I just finished listening to a superb 43 minute BBC panel discussion on William James’ book, “The Variety of Religious Experience” — which is said to have been the only philosophical book on the shelf of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Below are a few points made in their conversation which illustrate why I have always been so drawn to James — but the odd thing is, I have read very little by him but more about him. This lecture motivated me to keep reading the man himself.
I have started a post series on “How to Cure Christians” and after listening to this discussion, it seems my direction is very similar to William James’. Indeed I was surprised to hear that James uses the same medical terminology as I do. James saw two type of religious people: (1) The Healthy Minded: spiritual optimists, where he gives an example of Walt Whitman. (2) “The Sick Souls” or the “Divided Selves”, those who wrestle with themselves and are overwhelmed by their sense of sin. They feel existential angst and the futility of life. And for these people, the mind-cure is when they become “twice-born” and learn to be happy by triumphing over the terrible. Here he mentions Tolstoy, Bunyan and himself.
James claims these cures can be natural and alludes that it does not need to be a god that is involved. But James sees people’s religious experiences as a genuine struggle and for him it is a struggle against the divided self.
The Sub-Conscious as God
James felt that the Sub-Conscious (SC) was psychology’s greatest single discovery. To James, “God” is the acknowledging of the unimportance of self — his was a negative theology. James’ father was influence by Swedenborg who felt that the core of the Christian message is Love and Self-Annihilation. James saw the coming to peace and union with the SC as a transcendence of self. The SC is huge compared to what we, moment-by-moment, are deluded into thinking is our real self and is thus naturally perceived as “Other” and very large. It doesn’t feel like “you”. To James, the SC is where mystical experiences arise — it is that which ferments inside and with which we are not familiar. These experiences, for James, often led to “awe”.
James spoke against scientism. Though he was a strong evolutionist, he argued for a pragmatism which entailed being open-minded. He wanted ideas primarily judged by their fruits and then for the scientific mind to explore that which bears good fruit with a willingness to be surprised. He resisted the philosophical position as seeing religion as merely a passing phase in evolution. James wanted us to take our hearts, values and experiences seriously.
It was a very good discussion panel. I hope this stirs a few into listening to it.