follower, their religion has been made for them by others; communicated by tradition, determined to fixed forms by imitation, and retained by habit. It profits us little to study this secondhand religious life. We therefore search for the original experiences which are the pattern-setters to all this mass of religious feeling and imitated conduct. These extraordinary experiences we can only find in individuals for whom religion exists not as a dull habit but rather, as an acute fever. Religious geniuses, like geniuses of any field, have tended to show symptoms of nervous instability, James contends. And, more perhaps than other kinds of genius, religious leaders have been subject to abnormal psychical visitations. They, quite possibly, have been liable to obsession and fixed ideas; and frequently they have fallen into trances, heard voices, seen visions and presented all sorts of peculiarities which are, to the ordinary and thus are ordinarily, classified as pathological.
Here James provides a concrete example: George Fox (1624 – 1691) the founder of the Quaker religion (see top of page 5 below Annie Bessant for a brief description). While the Quaker religion is something which cannot be overpraised (I encourage the reader to learn of the Quaker religion if not familiar), Fox was anything but unsound according to everyone who confronted him personally. For, the likes of Oliver Cromwell to city magistrates, to the jailer, etc., seems to have acknowledged his superior power. Yet, from the point of view of his nervous constitution, Fox was a psychopath of the deepest dye. His journal abounds with entries of this sort:
“As I was walking with several friends, I lifted up my head, and saw three steeple-house spires, and they struck at my life. I asked them what place that was? They said, Lichfield. Immediately the word of the Lord came to me, that I must go thither. Being close to the house we were going to, I wished the friends to walk into the house, saying nothing to them of whither I was to go. As soon as they were gone I stepped away, and went by my eye over hedge and ditch till I came within a mile of Lichfield; where, in a great field, shepherds were keeping their sheep. Then was I commanded by the Lord to pull off my shoes. I stood still, for it was winter: but the word of the Lord was like a fire in me. So I took off my shoes and left them with the shepherds; and the poor shepherds trembled and were astonished. Then I walked on about a mile, and as soon as I was within the city, the word of the Lord came to me again, saying: Cry, ‘Wo to the bloody city of Lichfield!’ So I went up and down the streets, crying with a loud voice, ‘Wo to the bloody city of Lichfield!’ It being market day, I went into the market place and to and fro in the several parts of it, and made stands, crying as before, ‘Wo to the bloody city of Lichfield!’ And no one laid hands on me.”
“As I went thus crying through the streets, there seemed to me to be a channel of blood running down the streets and the market place appeared like a pool of blood. When I declared what was upon me, and felt myself clear, I went out of the town in peace; and returning to the shepherds gave them some money, and took my shoes of them again. But, the fire of the Lord was so on my feet and all over me, that I did not matter to put my shoes on again, and was at a stand whether I should or not, till I felt freedom from the Lord to do so: then, after I had washed my feet, I put on my shoes again. After this a deep consideration came upon me, for what reason should I be sent to cry against the city, and call it “the bloody city!”? For [in the past] the parliament had the one minister while, and the king another and much blood had been shed during the wars between them. Yet, there was no more than had befallen many other places. But afterwards I came to understand that in the Emperor Diocletian’s time a thousand Christians were martyred in Lichfield. So I was to go, without my shoes, through the channel of their blood, and into the pool of their blood in the market place, that I might raise up the memorial of the blood of those martyrs, which had been shed above a thousand years before, and lay cold in their streets. So, the sense of this blood was upon me, and I obeyed the word of the Lord.”
James then professes, that upon studying religion’s existential condition, we simply cannot possibly ignore these pathological aspects of the subject. Yet, he goes on to quote Spinoza, “I will analyze the actions and appetites of men as if it were a question of lines, of planes, and of solids.” And similarly, the “Spectator” critic, M. Taine writes, “Whether facts be moral or physical, it makes no matter – they always have their causes. There are causes for ambition, courage, and veracity, just as there are for digestion, muscular movement, and animal heat. Vice and virtue are products like vitriol [a sulfate – or salt] and sugar.” James indignantly remarks that when we read of such cold blooded assimilations, bent on showing the existential condition of absolutely everything; explaining our soul’s being and influence thus making them appear no more precious than groceries, we feel menaced and negated in the very springs of our innermost life.
James cites examples of medical materialism by unsentimental people on their more sentimental acquaintances; undoing their spiritual value. For example: Alfred believes in immortality so strongly because his temperament is so emotional. William’s melancholy about the universe is due to bad digestion – probably his liver is torpid. Eliza’s delight in her church is a symptom of her hysterical condition, and so on. The author here adds, there is not a single one of our states of mind, high or low, healthy or ill, that has not some organic process as its condition. Scientific theories are organically conditioned just as much as religious emotions are; and, if we could only know the facts intimately enough, we should no doubt see “the liver” determining the dicta of the sturdy atheist as decisively as it does those of the Methodist anxious about his soul.
Such physicalist claims, as those asserted above, are quite illogical and arbitrary unless one has worked out in advance some psycho-physical theory connecting spiritual values in general with physiological change. Otherwise none of our thoughts and feelings, not even our scientific doctrines, not even our disbeliefs, could retain any value as revelations of the truth. For, every one of them, without exception, does indeed flow from the state of its possessor’s body at any given time. If there is no physiological theory with which to accredit the favored states, then conversely, any attempt to discredit the states which are disliked (by associating them with nerves and the liver by giving them names connoting them with bodily afflictions) is altogether illogical and inconsistent. In the natural sciences and industrial arts it never occurs to anyone to try to refute opinions by showing up their author’s neurotic constitution. Opinions here are invariably tested by logic and experiment, no matter what may be their author’s neurological type. It should not be otherwise with religious opinions.
James adds, then, of course, there is the medical materialist’s criticizing of the religious life connecting it with the sexual life. Conversion [religious] is a crisis of adolescence, and for the hysterical nun Christ is but an imaginary substitute for a more earthly object of affection.
On genius, James here tells us that others, such as: Dr. Moreau states, “… is but one of the many branches of the neuropathic tree.” “Genius, says Dr. Lombroso, “is but a symptom of hereditary degeneration …” and Mr. Nisbet, writes “… the greater the genius, the greater the unsoundness.” James asks, do these authors, now having satisfied themselves that the works of geniuses are the fruits of diseased minds and they thereupon proceed to impugn the value of the fruits? No! he exclaims. For their spiritual instincts are too strong here and hold their own against such inferences if, for no other reason, but for logical consistency.
Dr. Maudsley , according to James, is perhaps the cleverest of the rebutters of supernatural religion on grounds of origin. Yet, he writes:
“What right have we to believe Nature is under any obligation to do her work by means of complete minds only? She may find an incomplete mind a more suitable instrument for a particular purpose. It is the work that is done, and the quality in the worker by which it was done which may be of no great matter from a cosmic standpoint should other qualities of character he possessed were singularly defective – if he indeed were a hypocrite, adulterer, eccentric, or lunatic.”
In other words, not its origin, but the way in which it works on the whole, is Dr. Maudsley’s final test of a belief. It is this empiricist criterion that even the stoutest insisters on supernatural origin have also be forced to use in the end. For, among the visions and messages some have always been too patently silly. And, among the trances and convulsive seizures some have been too fruitless in their conduct and character, to pass themselves off as significant, still less as divine. In the history of Christian mysticism the problem of how to discriminate between such messages and experiences as were really divine miracles and such others, as the demon in his malice was able to counterfeit thus making the religious person more the child of hell than he was prior, has always been a difficult one to solve needing all the sagacity and experience of the best directors of conscience. In the end it had to come to the empiricist criterion: By their fruits ye shall know them, not by their roots.
James here includes a statement by Saint Teresa on possible deception by the tempter:
“Like disturbed sleep which, instead of giving more strength to the head, doth but leave it more exhausted, thus too the results of the operations of the imagination; its effects but weaken the soul; instead of nourishment and energy one reaps only lassitude and disgust. Whereas a genuine heavenly vision yields to a harvest of ineffable spiritual riches and an admirable renewal of bodily strength. I alleged these reasons of those who so have often accused my visions of being the work of the enemy of mankind and the sport of my imagination. I showed them the jewels which the divine hand had left with me: those being my actual dispositions. All those who knew me saw that I was changed; my confessor bore witness to the fact; this improvement, palpable in all respects and far from being hidden, was brilliantly evident to all men. As for myself, it was impossible to believe that if the demon were its author, he could have used, in order to lose me and lead me to hell, an expedient so contrary to his own interests as that of uprooting my vices and fill me with masculine courage and other virtues instead. For, I saw clearly that a single one of these visions was enough to enrich me with all that wealth.”
James then writes of religious phenomena and the melancholy which often constitutes an essential moment in every complete religious evolution. As well, he mentions cranky temperaments and that they tend to possess extraordinary emotional susceptibility, fixed ideas and obsessions . And, that such an individual’s conceptions tend to pass immediately into belief and action; that when they get a new idea, they have no rest until it somehow “works itself off.” He refers to a passage in the autobiography of whom he refers to as “that high-souled” woman,” Annie Besant:
Plenty of people wish well to any good cause, but very few care to exert themselves to help it, and still fewer will risk anything it supports. “Someone ought to do it, but why should I?” is the ever re-echoed phrase of the weak-kneed amiable personality. Whereas, “Someone ought to do it, so why not I?” is the cry of the earnest servant of man, eagerly forward springing to face some perilous duty. Between these two sentences lie whole centuries of moral evolution.
“True enough!” proclaims James.
Quakers or Religious Society of Friends (est. in England in the mid-1600s) – is a Christian movement which professes the priesthood of all believers. It avoids authoritative creed and hierarchical structures and includes those with evangelical, liberal and conservative understandings of Christianity. The founder, George Fox, being dissatisfied with the teachings of the Church of England, had a revelation and thus became convinced that it was possible for anyone to have a direct experience of Christ without the aid of an ordained clergy. Presently, less than half of ‘Friends’ practice programmed worship with a prepared message from the Bible coordinated by a pastor. But rather, worship is predominantly silent and may include unprepared vocal ministry from those present.
In North America in the 1600’s, and while some Quakers experienced persecution, they established thriving communities in West Jersey, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania (with the West Jersey and Pennsylvania colonies having been established by the affluent Quaker, William Penn). In 2007 there were approximately 370,000 adult Quakers.
Emanuel Swedenborg (1688 – 1772) Recall that William James’s father, Henry James Sr., was a Swedenborgian. Swedenborg had a successful career as an inventor and scientist. In 1741, at 53 years old, he entered the spiritual phase of his life where he began to experience dreams and visions. For the remaining 28 years of his life, Swedenborg wrote eighteen published theological works and, several more which were not published. In his self-published work “True Christian Religion” he refers to himself as a “Servant of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
He had studied anatomy and physiology and had the first concept of the neuron that, not until a century later, did science recognize the nerve cell. He also had prescient ideas about the cerebral cortex, the hierarchical organization of the nervous system, the localization of the cerebrospinal fluid, functions of the pituitary gland and other neurological systems. However, it was his published works conjoining philosophy and metallurgy that gave him international recognition (in particular, his analysis of the smelting of iron and copper).
Swedenborg experienced well documented prophetic and psychic abilities. For example, he became quite agitated when a great fire broke out in Stockholm, Sweden in 1759. At the time he was at a dinner party 400 kilometers from his home in Stockholm. He told those present about the fire and that it had consumed a neighbor’s home and was threatening his own. Two hours later he exclaimed with relief that the fire had stopped three doors from his home. News of his psychic perception of the fire spread quickly reaching the provincial governor who summoned him for details (given that news from Sweden to Gothenburg otherwise took three days to arrive by messenger). On another occasion, Queen Louisa Ulrika of Sweden asked him to tell her something about her deceased brother. What he whispered to her caused her to turn pale and she explained that it was something only she and her brother could possibly know about. Swedenborg also predicted the date of his own death, March 29, and a servant girl reported that he was as happy about it as if he was “going on holiday or to some merry making.”
Here [below] is a link to an excellent website about Swedenborg’s life and teachings from the Swedenborg Foundation. They provide on their site free PDF files for download of Swedenborg’s many books and numerous informative, and most entertaining, videos of Swedenborg’s teachings.
And here, as example, is one of the Swedenborg Foundation’s many videos. It is very well done, fun and educational.
Lecture II – Circumscription of the Topic
Religion – James advises us not to fall into a one sided view of the subject of religion but to admit at the outset that we shall very likely find, not one essence, but rather many characteristics that may be alternately equally important to religion. He goes on to state, that in the philosophies and psychologies of religion we find those attempting to specify just what religion is: with one allying it to the feeling of dependence, another making it a derivative of fear, others connecting it with the sexual life with still others identifying it with the feeling of the infinite, and so on, thus giving the subject a certain multiplicity, thus arousing doubt that it can be any one thing. Adding to this, there is religious fear, religious love, religious awe, religious joy and so forth. But, religious love, claims the author, is only man’s natural emotion of love. Religious fear is, similarly, the ordinary fear of commerce [this for that] based in so far as the notion of divine retribution may arouse fear. And religious awe is the same thrill which we feel in a forest at twilight, or at a mountain gorge, only here it comes over us at the thought of the supernatural, rather than the experience of the natural environment.
Therefore, James surmises, as there seems to be no one elementary religious emotion but rather a common storehouse of emotions from which religious objective may draw, thus conceivably proving that there be no one specific and essential kind of religious objective and no one specific and essential kind of religious expression.
One is also struck at the great partition which divides the religious field. On the one side we have the institutional and, on the other, personal religion. Worship and sacrifice, procedures for working on the understanding and disposition of the deity, ceremony and ecclesiastical organization are the essentials of religion in the institutional branch. Should we limit our view to it, we should define institutional religion as an external art – the art of winning the favor of the gods. The more personal branch is, on the contrary, the inner disposition of man himself which forms his religious perspective: his conscience, his deserts, his helplessness, his incompleteness. Although, like in the institutional, the favor of the God (as either forfeited or gained) is still an essential feature. James states that he proposes to here ignore the institutional branch entirely and confine his thesis to personal religion, pure and simple, as much as is possible.
He also addresses fetishism and magic and states that they seem to have preceded inward piety historically – or, at least, records of inward piety do not reach back so far. He says that many anthropologists claim that the whole system of belief leading to magic, fetishism and the lower superstitions may be considered as primitive religion.
On personal religion, he asks the reader to take it to mean it is 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. He also adds that there are systems of thought which the world usually considers religious but which do not positively assume a God. Buddhism, for example, is such a case. Popularly, the Buddha himself stands in place of a god but, in strictness the Buddhistic system is atheistic. Modern Transcendental Idealism, Emersonianism for instance, seems to let God evaporate into an abstract ideality; not a deity in a concrete sense; not a superhuman person. But rather the immanent divinity in all things; the spiritual structure of the universe. The paragraph below is derived from a lecture given by Ralph Waldo Emerson (biography below) at Divinity College in 1838. According to James it was this lecture that made Emerson famous.
“These laws, said the speaker, execute themselves. They are out of time, out of space, and not subject to circumstance: Thus, in the soul of man there is a justice whose retributions are instant and entire. He who does a good deed is instantly ennobled. He who does a mean deed is, by the action itself, contracted. He who puts off impurity thereby puts on purity. If a man is at heart just, then in so far, is he God; the safety of God, the immortality of God, the majesty of God, do enter into that man with justice. If a man deceives, he deceives himself and goes out of acquaintance with his own being. Character is always known. Thefts never enrich; alms never impoverish; murder will speak from out of stone walls. The least admixture of a lie (for example: for vanity, to make a good impression or a favorable effect) will instantly vitiate, or spoil, the effect. But speak the truth and all things alive are validation; the very roots of the grass underground there do seem to stir and move to bear your witness. For, all things proceed out of the same Spirit, which is differently named love, justice, temperance, and Its different applications, just as the ocean receives different names on the several shores which it washes. In so far as he roves from these ends, a man bereaves himself of power, of auxiliaries. His being shrinks … he becomes less and less: a mote, a point, until absolute badness is absolute death.”
“The perception of this law awakens in the mind a sentiment which we call the religious sentiment, and which makes our highest happiness. Wonderful is its power to charm and to command; it is a mountain air; it is the balm of the world. It makes the sky and the hills sublime and is the silent song of the stars. It is the beatitude of man. It makes him without limit or end. When he says ‘I ought’; when love warns him; when he chooses thus warned from on high, the good and great deed. Then, deep melodies wander through his soul from supreme wisdom. He can then worship and be enlarged by this worship for, he can never be beneath this sentiment. All the expression of these sentiments are sacred and permanent in proportion to their purity. They affect us more than all other compositions. The sentences of the olden times, which ejaculate this piety, are still fresh and fragrant. And, the unique impression of Jesus upon mankind, whose name is not so much written as it is ploughed, is infused, into the history of the world, is proof of the subtle virtue of this infusion.”
Such is the Emersonian religion, James tells us. The universe has a divine soul of order in which soul is moral, being also the soul within the soul of man. The sentences in which Emerson, to the very end, gave utterance to this faith are as fine as anything in literature:
“If you love and serve men, you cannot by any hiding or stratagem escape the remuneration. Secret retributions are always restoring the lever, when disturbed, of the divine justice. It is impossible to tilt the beam. All the tyrants and proprietors and monopolists of the world in vain set their shoulders to heave the bar.”
James continues, the term “godlike” if treated as a floating general quality, becomes exceedingly vague for, many gods have flourished in religious history and their attributes have been differing enough. Yet, for the most part, Gods are conceived to be first things in the way of being and power. They overarch and envelop, and from them there is no escape. All that relates to them is the first and last word in the way of truth. Whatever then is considered most primal, enveloping, and deeply true might be treated as godlike and man’s religion might thereby be identified with his attitude; what he believes to be the primal truth. Religion, whatever it is, is a man’s total reaction upon life. And, total reactions are different from casual reactions. And total attitudes are different from causal or professional attitudes. To get at them you must go behind the foreground of existence and reach into that curious sense of the whole of the vestigial cosmos as an everlasting presence. Yet, he points out, there are those trifling, sneering attitudes even toward the whole of life. Voltaire (see image of bust and brief biography, page 10) for example, at the age of 73, writes to a friend:
“Weak as I am, I carry on the war to the last moment, I get a hundred pike-thrusts, I return two hundred, and I laugh. I see near my door, Geneva on fire with quarrels over nothing, and I laugh again. And, thank God I can look upon the world as a farce even when it becomes as tragic as it sometimes does. All comes out even at the end of the day, and all comes out still more even when all the days are over.”
