67 of 69 people found the following review helpful
This review is from: The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (Modern Library) (Hardcover)
You will not draw the nectar out of this book unless you are aware (the earlier the better) of James' premise that the stronghold of religion lies in individuality. These lectures are not a study of "religion" nor even a study of religious "experiences" in toto, but a study of "individual" religious experience. Singular. It sounds narrow only until you add the other word of the title... "varieties."
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.
And he uses the "extremer examples" because these yield the profounder information. He called these types "theopathic" characters; those who tend to display excess of devotion. His reasoning is thus: "To learn the secrets of any science, we go to expert specialists, even though they may be eccentric persons, and not to commonplace pupils. We combine what they tell us with the rest of our wisdom, and form our final judgment independently."
Concerning this "final judgment" I found the following principle in the lecture entitled "Mysticism" to be particular liberating. As regards the extremely theopathic: "No authority emanates from them which should make it a duty for those who stand outside of them to accept their revelations uncritically." A good word to hide in your heart against the next time some well-intentioned saint feels that their eccentricities should be yours.
To be honest, I found the lecture entitled "Philosophy" to be fairly technical and daunting, but such criticism I charge to my own lack of knowledge in this area rather than to any deficiency in the book itself. Upon closing its covers, I was a satiated bee. The book is total nectar.