Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

The Varieties of Religious Experience was published by the psychologist and philosopher William James in 1902. By most accounts it is the most important non-fiction book published in the twentieth century. Why? Because it breaks new ground and presents opportunities and ideas for every person who spends some time considering the book. Even today.

All religions, William James claims, have a “common nucleus,” the first being “a sense that there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand” and “a sense that we are saved from the wrongness by making proper connection with the higher powers.” My contention is that the “something wrong” is human consciousness itself. We just don’t know very well how to be conscious animals, and the natural human response to that feeling of unease is to try to find a cure.

I quickly add that we don’t always know that we’ve chosen something as a cure. Alcohol, food, drugs, greed, selfishness, violence. All these — and many more! — can feel like a cure for the unease . . . at first.

William James founded the psychology department at Harvard. His groundbreaking insights into the core of religion spring from his unique and pioneering application of psychology and emotion into the study of the religious impulse. Feeling, not theology. And feeling is . . . often socially constructed.

William James phrased it this way:

But why in the name of common sense need we assume that only one such system of (religious) ideas can be true? The obvious outcome of our total experience is that the world can be handled according to many systems of ideas, and is so handled by different [people], and will each time give some characteristic kind of profit, for which he cares, to the handler, while at the same time some other kind of profit has to be omitted or postponed.

“. . . why in the name of common sense need we assume that only one such system of (religious) ideas can be true?

Yes, William James was a person of his time, and he mistook aspects of the Christianity that he knew so well for truisms concerning all religious impulses. Still, his insight that religions function for actual human beings as emotion, not theological concepts, was an important stepping stone for the xenophobic Western world to get out of its own head.

Just as Zen practitioners had told us long ago, religion — as a human experience — is pre-conceptual. (On this account, I think that belief itself qualifies as an emotion, not a reasoned choice.)

You know how in cartoons a character will run off a cliff and not fall until they realize they’re off the cliff? Fulfilling religion is like that: it feels great; but if you start messing with concepts, you realize that there is no there-there in religious thought.

It is emotion, all the way down. It is pre-verbal. It is pre-conceptual. That’s deep religion, not the reams of paper from the pens of scholars or preachers.

It’s true that not everything can be true. The next book that James wrote was Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. There he reconsiders what he had called “common sense” in Varieties. Now James puts the idea into classic pragmatic terminology, calling ideas tools. Pragmatically, if a tool works, it works, and therefore is “true.”

What if it doesn’t work or what if there’s no way to tell if it works or not? Then, it’s not true.

Religious experience. Mystical experience. Philosophical experience. If we don’t feel it, it isn’t there. So, what about that “sense that there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand”? We’re bound to search until we . . . feel . . . an answer.

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