Yet, James notes: Much as we may admire such a robust old gamecock spirit, to call it a religious spirit would be odd. Along similar lines, “All is vanity” is the relieving word in all difficult crises for the mode of thought with which that exquisite literary genius Renan took pleasure in his later days:
“There are many chances that the world may be nothing but a fairy pantomime of which no God has care. Be ready for anything – that perhaps is wisdom. Give ourselves up, according to the hour, to confidence, to skepticism, to optimism, to irony, and we may be sure that at certain moments, at least, we shall be with the truth … for, good humor is a philosophic state of mind: it seems to say to Nature that we take her no more seriously than she takes us! We owe it to the Eternal to be virtuous but, we have the right to add to this tribute our own irony as a sort of personal reprisal. In this way … jest for jest, we play the trick that has be played on us.”
And, Saint Augustines’ phrase: “Lord, if we are deceived, it is by thee!” remains a fine one.
On this James asserts that for common men, however, religion signifies a more serious state of mind and the phrase “all is not vanity in this universe” better signifies the universal message whatever appearances may otherwise suggest. But, if hostile to light irony religion is equally hostile to heavy grumbling and complaint. The world appears tragic enough in some religions but, the tragedy is realized as a purging and a way of deliverance. Regardless, there must be something solemn, serious and tender about any religious attitude. If glad, it must not grin nor snicker; if sad, it must not scream nor curse. Here James proposes that 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. But, he goes on, the boundaries are always misty and it is everywhere a question of amount and degree. Nevertheless, at their extreme development, there is no question as to what experiences are indeed religious and therefore nobody can be tempted to call it anything else. The only cases likely then to be of value to us to give our attention to, will be the cases where the religious experience is unmistakable and extreme. Its fainter manifestations we shall tranquilly pass by.
Here the author considers two differing states; not so much a difference of doctrine, but rather it is a difference of mood that parts them: First, the stoic Marcus Aurelius (121 – 180 AD) as he coldly reflects on the eternal reasoning that has ordered things and secondly, the Christian ejaculations expressed by the old Christian author of the Theologia Germanica that God is here to be loved:
“It is a man’s duty,” says Marcus Aurelius, “to comfort himself and wait for the natural dissolution, and not to be vexed but, to find refreshment solely in these thoughts – first that nothing will happen to one which is not conformable to the universe; and secondly, that I need do nothing contrary to the God and deity within me for there is no man who can compel me to transgress. And so to accept everything which happens, even if it seems disagreeable, because it leads to this: the health of the universe and the prosperity and felicity of Zeus.”
And here from Theologia Germanica: “Where men are enlightened with the true light … such men are in a state of freedom, because they have lost the fear of pain or hell; replaced with the hope of reward or heaven. And, they are living in pure submission to the Eternal Goodness in the perfect freedom of fervent love. When a man truly perceiveth and considereth himself … and findeth himself utterly vile and wicked and unworthy, he falleth into such a deep abasement that is seemeth to him reasonable that all creatures in Heaven and Earth should rise up against him and he will not and dare nor desire any consolation and release. This Hell and this Heaven are two good safe ways for a man, and happy is he who truly findeth them.”
James notes how much more active and positive the impulse of the Christian writer to accept his place in the universe. Marcus Aurelius agrees to the scheme – the German theologian agrees with it. He literally abounds in agreement! He runs out to embrace the divine degrees!
Still on the topic of religion yet, from another point of view, James contends that the religious life is manly, stoical, moral, or philosophical as it is less swayed by paltry personal considerations and more so by objective ends that call for energy. Even though that energy should bring about personal loss and pain. This is the good side of war, in so far as it calls for “volunteers.” For high morality, life is a war. And, for morality, the service of the highest is a sort of cosmic patriotism which calls for volunteers. Even a sick man, unable to be militant outwardly, can carry on the moral warfare. The “athletic” attitude nonetheless tends ever to break down even amongst the most stalwart moralist when the organism begins to decay or when morbid fears invade the mind. To recommend personal will and effort to one all “sicklied o’er” and realizing his irremediable impotence is to suggest the most impossible of things. What he then craves is to be consoled in his very powerlessness; to feel that the spirit of the universe recognizes and secures him all decaying and failing as he is. Let’s face it, are we not all such helpless failures in the last resort? For it is then that the sanest and best of us are of one clay with lunatics and prison inmates and death finally runs even the robustest of us down.
L.T. – Here, here! Bartender, please …
But wait … It is here that religion comes to our rescue [not booze?] and takes our fate into her hands says James. There is a state of mind, known to religious men, but to no others, in which the will to assert ourselves and hold our own has been replaced by a willingness to close our mouths and be instead as nothing in the floods and waterspouts of God. And it is here that fear is not held in abeyance as it is by mere morality, but rather it is positively expunged and washed away. And this enchantment, coming as a gift when it does come, theologians say, is a gift of God’s grace.
James then informs us that those familiar with the Persian mystics know how wine may be regarded as an instrument of religion. Indeed, in all countries and in all ages, some form of physical enlargement – singing, dancing, drinking, sexual excitement – has been intimately associated with worship. Even the momentary expansion of the soul in laughter is, however slight an extent, a religious exercise. It is the infinite for which we hunger and we ride gladly on every little wave that promises to carry us towards it.
If one should ask how religion thus falls on the thorns and faces of death and, in the very act annuls annihilation, James says he cannot explain the matter. For, it is religion’s secret and, to understand it, you must yourself have been a religious man of the extremer type. However, he goes on to state that in future examples we shall find even amongst the healthiest-minded type of religious consciousness, we shall find a complex sacrificial constitution in which a higher happiness holds a lower unhappiness in check.
James then cites a painting by Guido Reni featuring St. Michael with his foot on Satan’s neck. The richness of the painting is partly due to the fiend’s figure being there. That is to say, the world is all the richer for having a devil in it – so long as we keep our foot upon his neck!
James suggests: For, when all is said and done, we are in the end absolutely dependent on the universe where into sacrifices and surrenders of some sort we are drawn and thus they are pressed upon us. Now, in those states of mind which fall short of religion, the sacrifice is submitted to as an imposition out of necessity and the sacrifice is undergone, at the very best, without complaint. On the contrary in the religious life: surrender and sacrifice are positively espoused; even unnecessary givings-up are further added in order that the happiness may increase. Religion thus makes easy and felicitous those sacrifices which in any case are necessary. And, if it be the only agency that can accomplish this result then its vital importance as a human faculty stands vindicated beyond dispute.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1922) was born in Boston, Massachusetts. His formal education was at Boston Latin School and later, at 14 years of age, Harvard. He was good friends with Prince Achille Murat, Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew, two years older than he, and the two frequently engaged in lively discussions on religion, society, government and philosophy. He considered Murat an important figure in his intellectual development. Emerson was an American writer, poet, and lecturer and leader of the Transcendentalist movement which espouses a non-traditional appreciation of nature suggesting that the divine, or God, suffuses, or permeates, throughout nature.
Francois-Marie Arouet – otherwise known as Voltaire (1694 –1778) was a French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher famous for his wit, his attacks on the Catholic Church and his advocacy of freedom of religion, freedom of expression and the separation of church and state. He was a versatile and prolific writer producing works including plays, poems, novels, essays, historical and scientific works. He wrote more than 2,000 books and pamphlets. As a political satirist, he made use of his works to criticize intolerance, religious dogma and the French institutions of his day.
His father was a lawyer and his mother was from a noble family. Voltaire was one of five children of which three survived. In school he learned Latin and Greek and later became fluent in Italian, Spanish and English. His wit made him quite popular amongst the aristocratic families with whom he mixed. He became quite wealthy due partly to an inheritance and partly due to his own efforts.
Voltaire was imprisoned in Bastille without a trial nor an opportunity to defend himself the result of a dispute he had with a young French nobleman. Fearing an indefinite imprisonment, Voltaire convinced the authorities that he be exiled to England as an alternative punishment. It was following his release from prison that he changed his name to Voltaire partly intending to separate himself from his past and his family. A month before his death he was initiated into Freemasonry on the recommendation of his close friend, Benjamin Franklin. But, it is supposed he did this to please Franklin.
There is so much more that can be said about this fascinating person. I recommend the reader do further research on Voltaire.
Lecture III – THE REALITY OF THE UNSEEN
Should one be asked, James posits, to characterize the life of religion in the most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto. All of our attitudes, moral, practical, emotional, as well as religious, are due to the “objects” of our consciousness, whether in actuality or ideally, along with ourselves. He goes on to say, such objects may be present to our senses, or they may be present only as our thoughts. In either case, they elicit from us a reaction; and, reactions due to things of thought is (notoriously in many cases) as strong as those concretely presented to our senses. For example, the memory of an insult may make us angrier than the insult did when we received it. Or, we may be more ashamed of our blunders afterwards than we were at the moment of making them.
The objects of most religions: A few Christians, for example, have had a sensible vision of their Savior, and enough appearances of this sort by way of the miraculous experience are on record to merit our attention later on in the [text] lecture. But, in addition to such circumstances, religion is full of theoretical, or conceptual, objects which prove to have equal power and influence.
Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) says James, held a curious doctrine about such objects of belief: God, the soul, its freedom, its immortality, the design of creation, the life hereafter, etc. These things, Kant said, are not objects of knowledge at all, and our conceptions always require a [objective] sensory content to work with to be meaningful. Therefore, it follows that, theoretically speaking, they are mere words devoid of any significance. However, says James, they have a definite meaning for our practice. We can act is if there were a God; feel as if we were free; consider Nature as if It were full of special designs; lay plans as if we were immortal. And, we then find that these words do make a genuine difference in our moral life. So here we have this strange phenomenon, as Kant assures us, of minds believing with all their mental strength in the actual presence of a set of things from none of which can any concrete sensory perception notion be formed whatsoever.
Recalling Emersonian Transcendentalism: James refers to the whole universe of concrete objects, or abstractions, as we know them swims, so-to-speak, not just for Emerson, but for all of us in a wider and higher universe of ideas that lends its significance. As space and time and “the ether” soak through all things we do feel abstracted from its essential goodness, justice, strength, power, and beauty. It gives to all Its Nature, thus all things their nature; their special thing. And everything we know is what it is by sharing in the nature of these abstractions.
For Plato (428- 348 BC) abstract Beauty is a definite, individualized thing. And, “the true order of going” is to use the beauties on Earth as steps along which one mounts [mounts?] upwards for the sake of that other Beauty, going from one to two, and from two to all fair forms, and from fair forms to fair actions, and from fair actions to fair notions, until he arrives at the notion of absolute Beauty and at last he knows what the essence of Beauty is.
L.T. – Or, maybe Plato got around quite a bit all the while maintaining his promiscuity was a spiritual quest of sorts. Sorry for the philosophical heresy, I couldn’t resist.
Anyway, along slightly different lines:
James suggests it is as if there were in the human consciousness a sense of reality, a feeling of an objective presence, a perception of what we may call “something there” beyond which our ordinary sensory perceptions supposes to be existent realities. An intimate friend of his, whom he refers to as one of the keenest intellects he knew, has had several experiences of this sort – a consciousness of a presence:
“It was about September, 1884, when I had the first experience. On the previous night I had, after getting into bed at my room in college, a vivid tactile hallucination of being grasped by the arm which made me get up and search the room for an intruder. This sense of presence, properly so called, came on again the next night. After I had gotten into bed and blew out the candle, I lay awake thinking of the previous night’s experience when suddenly I felt something come into the room and stay close to my bed. It remained but a minute or two. I did not recognize it by any ordinary sense and yet there was a horribly unpleasant sensation connected with it. The feeling had the quality of a very large pain spreading over my chest and yet, is was not so much a pain as an abhorrence. Something was present with me and I knew its presence far more surely than I have ever known the presence of any fleshy living creature. I was as conscious of its departure as I was of its coming; an almost instantaneously swift going through the door and the horrible sensation disappearing.”
“On the third night while absorbed in preparing some lectures I became aware of the presence (though not of its coming) of the thing that was there the night before and of the horrible sensation. I then mentally concentrated all my effort to charge this ‘thing’ if it was evil, to depart, if it was not evil, to tell me who or what it was and if it could not explain itself, to go. It then left as on the previous night. On two other occasions I have had precisely the same horrible sensation. Once it lasted a full quarter of an hour. The something seemed close to me, and intensely more real than any ordinary perception. Although I felt it to be like myself, so-to- speak; finite, small, and distressful, as it were. I didn’t recognize it as any individual being or person.”
Of course, such an experience as this does not tend to connect with the religious sphere yet, upon occasion, it may do so. The same correspondent informed James that on more than one other conjuncture he had the sense of a presence also developed with equal intensity and abruptness, only then it was filled with a quality of joy:
“There was not a mere consciousness of something there, but fused within the central happiness of it, was a startling awareness of some ineffable good. Not vague either, not like the emotional effect of some poem, or scenery, or of music, or blossom, but the sure knowledge of the close presence of a sort of mighty person. And, after it went, the memory persisted as the one and only perception of reality; that everything else might be a dream, but not that [presence].”
James states that his friend does not interpret these latter experiences theistically; as signifying the presence of God. But it would clearly not have been unnatural to interpret them as a revelation of God’s existence.
Similarly, a Professor Flournoy from Geneva gives James the following testimony of a friend of his, a lady, who has the gift of automatic writing:
“Whenever I practice automatic writing, what makes me feel that it is not due to a subconscious self, is the sensation I always have of a foreign presence external to my body. It is sometimes so definitely characterized that I could point to its exact position. This impression of such a presence is impossible to describe. It varies in intensity and clearness according to the personality from whom the writing professes to come. If it is someone whom I love, I feel it immediately before any writing has come. My heart seems to recognize it.”
James surmises that in the distinctively religious sphere of experience, many persons (and how many one cannot say) experience their belief not in the form of mere abstract concepts, but rather in the form of “quasi-sensible” realities directly comprehended. Here he cites an example of a negative one deploring the loss of the sense in question; extracted from an account given to James by a scientific man of his acquaintance:
“Between twenty and thirty I gradually became more and more agnostic and irreligious. I had ceased my childish prayers to God. Although I never prayed in a formal manner, but more like having been in a relationship with “It” which was practically the same thing as prayer. Whenever I had any trouble, especially conflicts with other people or when I was depressed in spirits or anxious about affairs, I used to fall back for support upon this curious relation which I then felt to be this fundamental cosmic “It.” It was on my side, or I was on its side, however you please to look at it, in the particular trouble. And, it always strengthened me and seemed to give me endless vitality to feel its underlying and supporting presence. It was an unfailing fountain of living justice, truth, and strength to which I instinctively turned to at times of weakness and it always brought me out. I know that it was a personal relationship I was in because now, years later, the power of communication with it has left me and I am conscious of a definite loss. I never used to fail to find it when I turned to it. Then came a set of years when sometimes I found it, and then again, other times when I would be wholly unable to make a connection. I would be unable to get to sleep on account of worry and in the darkness I groped mentally for that higher mind of my mind which had before seemed always to be close at hand, yielding support, but there was no electric current; a blank was there instead of It. Now, at the age of fifty, I have to confess that a great help has gone out of my life. Life has become curiously dead and indifferent. I can now see that my earlier experience was probably exactly the same thing as prayers, only I did not call them by that name. Although I have spoken of it as “It,” it was my own instinctive and individual God whom I relied on for higher sympathy but whom somehow I have since lost.”
James now informs us that the adjective “mystical” is generally applied to states that are of brief duration and we shall here cite couple of cases. The immediate one is an abridged version [by James] of a mystical or semi-mystical experience of a mind, as he puts it, “evidently framed by nature for ardent piety.” The lady who gives the account was the daughter of a man well known in his time as a writer against Christianity. She relates that she was brought up in entire ignorance of Christian doctrine but, while in Germany, after being talked to by Christian friends, she read the Bible and prayed, and finally the plan of salvation flashed upon her like a stream of light:
“To this day, I cannot understand dallying with religion and the commands of God. The very instant I heard my Father’s cry calling unto me, my heart bounded in recognition. I ran, I stretched forth my arms, I cried aloud, ‘Here, here I am my Father, what should I do?’ ‘Love me, answered my God. ‘I do, I do!’ I cried passionately. ‘Come unto me,’ called my Father. ‘I will,’ my heart panted. Did I stop to ask a single question? Not one. It never occurred to me to ask whether I was good enough, or to hesitate over my unfitness, or … to wait until I should be satisfied. Satisfied? I was satisfied! Had I not found my God and my Father? The idea of God’s reality has never left me for one moment.”
Here is another case, the writer being a man aged twenty-seven:
“I have on a number of occasions felt that I had enjoyed a period of intimate communion with the Divine. These meetings came unasked for and unexpected. Once it was from the summit of a high mountain. Beneath me and beyond was a boundless expanse of white cloud cover. And, on the blown surface a few high peaks, including the one I was on, seemed to be plunging about as if they were dragging their anchors. What I felt, on this and other occasions, was a temporary loss of my own identity accompanied by an illumination which revealed to me a deeper significance then that which I had been previously inclined to attach to life. It is in this that I find my justification for saying that I have enjoyed communication with God. Of course, the absence of such a being as this would be chaos. I cannot conceive of life without its presence.”
James here speaks of the convincingness of these feelings of reality and elaborates further stating that they are as convincing to those who have them as any direct physically sensible experiences can be, and they are, as a rule, much more convincing than results established by mere logic ever could be. Nevertheless, if we look on man’s whole mental life and, on that life within them that is apart from their learning and science; on that which they inwardly and privately follow, we have to admit that the part of life, which rationalism can give an account of, is relatively superficial. Yet, it [rationalism] is undoubtedly the part that has the prestige. After all, it also has the loquacity; it can challenge you for proofs, chop with its logic and put you down with words. Regardless, it will fail to impress, convince, or convert you all the same should your dumb intuitions be opposed to its brilliant conclusions. For, if one has intuitions at all, they know that they come from a deeper level of one’s nature than the loquacious level in which rationalism resides. And, something in the individual absolutely knows that the result must be truer than any logic-chopping rationalistic talk, however clever, that may contradict this knowing. In the metaphysical and religious sphere, articulated reasons are cogent only when our inarticulate feelings of reality have already been impressed upon us. James implores us here to note that he does not hold the opinion that it is better that the subconscious and non-rational should hold primacy in the religious realm. But rather, what he does state, is that they just do so as a matter of fact.
Lectures IV and V – THE RELIGION OF HEALTHY-MINDEDNESS
The author begins this lecture posing the question: “What is human life’s chief concern?” He then states that one of the answers we should receive would be “It is happiness.” Therefore, it is not surprising that some come to regard the happiness which religious belief affords as a proof of its validity. Here he cites a German writer:
“The near presence of God’s spirit may be experienced in its reality – indeed only experienced. The Spirit’s existence and nearness are made irrefutably clear to those who have ever had the experience. It is the feeling of supreme happiness which is connected with this nearness and, which is not only possible but an altogether proper feeling for us to have here below [on the earthly plane], that is the best and most indispensable proof of God’s reality. Therefore, happiness is the point from which every efficacious new theology should start.”
