Recently, because it was next in line on my bookshelf, I read The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, written in 1900.  Dr. James was professor of Psychology and Philosophy at Harvard University.  He gave a series of lectures at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland in 1902-1902 on the nature of religion and the neglect of it’s science in academia.  His source material was thousands of testimonials (i.e. documented religious experiences) from Christians (almost all), Buddhists, and Hindus.  This book is a compilation of said lectures.  He makes the following main points…

  • Science is criticized for ignoring the unseen systems of the universe.  In doing so, some of reality is ignored.
  • The main goal of living should be the pursuit of happiness (Ps. 1:1-6).  The religious tend to be far happier compared to the un-religious.
  • Personal prayer (Matt. 6:5-6, Ja. 5:16) to the deity is the most fundamental of religious acts, superior to that of corporate religion.
  • Some, termed “once born,” (Ps. 91:1-16, Luke 10:19) do not consider evil to be part of this world.  They are forever optimists about everything and everyone.  Any bad they encounter is believed to be on its way to becoming good (Rev. 21:1-8).  Walt Whitman is the best example of this type.
  • Others, “twice born,” (Jn. 3:3, 1 Pet. 1:22-23), consider the world good but evil is exists.  This ill condemns them to struggles with depression and melancholy.  Leo Tolstoy was given as a prime example of this type.
  • Conversions are either instantaneous (Acts 9:1-9) or over a longer period of time (Luke 24:13-35).  It should, if authentic, change some of a persons character and/or habits.
  • The efficacy of a conversion is similar to that of love for another.  To begin with, the passion burns white hot.  Over time, the flames wain (Luke 8:13, cp. Heb. 10:35-39).
  • The “practical fruits” (Matt. 7:16-17, Gal. 5:22-23, Eph. 5:8-9) of conversion is saintly living.  This is characterized by purity, charity, strength of soul, and ascetic (pleasure in sacrifice) acts.
  • Regarding mysticism, Dr. James states “I believe that feeling is the deepest source of religion, and that philosophic and theological formulas are secondary products.”  Mystical experience is unpredictable (Jn. 3:8).  It is the sense of losing ones self to the Other.
  • Philosophy cannot explain the religious experience because it is beyond logic and cannot be fully explained.
  • Finally Dr. James expressed the need to provide room (Gal. 3:28, Ja. 2:1-4, Rev. 7:9-10) for each person’s religious experience.  As each is different, so also is each experience.

I enjoyed this read.  There was nothing here that was exactly new or that I haven’t known or experienced myself.  It was good to see it all organized and exhaustively written about.  After all, the best books are those that are known before they are read.