06 May 2014

The Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James

Reading this book is a project. I'm sure people cover selections of it all the time in college classes, and it must be admitted that one could get by with the highlights reel, but the experience of working your way through the entire thing is a special one. It is an ambitious text -- the kind of thing where you can hardly believe that an actual human being wrote it, which seems to sum up a lifetime of learning and reflection. It's the sort of scholarly work that I associate with the humanist masterpieces of the 20th century (another example that comes to mind is Erich Auerbach's Mimesis, which is similarly rewarding), in that it is systematic and magisterial but also suffused with personality. You are keenly aware that it is the product of an extended process of thought, and it retains a close connection to the spirit of its maker.

James sets out to understand what religion does to the minds of those who believe in it, in a very pragmatic sort of way. It is very much to be regretted that he did not know more about non-Christian religions; aside from a handful of references to Islam, Buddhism (which he openly admits to not knowing much about), and Hinduism, the book is really a compendium of Christian experience first and foremost. Although his approach could probably be productively applied to other faiths, one would need to find someone knowledgeable to actually do it. I can't exactly blame him for that, but I was disappointed.

The other critique one could make is that it is a bit of a slog at moments, particularly when he gets into piling on more and more examples. Some are fascinating, others are rather less so. You could easily cut 80 pages of the book without great loss. But those occasionally monotonous bits are sort of key to the Stockholm-syndrome-y, I-just-read-a-massively-long-book sense of accomplishment you feel at the end of it.

But overall, it really is an incredible text, and one that offers wonderful material to think with, a framework from which to interrogate your own beliefs -- whatever they may be, and whether or not they include a Supreme Being of some kind. If, for instance, you are looking to find a way to express how math serves some of the same spiritual functions for you that religion does for others, this book gives you a way to do so. And it also, satisfyingly, legitimates that belief, whatever it may be, by noting that whether or not the object of belief is actually real, the belief itself has material effects, and thus confers a certain reality upon its objects. But more generally, The Varieties of Religious Experience is also an inquiry into the nature of belief, the difference between feeling and intellect, and an exploration of different realms of consciousness. Reading it is no small undertaking, but it is most certainly a rewarding one.