In some, James claims, happiness is congenital and, he speaks not only of those who are animally happy but those whom, when unhappiness is offered or proposed to them, they positively refuse to feel it as if it were something mean and wrong. He goes on to say, we find such persons in every age, passionately flinging themselves upon their sense of the goodness of life in spite of the hardships of their own predicament and in spite of the sinister theologies into which they may have been born. It is probable, he theorizes, that there never has been a century in which the deliberate refusal to think ill of life has not been idealized by a sufficient number of persons who form sects, open or secret, and who claim all natural things to be permitted. Saint Augustine’s maxim, if you but love [God], you may do as you incline – is morally one of the profoundest of observations. Although, for some, it is pregnant with passports allowing for what is far beyond the bounds of conventional morality according to their characters; be they refined or gross. God, for them is a giver of freedom and the sting of evil thus overcome.
These same personalities generally have no metaphysical, introspective tendencies; they do not look into themselves. They are not distressed by their own imperfections. Yet, it would be absurd to call them self-righteous for they hardly think of themselves at all. This child-like quality of their nature makes the deity of a religion very happy to them; for they no more shrink from God than a child from an emperor before whom the parent trembles. This straight and natural “once-born” type of consciousness, with no element of morbid compunction or crisis, is contained in an answer to one of Dr. Edwin Starbuck’s questionnaires by the eminent Unitarian preacher and writer, Dr. Edward Everett Hale. [I shall mention here that Professor Edwin Starbuck, author of “The Psychology of Religion,” provided William James with several of the examples of the experiences and opinions referred to in his book, and therefore in this abridged version].
Dr. Hale: “I was born into a family where the religion was simple and rational. I always knew God loved me and I was always grateful to Him for the world he placed me in. I always liked to tell Him so and was always glad to receive His suggestions. I can remember perfectly well that when I was coming into manhood, the half-philosophical novels of the time had much to say about the young men and maidens who were facing the ‘problem of life’. I had no idea what the ‘problem of life’ was. To live with all my might seemed to me easy. A child who is taught early that he is God’s child and, that he may have his life, his movement, his being in God, he therefore has at hand infinite strength for the conquering of any difficulty. And, will thus take life more easily and probably make more of it …”
Yet, on a lightly different note, James adds, the finding of a luxury in a state of woe is very common during adolescence and here a Marie Bashkirtseff expresses it quite well in her journal:
“In this depression and dreadful uninterrupted suffering, I don’t condemn life. On the contrary, I like and find it good. I find everything good and pleasant, even my tears, my grief. I enjoy weeping, I enjoy my despair. I enjoy being exasperated and sad. I cry, I grieve, and at the same time I am pleased – no, not exactly that – I know not how to express it. I find everything agreeable and in the very midst of my prayers for happiness I find myself happy at being miserable.”
The next example we get is that of the poet Walt Whitman (1819 – 1892) whom James claims to be the supreme ‘contemporary’ example of an individual wholly unable to perceive evil. Here James provides a rather long passage of what was professed to be Whitman’s most sincere belief in the innate and divine goodness in everyone and everything. Instead, for the sake of brevity (this is an abridged version after all) I shall take the liberty of providing a few quotes of Whitman’s that adequately exemplify the point here made:
“Give me the splendid silent sun, with all his beams full-dazzling. Keep your face always towards the sunshine and the shadows will fall far behind you.”
“Youth, large, lusty, loving – youth, full of grace, force, fascination. Do you not know that old age may come after you with equal grace, force and fascination?”
“I know nothing grander, better than exercise, good digestion, more positive proof of the past, the triumphant result of faith in human kind, than a well-contested American national election.”
“If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me.”
Of her father, whom she said, insisted upon being the center of attention everywhere he went: “My father always wanted to be the corpse at every funeral, the bride at every wedding and the baby at every christening.”
When asked by a Ku Klux Klansman to take his word for something, she refused saying “I never trust a man under sheets.”
We now return to the book and here James informs us: Thus it came to pass that many persons [in his day] regarded Walt Whitman as the restorer of the eternal natural religion. He had infected them with his own love of comrades; with his own gladness that they and he existed. Societies were actually formed for his cult. A periodical existed for the society’s propagation in which the lines of orthodoxy were drawn. Hymns were written by others in his peculiar poetic metric. And, he was even being explicitly compared with the founder of the Christian religion. Whitman was often spoken of as a “pagan” which [then] sometimes meant the mere natural animal man without a sense of sin and, sometimes it meant a Greek or Roman with his own uniquely personal religious consciousness. Although James claims that neither of these definitions aptly apply to the poet for he was more than your mere animal man who had not tasted the tree of good and evil. And, according to James, he was well aware enough of sin for a swagger to be present in his indifference towards it, which your genuine pagan, in the first definition of the word, would never show.
James also states that Whitman was less than a Greek or Roman, for their consciousness was full to the brim of the sad mortality of this sunlit world; a consciousness Walt Whitman resolutely refused to adopt. The Romans and the Greeks kept their sadnesses and gladnesses unmingled. Nor did they recon sin feeling a need to credit the universe, as so many of us insist upon doing, by claiming that what evidently appears as evil must be “good in the making” or something equally ingenious. For the early Greeks, good was good and bad was just bad. They did not deny the ills of nature as is the case in Walt Whitman’s verse, “What is called good is perfect and what is called bad is just as perfect,” for this would have been mere silliness to them. Nor did they, in order to escape from those ills, invent “another and a better world” of their imagination.
L. T. – I got the impression that James wasn’t all that impressed with Whitman although he does refer to him several times throughout his book. James continues:
Systematic healthy-mindedness: Conceiving good as the essential and universal aspect of being which deliberately excludes evil from its field of vision.
Although, when thus nakedly stated, this might seem a difficult feat to perform for one who is intellectually sincere with themselves and honest about the facts, a little reflection shows that the situation is too complex to impart so simple a criticism. James observes that when happiness is the current state of mind, the thought of evil can no more acquire the feeling of reality than the thought of good can gain reality when melancholy rules.
Yet, much of what is considered evil is entirely due to the way the phenomena is perceived. Once faced, it can often be converted into a bracing and restorative good by the sufferer’s change of attitude from one of fear to one of fight; its painfulness turns into a relish when, after vainly seeking to ignore the evil, it is embellished with a new temperament bound in honor; the evil is swallowed up as an omnipotent excitement which the human being then embraces. This, they will say, is to truly live and they exalt in the heroic opportunity and adventure of combating the evil.
In Christianity, the advance of liberalism, so called, may well be a victory for healthy-mindedness within the church over the old morbid hell fire theology. We now have whole congregations whose preachers, far from magnifying our consciousness of sin and evil, they ignore, deny even, eternal punishment and insist on the dignity rather than the depravity of man. These persons, however, maintain their connection with Christianity despite their discarding of its more pessimistic theological elements.
Accordingly, we also find “evolutionism” interpreted thus optimistically and embraced as a substitute for the religion they were born into by a multitude of our contemporaries [still true in our time as it was in James’ although many now refer to it as “scientism”] who have either been trained scientifically or are fond of reading popular science. Below he quotes from a document he received in answer to Professor Starbuck’s circular of questions. The writer’s state of mind may be loosely called a religion of sorts, for it is his reaction on the whole of nature. It is systematic and reflective. James says we shall recognize in him a sufficiently familiar contemporary type, [which we do of course]:
Q. What does Religion mean to you?
A. It means nothing and it seems, so far as I can observe, useless to others. I am sixty seven years of age and have been in business forty-five, consequently I have some experience of life and men, and some women too, and I find that the most religious and pious people are as a rule those most lacking in uprightness and morality. The men who do not go to church or have any religious convictions are the best. Praying, sermons, singing hymns are pernicious – they teach us to rely on supernatural powers when we out to rely on ourselves. I totally disbelieve in a God. The God idea was begotten in ignorance, fear and a general lack of any knowledge of nature. If I were to die now … I would die as a time piece stops – there being no immortality.
Q. Have you had any experiences which appeared providential?
A. None whatever. There is no agency of the superintending kind. A little judicious observation as well as knowledge of scientific law will convince anyone of this fact.
Q. What comes to your mind corresponding to the words God, Heaven, Angels, etc.?
A. Nothing. I am a man without religion. These words being merely mythic bosh.
Q. What is your temperament?
A. Nervous, active, wide-awake mentally and physically. Sorry that Nature compels us to sleep at all.
James posits that we have in this man an excellent example of the [so called] rationalism, which may be encouraged by popular science.
To the author however, far more important and interesting religiously than that which sets in from natural science is what he refers to as the “Mind-Cure” movement. He goes on to mention that there are various sects of the “New Thought” (to use another name by which it calls itself) movement that is sweeping throughout America and gathering force every day [and still is a hundred years since if it be the same as “New Age” spirituality or perhaps the “Power of Positive Thinking” practitioners of today, or both]. He goes on to say that this movement had reached the point when the demand for its literature was great enough for superficial insincere stuff, mechanically produced for the market, to be supplied by publishers [that too continues to this day!].
The leaders in this faith propose belief in the all-saving power of healthy-minded attitudes such as: the conquering efficacy of courage, hope and trust along with a correlative contempt for doubt, fear, worry and all nervously precautionary states of mind. James here boldly mentions results of no less than remarkable restorations of health and healing from invalids to the blind, a regeneration of the general uplifting of character on an extensive scale, and adds that cheerfulness has been restored to countless homes.
L.T. – [In other works, I have read how the spread of Darwinism and scientism at this time delivered a striking blow to the Biblical account of creation as set forth in the “Book of Genesis” and therefore people’s religious faith in general. The result being, that the baby was thrown out with the bath water, so-to-speak, by the new scientific theories and their proponents – all religious belief was considered “bosh” as the fellow quoted above claimed. Evolutionism, or Darwinism, along with the “death of God” as decreed by Friedrich Nietzsche led to a period of despair and hopelessness for many in the latter half of the 19th century.]
The author continues: One hears of the “Gospel of Relaxation,” of the “Don’t Worry Movement,” of people who repeat to themselves, “Youth, health, vigor!” when dressing in the morning as their motto for the day. Complaints of the weather are getting to be forbidden in many households; and more and more people are recognizing it to be bad form to speak of peevish sensations, or to make much of the ordinary inconveniences and ailments of life. The resultant overall tonic effects on the public would be good, James claims, even if the more striking effects were non-existent. He cautions that we overlook failures for, in everything human endeavor, failure is a matter of course. And, he goes on, we can also overlook the verbiage of much of the mind-cure literature, some of which is so moon struck with optimism and so vaguely expressed that an academically trained intellect finds it quite unbearable to read at all.
James quotes Dr. H. H. Goddard from the “The American Journal of Psychology, 1899.” “In spite of the severe criticism we have made of reports of cure, there remains a vast amount of material showing a powerful influence of the mind in disease. People of culture and education have been treated by this method with satisfactory results. Diseases of long standing have been ameliorated, and even cured. The same argument applies to those modern schools of mental therapeutics – Divine Healing and Christian Science. It is hardly believable that the large body of intelligent people who comprise the body known of as Mental Scientists should continue to exist if the whole thing were a delusion. It is not a thing of the day, it is not confined to a few, it is not local.”
The “mind curer’s” ideas form a psychic group worthy of respectful consideration says James. The fundamental pillar on which their creed rests is the same as the general basis of all religious experience; that man has a dual nature; a shallower, superficial sphere and a profound, deeper sphere. The shallower being the fleshly sensations, the instincts and desires of egotism, and doubt. But, whereas Christian theology has always considered impertinence, or lack of humility, to be the essential vice, the mind-curers say that the mark of the beast is fear and this is what gives such an entirely new religion [new as of a hundred years ago] a turn in its favor.
“Fear,” to quote a writer of the school, “has had its uses in the evolutionary process, and seems to constitute the whole of forethought in most animals; but that it should remain so in any part of the mental equipment of human civilized life is an absurdity. I have also defined “fearthought” as the self-imposed suggestion of inferiority [or infeariority] in order to place it where it really belongs: in the category of harmful, unnecessary, and therefore not respectable things.”
Another mind-cure writer further criticizes the then, quite prevalent, “fearthought”:
“… then there is a long line of particular fears and trouble bearing expectations. Such as, ideas associated with certain types of food, the dread of the east wind, the terrors of hot weather, the aches and pains associated with cold weather, the fear of catching a cold, the flu, the coming of hay-fever on the 14th of August in the middle of the day, and so on … dreads, worriments, anxieties, anticipations, pessimisms, morbidities; the whole ghastly train of fateful horrors which our fellow man, and especially physicians, are ready to help us conjure up.”
“Yet, this is not all, he goes on, the vast array is swelled by innumerable volunteers from daily life as well: the fear of accident, the possibility of calamity, the loss of property, the chance of robbery, of fire, of outbreak of war. If all this is not deemed sufficiently fearful enough for us, when a friend is taken ill we must fear the worst and apprehend death. And, it is then that sympathy enters into the misery and increases our suffering. Think of all the millions of sensitive and responsive souls among our ancestors who have been under the dominion of such a perpetual nightmare! Is it not surprising that health exists at all? ”
James here states that we can now pass from these abstract statements to some more concrete accounts of experience with the mind-cure religion. Here he quotes a woman, a personal friend of his:
“The first underlying cause of all sickness, weakness or depression is the human sense of separateness from the Divine Energy which we call God. The soul which can feel and affirm in serene but jubilant confidence, as did the Nazarene: ‘I and my Father are one,’ has no need further of a healer or a healing.”
She continues, ”This possibility of annulling forever the law of fatigue has been abundantly proven in my own case: for my earlier life bears record of many, many years as a bedridden invalid, with spine and lower limbs paralyzed. My thoughts were no more impure then than they are today. Although, my belief in the necessity of illness was dense and unenlightened; but since my resurrection in the flesh, I have worked as a healer unceasingly for fourteen years without a vacation and can truthfully assert that I have never known a moment of fatigue or pain yet, all the while coming in constant contact with excessive weakness, illnesses and diseases of all kinds. For, how can a conscious part of God be sick? –since ‘Greater is He that is with us than all that can strive against us.’ ’’
Another writes, “I think that the one thing which impressed me most was the learning that we must be in absolutely constant relation, or mental touch, with that essence of life which permeates all and which we call God. By constant turning to the very innermost consciousness of our real selves, or to God in us, for illumination just as we turn outwards to the sun for light, warmth and invigoration, one realizes that to turn inward to the light within is to live in the presence of God or one’s divine self. The discovery of the unreality of the objects that one has hitherto been turning to and engrossed in thus becomes apparent.”
She goes on, “I have come to disregard the meaning of this attitude [exclusively] for daily health, as such, because that [health] comes of itself, as an incidental result, and cannot be acquired, in and of itself, by any special mental act or desire to have it outside, or without, that general attitude of mind I have referred to above. That which we usually make the object of life, those outer things we are all so wildly seeking which we so often live and die for, but which then do not give us peace and happiness, should all come of themselves as accessory, and as the mere outcome, or natural result, of a far higher life sunk deep within the bosom of the spirit. This seeking of the kingdom of God in our hearts, so that all else comes as that which shall be ‘added unto you’ comes quite incidentally and, as a surprise perhaps. And yet, it is the proof of the reality of the perfect poise in the very center of our being.”
The woman then states, “When I say that we commonly make the object of our life that which we should not work for primarily, I refer to the many things which the world considers praiseworthy and excellent: such as success in business, fame as author or artist, physician or lawyer, or renown in philanthropic undertakings. Such things should come as results, not pursued as objectives in and of themselves.”
James explains that under such circumstances the way to success, as vouched for by innumerable authentic personal narrations, is by the surrender of which is spoken of; of passivity, not activity; of relaxation, not intentness, should be the rule. Later on in the text he attests: Finally, mind-cure has made what in our protestant countries is an unprecedentedly great use of the subconscious life. To their reasoned advice (and dogmatic assertions) its founders have added systematic exercise in passive relaxation, concentration, and meditation and, have even invoked something like hypnotic practice.
This next case not only illustrates experimental verification, but also the element of passivity and surrender:
“I went into town to do some shopping one morning and I had not been out long before I began to feel ill. The feeling increased rapidly until I had pains in all by bones, a headache, nausea and faintness; all the symptoms preceding an attack of influenza, or grippe; an epidemic in Boston at the time. Seeing this as an opportunity to apply the mind-cure teachings I had been listening to all the winter I thought here was an opportunity to test myself. I refrained from mentioning how I felt to a friend I met – that was the first step gained. Once home, I went to bed immediately though my husband wished me to see a doctor. Then what followed was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life.”
“I cannot express in words other than to say that I lie down in the stream of life and let it flow over me. I gave up all fear of any impending disease; I was willing and obedient. There was no intellectual effort of train of thought. My dominant idea was: Be it unto me Lord as thou wilt and I felt a perfect confidence that all would be well; that all was well. The creative life was flowing into me every instant, and I felt myself allied with the Infinite, in harmony, and full of the peace that passeth understanding. There was no place in my mind of a jarring body. I had no consciousness of time or space or persons; but only of love and happiness and faith. I do not know how long this state lasted, nor when I fell asleep. But, when I woke up on the morning, I was well!”
These are exceedingly trivial instances, but in them, if we have anything at all, we have the method of experiment and verification. For the point the author wishes to make here is that it makes no difference whether you consider the patients to be deluded victims of their imagination or not. But rather that they seemed to themselves to have been cured by the experiments tried which was enough to make them converts to the system.
James adds that one can see by such records of experience and philosophic generalities [referring to several other accounts which, for the sake of brevity, I did not include] that it is impossible not to class mind-cure as primarily a religious movement. It is a doctrine of the oneness of our life with God’s life and is, in fact, quite indistinguishable from an interpretation of Christ’s message. He then mentions of the psychological similarity between the mind-cure movement and the Lutheran and Wesleyan movements. To the believer in moralism and the working of, the query arises “What shall I do to be saved?” And to this Luther and Wesley replied, “You are saved now, if you would but believe it.” A few pages later in the text James includes, as yet another similarity, the practice of “recollection” (otherwise called the “practice of the presence of God”) which plays so great a part in the Catholic discipline [which I did not include but mention as the reader may wish to research the subject].
However, given that philosophers usually profess to give a quasi-logical explanation of the existence of evil, whereas of the general fact of evil in the world, the existence of the selfish, finite consciousness, the mind-curers profess to give no speculative explanation (and here he agrees with their system of not spending time in needless worrying over, or the pondering of, the problem of evil). Yet, they acknowledge evil is empirically there for them as it is for everybody. But, they say, as Dante put it, “But give it a glance and pass beyond!” Or, the more extreme position; insisting that duty forbids us to pay it the compliment even of explicit attention; that evil is simply a lie and anyone who mentions it is a liar. Yet, James points out this is a bad speculative omission (as his next lectures will show us). In fact, he frankly states that nothing can be more stupid than to bar out phenomena from our notice merely because we are ourselves incapable of taking part in anything like them.
