Tuesday, November 23, 2004

The Varieties of Religious Experience—William James

For my first out of a series of posts on The Varieties of Religious Experience, I am going to summarize the first two lectures of James’ book. I’m doing this because the first two lectures, titled: "Religion and Neurology", and "Circumscription of the Topic", act as introductions to James’ later lectures. He starts out with somewhat of a disclaimer, stating he is not a scholar in the subject of religion. William James is a psychologist, which leads to the title of the first lecture “Religion and Neurology.” This gives him authority to talk about different states of mind, logic and medical conclusions of why a person believes the way they do (which he doesn’t let go without major scrutiny and criticism). Apparently, during his time there was a trend of “medical materialism”. An attempt to explain why people are the way they are through medical ailments. James explains this through examples. “Medical materialism finishes up St. Paul by calling his vision on the road to Damascus a discharging lesion of occipital cortex, he being an epileptic. It snuffs out St. Theresa as an hysteric, St. Francis of Assisi as an hereditary degenerate. George Fox’s discontent with the shams of his age, and his pining for spiritual veracity, it treats as a system of a disordered colon.” (James p. 24).

Of course, James as well as I, find this to be absolutely absurd! And secretly somewhat funny too :-) In the second lecture “Circumscription of the Topic", James explains what it is exactly he is going to be discussing. He attempts to create definitions for the terms “religion” and “the divine”. I still am not quite sure what his final definitions came out to be…I would have to re-read this chapter a couple more times to figure that out! So for now I am just going to skip his definitions, because even he said they are too abstract a term to explain exactly. However, in this chapter I think I discovered, what I am assuming to be his thesis statement for the series of lectures, “We shall see how infinitely passionate a thing religion at its highest flights can be. Like love, like wrath, like hope, ambition, jealousy, like every other instinctive eagerness and impulse, it adds to life an enchantment which is not rationally or logically deducible from anything else.” (James p. 52). His chapters, which where lectures, are filled with so much information, it is hard to summarize them in a short but logical manner. However, the main points I feel James is striving to get across are that religion and its experiences can’t be deduced to mere physical ailments, and that religion, is something more profound, less explainable than philosophy. So with this in mind, we can now proceed (in a few days when I actually have time to read, with the holidays and all) to the third lecture “The Reality of the Unseen.”

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