Experience Without Doctrine William James

One of the characteristics of Western culture in the twentieth century has been the influence of psychology. There is now widespread acceptance that each person has unconscious depths which, if explored and analysed, will yield valuable insights about the person concerned and perhaps about human nature itself. Among the first to apply psychology to religion was William James (1842-1910). His conclusions helped shape—and limit—the interpretation of religious experience. James's influence in religious studies has been ongoing, helped by his Gifford Lectures with their evergreen title, The Varieties of Religious Experience. His assertion that religious experience can be valued for itself, with doctrine being set aside, fits neatly within the mind-set of much late twentieth-century thinking about religion.

In The Varieties of Religious Experience William James says that he is bent on 'rehabilitating the element of feeling in religion and subordinating its intellectual part' (James 1971:478). Like Schleiermacher he is influenced by Romanticism's stress on the primacy of feeling. William James not only emphasizes feeling over intellect, but also stresses individual accounts of religious experience. He rejects experience filtered through tradition or formulated within a community: 'When a religion has become an orthodoxy, its day of inwardness is over; the spring is dry; the faithful live at second hand exclusively' (ibid.: 330). Hence he avows that 'feeling is the deeper source of religion...philosophic and theological formulas are secondary products, like translations of a text into another tongue' (ibid.: 414-15). He tries to select vibrant stories of 'great-souled persons wrestling with the crises of their fate'. James defines religion as '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' (ibid.: 50; italics in original). He gives a key role to subliminal mind with its storehouse of:

'obscurely motivated passions, impulses, likes, dislikes, and prejudices. Our intuitions, hypotheses, fancies, superstitions, persuasions, convictions, and in general all our non-rational operations come from it...In it arise whatever mystical experiences we may have' (ibid.: 462). Profound religious experiences take place when this surd of memory boils up into the immediate consciousness. In conversion experiences, for instance, a person in a divided and unhappy state surrenders to an incursion from the subconscious. The person finds unity and new energy in recentring his or her life around religious ideas which were previously peripheral (ibid.: 200-2).

In his analysis of mysticism, James assigns four keynotes to mystical experiences.

1 They are ineffable, having a quality which cannot really be conveyed but needs to be experienced for itself.

2 They are noetic, yielding 'insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect'.

3 They are transient.

4 They are experiences of passivity, in which the mystic feels 'grasped and held by a superior power' (ibid.: 367-8).

These keynotes help to ensure that mysticism fits into his account of religious experience as drama, the inrush of powerful insights and images from a subliminal mind which has been storing and sifting material. The self feels open to a wider consciousness through which saving experiences come. As a source of new life, this other mental 'world' is undoubtedly real, for it works profound changes in people; and, says James, 'that which produces effects within another reality must be termed a reality itself. As supreme reality it can be termed God (ibid.: 491). This wider consciousness and source of power depend, however, on the rich world of the subliminal consciousness. James does say that if there is a power beyond the human, then it may get access only through the subconscious (ibid.: 243; cf. 493). He has a panpsychic view of God, holding that there is 'a continuum of cosmic consciousness, against which our individuality builds but accidental fences' (quoted in Brennan 1961:59). Lash hardly caricatures when he says that James sees God as a kind of cosmic consciousness occasionally 'leaking into' individual human minds (Lash 1988:80).

James was influenced by Charles Peirce's pragmatism. In James's terms, truth is to be found in what concepts do, rather than in any objective truth they might have in and of themselves. 'There can be no difference.. .in abstract truth that doesn't express itself in a difference in concrete fact, and in conduct consequent upon that fact' (James 1921:49-50). An idea's meaning is found in the conduct it produces: '[T]hat conduct is for us its sole significance' (James 1971:425, 427). If a truth-claim has no consequences in conduct, it is to be dismissed. James accordingly sweeps aside divine attributes like necessary existence, infinity, and personality. Since they can make no difference in conduct, it makes no sense to say whether they be true or false. God's moral attributes, on the other hand, provide challenging standards, and inspire fear, hope and expectation, and are thus useful. He concludes that 'The uses of religion, its uses to the individual who has it, and the uses of the individual himself to the world, are the best arguments that truth is in it' (James 1971:439). This elision from meaning to use makes James's approach seem so contemporary nearly a hundred years later. We live in times when, say, a Chicagoan can decide to try Zen Buddhism, while a Londoner selects Native American spirituality. The conceptual frameworks of religions do not matter, and there is no real consideration as to how belief interacts with practice in the life of a community. What counts is whether concepts yield valuable effects. A devotee can seek the experience without carrying the luggage of doctrine.

