William James

I discovered a really good essay over at In Character today, written by Mark Oppenheimer. Really it just states the bloody obvious, but the bloody obvious is usually in need of being said, the times being what they are. The whole thing is worth reading, but Oppenheimer’s use of William James’ thoughts make it especially cogent. James, of course, wrote ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience”, but really the way religion is treated in the media nowadays, there doesn’t seem to be much variety. Here’s one point, which has to do with the essentially private nature of religious experience, as opposed to the tendency we have nowadays to regard religion as a collective, social phenomenon:

“Religion, therefore, as I ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine” (the italics are his). Note his carefully chosen “arbitrarily” — James is not arguing that his is the only possible definition of religion, merely that it is the one best-suited to his study of the subject. James believes that the true essence of religion will be found among “violenter examples rather than among those of a more moderate hue,” and since the most violent religious experiences, he believes, are visited upon people when they are alone, rather than with groups in church or synagogue or mosque, then studying those “men in their solitude” and their deeply mystical experiences will prove most illuminating.

The other “good bit” is James’ categorization of religions into two basic types – the “once born” and the “twice born”:

James is remembered for his division of religious people into the “once-born” and the “twice-born,” a dichotomy he borrowed from Francis Newman, who described the once-born as seeing God “not as a strict Judge, not as a Glorious Potentate; but as the animating spirit of a beautiful harmonious world, Beneficent and Kind, Merciful as well as Pure.” (The twice-born, by contrast, are more oriented toward sin and God’s angrier qualities.) James did not offer an unqualified endorsement of the once-born type; rather, he was careful to note that “in some [once-born] individuals optimism may become quasi-pathological.” But he does equate “once-born” with “healthy-minded,” and his description of this healthy personality — given to optimism, gladness, gratitude — persuasively locates it alone, away from crowds.

So, all in all, it’s a healthy reminder that religion comes in more forms than can be subsumed by your typical CNN news broadcast.


One thought on “William James

  1. Thanks for your comments on Robert Frost’s Fire and Ice posted at Orcinus. I’ve always been fond of that poem but never understood it to be a comparison between desire and hatred.

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