James then reminds us of his intentions: that these lectures will emphasize to the minds of the listeners [and readers] the enormous diversities of the spiritual lives different individuals exhibit.
L.T. – I shall end this chapter of James’ book with an account of the author’s own experience with a mind-cure healer as well as a similar-type experience of my own:
I had long been ill resulting in a diplopia [a condition of the eye, double vision] which deprived me of the use of my eyes for reading and writing almost entirely. Another later condition of this illness was to prevent me from exercise of any kind due to immediate and great exhaustion. I had been under the care of doctors of the highest standing both in Europe and America with whom I had considerable faith in their healing abilities yet, to no avail. Then, at a time when I seemed to be rapidly losing ground, I heard some accounts of mental healing that, although I had no great hope of receiving any good from it, I took a chance; partly because I was interested in the new possibilities it seemed to suggest and partly because it seemed the only chance I had. I went to “anonymous” in Boston from whom some friends of mine had received, or felt that they had received, great help.
The treatment was a silent one; a process where the influence of the healer was to be a projection onto my unconscious mind. I believed from the start of the possibilities of such action for I knew the power of the mind to shape, heal or hinder, the body’s nerve activities. And, I thought telepathy probable, although unproven. I sat quietly with the healer for a half an hour each day, at first with no results. Then, after ten days or so, I became quite suddenly and unexpectedly conscious of a tide of new energy rising within me; a sense of power to pass beyond all previous mental halting; a power to break the bounds that had long been a veritable wall about my life, too high to climb I thought. I began to walk and read as I had not done for years and the change was sudden, marked and unmistakable. This lift stayed with me slowly gaining ground for several weeks. But, with this lift the influence seemed, in a way, to have spent itself over time.
James concluded that the change that came about was wrought within him by a change of mental state either brought about by an excited imagination or a consciously received suggestion of a hypnotic sort. He also considers that he received telepathically, at a level upon the mental stratum beneath the level of immediate consciousness [the subconscious], a healthier and more energetic attitude having received it from another [the healer] whose thought was intended to impress this attitude upon him. In his case, he states, that his medical condition was classed as nervous, not organic.
L.T. – My experience was this:
Around ten years ago, I had received a phone call from my elderly mother. She had recently successfully undergone a gall bladder surgical procedure soon following which she experienced a retinal hemorrhage resulting in a rapid, nearly total loss, of vision in one eye. Her other eye was permanently damaged due to a childhood trauma leaving her with little vision in that eye. She was facing, and quite possibly permanently, near total blindness. She was being shown what sort of magnifying and lighting equipment was available that would allow her to be able to read, at least. My mother was beside herself saying if she had to live like this she did not wish to go on living at all. Following the phone call, my ex-husband (we were married at the time) agreed to sit on the couch with me, holding hands and telepathically send my mother loving healing energy. Also, I have no doubt, although I was not told this, that my brother and sister-in-law who are evangelical Christians, sat with a Bible and together prayed for my mother to be healed. Within a couple of days following her initial phone call she telephoned again to, excitedly, inform us that her vision in the hemorrhaging eye was completely restored. She also mentioned how various doctors examined and questioned her in an attempt to discover as to how this sudden reversal of her condition came about. My mother was never told of my husband’s and my efforts to heal her.
I will also mention here of ‘the placebo effect’; actual scientifically verified healings the result of the patients believing they are receiving effective pharmaceutical treatments but are actually receiving a sugar pill or water injection treatments instead. Some of the results are quite astounding, such as a total reversal of an untreatable cancer. If the reader is not already familiar with the placebo effect there is much information online about the scientifically conducted studies and results. The mental healing effects here are verifiably significant even according to the most skeptical of researchers.
Lectures VI and VII – THE SICK SOUL
In the previous chapter James considered the healthy-minded temperament; a temperament which has a constitutional incapacity for prolonged suffering and a tendency to see things optimistically. He also showed us how this temperament may lead to a peculiar type of religion in which the goodness of life, and of the world, is regarded as the essential thing for a rational being to attend to. Evil is a disease and to worry over disease is an additional form of disease which increases the original complaint. Even repentance and remorse, which so often comes as a part of the character of so many sincere ministers of good, may be but sickly impulses. For, the best repentance is to up and act for righteousness and forget you ever had relations with sin. Repentance, according to some Christians, those whom James refers to as healthy-minded Christians, means getting away from the sin, not groaning and writhing about its commission.
Martin Luther, who by no means belonged to the healthy-minded type, in the radical sense as it has here been described, repudiated priestly absolution for sin. According to James, Luther well understood Saint Paul’s words, “The flesh lusteth contrary to the Spirit and the Spirit contrary to the flesh; and these two are one against the other so that ye cannot do the things that ye should do.” For some Christians, they look unto Christ as their reconciler who gave his life for their sins. Moreover, they know that the remnant of sin, which is in their flesh, is not laid to their charge, but freely pardoned (rather than purchased from the church as was the case in Martin Luther’s time).
Now, in contrast with such healthy-minded views as these, James considers a more morbid way of looking at the matter rather than deliberately minimizing evil. First, however, the author wants to address another interpretation: Theism, whenever it has made its way into a systematic philosophy of the universe, has shown a reluctance to let God be anything less than All-in-All. In other words, as one unit composed of many original principles provided that we be allowed to believe that the divine remains supreme and that all others are subordinate. In this case, God is not necessarily responsible for the existence of evil; but only responsible if it were not finally overcome. And, in this way, evil, like everything else, must have its foundation in God.
This difficulty faces us in every form of philosophy in which the universe appears as one flawless unit. And, such a unit is comprised of The Individual [the deity] and the essence of the individual, [a part] is the same as the whole. It is fair here to say that there is no clear nor easy answer regarding the problem of the nature and source of evil and the only escape from this paradox is to cut loose from the monistic assumption altogether. To allow instead for the world to have existed from its origin in pluralistic form as an aggregate or collection of higher and lower things and principles rather than an absolutely unitary, or oneness, fact.
Here James proposes we now say goodbye for a while to all this way of thinking and directs our attention towards those persons who cannot so swiftly throw off the burden of the consciousness of evil, but are instead congenitally fated to suffer from its presence. And, just as we saw that in healthy-mindedness that there are shallower and profounder levels, so too are there different levels of the morbid mind. There are people for whom evil means no more than a mal-adjustment with things; a wrong correspondence of one’s life with the environment. Such evil as this is curable, in principal at least, by merely modifying either the self, or the things, or both, and all goes merry as a marriage bell once again. But, there are others for whom evil is no mere relation of the subject to particular outer things, but something more radical and general; a wrongness or vice in the individual’s essential nature of which no alteration of the environment, nor any superficial rearrangement of the inner self can cure; that which requires a supernatural remedy.
James advises us that recent [in his time] psychology has found great use for the word “threshold” as a symbolic designation for the point at which one state of mind passes into another: a “pain-threshold,” a “fear-threshold,” and a “misery-threshold.” For example, the sanguine and health-minded live habitually on the sunny side of their misery-threshold line whereas the depressed and melancholy live on the other side of this boundary in darkness and apprehension.
James then poses the question: Does it not appear then, if one who lived more habitually on the one side of a threshold they might need a different sort of religion than one who habitually lived on the other; different types of religion for different types of needs? Yet, before we confront this in general terms he suggests we address ourselves to the unpleasant task of learning what the sick souls, as we may call them in contrast to the healthy-minded, have to say of the secrets of their prison house; their own peculiar form of consciousness. He then tells us we shall now resolutely turn our backs on the once-born and their sunlit sky-blue gospel; let us not simply cry out, in spite of all appearances, “Hurrah for the Universe! All’s right with the World!” But rather, he suggests, let us see whether pity, pain, and fear, and the sentiment of human helplessness may have to open to us a profounder view; a key, so-to-speak, to the meaning of the situation.
To begin with, how can things so insecure as the successful experiences of this world afford a stable anchorage? A chain is no stronger than its weakest link, and life is after all a chain [of events]. In the healthiest and most prosperous existence, how many links of illness, danger, heartache, and disaster are always interposed, he wonders? Even if we suppose a man so packed with healthy-mindedness as never to have experienced in his own life any of these sobering intervals, still, if he is at all a reflective being, he must generalize and class his own lot with that of others. And, in doing so, he must see that his escape is just a lucky chance. He might just as well have been born into an entirely different family and fortune of which only the slimmest, the hollowest, security is thus offered. What kind of a state is it, in reference to any earthly crisis, of which the best you can say is, “Thank God it has let me off clear this time!” Is not your blessedness a fragile fiction? Is not your joy in it a vulgar glee, not much unlike the snicker of any rogue at his success?
James continues, take the happiest man, the one most envied by the world, and in nine out of ten cases his innermost consciousness is one of failure. As Goethe writes in 1824:
“I will say nothing against the course of my existence. But at the bottom it has been nothing but pain and burden and I can affirm that during the whole of my 75 years I have not had four weeks of genuine well-being, it is but the perpetual rolling of a rock [uphill, as in Sisyphus] that must be raised up again forever.”
James adds: What single-handed man was ever on the whole as successful as Martin Luther? Yet, when he had grown old, he looked back on his life as if it were an absolute failure:
“I am utterly weary of life. I pray the Lord will come forth and carry me hence.” And, holding a necklace of white agates in his hand at the time, he added, “O God, grant that it may come without delay. I would readily eat this necklace today for the Judgment to come tomorrow.” One day when the Electress Dowager was dining with Luther, she said to him, “I wish you may live forty years to come.” “Madame,” he replied, “I would give up my chance in Paradise rather than live forty years more.”
Here James goes off: Failure, then more Failure! So the world stamps us at every turn. We strew it with our blunders, our misdeeds, our lost opportunities, with all the memorials of our inadequacy to our vocation. And, with a damning emphasis, does it then blot us out! And, to this rage he adds, but this is only the first stage of the sickness! Make the human being’s sensitiveness a little greater, carry him a little farther over the misery-threshold and even the good qualities of the successful moments, when they do occur, are spoiled and vitiated. Riches take wings; fame is but a breath; love a cheat; youth and health and pleasure vanish. And behind everything is the great specter of universal death, the all-encompassing blackness!
He then adds, and to a mind attentive to this state of things and subject to the joy-destroying chill which such a contemplation engenders, the only relief that the healthy-mindedness has to offer is to say: “Stuff and nonsense, get out into the open air! Or, “Cheer up, old fellow, you’ll be alright soon enough if you will only drop your morbidness!”
Not at all inclined to quit, James unrelentingly continues: As the pride of life and glory of the world shrivels, old age then has the last word; the purely naturalistic look at life, however enthusiastically it may have begun, it is sure to end in sadness. Let sanguine healthy-mindedness do its best with its strange power of living in the moment, of ignoring and forgetting. Still, the evil background is there to be thought; the skull will grin in at the banquet.
L.T. – Just look at the skull tattooed on the restaurant server’s forearm!
Above is but a glimpse of James’ depressing ruminations and it is here that the reader may be very glad that this is an abridged version of his book.
But here, next, James suggests that we let our common experiences be enveloped in an eternal moral order; let our suffering have an immortal significance; let Heaven smile upon the Earth; let the gods pay us their visits; let faith and hope be the atmosphere which we breathe in daily and our days shall bass by with zest; they stir with great prospects as they thrill with remoter profounder values.
L.T. – Ah ha! Here we are uplifted at last! But wait, not so soon …
Place round them the curdling cold and gloom along with the absence of permanence or meaning which the popular science of our time [as true today as it was then] provides us with its scientific methodology, its empirical evidence, and the thrill stops cold. For scientism, or naturalism as James refers to it, fed on recent cosmological speculations, tells us mankind is in a position similar to that of a set of people living on a frozen lake over which there is no escape … other than colonizing the chosen, not frozen, members of humanity along with some eggs on Mars or inside a humongous spinning space station. Although, for contemporary scientists, the concern is not another ice age, or even the heat death, so much as it is being blasted to pieces by a long overdue (or so they tell us) asteroid impact. Yet here too, they are still our species’ saviors; provided they get the funding.
Here James directs our thoughts to the early Greeks which we shall briefly touch upon; in particular the Stoics and the Epicureans which he describes such: The Epicurean said, “Seek not to be happy, but rather to escape unhappiness for, strong happiness is always linked with pain. Therefore, hug the safe shore and do not tempt the deeper raptures. Avoid disappointment by expecting little and aiming low. And, above all, do not fret. Whereas the Stoic said, “The only genuine good that life can yield a man is the free possession of his own soul; all other goodnesses are lies.” Epicureanism can only, by great courtesy, be called a religion by the showing of refinement and Stoicism by exhibiting one’s moral will. He here informs us he is not judging these attitudes but merely describing their variations.
Here’s a curious footnote of his: On the very day on which I write this page the mail [coincidentally] brings me some aphorisms from a friend in Heidelberg which may serve as a good contemporaneous expression of Epicureanism: “… is a phantom pursued only by weaker minds. The wise man is satisfied with the more modest state of contentment.”
Now here James introduces us to what may be referred to as radical pessimism. And, for this extremity of pessimism to be reached more is needed than observations of life and reflections upon death as we have heretofore dwelled upon. He suggests that the individual must, within his own person, become the prey of his own melancholy. As the healthy-minded enthusiast succeeds in ignoring evil’s very existence, for the individual that melancholy is forced upon, all goodness whatsoever may no longer have the least reality. Such susceptibility to mental pain is a rare occurrence where the nervous constitution is entirely normal; one seldom finds it in a healthy subject even if he be the victim of the most atrocious cruelties.
So here we note the neurotic constitution making its active entrance onto our scene, and destined to play a part in much that follows. James informs us he shall include reports from personal documents and, as painful to listen to as they may be, there’s almost an indecency in handling them in public. However, if the psychology of religion is to be taken at all seriously, we must be willing to forgo conventionalities.
James here acquaints us with the state of anhedonia [a new word at the time] and describes it thus: A young girl had been stricken with liver disease which, for some time, altered her constitution. She no longer felt affection for her parents. She would have played with her doll, but could not find any pleasure in it. The things that formally would have convulsed her with laughter entirely failed to interest her now. Also, as another example: A very intelligent magistrate became prey to hepatic disease. Every emotion appeared dead within him. He exhibited not violence nor perversity, just complete absence of emotional reaction. The magistrate found no pleasure in the theater or the thought of his home or family stating they moved him no more than a mathematical theorem.
Another (temporary) condition of this sort, associated with the religious conversion of a particularly lofty personality (the individual being both intellectual and moral) is well described by the Catholic philosopher, Father Gratry, in his autobiography. This state of nervous exhaustion and other symptoms fell upon the young Gratry; the consequence of mental isolation and excessive study at the Polytechnic school in Paris which he describes thus:
“I had such a universal terror that I woke at night with a start thinking that, among other worries, the school was consumed in flames and Paris was being flooded by the Seine. And, when these impressions had passed by me, all day long without respite, I suffered an incurable and intolerable feeling of desolation, verging on despair. I thought of myself as being rejected by God, lost, damned! It felt something like the suffering of hell whereas before that, I had never even thought of hell. But, more dreadful still, was that every idea of Heaven was taken away from me; I could no longer conceive of anything of the sort! Happiness, joy, light, affection, love, all these words were now devoid of meaning. I could have still talked of all these things, but I had become incapable of feeling anything in them.”
A much worse form of melancholy, James informs us, is an active anguish; a sort of psychical neuralgia. Such anguish may partake of various personalities having more the quality of self-loathing; or of self-mistrust and self-despair; or of suspicion, anxiety, trepidation and fear. The patient may rebel or submit to their condition, they may accuse themselves or outside powers, they may or may not be tormented as to why they should have to suffer so. Most cases are mixed cases however. He now cites an example of melancholy from a letter he received from a patient in a French asylum:
“I suffer too much in this hospital, both physically and morally. Besides the burning and sleeplessness (for I no longer sleep since I am shut up here and the little rest I get is broken by bad dreams – I am awakened with a jump by nightmares, dreadful visions, and the rest). Fear, atrocious fear, presses me down, holds me without respite; never lets me go. What have I done to deserve this excess of severity? Under what form will this fear eventually crush me? What I would not owe anyone who would rid me of my life! I am afraid of God as much as of the devil so I drift along thinking of nothing but suicide but with neither courage nor the means here to execute the act. As you read this it will easily prove to you of my insanity. I can see that myself. Yet, I am defenseless against the invisible enemy who is tightening his coils around me. Oh, if he would but kill me …”
James mentions that the letter shows us that the entire consciousness of the poor man is so choked with the feeling of evil that the sense of there being any good in the world is lost for him altogether.
L.T. – Well, I know exactly how this man feels, only my circumstances were real and not the result of a psychical neuralgia or some other mental disease. They were the result of gang stalking by the mafia which is a known tactic. One can find specific information about these tactics online. They have been utilized internationally for decades by the mafia, KKK, Nazis, etc.
For all accounts, interwoven throughout this website, regarding the activities of organized crime in Boulder, Colorado that I am referring to go to: chapter (A) MIRACLES and scroll down to the posts titled Divine Message – A Most Difficult time, page 22, then Downtown Art Studio, page 23, and next “Visions of Menacing Entities,” pages 24 & 25 [above]. Following having read these posts, the reader should next go to chapter (C) MIRACLES and read the first post titled A Most Difficult Time (organized crime and pornography) pages 53 & 54. Then on chapter (F) “The Varieties of Religious Experience” – Part I, pages 27 and 42 [above], and from there chapter (G) “The Varieties of Religious Experience” – Part II, pages 71 and 72 and chapter (H) “The Varieties of Religious Experience” – Part III , on pages 94, 111 & 112, and 142 & 143,more on chapter (P) “Everything is Going to be Alright …” page 6 [above] and on the 2nd chapter (P) Evil recognized, identified, its effects …” then on chapter (Q) “Part I – New Information, Miraculous Events and Book Reviews”: post dated February 9, 2017 – Gang Stalking and FBI FOIPA Report, and post dated March 8, 2018, page 3 – The Paranormal, Organized Crime and “A Course In Miracles”
These posts allude to a circumstance I found myself in from 2006 to the present (as of this writing). That circumstance being, my having been relentlessly terrorized and menaced by members of organized crime in Boulder, Colorado as a recruiting tactic. These tactics are intended to drive a person to the brink of either a complete mental breakdown (from which point the criminals can get the individual to acquiesce to their will) or worse, suicide. At one point, following a series of particular events, I concluded that they would indeed murder me as I was being entirely uncooperative and continually going to law enforcement to report of their activities and for help (which I could not get). I purchased a gun, worked out all the details associated with killing myself: where, exactly when, and what I should do prior in order to explain why I had shot myself. I felt that shooting myself and describing why, to news organizations, was preferable to being murdered, in who knows what horrible way, with nothing good at all resulting from it. I had also sought and spoke with an attorney about a proper will. All this took work and time and I felt sick to my stomach throughout knowing, or so I thought, what I had to do. Too afraid to kill myself and eventually having contacted a mental health expert (although I thought my situation was hopeless) I did not follow through for he convinced me that they were not going to kill me. And, he was, obviously, right (at least not as of yet, a few years later). I no longer have the gun.
