Nature of Religious Experience

Nature of Religious Experience



James emphasizes that contact with the “unseen” often takes place as a non-rational event, experienced principally as feeling (“suchness”) rather than as purely propositional knowledge (“whatness”):

It is as if there were in the human consciousness a sense of reality, a feeling of objective presence, a perception of what we may call ‘something there,’ more deep and more general than any of the special and particular ‘senses’ by which the current psychology supposes existent to be originally revealed. (58)

We may now lay it down as certain that in the distinctively religious sphere of experience, many persons possess the objects of their belief, not in the form of mere conceptions which their intellect accepts as true, but rather in the form of quasi-sensible realities directly apprehended. (64)

…[Such experiences] are as convincing to those who have them as any direct sensible experiences can, and they are, as a rule, much more convincing than results established by mere logic ever are. (72)

Examine this suchness/whatness distinction as discussed in class. How is the sense of the unseen from the Christian and Stoic perspectives, as James interprets them, representative of these two kinds of experience? Why does James conclude that the Stoic approach is the shallower of the two?

It is clear that for James, religious experience is a psychological phenomenon worthy of study, regardless of its origins. Examine the two criteria that James suggests we should employ in assessing the validity of such experiences. Would you agree with his criteria? If not, then by what means do you think such experiences should be assessed? In your opinion, is what James is calling “the religious experience” simply a delusion, or potentially a contact with some kind of order that, for most of us, remains undiscovered? In terms of pragmatic “cash value,” does it even matter?

In exploring the various dispositions one may have regarding life, James observes that

Much of what we call evil is due entirely to the way men take the phenomenon. It can often be converted into a bracing and good tonic by a simple change of the sufferer’s inner attitude from one of fear to one of fight; its sting so often departs and turns into a relish when, after vainly seeking to shun it, we agree to face it and bear it cheerfully, that a man is simply bound in honor, with reference to many of the facts that seem at first to disconcert his peace, to adopt this way of escape. Refuse to admit their badness; despise their power; ignore their presence; turn your attention the other way; and so far as you yourself are concerned at any rate, though the facts may still exist, their evil character exists no longer. Since you make them evil or good by your own thoughts about them, it is the ruling of your thoughts which proves to be your principle concern. The deliberate adoption of an optimistic turn of mind thus makes its entrance into philosophy. (88-89)

While recognizing this healthy-minded perspective as a genuine religious attitude, James nevertheless claims that

…there is no doubt that healthy-mindedness is inadequate as a philosophical doctrine. (152)

Examine the different varieties of both the healthy and the morbid-minded religious types, as illustrated by James. What kind of religious attitude is cultivated by each type, and why? Why does James state that the healthy-minded perspective employs a pluralistic view, whereas morbid-mindedness embraces a monistic view? What is it about morbid-mindedness in particular that leads James to conclude that it “ranges over the wider scene of experience”? Specifically, why does he believe that such an “incompletely unified moral and intellectual constitution” is in the best position to cultivate the “spiritual life”? Would you agree with James on this point? Explore this question.