This approach raises the question of whether the subject in such instances would experience anything beyond the self. James portrays religious experience as a moment of privileged immediacy of perception, occurring to an individual whose insights spin out of the contents of his or her mind. At best, society could be said to be implicitly present, presumably having contributed some of the subliminal memories. This interpretation of experience, however, yields a picture of human personhood centred on itself with all the problems of the lonely Cartesian ego. Hans-Georg Gadamer reminds us that advances in understanding require us to mediate between different horizons: between, for example, received tradition and reason, past and present, self and community. Understanding evolves out of this process in which horizons of interpretation are enlarged and eventually fused (Gadamer 1975:269-74). To appeal to objective procedures, while denying any power to tradition, is to be particularly dominated by unseen prejudices (ibid.: 324). James offers us basically one horizon, that of the individual seeker; he seems to believe that his scientific approach obviates questions of religion's cultural settings.

This same problem arises in another of James's works, his essay 'The Will to Believe' in the eponymous book (1897) in which he draws on Pascal's wager. James argues that questions of faith are choices which are living, forced and momentous. That is, each option attracts, choosing is unavoidable, and the outcome is of great significance. There is no clear evidence for choosing either way. But scepticism runs the risk of losing a possible gain, whereas to choose to believe might reap a rich benefit. This, says James, justifies taking a step which might otherwise seem unjustified. James's argument is more than wish-fulfilment. He is keen to underline how convictions are often influenced through our 'passional nature' by factors such as fear, hope, prejudice, passion and imitation (James 1897:9). Given this reality, we have the right to choose, as an act of will, the most insistent tendency within us (ibid.: 10-11). But, as Gerald Myers points out, religious believers appeal to something beyond themselves, to 'historical episodes, sacred writings, and authoritative institutions'. James's will to believe 'assumes a total absence of objective evidence, with only internal feelings to go by' (Myers 1986:454).

In The Varieties of Religious Experience James does, of course, appeal to evidence, but underlying it is the same reliance on feeling and the same absence of any wider community of faith. If we shift our focus away from James's sample of individuals with dramatic stories, then our interpretation of religious experience changes too. Grace Jantzen has compared James's analysis of mysticism with what we know of the mystics Bernard of Clairvaux and Julian of Norwich. She notes that James, while occasionally making concessions to a broader concept of religious experience, in fact concentrates on its more dramatic manifestations. By contrast, Bernard and Julian portray union with God as gradual transformation, the patient discipline of seeking to bring heart and mind into harmony with God's love. Special experiences are at best a help on the way to this, may even be a hindrance, and are never to be sought for themselves (Jantzen 1989:313). By highlighting subjective elements and sidelining the objective content of religion, James misuses mysticism.

Nor is James's pragmatic approach without its problems. Pragmatism implies, as he himself said, that 'an idea is "true" so long as to believe it is profitable to our lives' (James 1921:75). Now, James is not necessarily reducing ethics to self-interest, although Bertrand Russell and others have accused him of this (Russell 1910; reprinted in Olin 1992). To take an example: in a discipline like history, people may value ideas simply for their usefulness. Yet these ideas may have objective truth-value, both stimulating and verifying further research, even though as individual items they may be changeable and rejected when no longer useful. In other words, utility and truth are not exclusive of each other, but interrelated in a complex way (Phillips 1992:2434). However, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that a spirituality along the lines of Jamesian pragmatism would turn in on itself. It would fit handily the needs of the more powerful, and say nothing to the poor and vulnerable, for there would be no transcendent standard by which action could be judged. Russell observed that James radiates a genial North American optimism, in which 'successful men of action.expect the world to be malleable to their wishes, and...find their expectation justified by success' (Russell 1910:1223). James frees religious experience from the straitjacket of being examined only in its own terms. The price paid, however, is a further twist to privatization of such experience, and the danger that his emphasis on effects, and effectiveness, could degenerate into the dangerous adage that the end justifies the means.

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