Throughout, the local police and sheriff’s office treated me all along as though I were a nuisance and insane (even to the extent of attempting, unsuccessfully, to commit me to a psychiatric facility). Yet, they knew who these people were (the mafia), what they were involved in (specifically prostitution and pornography) and were familiar with the tactics being utilized on me which, for a few years even during the course of events, I was not. I hadn’t a clue as to why they were menacing me so! It is exceedingly difficult for the targeted individual in such a case as this to get help. For they appear, based on what they tell others and their extreme state of stress and fear (which is, no doubt, quite apparent) that they are suffering from mental conditions similar to what James has described above. And that is the intent of these types of assaults! That’s how they get away with it!
I believe, and gosh I sure hope this is true, that the FBI is actively investigating this case to this day. It has been conveyed to me, and not by a law enforcement official, that the investigations are taking so long because the case is larger in scope than I realize. Also, I have officially accused the police and the sheriff’s department of protecting, not me, but the criminals from my allegations. And, they have good reason for doing so. These members of organized crime, involved in prostitution and pornography and forcibly attempting to recruit me manage, according to their website at the [time of this writing], 1,600 university student housing units. They have offices in the immediate vicinity of campuses in Denver and Boulder, Colorado.
Anyway, back to the book …
The author introduces us now to Leo Tolstoy who has left us, in his book titled “My Confession,” an excellent account of his state of anhedonia which led him to his religious conclusions. (James will get to the religious conversion aspects of Tolstoy’s and Father Gratry’s melancholy in a later lecture). First, the author tells us it is a well-marked case of anhedonia; of passive loss of appetite for all life’s values. And second, it shows how this altered and estranged state stimulated Tolstoy’s intellect toward an unrelenting and burdensome inquiry seeking philosophical relief. James describes Tolstoy’s case as such: that whatever in life had any meaning for him was for a time wholly withdrawn.
When we come to study [in a later lecture] the phenomenon of religious conversion, or regeneration, we shall see that, not infrequently, these phenomena are a consequence, not the origin, of the [spiritual] change operated in the individual. A transformation of the view of all of nature upon the renewed perceiver is as though a new Heaven seems to shine upon a new Earth.
For the melancholic however, the world now looks remote, strange, and sinister even. As reported to James from an asylum: “It is as if I see everything through a cloud,” one tells him. “Persons move like shadows, and sounds seem to come from a different world,” says another. “Everything floats before my eyes, but leaves no impression. I weep false tears, I have unreal hands, and the things I see are not real things,” says a third. Such are three examples of expressions that naturally rise to the lips of melancholy subjects describing their changed state. Yet, there are some whom all this eventually leads to the profoundest astonishment. For them, the strangeness is wrong and the unreality cannot be. A mystery is concealed and a metaphysical explanation must exist. An urgent wondering and question is thus set up; a theoretic activity in a desperate effort to get into right relations with the matter. The sufferer is often led to what becomes for them, a satisfying religious solution.
L.T. – Here again I must interrupt before we get into Tolstoy’s description of his sudden altered state of mind. I had a similar experience decades ago which lasted three days. It came on suddenly and unexpectedly and, I was in such an agitated state I could not relax for a moment needing to intellectually (or so I concluded for there seemed no other way) seek assurances that life was indeed meaningful, which I did in fact accomplish. I considered it then, and still do to this day, a spiritual crisis. I report of it in chapter (K) Brilliant Scientist / Philosophers in the Introduction – “The Big One.” It has since become my understanding that this is not at all an uncommon experience. Tolstoy’s lasted for over a year and I cannot imagine having experienced such unrelenting dread and fear for so long a period of time as that. But being the brilliant individual that he was this experience led to some very profound and meaningful works produced by him which I have provided some examples of on this site. See chapter (N) Leo Tolstoy “The Divine As Misunderstood By Men Of Science” and (O) “Leo Tolstoy – The Tough Pacifist.”
At about the age of 50, Tolstoy relates that he began to experience moments of perplexity, of what he calls an arrest; as if he knew not how to live or what to do. Prior to this, he claims, life had been enchanting; and now, flat sober, more than sober; dead. He writes:
“All this took place at a time when so far as all my outer circumstances went, I ought to have been completely happy. I had a good wife who loved me and whom I loved, good children and a large property which was continually increasing with no effort on my part. I was more respected by my kinsfolk and acquaintances than I had ever been. I was loaded with praise by strangers and, without exaggeration, I could believe my name already famous. Moreover, I was neither insane nor ill. On the contrary, I possessed a physical and mental strength which I have rarely met in persons of my age. I could mow as well as the peasants, I would work with my brain eight hours uninterruptedly and feel no bad effects.”
Tolstoy continues, “And yet I could give no reasonable meaning to any of the activities of my life. And, I was surprised that I had not understood this from the very beginning. My state of mind was as if some wicked and stupid jest was being played upon my mind by someone. One can live happily for only so long, I felt, for life is but cruel and stupid, purely and simply.”
“This is no fable, but the literal incontestable truth which everyone must understand. What will be the outcome of what I do today? Of what I shall do tomorrow? Of all my life? Why should I live? Why should I do anything? Is there in life any purpose in which the inevitable death which awaits me does not undo and destroy? These questions are the simplest in the world. From the naïve child to the wisest old man, they are in the soul of every human being. Without an answer, it is impossible, as I experienced it, for life to go on.”
“But perhaps, I’ve often said to myself, there may be something I have failed to notice or to comprehend. It is not possible that this condition of despair should be natural to mankind. So I sought for an explanation in all the branches of knowledge acquired by men. I questioned painfully and protractedly and, with no idle curiosity. I sought, not with indolence, but laboriously and obstinately for days and nights together. I sought like a man who is lost and seeks to save himself – and I found nothing. I became convinced, moreover, that all those who before me had sought for an answer in the sciences have also found nothing. And not only this, but that they recognized that the very thing which was leading me to despair: that being that the meaningless absurdity of life is the only incontestable knowledge accessible to man.”
To prove this point, Tolstoy quotes the Buddha, Solomon, and Schopenhauer. And, he finds only four ways in which men of his own class and society are accustomed to meet the situation: with mere animal blindness, or reflective Epicureanism, snatching what it can while the day lasts (a more deliberate stupefaction then the first), or manly suicide, or merely weakly and plaintively clinging to the bush of life. And, suicide seemed to be the consistent course dictated by the logical, rational, intellect.
“Yet,” says Tolstoy, “whilst my intellect was working, something else in me was working too, and kept me from the deed – a consciousness of life, as I may call it, which was like a force that obliged my mind to fix itself in another direction and draw me out of my state of despair. During the whole course of this year, when I almost unceasingly kept asking myself how to end the business, whether by the rope or by the bullet, during all that time, alongside of all those movements of my ideas and observations, my heart kept languishing with another pinning emotion. I can call this by no other name than that of a thirst for God. This craving for God … came from my heart. It was like the feeling of an orphan isolated in the midst of all these things that were so foreign. And, this feeling was mitigated by the hope of finding the assistance of someone.”
James tells us of the process, intellectual as well as emotional, which, beginning with this idea of God, led to Tolstoy’s recovery (which he will report on later). He goes on to explain that when disillusionment has gone as far as this, however, there is seldom a satisfactory resolve. For, once one has tasted the fruit of the tree, the happiness of Eden never comes again. According to James, the happiness that does come is not due to the simple ignorance of ill, but something vastly more complex: including evil as one of its elements. But, finding evil is no stumbling block because it is now seen as swallowed up in supernatural good. The process is one of redemption and not of a mere reversion back to natural health. The sufferer, when saved, is saved by what seems to him to be a deeper kind of consciousness than he knew before; a second birth.
We are next informed of a case of a somewhat different type of religious melancholy reported of in John Bunyan’s autobiography. James states it was a typical case of the psychopathic temperament. Not only was he beset by doubts, fears and insistent ideas but a victim of verbal and motor automatisms (brief seizures).
John Bunyan describes it such:
“… inward pollution, that was my plague and my affliction. I thought I was more loathsome in my own eyes than a toad, and was so in God’s eyes too. Sin and corruption would as naturally bubble out of my heart as water would from a fountain. I thought none but the devil himself could equal me for inward wickedness and pollution of mind. Surely, thought I, I am forsaken of God. And thus I continued a long while; for some years together even. I was sorry God made me a man and I blessed the beasts for their condition for, they had not a sinful nature; they were not to go to hell-fire after death. How gladly would I have been anything but myself! Anything but a man! And in any condition but my own.”
Poor Bunyan, exclaims James, but he, like Tolstoy, did see the light again (which shall be referred to later). He then informs that the worst kind of melancholy is that which takes the form of panic. Here is an example that he thanks the sufferer for the permission giving to him to print [much abridged]:
“I went one evening into the dressing room to procure an article [of clothing] that was there when suddenly, and without warning, a horrible fear of my own existence fell upon me. Simultaneously, there arose in my mind the image of an epileptic patient whom I had seen in an asylum. An epileptic youth, entirely idiotic, who used to sit all day on one of the benches, or shelves rather, against the wall, with his knees drawn up against his chin with his gray undershirt, his only garment, drawn over them enclosing his entire figure. HIs skin was a greenish color and he moved nothing but his black eyes and looked absolutely non-human. That image and my fear entered into a combination whereas I thought, that [non-human] shape am I. I became a mass of quivering fear. I awoke morning after morning with a horrible dread and a sense of the insecurity of life that I never knew before and, that I have never felt since. It was like a revelation; and although the immediate feeling passed away, the experience has made me sympathetic with the morbid feelings of others ever since. It gradually faded, but for months I was unable to go out into the dark alone. This experience of melancholia of mine had a religious bearing.”
James then asked his correspondent to explain more fully what he meant by these last words and the answer was:
“I mean that the fear was so invasive and powerful that if I had not clung to scripture texts like ‘The eternal God is my refuge,’ or ‘I am the resurrection and the life,’ etc., I think I should have grown really insane.”
James then advises that there is no need of more examples. In none of these cases, he adds, was there any intellectual insanity or delusions about the matter. But, were we disposed to open the chapter of really insane melancholia, with its hallucinations and delusions, it would be a worse story still. How irrelevantly remote seem all our usual refined optimisms and intellectual and moral consolations in presence of a need of help like this. And here, no prophet can claim to bring a meaningful, consoling message unless that which he says has a sound of reality to the minds of victims such as these. But, the deliverance must come in as strong a form as the complaint if it is to have an effect. And, he posits, that seems a reason why the coarser religions, revivalistic, with blood and miracles and supernatural operations, most likely, will never be displaced. Some constitutions need them too much.
L.T. – Gosh, poor people … I had no idea. And here I am reading and, as I do, writing this abridged work on October 31 – Halloween, of all days.
He elaborates further: To the morbid-minded way, as we might call it, simple healthy-mindedness seems unspeakably blind and shallow. To the healthy-minded, on the other hand, the way of the sick soul seems unmanly and diseased with their grumbling in rat holes instead of living in the light; with their manufacture of fears and preoccupation with every unwholesome kind of misery. To the healthy-minded there is something almost obscene about these children of wrath and cravers of a second birth.
The method of averting one’s attention from evil, and living simply in the light of good is splendid as long as it will work. It will work with many and far more so than most of us are ready to suppose. And, within its sphere of operation, there is nothing to be said against it as a religious solution. But, it impotently breaks down as soon as melancholy comes because the evil facts which it [positive mindedness] refuses to account for are indeed a genuine aspect of reality. And they may be, after all, the best key to life’s significance and the opening of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth. A lunatics visions are drawn from the material of daily life. Every individual goes out [expires] in a lonely, helpless and sometimes agonizing spasm [the same way we came in]. And if you protest, my friend, wait till you arrive there yourself, James admonishes.
Here in our very garden the infernal cat plays with the panting mouse, or holds the hot bird fluttering in her jaws. Crocodiles and rattlesnakes and pythons are vessels of life as real as we are; their loathsome existence fills every minute of every day that drags its length along with it. And, whenever they or other wild beasts clutch their living prey, the deadly horror which an agitated melancholiac feels is literally, the right reaction to the situation.
L.T. – E. A. Poe could not have said it better.
Since the evil facts are as much a genuine part of nature as the good ones, a philosophic presumption should be that they must have some rational significance, and that systematic healthy-mindedness, failing as it does to accord to sorrow, pain, and death, and active attention to these matters whatsoever, is therefore formally less complete than systems that try, at least, to include these elements in their scope. Religions that are the most complete (i.e., Christianity and Buddhism) include the pessimistic elements. They are essentially religions of deliverance: that man must die in an unreal life before he can be born into the real life.
Here James promises we shall deal with more cheerful subjects than that which we have recently been dwelling on as we discuss some of the psychological conditions of this second birth.
L.T. – Note: My remarks are not intended to diminish the value and brilliance of James’ thesis.
Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) was a German friar, priest and professor of theology and a seminal figure in the Protestant Reformation. The reformation [of the Catholic Church] began in Germany with Martin Luther expressing doubts of the legitimacy of the selling of indulgences (that freedom from sin could be purchased with money) and simony (the buying and selling of clerical offices) by the Roman Catholic Church. Luther nailed his written work “Ninety-Five Theses” to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517. Luther believed first, that the discovering of Jesus and salvation is accorded by faith alone. And second, he identified the papacy as the Antichrist. His refusal to retract all his writings as demanded of by Pope Leo X and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V resulted in his excommunication by the Pope and his being declared an outlaw by the Emperor.
Luther’s translation of the Bible into the vernacular (from Latin) made it more accessible which had a tremendous impact on the church and German culture. Also, his marriage to Katharina von Bora began the practice of clerical marriage, allowing Protestant priests to marry. In his later works, notably “On the Jews and Their Lies” Luther expressed an antagonistic view toward Judaism. These statements and their influence on antisemitism have contributed to his controversial status.
The image here is an actual cast of his face and hands at the time of his death. As there was no photographic technology available then, in 1546, yet here, we have what exactly he looked like.
Leo Tolstoy – Count Lev Nidolayevich Tolstoy (1828 – 1910) was a Russian novelist. His best known works are “War and Peace,” “Anna Karenina,” Childhood, Boyhood and Youth,” etc., as well as several novellas such as, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” and “Hadji Murad.” He is considered one of the world’s greatest authors. In the 1870s Tolstoy experienced a profound moral crisis followed by what he considered an equally profound spiritual awakening as reported by him in his non-fiction work “A Confession.” This crisis led him to become a fervent Christian anarchist and pacifist. He rejected violent anarchist means of revolution stating that “… there can only be one permanent revolution – a moral one; the regeneration of the inner man.” His conversion from a privileged member of society to the non-violent anarchist was brought about by his experiences in the army and his travels around Europe. He also witnessed a public execution which traumatized him following which he stated to a friend that “… he shall never serve any government anywhere.”
Tolstoy became passionately interested in education and founded 13 schools for children of Russian peasants based on the concept of a democratic education. His educational experiments were short lived however, due to harassment by Tsarist secret police.
His wife, Sophia Andreevna Behrs, who was 16 years his junior, and he had 13 children, 8 of which survived childhood. Tolstoy’s relationship with his wife deteriorated as his beliefs became increasingly radical during which time he sought to reject his inherited and earned wealth. During his last days he had spoken of and written about dying. At 82 years of age he left his home in the middle of winter, in the dead of the night and died of pneumonia at a train station after a day’s journey by train. The station master took him home to his apartment and his personal doctors were called to the scene. To commemorate this event and the author the train station was named after him: Lev Tolstoy Railway Station.
Lecture VIII – THE DIVIDED SELF AND THE PROCESS OF ITS UNIFICATION
The previous lecture, James acknowledges, was a painful one, dealing as it did with evil as a pervasive element of the world we live in. We considered the contrast between two ways of looking at life. One which he called the healthy-minded, those who need to be born only once, and of the sick soul, those who must be twice born in order to be happy. In the second case, peace cannot be reached by the simple addition of pluses and the elimination of minuses from life. Natural good is not simply insufficient in amount, as well as transient, but there also lurks a falsity in its very being.
The author here states that death cannot be the final word and can never be the thing intended for our worship. But rather, the renunciation and despair of it are our first step in the direction towards the truth. There is the natural [as in nature – material] and the spiritual life, and we must lose the one before we can participate in the other. In the extremes of these two exceedingly contrasted forms, pure naturalism (or materialism) and pure Salvationism, we have observed somewhat ideal abstractions [extremes]. Whereas generally we are in contact with mixtures, a unification more or less, of both types. Here we shall find an example of an incompletely ununified constitution, that of Alphonse Daudet:
“The first time that I perceived that I was two was at the death of my brother Henri, when my father cried out so dramatically, ‘He is dead, he is dead!. While my first self wept, my second self thought, ‘How truly given was that cry, how fine it would be at the theatre.’ I was then 14 years old. This duality has often since given me matter for reflection. Oh, this terrible second me; this second me that I have never been able to make shed tears or put to sleep [keep quiet] and how it sees into things and mocks!”
James tells us that the heterogeneous [dualistic] personality has been explained as the result of [genetic] inheritance – the preserved traits of incompatible and antagonistic ancestors [existing in an individual personality]. This explanation may pass for what it is worth – it certainly needs corroboration, in-other-words. Nevertheless, the normal evolution of a character chiefly consists in the straightening out and unifying of the inner self. The higher and lower feelings, the useful and erring impulses, begin by being somewhat chaotic within us. Yet, they must conclude by forming a stable system of functioning in right subordination. Unhappiness is apt to characterize the process of order making and concomitant struggle. To further explain; man’s interior is a battle ground for what seems to be two violently opposing selves; one ideal and the other actual. Here James cites Saint Augustine’s (354 – 430 AD) case; a classic example of the discordant personality:
Augustine’s upbringing was half pagan (polytheistic as in ancient Rome) and half Christian. He had emigrated to Rome from Carthage (an ancient Phoenician/Tunisian city state) and adopted the Manichaeism religion (a dualist religious philosophy taught by the Persian prophet Mani) and began a relentless search for truth and purity of life, which led to a struggle between the two souls in his breast. When feeling ashamed of his own weakness of will (he writes of his excesses in his “Confessions”) when so many others whom he knew had thrown off the shackles of sensuality and dedicated themselves to chastity and the higher life, he heard a voice in the garden say ‘take and read.’ And, opening the Bible at random, he saw the text, ‘not in chambering and wantonness” (chambering in the Bible means fornication or adultery and wantonness means lasciviousness or promiscuous). This to him seemed directly sent to his address and “laid the inner storm to rest forever.”
