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William James: the Varieties of Religious Experience (Library of America) Paperback – December 31, 2009
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When William James went to the University of Edinburgh in 1901 to deliver a series of lectures on "natural religion," he defined religion as "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." Considering religion, then, not as it is defined by--or takes place in--the churches, but as it is felt in everyday life, he undertook a project that, upon completion, stands not only as one of the most important texts on psychology ever written, not only as a vitally serious contemplation of spirituality, but for many critics one of the best works of nonfiction written in the 20th century. Reading The Varieties of Religious Experience, it is easy to see why. Applying his analytic clarity to religious accounts from a variety of sources, James elaborates a pluralistic framework in which "the divine can mean no single quality, it must mean a group of qualities, by being champions of which in alternation, different men may all find worthy missions." It's an intellectual call for serious religious tolerance--indeed, respect--the vitality of which has not diminished through the subsequent decades. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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This book is a microcosm, though. James touches on so many matters of religion and, indeed, life and philosophy overall that the book makes valuable reading for anyone interested in humans generally.
He talks, of necessity, quite a bit about the subconscious, which had just recently been "invented," showing that profound religious experiences comes from there, though that doesn't mean that they're not of divine origin: perhaps it's our subconscious self that connects to God.
James then analyzes these experiences from the pragmatic point of view of, Are these experiences healthy? What are their "fruits"?
But there are no ultimate "Answers" of the kind you find suggested in other works of philosophy or theology. Despite some heady speculation towards the end, James sticks to the facts, and never expects his audience to accept anything unproven.
Especially interesting, I thought, were the descriptions of "conversion," a two-fold experience consisting of spiritual crisis and of release from that crisis and the reaching of a profound state of surety and, usually, happiness.Read more ›
Why such an emphasis upon the individual? Because, as James states, the pivot around which the religious life revolves "is the interest of the individual in his private personal destiny." All proper "religion" by such a definition must consist in an individual experiencing connection with that which he considers to be the higher power(s). In fact, at one point James states that "prayer is real religion." And further, "Wherever this interior prayer is lacking, there is no religion; wherever, on the other hand, this prayer rises and stirs the soul, even in the absence of forms or of doctrines, we have living religion." A thought-provoking principle.
You will never appease your hunger by staring at a menu. You have to actually open your mouth and "experience" the eating of some food. Similarly, we can only learn about religious experience by recounting the experiences of those who've done some profound religious eating (so to say). This is James' method. He renounces the ambition to be coercive in his arguments (this is not an apologetic work) and simply focuses on "rehabilitating the element of feeling in religion and subordinating its intellectual part." He does this by the examination of diverse case histories.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
An historical classic in its field. This is my second copy and third reading. A real challenge to anyone from a highly regarded author in American psychology. LeoPublished 23 days ago by Amazon Customer
I majored in philosophy in college and read this 50 years ago. It takes on new meaning 50 years later. Enjoyed it, but I'm still re-reading parts of it too.Published 3 months ago by Professormama
Very, very good book, rich with information and insight. Highly recommend.Published 6 months ago by N. Maclean
Great read if you're interested in logical musings of man's spiritual experience of life, particularly through Christian mysticism/esotericism. Read morePublished 6 months ago by Monso