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The Varieties of Religious Experience II: “Circumscription of the Topic”

January 25, 2007

(This is the second of a planned twenty part journey through William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience lectures).

In his second lecture, “Circumscription of the Topic,” James aims to set down exactly what he means when he talks about “religion.” Like the first, this lecture is introductory in tone, as James outlines his general scheme and establishes a clear method of considering his subject. At the very end, James promises that in his next lecture he will “abandon the extreme generalities” and “begin our actual journey by addressing ourselves directly to the concrete facts.” If this means that the next lecture is going to be even better than this one, than you can color me excited.

The primary point of lecture two is to define the word “religion” in a way that will allow James to talk about the aspects of it he finds most interesting, namely, the intense religious experiences of those who think they are in touch with the divine. James explains that he is not interested in determining what the “essence” of religion is, since he does not think this to be a plausible goal; religion, of all things, is not easily reduced to a single trait, as “such different ways of conceiving it ought of themselves to arise doubt as to whether it possibly can be one specific thing.” To help in this regard, James again explains that he is going to ignore the institutional aspects of religion in their entirety, hoping instead to “confine myself as far as I can to personal religion pure and simple.” With this in mind, James sets down his working definition:

Religion, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us 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.

The slippery word here, as James immediately recognizes, is “divine” — what does this mean? He insists on holding to a broad definition of the divine, which will umbrella religions such as Buddism, which recognizes no personal deity, and Emersonian idealism, which focuses primarily on a law or force which inhabits the universe. In short, even if a religion has no gods, it still falls under James’s conception: “we must interpret the term ‘divine’ very broadly, as denoting any object that is godlike, whether it be a concrete deity or not.”

Coming at it from a different angle, James defends his choice of definition by claiming that “religion, whatever it is, is a man’s total reaction upon life.”

Total reactions are different from casual reactions, and total attitudes are different from usual or professional attitudes. To get at them you must go behind the foreground of existence and reach down to that curious sense of the whole residual cosmos as an everlasting presence, intimate or alien, terrible or amusing, lovable or odious, which in some degree every one possesses. This sense of the world’s presence, appealing as it does to our peculiar individual temperament, makes us either strenuous or careless, devout or blasphemous, gloomy or exultant, about life at large; and our reaction, involuntary and inarticulate and often half unconscious as it is, is the completest of all our answers to the question, “What is the character of this universe in which we dwell?”

The next part of the essay makes distinctions between different ways of reacting to the totality of existence, and whether or not different stances qualify as religious. Voltaire’s scoffing attitude, the “all is vanity” approach, is certainly not religion. An ironic stance towards the whole is not religion; religion nearly always indicates a serious frame of mind. Even tragedy has value from the religious point of view, for it it is considered a purging force that paves the way to deliverance. Coming back to the definition of the divine, James says: “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.”

With this in mind, James returns to the point he made in his first lecture, that religion can best be understood by considering the most extreme examples of it. The common sense plea James makes resonates with truth:

Hesitation as to whether a state of mind is ‘religious,’ or ‘moral,’ or ‘philosophical,’ is only likely to arise when the state of mind is weakly characterized, but in that case it will be hardly worthy of our study at all. With states that can only by courtesy be called religious we need have nothing to do, our only profitable business being with what nobody can possibly feel tempted to call anything else.

At this point in his lecture, James turns to a subject that holds great weight, and proves to be deeply fascinating: distinguishing between a “moral” stance towards existence and a “religious” one. Recognizing that there could very easily be some blurring between the two, James attempts to determine the critical difference, and succeeds admirably. Explaining that “at bottom the whole concern of both morality and religion is with the manner of our acceptance of the universe,” James points out that morality is concerned with acquiescing to the universe, while religion is concerned with embracing it. It is a difference of mood: the moralist (represented here by Stoicism in general and Aurelius specifically) consents to his place in the universe, and even submits to it, whereas “the Christian God is there to be loved” — “the difference of emotional atmosphere is like that between an arctic climate and the tropics.”

James then moves deeper into this territory, hoping to identify what about religion makes it distinct from morality. Strangely, James shifts back and forth between Christianity and religion without explanation, using the two terms nearly interchangeably in the last portion of his lecture. This serves his purpose, and allows him to make the points he clearly wishes to make, but it is a weakness in his argument, and attention must be paid to it. What James says next about the sacrificial, self-abasing aspects of religion apply very well to Christianity, but not so well (to use James’s earlier example against him) to Emersonian idealism. Take this passage which describes the comfort religion gives to those who feel the shortcomings of their “decaying organism”

But whereas the merely moralistic spurning takes an effort of volition, the Christian spurning is the result of the excitement of a higher kind of emotion, in the presence of which no exertion of volition is required. The moralist must hold his breath and keep his muscles tense; and so long as this athletic attitude is possible all goes well — morality suffices. But the athletic attitude tends ever to break down, and it inevitably does break down even in the most stalwart when the organism begins to decay, or when morbid fears invade the mind. To suggest personal will and effort to one all sicklied o’er with the sense of irremediable impotence is to suggest the most impossible of things. What he 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. Well, we are all such helpless failures in the last resort. The sanest and best of us are of one clay with lunatics and prison inmates, and death finally runs the robustest of us down. And whenever we feel this, such a sense of the vanity and provisionality of our voluntary career comes over us that all our morality appears but as a plaster hiding a sore it can never cure, and all our well-doing as the hollowest substitute for that well-being that our lives ought to be grounded in, but, alas! are not.