L.T. – A reader of this website, in its entirety, will most likely recall there are numerous events, too many to reference on this page (and many others not mentioned on this site) where I have reported of supernatural help or messages in the form of text, mostly from books, where I was ‘told’ to or was inspired to read something selected at random which perfectly, not generally, applied to my circumstance thus aiding me at the time; much along the lines of the experience described above that so influenced St. Augustine. In fact, not until I reviewed my records of these various supernatural events, and have written of them on this website, did I notice how often this very phenomena has occurred in my life and, at crucial times. And now, I am reading of the same type of circumstance, as experienced by St. Augustine. I have since, learned (since originally writing this piece) that this form of communication from a higher source may not be at all an uncommon experience.
Saint Augustine goes on further to describe his inner struggle with his divided self stating that the one, the spiritual, not being strong enough to overcome the other, the carnal, having been strengthened by long indulgence, did continue to disturb his soul. James further adds that Augustine understood by his own experience in what he read: ‘flesh lusteth after spirit, and spirit against flesh.’ James also mentions another individual whom he referred to earlier in the last lecture, Henry Alline, a Nova Scotian evangelist, yet whom I did not include in this abridged version for the sake of brevity. At this point he mentions that both Augustin and Alline did emerge into the waters of inner unity and peace.
James asserts that the process of unification, when it occurs, it may come gradually; or it may occur abruptly; it may come through altered feelings or altered activities; it may come through new intellectual insights, or through experience which we shall have to qualify as ‘mystical.’ The author adds that to find religion is only of many ways of reaching unity; that the process of reducing inner discord is a general psychological process which may not necessarily assume the religious form. In judging the religious types of regeneration, which we are here studying, it is important to recognize that they are but one type of species, or genus [as he puts it]. He then gives us a couple of examples of that which the French philosopher, Théodore Jouffroy, referred to as a “counter conversion” :
James introduces us to an essay titled “Decision of Character” by John Foster which includes an account of a case of a sudden conversion to avarice:
A young man wasted, in but two or three years, a large inheritance in profligate reveling with a number of worthless associates who called themselves his friends. And who, not surprisingly, when his last means were exhausted, treated him with neglect and contempt. Reduced to abject want he left the house with the intention to put an end to his life. But, while wandering about, almost incoherently, he came upon a prominence that overlooked what had been his estates. He sat down for several hours remaining fixed in thought after which he sprang up from the ground with an exulting emotion having formed his resolution: that all these estates should be his again. He had a plan too which he instantly began to execute. The young man determined to seize the first opportunity to gain any amount of money regardless of however humble the work and trifle little the pay. And, he resolved not to spend, if he could help it, a farthing of that which he made. His first opportunity was to shovel a heap of coal that had fallen from a cart in front of a house and he received a pence for the labor and, in keeping with the saving part of his plan, requested a small gratuity of meat and drink which was given him. He continued in this manner with indefatigable industry through a succession of servile employments all the while scrupulous in avoiding, as far as possible, the expense of a penny. He then had enough means to purchase then sell some cattle and from there turning his first gains into a second advantage and so on; thus advancing by degrees into larger transactions and incipient wealth having never once deviating from his extreme parsimony. The final result was: he more than recovered his lost possessions and died an inveterate miser worth a considerable fortune.
“Scrooge” (a story about an inveterate miser) is a 1970 musical film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ 1843 novel, “A Christmas Carol.” It was filmed in London, directed by Ronald Neame and starred Albert Finney in the title role. Without a doubt it is a masterpiece; the best movie I have ever seen by a long shot. It will leave you singing and dancing around the house with your heart all expanded and soaring.
And here James gives us yet another example:
“For two years I went through a very bad experience which almost drove me mad. I had fallen violently in love with a girl who had a spirit of coquetry like a cat. As I look back on her now, I hate her, and wonder how I could ever have fallen so low as to be worked upon to such an extent by her attraction. Nevertheless, I fell into a regular fever, could think of nothing else whenever I was alone. I pictured her attractions, and spent most of the time when I should have been working thinking of our times together. She was very pretty, good humored and intensely pleased with my admiration. And, the queer thing about it was, that whilst pursuing her for her hand, I secretly knew all along that she was unfit to be my wife and, that she would never say yes. Our closer relations had to be on the sly. And this together with my jealousy of another one of her male admirers, made me so nervous and sleepless that I really thought I should become insane. I understand well those young men murdering their sweethearts which appear so often in the papers. Nevertheless, I did love her passionately, and in some ways, she did deserve it. What is odd however, is the sudden and unexpected way in which it all stopped. I was going to work after breakfast one morning, thinking of her as usual and of my misery when, just as if some outside power laid hold of me, I found myself turning round, running to my room where I immediately got out all the relics of her which I possessed and destroyed them; setting fire to the notes and letters and crushing the glass ambrotypes with my heel and feeling a fierce joy and vengeance as I did. I felt as if a load of disease had left me. That was the end. I have never had a single moment of loving thoughts towards her since; one whom, for so many months, entirely filled my heart. In fact, I have always rather hated her memory, although I can see that I had gone unnecessarily far in that direction.”
James now has us turn to a case of [sudden] conversion and of the simplest type; to the religion of healthy-mindedness by a man who may have been naturally disposed of that type. Mr. Horace Fletcher relates in his book called “Menticulture” that a friend, with whom he was talking about the self-control attained by the Japanese through their practice of Buddhism, said:
“You must first get rid of anger and worry.” “But, is that possible, said I?” “Yes,” he replied, “It is possible to the Japanese and therefore ought to be possible to us.”
“On my way back home I could think of nothing else but the words ‘get rid of, get rid of’ and the idea must have continued to possess me during my sleeping hours. For, the first consciousness in the morning brought back the same thought with the reasoning: if it is possible to get rid of anger and worry, why is it necessary to have them at all? I felt the strength of the argument, and at once accepted the reasoning. From the instant I realized that the malignant blots of worry and anger were removable, they left me. With the discovery of their weakness they were exorcised. From that time forward life has had an entirely different aspect.”
“After the moment that the possibility and desirability of freedom from the depressing passions had become a reality to me (and, it did take a few months to feel an absolute security in my new position) when the usual occasions for worry and anger presented themselves again I had become unable to feel them in the slightest. I no longer dread or guard against them. And, I am amazed at my increased energy and vigor of mind and my ability to love and appreciate everything. The same porter, hotel waiter, cab driver, book agent, and others, who were formerly a source of annoyance and irritation, I have met, but I am not conscious of a single incivility. All at once the whole world has turned good to me; I am sensitive only to the rays of good. There is no doubt in my mind that pure Christianity and pure Buddhism and the Mental Sciences, etc., all teach what has been a discovery to me. But none of them have presented it in the light of a simple and easy process of elimination.”
“At one time, I wondered if this change would not yield to indifference and sloth. In my experience the contrary is the result. I feel such an increased desire to do something useful that it seems as if I were a boy again and the energy for play had returned. I could fight as readily, and better, than ever should there be the occasion for it. It does not make one a coward; it cannot. For fear is one of the things eliminated. As far as I am concerned I am not bothering myself at present as to what the complete result of this emancipated constitution may be. I have no doubt that the perfect health aimed at by Christian Science may be one of the possibilities.”
James informs us that the medical profession used to speak of two ways, lysis and crisis, one gradual, the other abrupt, in which one might recover from a disease. In the spiritual realm there are also two ways: one gradual, the other sudden, in which inner unification may occur. Tolstoy and Bunyan may serve as examples of the gradual way. [John Bunyan is another author whom James has referred to and quoted earlier in the text but, I decided to not include those parts for the sake of brevity]. Tolstoy gradually – he says it took him two years – came to the settled conviction that his trouble had not been with life in general, not the life of common men, but with the life of the upper, intellectual, artistic classes; the life which he had always led; the cerebral life, the life of conventionality, artificiality, and personal ambition. He felt he had been living wrongly and must change. To work for animal needs, to abstain from, lies and vanities, to relieve the common wants, to be simple, to believe in God, therein lay happiness again. Tolstoy writes:
“After this, things cleared up within me and about me better than ever, and the light has never wholly died away. I was saved from suicide. As insensibly and gradually the force of life had been nullified in me, just as imperceptibly and gradually did the energy of life return. And, what was strange was, that this energy that came back was nothing new. I was again my ancient juvenile force of faith, the belief that the sole purpose of my life was to become better. I gave up the life of the conventional world, recognizing it to be not life, but a parody on life instead.”
Of John Bunyan’s recovery James quotes:
“My peace would be in and out twenty times a day; comfort now and then trouble presently; peace now and before I could go but a furlong, filled again with guilt and fear as ever a heart could hold.” When a good text came to him, “This” he writes, “gave me good encouragement for the space of two or three hours,” or, “This was a good day to me, I hope I shall never forget it” or, ” … it showed me that Jesus Christ had not quite forsaken and cast off my soul.”
James informs us that John Bunyan became a minister of the gospel and, in spite of his neurotic constitution and the twelve years he spent in prison for his non-conformity, his life was turned to active use. He was a peacemaker and doer of good and his immortal allegorical works “The Pilgrim’s Progress” brought the spirit of religious patience home to many English hearts.
John Bunyan (1628 – 1688) was a Baptist preacher and English writer best known as the author of the book “The Pilgrim’s Progress” (one of the most published books in the English language). He also wrote nearly sixty other works, many of them expanded sermons. Following three years in the army he took up the trade of tinkerer (repairer of pots and pans). Then, after his marriage, he joined the Bedford Meeting, a religious nonconformist group in Bedford, England and became a preacher.
By his own account, as a youth he was playing games on a Sunday, the Sabbath, which was forbidden by the Puritan regime. Upon hearing a vicar preach against breaking the Sabbath, Bunyan, taking this to heart and following which, as he was playing a game called tip-cat, he heard a voice from the heavens warning of his sins and the consequences of heaven or hell. This led to a time of intense spiritual conflict.
The restoration of the British Monarchy in 1660 began a period of religious intolerance which led to Bunyan’s arrest for, he had not been officially ordained by an Anglican bishop. It was also illegal to hold religious meetings of five or more people outside the Church of England as it was believed that non-conformist religious meetings were being held as a cover for people plotting against the King (although this was not the case with Bunyan’s meetings). Bunyan spent twelve years in prison where he had a copy of the Bible, John Foxe’s “Book of Martyrs” as well as some writing materials. It was in Bedford Gaol (the prison) where he wrote “Grace Abounding” (a spiritual autobiography) and started his work on “The Pilgrim’s Progress.”
Lecture IX – CONVERSION
To be converted, to be regenerated, to receive grace, to experience religion, are phrases which denote the process, gradual or sudden which a self divided, consciously wrong, inferior and unhappy becomes unified and consciously right, superior and happy in its firm hold upon religious realities. This is what conversion signifies whether or not we believe that a direct divine operation is required to bring about such a moral change.
James informs us that any treatise on psychology includes in the chapter on Association the explanation that an individual’s ideas, aims and objects form diverse internal groups and systems, relatively independent of one another. Each aim which one follows awakens a certain specific kind of interested excitement and gathers a certain group of ideas together as its associates in subordination to the aim. And, if one’s aims and excitements are distinct in kind, their groups of ideas may have may have little in common with other groups of ideas. When one group is present and engrosses the interest, all ideas connected with other groups may be excluded from the mental field.
For example, when The President of the United States with paddle, gun and fishing rod goes camping in the wilderness for a vacation, his system of ideas changes from top to bottom. The presidential anxieties have lapsed into the background entirely; the official habits are replaced by the habits of a son of nature. And, those who knew the man only as the strenuous magistrate would not “know him for the same person” if they saw him as the camper. If now he should never go back, and never again suffer political interests to gain dominion over him, he would be for all practical purposes a permanently transformed being. Our ordinary alteration of character as we pass from one of our aims to another are not commonly called transformations. But, James asserts, that whenever one aim grows so stable as to expel definitively its previous rivals from the individual’s life, we tend to speak of the phenomenon, and perhaps to wonder at it, as a “transformation.”
James continues, these alterations are the most complete way in which a self may be divided. A less definitive way is the simultaneous coexistence of two or more different groups of aims where one aim holds the ‘right of way’ instigating activity, while the others are but pious wishes and never come to anything. Saint Augustine’s aspirations of a purer life, were an example. Another would be if the President, while in his full pride of office, wondered whether it were not all vanity and whether the life of a wood-chopper were not the wholesomer destiny [This sort of thinking reminds us of Tolstoy’s transformation, or conversion]. Generally, such fleeting aspirations exist on the remoter outskirts of the mind and the real self is occupied with an entirely different system. Yet, as life goes on there is a constant change of our interests and a consequent change of their placement in our system of ideas from more central to more peripheral areas of consciousness or, from more peripheral to more central concerns.
James tells us that he remembers, when a youth, his father reading aloud from a Boston newspaper an article regarding Lord Gifford’s four lectures on natural theology and his endowment in connection to these lectures, the Gifford Lectures, to four universities in Scotland [the very lectures given by James in Edinburgh and thus the printed content of his book, here abridged]. At that time, James tells us he did not think of being a teacher of philosophy and what he heard his father read to him seemed as remote from his own life as if it related to the planet Mars. Yet, there he was, he states, fully with the Gifford system and, for the time being, devoted to successfully identifying himself with it.
What brings about such changes is the way in which emotional excitement alters. Things hot and vital to us today are cold tomorrow. It is as if from these hot parts of the field that personal desire and volition make their sallies. Yet, he professes, there may be great oscillations in the emotional interest, and the hot places may shift before one almost as rapidly as sparks running through burnt-up paper. Or, the focus of excitement and heat, the point of view from which the aim is taken, may come to lie permanently within a certain field of interest. And then, if the change be a religious one, we call it a conversion, especially if it be by crisis, or sudden. James here suggests that we hereafter, in speaking of the hot and vital place in a man’s consciousness, the group of ideas to which he devotes himself, and from which he works, call it the habitual center of his personal energy. Yet, he suggests, that neither an outside observer nor the subject who undergoes the process [of transformation, of conversion] can explain fully how particular experiences are able to change one’s habitual center of energy so decisively.
In the end, James posits, we fall back on the hackneyed symbolism of a mechanical equilibrium. A mind is a system of ideas, each with the levels of excitement it arouses, and with tendencies, impulsive or inhibitive [as in neural action potential, or firing] which mutually check or reinforce one another. The collection of ideas alters by subtraction or by addition in the course of experience, and the tendencies alter as the organism becomes more aged. A mental system may be undermined or weakened by this interstitial [physiological] alteration just as a building is, and yet for a time kept upright by dead habit. But, a new perception formed from a sudden emotional shock, or an occasion which brings about the [physiological] alteration, will make the whole fabric fall together; and then the center of gravity sinks into an specific attitude, more stable, locked even, with the new structure seemingly permanent. Yet, in such changes of equilibrium, these formed associations of ideas and habits are often factors of retardation [or, more ordinarily put, a state of being stuck]. Whereas otherwise, new information, however acquired, plays an accelerating part in the changes. As well, the slow mutation of our instincts and propensities under the ‘touch of time’ has an enormous influence. Adding to that, all these influences may work subconsciously or half consciously.
Emotional occasions, especially fervent ones, are extremely potent in precipitating mental rearrangements. The sudden and explosive ways in which love, jealousy, guilt, fear, loss, remorse or anger can seize upon one are known to all. Hope, happiness, emotions associated with things verbally expressed, can all be equally explosive. And, emotions that come in these explosive ways seldom leave things as they found them.
James now refers again to Professor Starbuck of California and his book “Psychology of Religion,” and of Starbuck’s observation of the ordinary manifestation of conversion which occurs in young people. Starbuck states that it is a normal phase of adolescence in every class of human beings. The age is the same he says; usually between fourteen and seventeen. The symptoms are the same; a sense of incompleteness and imperfection, brooding, depression, morbid introspection, anxiety about the hereafter, and so on. And, according to Starbuck, the result is the same; a happy relief and objectivity, as the confidence in the self gets greater through the adjustment of the faculties to the new, wider outlook. In spontaneous religious awakening (apart from revivalistic examples), in the ordinary storm and stress and moulting-time of adolescence, one may meet with mystical experiences, astonishing the subject by their suddenness. James here adds, conversion is in its essence a normal adolescent phenomena, incidental to the passage from the adolescent’s universe to the wider intellectual and spiritual life of maturity.
L.T. – I wrote of this very experience of ‘conversion’ in my life at sixteen years of age. A description of it is posted on this website on chapter (A) MIRACLES and the post is titled “More on Seeing Heaven” just beneath the first post on that page titled “Divine message – Seeing Heaven” which is an account of a similar-type mystical experience that occurred in my thirties.
James here refers, to an important article by Professor Leuba on the psychology of conversion which subordinates the theological aspect of the religious life almost entirely to its moral aspect; the feeling of unwholeness, of moral imperfection, of sin; the yearning after the peace of unity. And, the professor gives a number of examples in which the sin ranges from drunkenness to spiritual pride to show that the sense of it may produce a craving for relief as urgently as does the anguish of the sickened flesh or any other form of physical misery. He provides an example of Mr. S. Hadley who, after his conversion, became an active and useful rescuer of drunkards in New York:
“One Tuesday evening I sat in a saloon in Harlem, a homeless, friendless, dying drunkard. I had pawned or sold everything that would bring a drink. I could not sleep unless I was dead drunk. I had suffered with delirium tremors, or the horrors, from midnight till morning. Also, I had often said, ‘I will never be a tramp for, when that time comes I will find a home in the bottom of the river.’ But, the Lord so ordered it that when that time did come, that Tuesday night, I was not able to walk one quarter of the way to the river. I then seemed to feel some mighty presence which I did learn afterwards was Jesus, the sinner’s friend. I walked up to the bar and pounded it with my fist till I made the glasses rattle. And, to those who stood by looking at me with scornful curiosity, I vowed that I would never take another drink when someone said, ‘If you want to keep this promise go and have yourself locked up.’ So I went to the nearest station-house and had myself locked up.”
“I was placed in a narrow cell and it seemed as though all the demons that could find room in there came with me. They were not all the company I had either. No, praise the Lord, that dear Spirit was present and said, pray. I did pray, and I kept on praying.”
