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A Great Book by a Great Man,
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This review is from: Varieties of Religious Experience (Mass Market Paperback)
The previous reviews are very good descriptions of this book. I'd like to reiterate that it helps while reading to remember that this is primarily a study of many case histories of very personal and profound experiences with God. They are mostly in the form of excerpts from autobiographies and memoirs, mainly Christian and contemporary (the book was published in 1903), but many also from other times and faiths. There is no addressing the pros and cons of organized religion here, or, for that matter, of questions like whether miracles really happen, etc.
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. Besides many others, he describes the conversion processes of John Bunyan (a schizophrenic) and Leo Tolstoy. James makes the very interesting comparison of the process (nowadays called "being born again") with the natural process of adolescence, and speculates that conversion crisis, as encouraged by the Protestant churches, is perhaps one of the healthiest and safest ways of attaining adulthood.
Also fascinating is James' description of "the Healthy-minded Individual," who is born with a trusting assurance of God's loving presence, and who never goes through any crisis of conversion because he doesn't need to. I myself would doubt the existence of these lucky people, but then I recalled a person (my children's teacher) who is always cheerful, energetic, and kind, and who I sincerely believe has never lost her temper or been anything more than necessarily stern with her students, parents, and other teachers. She has a profound, almost instinctive, faith in God. That for me is living proof of the veracity of James' categories and conclusions.
And James' own almost chivalrous kindness, honesty, and respect for us, his audience make me feel that he himself, whether "once-" or "twice-born," had reached that higher level of morality and happiness; it made reading this book a profound and inspiring experience.
Oddly, the preface (by Martin E. Marty) of the version of "Varieties" that I have (Penguin) does not mention the following, found in the preface to the William James volume of the "Great Books" series:
"James had been concerned with religion from an empirical point of view as early as 1869, when he had noted in a review the 'anomalous' and 'discreditable' attitude of a so-called enlightened society toward psychical phenomena. To ascertain the appropriate 'stall or pigeonhole' for these 'wild facts,' he helped organize the American Society for Psychical Research in 1884. Two years later he was invited to give the Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion at the University of Edinburgh.
"On a vacation climb in the Adirondacks in 1898, James underwent a variety of religious experience: 'It seemed as if the Gods of all the nature-mythologies were holding an indescribable meeting in my breast with the moral Gods of the inner life....Doubtless in more ways than one, things in the Edinburgh lectures will be traceable to it,' he wrote his wife. The climb, however, overtaxed his heart, which would not have impaired his health if he had not essayed the Adirondacks the following summer and lost his way. There followed two years of complete collapse. Thus the Gifford Lectures were not finished until 1902, when they were also published in book form as 'The Varieties of Religious Experience.'"