And here religion comes to our rescue and takes our fate into her hands. 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 displaced by a willingness to close our mouths and be as nothing in the floods and waterspouts of God.

This is a long quote, but essential to understanding what comes next. James claims that the crucial aspect of religion — and its chief value — is how it “comes to our rescue and takes our fate into her hands.” Religious feeling adds a whole new level of experience to a person’s life: “when the outward battle is lost, and the outer world disowns him, it redeems and vivifies an interior world which would otherwise be an empty waste.”

I want to stop the summary here and draw attention to the fact that James is here portraying a very pessimistic view of life and death. True, our lives are a struggle with death and decay, for which we often need solace and explanation. However, I think it’s worth it to advance another view: that life owes nothing to us, and that we should be happy to be here at all. This, bastardized, is the view taken by Carlyle’s professor Teufelsdrock in Sartor Resartus (see this post).

In the next to last paragraph, James writes:

For when all is said and done, we are in the end absolutely dependent on the universe; and into sacrifices and surrenders of some sort, deliberately looked at and accepted, we are drawn and pressed as into our only permanent positions of repose. Now in those states of mind which fall short of religion, the surrender is submitted to as an imposition of necessity, and the sacrifice is undergone at the very best without complaint. In the religious life, on the contrary, surrender and sacrifice are positively espoused: even unnecessary givings-up are added in order that the happiness may increase. Religion thus makes easy and felicitous what in any case is necessary; and if it be the only agency that can accomplish this result, its vital importance as a human faculty stands vindicated beyond dispute

To this I say: yes, we are all dependent on the universe, and religion does provide an answer to the seemingly brutality of this fact, in that it promises that there is another, greater, meaning, even — usually — promising eternal life beyond our short earthy voyages. In this view, renouncing the earthly has clear benefits. However, if there is no eternal life, nothing beyond what we see and experience on earth, then the comfort and “extra level” that religion offers is misleading, false, and detrimental to true happiness.

If you believe that there is another life, then renouncing the less pleasant elements of this one makes sense. If you don’t, and are convinced that this life is the only experience you will ever have, then renunciation holds no purpose, whatever its value for your happiness may be. My chief criticism of James’ point is that our being “dependent on the universe” is not a strong enough reason to renounce it. James thinks that “we shall have to confess to at least some amount of dependence on sheer mercy, and to practice some amount of renunciation, great or small, to save our souls alive.” I agree with the first half of this proposal, but denounce the second; I have no choice but to depend on the universe, but I can choose to affirm it, regardless of whether or not it has a total meaning, because I am convinced that there is nothing more to it that what it gives me and what I can take from it.

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2 comments

  1. I’m really hoping to read this book this year, so I’m glad to hear that you are enjoying it.


  2. About 3 years ago I dropped into a black hole – four months of absolute terror. I wanted to end my life, but somehow [Holy Spirit], I reached out to a friend who took me to hospital. I had three visits [hospital] in four months – I actually thought I was in hell. I imagine I was going through some sort of metamorphosis [mental, physical & spiritual]. I had been seeing a therapist [1994] on a regular basis, up until this point in time. I actually thought I would be locked away – but the hospital staff was very supportive [I had no control over my process]. I was released from hospital 16th September 1994, but my fear, pain & shame had only subsided a little. I remember this particular morning waking up [home] & my process would start up again [fear, pain, & shame]. No one could help me, not even my therapist [I was terrified]. I asked Jesus Christ to have mercy on me & forgive me my sins. Slowly, all my fear has dissipated & I believe Jesus delivered me from my “psychological prison.” I am a practicing Catholic & the Holy Spirit is my friend & strength; every day since then has been a joy & blessing. I deserve to go to hell for the life I have led, but Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross, delivered me from my inequities. John 3: 8, John 15: 26, are verses I can relate to, organically. He’s a real person who is with me all the time. I have so much joy & peace in my life, today, after a childhood spent in orphanages [England & Australia]. God LOVES me so much. Fear, pain, & shame, are no longer my constant companions. I just wanted to share my experience with you [Luke 8: 16 – 17].

    Peace Be With You
    Micky



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