Hadley goes on to tell of Jerry M’Auley’s Mission and of the other drunks, twenty five or so, who too came for their salvation from rum. He refers to Jerry M’Auley as the apostle to the drunkard and writes of Mrs. M’Auley’s fervent praying for them. Hadley speaks of hearing a blessed whisper telling him to ‘Come forth’ and then of the devil telling him, ‘Be careful’ at which time he halted, but only for a moment. Then with a breaking heart he said aloud, ‘Dear Jesus can you help me?’ Hadley then goes on to describe the precious feeling of all the brightness and power of Christ that had come into his life; that old things had passed away and all things had become new.
James mentions that Dr. Leuba rightly remarks that there is little doctrinal theology in such an experience which starts with the absolute need of a higher helper and with the sense that He has helped us. James also adds this footnote: General [William] Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, considers that the first vital step in saving outcasts consists in making them feel that some decent human being cares enough for them to take an interest in the question as to whether they are to rise or sink.
L.T. – I have to briefly, in the middle of this chapter, depart from the book and include some fascinating information:
William Booth (1829-1912) was a British Methodist preacher who founded The Salvation Army. It is a Christian movement with a quasi-military structure founded in 1865 and has spread from London England to many parts of the world and is known for being one of the largest humanitarian aid organizations.
Booth was one of five children and his father was relatively wealthy at the time of his birth but during Booth’s childhood the family descended into poverty. Booth had to leave school and worked as an apprentice to a pawn broker during which time he was converted to Methodism. He trained himself in writing and speech and became a Methodist preacher. After quitting his apprenticeship he then partnered with an evangelist, preaching to the poor and the sinners of Nottingham, England. When his partner died he turned to open-air evangelizing which then led to his joining the Methodist Reform Church and becoming a full time preacher there in 1852. Soon afterward he married Catherine Mumford. Booth preached that eternal punishment was the fate of those who do not believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the necessity of repentance from sin and the promise of holiness. He taught that this belief would manifest itself in a life of love for God and mankind. Booth, frustrated that the Methodist congregation barred him from independent evangelizing, became a full time independent evangelist; his doctrine remained much the same.
Booth was in London preaching to crowds of people in the streets outside the Blind Beggar public house when he realized his destiny. Following which, in 1865, he and his wife opened the Christian Revival Society. Initially the results were discouraging being that the Society was but one of about 500 charitable and religious groups trying to help the needy in London’s East End. Booth and his fellow “brethren in Christ” were often scoffed at or derided for their work. Despite this they continued to preach and engage in social work such as opening “Food for the Millions” shops (soup kitchens).
Eventually Booth and his wife Catherine established what is known today as The Salvation Army modeled after the military with its own flag and its own music. Booth and the other “soldiers” in God’s army would wear uniforms, “putting on the armor,’’ for meetings and ministry work. He became the general and his other ministers were given appropriate ranks as officers and soldiers. During the army’s early years they faced a great deal of opposition, especially from those in the alcohol selling industry who were concerned that the activities of Booth and his followers would persuade the poorer classes to stop drinking. One opposition group, The Skeleton Army, disrupted the Salvation Army’s marches against alcohol and clashes between the two led to the deaths of several Salvationists; in 1882 alone 662 of them were assaulted; 251 of them were women and 23 were children.
Booth regularly published a magazine and was the author of a number of books. He also composed several songs. His book published in 1890 “In Darkest England and the Way Out” was not only a best seller but it set the foundation for the Salvation Army’s social welfare approach. The book compared what was considered ‘civilized’ England with darkest Africa – a land then considered poor and backward suggesting that much of London and greater England, following the Industrialized Revolution, was not better off in the quality of life than those in the underdeveloped world.
Opinion of The Salvation Army eventually changed to that of favor. In his later years Booth was received by Kings, Emperors and Presidents, who were among his ardent admirers. Even the mass media began to use his title of General Booth with reverence.
Now, back to Lecture IX – Conversion:
The author then reminds us of those persons who never have been, and quite possibly never, under any circumstances, could be converted. They may be excellent persons, servants of God in practical ways, but they are not children of his kingdom. He suggests that they may be incapable of imagining the invisible; or such inaptitude for religious faith may be intellectual in origin. Their religious faculties may be checked in their natural tendency to expand mentally by way of beliefs about the world that are finite, inhibitive, materialistic. Those, whom in former times, would have feely indulged their religious propensities find themselves nowadays [this written over 100 years ago], as it were, frozen by the agnostic vetoes upon faith as being something weak and shameful; that which others cower behind afraid to use their obvious instincts. [This attitude is hugely encouraged by the mainstream scientific community and makes it way into academia, unfortunately]. In many such persons, to the end of their day, they refuse to believe; their personal energy never gets to its religious center and the latter remains inactive in perpetuity. In such cases, more than any others, suggests the need of a miraculous conversion [and it does occur amongst such persons]. For others though, James suggests we must not imagine ourselves to deal with the irretrievable fixed classes.
There is a conscious and voluntary way and an unconscious and involuntary way in which mental results may get accomplished. And we find both ways exemplified in the history of conversion, giving us two types, which Starbuck calls the volitional type and the type by self-surrender respectively. James illustrates this such: when you try to recollect a forgotten name, usually the recall is helped by mentally working for it but, sometimes this effort fails. It is as though the name were jammed and pressure in its direction only keeps it all the more from rising. But, give up the effort entirely, think of something altogether different and in half an hour the lost name comes sauntering into your mind. Some hidden process was started by the effort, which went on after the effort ceased, and made the result come as if it had come spontaneously. In the volitional type, the regenerative change is usually gradual, and consists in the building up, piece by piece, of a new set of moral and spiritual habits. But there are always critical points at which the movement forward seems much more rapid.
For example, a certain music teacher, says Dr. Starbuck, says to her pupils after the thing to be done has been clearly pointed out and unsuccessfully attempted: “Stop trying and it will do it itself!” An athlete sometimes awakens suddenly to an understanding of the game and to a real enjoyment of it. If he keeps on engaging in the sport, there may come a day when all at once the game plays itself through him – when he loses himself in some great contest. In much the same way, a musician may suddenly reach a point, in some moment of inspiration, where the technique of the art falls away and be becomes the instrument through which the music flows. The same concept can be applied to religious conversion and the appreciation of religion.
Of the volitional type of conversion, says James, it would be easy to give examples, but they are as a rule less interesting than those of the self-surrender type in which the effects are more profuse and quite often, startling. For instance as told by C. G. Finney:
“Gospel Salvation seemed to be an offer of something to be accepted and, all that seemed necessary on my part was to consent and give up my sins and accept Christ. The question I then posed to myself was, ‘Will you accept it today?’ I replied, “Yes, I will accept it today or, I will die in the attempt!” Finney then went into the woods where he began his struggles. He could not pray for his heart was hardened with pride. “I then reproached myself for the rashness of my promise that I would give my heart to God that day or die in the attempt. For, it seemed to me it was a binding agreement and here I was going to break my vow. A great sinking and discouragement came over me and I felt too weak to stand on my knees even. Then, I thought I heard someone approach. And, just at this moment an overwhelming sense of my wickedness in being ashamed to be seen on my knees before God took such powerful possession of me that I cried at the top of my lungs and exclaimed THAT I WOULD NOT LEAVE THAT PLACE AS I AM EVEN IF ALL THE MEN ON EARTH AND ALL THE DEVILS IN HELL SURROUNDED ME! What! Such a degraded sinner am I, on my knees confessing my sins to the great and holy God. And, ashamed to have any human being find me on my knees in the woods endeavoring to make my peace with my offended God! The sin seemed awful, infinite. I broke down in tears before the Lord.”
Let us here recall that James asked us to review with him the more extreme cases as they better illustrate the points being made.
“The personal will,” says Dr. Starbuck, “must be given up. In many cases relief refuses to come until the person ceases to resist, or to make an effort in the direction he desires to go. “I said I would not give up; but, when my will was broken, it was all over,” writes one of Starbuck’s correspondents. Another says, “Lord, I have done all I can, I leave the whole matter with thee; and immediately there came to me a great peace.”
Starbuck adds, to begin with there are two things in the mind of the candidate for conversion: first, the present incompletion or wrongness (the sin) from which the individual is eager to escape and, second, the positive ideal which they long to encompass. In the majority of cases the “sin” nearly wholly engrosses the attention so that the conversion is a process of struggling away from sin rather than towards the ideal. James states that Starbuck seems to get to the root of the matter explaining that, “To exercise the personal will is to still live in the region where the imperfect self is the thing most emphasized.” Where, on the contrary, posits James, the subconscious forces take the lead; the better self in posse which directs the operation.
James here adds that the crisis described is the throwing our conscious selves upon the mercy of powers which, whatever they may be, are more ideal than we are and thus makes for our redemption. We can see why self-surrender has been and always must be regarded as the vital turning point of the religious life so far as the religious life is spiritual (internal – no outer works of rituals and sacraments). One may say that Christianity has consisted in little more than the greater emphasis attached to self-surrender.
Psychology and religion are thus in perfect harmony up to this point since both admit that there are forces seemingly outside of the conscious mind of the individual that bring redemption. Psychology defines these forces as subconscious and speaks of their effects as due to ‘incubation’ or ‘cerebration’ (the power of reason) implying that they do not transcend the individual’s personality. And, it is here that psychology diverges from Christian theology which insists that these forces are direct supernatural operations of the Deity. Yet, James tells us that our continued inquiry may enable us to get rid of some of the apparent discord.
When you find a man living on the ragged edge of his consciousness and inconsolable and then simply tell him that he must stop his fretting, give up his anxiety, you seem to come to him with pure absurdities. The only positive consciousness he has tells him that all is not well and the better way you offer sounds simply as if you proposed but cold-hearted falsehoods. For, the “will to believe” [as in the heathy-mindedness system] cannot stretch as far as that [where the troubled soul is]. James asserts that there are only two ways of getting rid of anger, worry, fear, despair, etc.: One is that an opposite affection overpoweringly breaks over us and the other is by getting so exhausted with the struggle that we drop down – we don’t care anymore and give up. So long as the egotistical worry of the sick soul guards the door the expansive Soul gains no presence. But, let the former fade away, even but for a moment, and the latter can profit by the opportunity.
Here James give us an example [much abridged] of this feature of the conversion process as experienced by whom he refers to as “that genuine saint,” David Brainerd:
“… feeling as if there was nothing in Heaven or on Earth that could make me happy and having been thus endeavoring to pray, though it felt very stupid and senseless, for nearly a half hour. Then, as I was walking in a thick grove, unspeakable glory seemed to open up to the apprehension in my soul. I do not mean any external brightness nor any imagination of a body of light but, rather a new vision of God such as I never had before. I had no particular impression of any one person in the Trinity, neither the Father, nor the Son, nor the Holy Spirit, but instead it appeared to be a Divine Glory. My soul rejoiced with joy unspeakable to see such a God, such a glorious Divine Being and was satisfied that He should be God over all forever and ever. I was so swallowed up in Him; at least to the degree that I had no thoughts of my own salvation and scarcely reflected that there was such a creature as myself. I continued in that state of inward joy, peace and astonishment till near dark without any sensible abatement and felt sweetly composed in my mind throughout the evening. The day following, I felt myself in a new world. At this time, the way of salvation opened to me with such infinite wisdom and excellency that I wondered if I should have ever thought of any other way of salvation; amazed that I had not previously dropped my own contrivances and complied with this lovely, blessed and excellent way before. I wondered that all the world did not see and comply with this way of salvation, entirely by the righteousness of Christ.”
James adds, that in a majority of the reports, the writer speaks as if the exhaustion of the lower and the entrance of the higher emotion were simultaneous. Yet too, often they speak as if the higher actively drove the lower out.
Back to the circumstance where I was severely menaced by members of organized crime.
There was one morning I woke up convinced they were going to kill me on that very day. I have no idea why I woke up with that certainty and a gripping fear. Having had nothing to eat or drink I just left the art studio and walked to a nearby park. As I paced about in the park I neurotically went over and over in my mind how I might save myself and every idea I formulated I found to leave me nonetheless vulnerable. Eventually, after having spent many hours (six to seven) in that state I returned to the studio hungry and exhausted. And, when I lay down on the sofa in the studio my rational mind was immediately restored to me. I cried and cried, realizing how insane I had been. Although, these people were dangerous and were menacing me I don’t know what set off my thinking on that morning that I was to be murdered on that particular day.
Lecture X – CONVERSION CONCLUDED
The author cites Professor Agassiz as saying, one can see no farther into a generalization of a topic than so far as one’s previous acquaintance with associated particulars [other examples]. James then informs us we shall now proceed to look at a couple of more cases starting with Henry Alline’s account of his conversion [again, much abridged]:
“I was wandering about feeling I was in as much a condemned and miserable state as never before any man had ever been. As I arrived at the threshold of my home the question came to me, are you any more fitter to appear before God than when you first began to seek? I did not think I was one step nearer than at first. I cried out within myself, O Lord God, I am lost, and if thou dost not find a new way out; some new way, something I know nothing of, I shall never be saved for, the ways and methods I have prescribed to myself have all failed me. I then went into the house and sat down being all in confusion, like a drowning man that was just giving in to sinking when, almost in agony, I turned very suddenly round in my chair and on another chair seeing an old Bible. I caught hold of it in great haste and, opening it without any premeditation my eyes cast upon the 38th Psalm and it took hold of me with such power that it seemed to go through my whole soul; as if God was praying with me.”
L.T. – he 38th Psalm: “There is no soundness in my flesh because of thine anger; neither is there any rest in my bones because of my sin… My wounds stink and are corrupt because of my foolishness. I am troubled … I go mourning all the day long. For my lions are filled with a loathsome disease and there is no soundness in my flesh. I am feeble and sore, broken.”
Alline continues, “At that instant of time when I gave all up to Him to do with me as He pleased and should rule over me at His pleasure, redeeming love broke into my soul with repeated scripture and, with such power that my whole being seemed to be melted down with love. The burden of guilt and condemnation was gone, darkness was expelled, my heart humbled and filled with gratitude, and my soul, that was but a few minutes ago groaning under mountains of death and crying to an unknown God for help, was now filled with immortal love soaring on the wings of faith.”
“Looking up I thought I saw that same light (Alline had on more than one previous occasion seen, subjectively, a bright blaze of light) though it appeared different, and as soon as I saw it the design was opened to me, according to His promise, and I was obliged to cry out, enough O blessed God! The work of conversion, the change and manifestations of it are no more disputable than that light which I had seen, or anything that I ever saw. I spent the greatest part of the night in ecstasies of joy, praising and adoring Him for His free and unbounded grace.”
“After I had been so long in this transport and heavenly frame my nature seemed to require sleep. I then closed my eyes and when I awoke my first inquiry was, where is my God? And in that moment my soul seemed awake in and with God, again surrounded by the arms of everlasting love. I then longed to be useful in the cause of Christ and it seemed as if I could not rest any longer but go I must and tell of the wonders of redeeming love.”
James then tells us that young Alline’s redemption was into another universe than this mere natural world. And, after the briefest of delays and with no book-learning but his Bible, and no teaching save that of his own experience, became a Christian minister and his life from then on was comparable to that of the most devoted of saints. James then goes on to give us another account of a young man’s, an Oxford graduate’s, sudden conversion which led him from destroying himself with alcohol (he also ceased smoking his pipe having been a regular smoker for twelve years) turning instead to complete sobriety. The man says, “Since I gave up to God all ownership of my life, He has guided me in a thousand ways and has opened my path in a way almost incredible to those who do not enjoy the blessing of a truly surrendered life.”
Again, for the sake of the abridged version here, we’ll leave this last account at that and move on to the next case; a most curious record of sudden conversion with which James became acquainted; that of M. Alphonse Ratisbonne whom he refers to as a free thinking French Jew who converted to Catholicism while in Rome in 1842:
Ratisbonne’s elder brother had been converted and was a Catholic priest. Yet he was himself irreligious and possessed of an antipathy towards his apostate brother and his “cloth.” At 29 years of age he fell in with a French gentleman who tried to make a proselyte (new convert) of him but succeeded no farther than to get him to hang (half-jokingly) a religious medal around his neck and to read a copy of a short prayer to the Virgin. Mr. Ratisbonne reports that his attitude was one of a light and chaffing order but, notes that for some days he was unable to banish the words of the prayer from his mind. And the night before “the crisis” he had a nightmare in which a black cross, with no Christ figure upon it, appeared. Nevertheless, until noon of the next day he was free in mind and spent the time in trivial conversations. James now gives us the young man’s own words:
“If at this time of my life anyone had said to me: Alphonse, in a quarter of an hour you shall be adoring Jesus Christ as your Saviour; you shall lie prostrate with your face upon the ground in a humble church; you shall be received by the Jesuits to prepare yourself to receive baptism, ready to give your life for the Catholic faith; you shall renounce the world and its pomp and pleasures, your fortune, the esteem of your friends and your attachment to your family and to the Jewish people; you shall have no other aspiration than to follow Christ and bear his cross till death. I should have judged that only one person could be more mad than he; whoever might believe in the possibility of such senseless folly becoming true.”
“Coming out of the café I met with the carriage of Monsieur B. (the proselytizing friend). He stopped and invited me for a drive, but first asked me to wait for a few minutes while he attended to some duty at the church. Instead of waiting in the carriage, I entered the church myself to have a look at it. The church of San Andrea was poor, small, and empty; I believe that I was there alone. No work of art attracted my attention and I passed my eyes mechanically over its interior without being arrested by anything in particular. I can only remember an entirely black dog which went trotting and turning before me as I mused. In an instant the dog had disappeared. The whole church had vanished. I no longer saw anything … or rather, I more truly saw, oh my God, but one thing alone.”
“Heaven, how can I speak of it? Oh! No human words can ever attain to expressing the inexpressible! There I was prostrate on the ground, bathed in my tears and with my heart beside itself, when Monsieur B. called me back to life. I could not reply to the questions which followed from him, one after the other. But finally, I took the medal which I had kept upon my breast, and with all the effusion of my soul I kissed the image of the Virgin, which the medal bore, radiant with grace. Oh, indeed it was She! It was indeed She!” (What he had seen had been a vision of the Virgin).
“I did not know who or where I was and believed myself to be another. I looked for myself within yet could not find myself. Yet, in the bottom of my soul I felt an explosion of the most ardent joy. I could not speak. I had no wish to reveal what had happened. But, I felt something solemn and sacred within, which made me ask for a priest. I was led to one and there, after he had given me the positive order, I spoke as best I could, kneeling and with my heart still trembling.”
“You may ask me how I came to this new insight for truly I had never opened a book of religion nor even read a single page of the Bible. And the dogma of the original sin is either entirely denied or forgotten by the Hebrews of today such that I had to doubt as to whether I ever knew of it. So how then, came I to this perception? I can answer nothing save this, that on entering that church I was in darkness altogether and upon coming out of it [the darkness] I saw the fullness of the light; as in the analogy of one born blind who should suddenly open his eyes and see the light of day. He sees, but cannot define the light which bathes him and by which he now sees, all which excites his wonder. And, I think I remain within the limits of veracity when I say that without having any knowledge of the written letters of religious doctrine I now intuitively perceive its sense and spirit. Better even than if I had read them. For, I felt those hidden meanings; I felt them by the inexplicable effects they produced in me.”
James informs us that he could supply such cases almost indefinitely but, these will suffice to show us how real, definite and memorable an event of sudden conversion may be to one who has had the experience. And, that there is too much evidence for any doubt of it to be rationally considered. Theology has concluded that the spirit of God is with us at these dramatic moments in a distinctly miraculous way, quite unlike what happens at any other juncture of our lives.
That the conversion appears instantaneous has been observed amongst the Methodists. John Wesley (1703 – 1791), co-founder of the Methodist Church, wrote that in London alone he had found 652 members of their Society clear in their conversion experience and, in whose testimony he had no reason to doubt. And, that every one, without exception, declared that their deliverance from sin was instantaneous; that the change was wrought in a moment. James adds that the more typical sects of Protestantism have no assembly of such experiences. For them, as for the Catholic Church, Christ’s blood, the sacrament, and the individual’s ordinary religious duties are supposed to suffice to one’s salvation. Whereas for Methodism, on the contrary, unless there has been a crisis of this sort, salvation is only offered, not effectively received, and Christ’s sacrifice is thus incomplete. Revivalism in Great Britain and America assumes that only its own type of religious experience can be perfect: one must first be nailed on the cross of natural despair and agony (recall Ratisbonne was not is a state of distress prior to conversion) and then in the twinkling of an eye be miraculously healed.
It is natural, James advises us, that those who personally have traversed such an experience should carry away a feeling of its being a miracle rather than a natural process. Voices are often heard, lights seen, or visions witnessed; and it always seems after the surrender of the personal will it is as if an extraneous higher power had flooded in and taken possession. Moreover, the sense of rejuvenation, cleanness, safety, rightness can be so marvelous as well to warrant one’s belief in a radically new and substantial nature. And, adding to that, here he quotes Jonathan Edwards, “Surely it cannot be unreasonable that before God delivers us from a state of sin He should give us some considerable sense of the evil from which he delivers us. In other words, that one should be made sensible of their state of condemnation; and afterwards, of their state of deliverance and happiness.”
Marie-Alphonse Ratisbonne (1814 – 1884) was a French Jew who converted to Catholicism and became a catholic priest and missionary. He later was a co-founder of a religious congregation dedicated to the conversion of Jews to the Catholic faith. He was the eleventh of thirteen children and his parents, Auguste Ratisbonne and his wife, Adelaide Cerfbeer, were members of a famous family of Jewish bankers. His older brother converted to Catholicism and went on to become a Catholic priest (prior to Alphonse’s conversion) leading to his being ostracized from the family. After studying law in Paris, Alphonse joined the family bank and announced his engagement to his 16 year old niece. With the postponement of the marriage, due to the bride’s age, he traveled to Rome in 1842 for a pleasure trip and it was then he experienced a vision of the Virgin Mary which then led to his conversion to Catholicism.
James now takes us in entirely different direction; in the direction of psychology. The author recalls us to his comments regarding the conscious mind’s center of personal energy [above, page 38, 2nd paragraph] : “… the hot place in a man’s consciousness, the group of ideas to which he devotes himself, and from which he works.” We here consider those immediate processes of thought and will and largely incited due to subconscious incubation and maturing of motives deposited by the experiences of life. And, he adds, when fully developed, the results then hatch, or blossom, so-to-speak. He then goes to address what was new to psychology at this time (his book was published in 1901): the field of consciousness. That what had been previously considered a unit – an idea (meaning the observable qualities and quantities of a thing; thus its identity) is actually a total mental state; a field of objects, or units, and he suggests that it is impossible to definitively outline, or circumscribe for, this field, or wave, has an indeterminate margin [extends infinitely perhaps?].
Our mental fields succeed one another – past centers of personal energy fading out into more and more peripheral regions with some so faint as to be unassignable (either existing in the subconscious realms or forgotten) then being supplanted with the new centers of personal energy. At times we have vaster consciousness fields, and at other times (i.e., when fatigued, ill or distressed) our fields may narrow to almost a point. The conscious field would be, in general, vaster amongst the more expansive minds (the great geniuses, for example) than amongst those individuals whose intellects are, for the most part, more narrowly and immediately focused – going from one point to another as it were. Yet, it is here both determining our attention and guiding our behavior.
This field [or wave function], James contends, lies around us like a magnetic field inside which our center of energy turns like a compass needle as our present phase of consciousness alters into its new successor. Our whole store of past memories floats beyond the presently knowable margins of consciousness ready, at a touch, to come in.
So vaguely drawn are the “outlines” of what is actual and what is potentially so at any given moment of our conscious life that it is hard to say what actively contributes to our empirical, experiential self; that being the things that reveal their presence by their unmistakable signs.
All the consciousness a person now has; the same focal, attentive or inattentive, is there in the field of the moment (all dim and impossible to assign the outline). In certain subjects there is not only the consciousness of the ordinary field with its usual center and margin but, in addition, memories, thoughts and feelings that are extra marginal (outside the primary consciousness yet must be classed as conscious facts of sorts) and able to reveal their presence by their unmistakable signs. This discovery of consciousness existing beyond the field [subliminally] casts light on many religious or mystical phenomena. The human material on which this concept may be demonstrated consists of unusually suggestible hypnotic subjects and of hysteric patients. Yet, the elementary mechanism of which we speak has been shown to be true to some degree in all.
James contends that the consequence of having a strongly developed ultra-marginal life is that one’s fields of consciousness are susceptible to incursions from sources of which the subject is entirely unaware. The impulses may take the direction of, for example, automatic writing and/or speech (the meaning of which the individual may not understand even as he utters it). Dr. Frederick Meyers has qualified these as automatisms: uprushes of energies originating in the subliminal parts of the field of consciousness into ordinary consciousness .
The simplest instance of an automatism is the phenomena of post-hypnotic suggestion. You give to an adequately susceptible hypnotized subject a directive to perform some designated act – ordinary or eccentric, it makes no difference – and after he wakes from his hypnotic trance state he will punctually perform it when the signal comes or the time elapses upon which you have instructed him that the act must then ensue. But, in doing so, he has no recollection of your suggestion and, he always trumps up an improvised pretext for his behavior should the act be of an eccentric kind.
James refers to the subliminal conscious states of those patients with hysteria which has revealed a whole system of underground life in the shape of memories of a painful sort which lead to a parasitic existence buried outside of the primary fields of consciousness and making interruptions there into with a whole procession of symptoms of hysteric disease of body and mind (i.e., hallucinations, pains, convulsions, paralyses). Alter or abolish, by suggestion, these subconscious memories and the patient immediately gets well. It therefore seems to James that, wherever we meet with a phenomenon of automatism, be it motor impulses, or an obsessive idea, or unaccountable caprice, or delusion, or hallucination, we are bound first of all to make search whether it be, or not, an explosion into the fields of ordinary consciousness of ideas elaborated from outside of those fields; in the subliminal regions of the mind. In other pathological cases, insane delusions or pathological obsessions for example, the subliminal regions must be considered as a possible source. Therein lies the potential mechanism logically to be assumed. But, the assumption involves a vast program of work to be done in the way of verification.
Yet, James insists, our opinion of the significance and value of any human event or condition must be decided on empirical grounds exclusively. If the state of the [religious] conversion produces good, we ought to idealize and venerate it, even though it be in actuality a piece of natural psychology [and not metaphysical]. And, if not [a good result] we ought to make short work with it no matter what ‘supernatural being’ may have infused it.
If we consider, excluding the preeminent saints, only the usual run of “saints,” the shopkeeper, church member and ordinary other recipients of instantaneous conversion, whether at revivals or in the course of ordinary growth and development, we would probably conclude that no splendor worthy of a wholly supernatural creature gleams from them, or sets them apart from those mortals who have never experienced such a favor.
James proclaims that the real witness [empirical result] of the spirit to the second birth is to be found only in the disposition of the genuine child of God: the permanently patient heart; the love of self [ego] eradicated. And these qualities, it has to be admitted, are also found in those who pass through no crisis, experience no conversion, and may even be found outside of Christianity altogether. He goes on to suggest that if a flood but goes above one’s head [slang: something that is beyond our grasp], its absolute elevation becomes a matter of small importance. Yet, when we touch our own upper limit and live in our own highest center of energy, we may call ourselves saved, no matter how much higher someone else’s center may be. A small man’s salvation will always be a great salvation and, the greatest of all for him. Who knows how far much less ideal still the lives of the spiritual grubs and earthworms, these Crumps and Stigginses, [his words, certainly not mine] might have been if such poor grace as they had received, never even touched them at all? Also, he continues, If we roughly arrange human beings in classes, with each class standing for a grade of spiritual excellence, I believe we shall find natural men as well as converts (both sudden and gradual) in all classes.
James upholds that the ultimate test of religious, or spiritual, values is nothing psychological, nothing definable in terms of how it happens, but rather something ethical, definable only in terms of what is attained. And, as we proceed farther in our inquiry we shall see that what is attained is often an altogether new level of spiritual vitality, a relatively heroic level, in which impossible things have become possible and new energies and endurances are shown. The personality is changed, the man is born anew, whether or not psychological idiosyncrasies are what drives the particular shape to his metamorphosis.
James attests that the manifestations of the subliminal, indeed, fall within the resources of the subject along with his ordinary sense material inattentively taken in and subconsciously remembered and, will account for all his usual automatisms [organic functions or inhibitions not controlled by the conscious self]. But, just as our primary wide-awake consciousness throws open our senses to the touch of all things material, so it is logically conceivable that indeed there may be higher spiritual agencies that can also directly touch us. And, the psychological condition enabling their doing so just might be our possession of a subconscious region which alone shall yield access to these spiritual agencies. In other words, the notion of a subconscious self certainly ought not, at this point of our inquiry, be held to exclude all notion of a higher penetration. If there be higher powers able to make an impression on us they may get access to us only through the subliminal door.
James suggests that we now turn to our attention to the feelings which immediately fill the hour of the conversion experience. The first one to be noted here is this sense of higher control which is so very often present. In the extreme of melancholy the conscious self can do absolutely nothing. It is completely bankrupt and without effective resources of its own and therefore no works that it can accomplish will suffice. Redemption from such subjective conditions must be a free gift or nothing, and grace through Christ’s sacrifice [as is their belief in these cases]. Here James quotes Martin Luther:
“God,” says Luther, “is the God of the humble, the miserable, the oppressed and the desperate, and to those that are brought even to nothing; and His nature is to give sight to the blind, to comfort the broken hearted, to redeem sinners, to save the very desperate and damned. But, herein lies the difficulty, that when a man is terrified and cast down, he is so little able to raise himself up again and say, ‘Now I am bruised and afflicted enough; now is the time of grace; now is the time to hear Christ.’ ”
Yet, Professor Leuba, according to James, contends that the conceptual belief about Christ’s work is actually accessory and perhaps non-essential, and that the “joyous conviction” [joyous conversion] can come by other channels. It is to the joyous conviction itself, the assurance that all is well with one that he gives the name of faith par excellence. Here Professor Leuba writes:
“When the sense of estrangement [from God, or All that Is] fencing man about in a narrowly limited ego breaks down the individual finds himself ‘at one with all creation. He lives in the universal life; he and man, he and nature, he and God, are one. That state of confidence, trust, union with all things, following upon the achievement of moral unity, is the faith-state. Various dogmatic beliefs suddenly acquire a character of certainty, assume a new reality; become objects of faith on the advent of the faith-state [or, the state of assurance as James later refers to it]. And, as the ground of assurance here is not rational, argumentation is thus irrelevant.”
James posits that the characteristics of the affective ‘state of assurance’ [or faith-state]experience can easily be enumerated, though their intensity is only realized by the experiencer. He further explains that the central aspect is the loss of all the worry; the sense that all is ultimately well with one, a state of peace, of harmony, the willingness to be, even though the outer conditions should remain the same. The certainty of God’s grace, of “justification,” of “salvation,” is an objective belief that usually accompanies the change in Christians, but this may be entirely lacking in other cases and yet, the affective peace remains the same.
The second feature, he continues, is the sense of perceiving truths not known before. The mysteries of life become lucid and usually the solution is more or less unutterable in words. But, James informs us, further discussion of these intellectual phenomena shall be postponed until we address the subject of mysticism.
A third peculiarity of the assurance state is the objective change which the world appears to undergo. An appearance of newness beautifies every object, the precise opposite of that other state; that dreadful unreality and strangeness in the appearance of the world which is experienced by melancholy patients [and of which he related some examples earlier in the text]. This sense of clean and beautiful newness within and without is one of the commonest entries in conversion records. Jonathan Edwards describes it in himself as such:
“After this my sense of divine things gradually increased and became more and more lively and had more of an inward sweetness. The appearance of everything was altered. There seemed to be, as it were, a calm, sweet cast, or an appearance of divine glory in almost everything. God’s excellency, his wisdom, his love seemed to appear in everything. And scarcely anything among all the works of nature was so fine to me as thunder and lightning whereas formally it had been so frightening. I used to be uncommonly terrified with thunder and to be struck with terror when I saw a thunderstorm rising; but now, on the contrary, it rejoices me.”
From Starbuck’s collection of manuscripts one man reports [abridged]:
“I don’t know how I got back to the encampment but, as I was staggering up to the Reverend’s holiness tent I fell on my face and tried to pray and every time I would call on God, something like a man’s hand would strangle me. That unseen hand was felt on my throat and my breath was squeezed off. Something that said: ‘Venture on the atonement for you will die if you don’t.’ The last thing I remember was falling back on the ground with the same unseen hand on my throat. I don’t know how long I lay there or what else was going on. When I came to, there was a crowd around me praising God. The very heavens seemed to open and pour down rays of light and glory. Not for a moment only but all day and night floods of light and glory seemed to pour through my soul. And oh how I was changed. Everything seemed new; everybody, my horses and hogs seemed changed.”
James tells us that automatisms [such as phantom physical sensations, fainting, convulsions, etc., again, not consciously controlled], as are apparent in the above case, are often a startling feature in suggestible subjects at revivals. They were initially supposed to be semi-miraculous proofs of ‘power’ on the part of the Holy Ghost. But, great divergence of opinion quickly arose concerning them and their value has long been a matter of debate, even within the revivalistic denominations. Undoubtedly, they have no essential spiritual significance although their presence makes the conversion more memorable to the subjects. Yet, it has never been proven that converts who displayed such automatisms at these revivals are more preserving or fertile in good fruits than those whose change of heart had less violent accompaniments.
There is one form of sensory automatism which possibly deserves special notice on account of its frequency. I refer to hallucinatory or pseudo-hallucinatory luminous phenomena, photisms, to use the term of the psychologists. Such as, St. Paul’s blinding heavenly vision, or Constantine’s cross in the sky as well as floods of light and glory. Such reports of photisms are indeed far from uncommon. For example:
“All at once the glory of God shone upon and round me in a manner most marvelous. “A light perfectly ineffable shone in my soul that almost prostrated me on the ground.” Or, “This light seemed like the brightness of the sun in every direction; it was too intense for the eyes.”
James states that the most characteristic of all the elements of the conversion crisis, and the last of which he speaks, is the ecstasy of happiness produced. Though we have already heard several accounts of it, here he adds a couple more:
“One morning, being in deep distress, fearing every moment I should drop into hell, I was constrained to cry in earnest for mercy and the Lord came to my relief and delivered my soul from the burden of guilt from sin. My whole frame was in a tremor from head to foot and my soul enjoyed a sweet peace. The pleasure I then felt was indescribable lasting about three days during which time I never spoke of it to anyone.” – Dan Young, New York, 1860
“In an instant there rose up in me such sense of God’s taking care of those who put their trust in him that for an hour all the world was crystalline, the heavens were lucid, and I sprang to my feet and began to cry and laugh.” – H. W. Beecher, quoted by Leuba
Let us address, before closing this lecture says James, the question of the transiency or permanence of the abrupt conversion and regarding the backsliding and relapses that take place. Also the using of such, by some, as a reason for interpreting the whole of the topic and dismissing it with a pitying smile at so much “hysterics.” James proclaims that psychologically, as well as religiously, this view is shallow. It misses the point of serious interest here; which is not so much the duration as the nature and quality of these shiftings of character to higher levels. He reminds us that persons lapse from every level – feelings of love is an example of such. These revelations form their significance to men and women whatever be their duration. The experience of conversion shows a human being, even if for but a short time, what the height of their spiritual capacity is and this is what constitutes its importance – an importance that backsliding cannot diminish. In fact, says James, the more striking instances of conversion which have been presented here, have been permanent. The case of which there may be the most doubt, on account of its suggesting the possibility of a seizure, is the case of Monseigneur Ratisbonne. Yet, Ratisbonne’s whole future was shaped by those few minutes. He gave up his prospect of marriage, became a priest, founded at Jerusalem, where he went to live, a mission of nuns for the conversion of Jews. Showed no tendency to use for egotistical purposes the acclaim given him by the circumstances of his conversion which, for the rest of his life, he could seldom refer to without tears. And, in short, remained an exemplary son of the church until he died, late in the 1880’s.
Dr. Frederic W. H. Myers (1843 – 1901) was a leading mind in psychical research. By vocation, he was a brilliant classist scholar (ancient Greek and Roman literature, art and architecture), a psychologist and, and a poet of distinction. He was also the first Englishman to swim across the channel beneath Niagara Falls. For thirty years he filled the post of a Cambridge inspector of schools. His resolve to pursue psychical investigation was born in 1869 after a starlight walk and talk with Henry Sidgwick.
He had in mind the same methods of deliberate, dispassionate and exact inquiry which has produced our current scientific understanding of the visible world. It was in this spirit that the Society of Psychical Research, of which Dr. Myers was a fellow founder, came into being. Of the sixteen volumes (as of Myer’s time) of “Proceedings” of the SPR (a documentation of their investigations and findings) there is not one entry without an important contribution from Myer’s pen. The system of the classification of such phenomena [paranormal, psychical, evidence of afterlife, etc.) in “Phantasms of the Living” was entirely his idea. He played a large part in organizing the International Congress of Psychology and held the post as secretary at one convention as well as honorary secretary in the SPR for several years. He contributed many articles in periodicals such as “Fortnightly Review” and the “Nineteenth Century.” His book “Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death” was posthumously published. The University of Madras adopted it as a text book for its courses on psychology.
To continue reading this abridged version of “The Varieties of Religious Experience” go now to chapter: (G) “The Varieties of Religious Experience” by William James – part ll: