NPJ Book Review:  The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James

Book Review for NPJ by Edward Reid


The Varieties of Religious Experience is, I can assume for some, an imposing, or a dull-looking book at first glance.  It is by William James, coined the father of psychology, a study on human nature.  It is a series of lectures from 1901-1902 on “natural theology”.  So as stated, for the first assessment, most people may turn away from an aged text. For me, though, I wanted to look a little deeper. Chapters like “The Sick Soul” and the “The Twice Born” piqued my interest.  And this is how I started my journey into the tome.

These are more than lectures. James describes the experiences of individuals and himself incognito.  These experiences and words I read are like those I would write from my heart.

Every lecture is full of thought [provoking material, but for purposes of brevity I am just assessing a few lectures here.  I wanted to include those lectures that had the most impact on me, but yes, I recommend the entire book.  This review is incomplete and personal. It’s what I gained from the book, and I think each person would take something different from reading it.

Misery is not an exception, it is the rule, and I am a realist by nature.  This is just how I am and how I view life and being like this has not always been easy, but I have found companions from history: thinkers, philosophers, theologians, and more.  I found I was not alone, and a wealth of information, often quite personal and similar to my thinking, was left behind for coping methods.

I look back for the sake of perspective, a way to learn and to focus on those that may give me hope and joy.  Knowing all too well from his own life experience and what his daughter may face in the years to come if she has his disposition, which taken together is a form of melancholy, William James writes, “Now, painful as it is, this is sent to us for enlightenment. … and we ought to learn a great many good things if we react on it rightly.”

However, James changes course, “many persons take a kind of sickly delight in hugging [this melancholy] …. That is the worst possible reaction on it. … we mustn’t submit to it an hour longer than we can help, but jump at every chance to attend to anything cheerful or comic or take part in anything active that will divert us from our mean, pining inward state of feeling. When it passes off, as I said, we know more than we did before. (Letter to Margaret James, 26 May 1900, in H. James III, 1920, Vol. 2, p. 131)

How much can we take from this small offering that James gives us in how he tries to warn his daughter about what path she may trudge if she is to be someone who wants to make a difference in the world.  James had such a history that I can relate to, at least as to how he felt emotionally and about the world. 

William James, philosopher, seeker, was a man that suffered and tried to find ways to enable others not to suffer as he did.  He writes much about this in “Varieties of Religious Experiences,” where he describes the “Sick Soul…” more prone to melancholy and depression, but more than that despair and questioning their existence and purpose. Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and the founder of logotherapy, carries on this quest in the next century.

Logotherapy, in a nutshell, is a therapeutic approach that helps people find personal meaning in life. It’s a form of psychotherapy focused on the future and our ability to endure hardship and suffering through a search for purpose.   Who better write about this and form a school of thought around this idea than a Holocaust survivor? 

In describing a “sick soul” James brings in his belief in the existence of God.  The sick soul doubts, is frustrated, struggles with God and faith, and will stick with it.  Understandably, faith is not easy, especially when one is prone to question, and then the questioning enters the realms of their existence, their mortality, and life in general. 

James contrasts this with the “Healthy-minded.” Maybe you know one of these?  I do.  They do not question God and live optimistically. As for the difficulty and struggles in life, usually ignore it or accept it as it is all part of God’s more excellent plan and move on.  Growing up in a religious household, I have longed to be such a believer but just have never been able to reach that point.    

James also describes how there can be such a difference between the “sick soul” and the “Healthy-minded”…”As the healthy-minded enthusiast succeeds in ignoring evil’s very existence, so the subject of melancholy is forced into seeing it clearing of himself to ignore that of all good whatever: for him, it may no longer have the least reality.” 

Yet for James, ultimately, healthy-minded is where we want to get to, but it takes work and determination.  This healthy mindedness doesn’t always apply to one’s religion here either.  It’s more about a way of thinking.  One’s perspective needs to be changed, but that perspective can only be changed from within.  Indeed, this is a difficult task that one that can be accomplished.  James proved it himself. At the brink of suicide, he turned into the man he became. 

Despite the good in the world, the sick soul may indeed lose perspective and become so inconsolable that he finds the world a place lacking any joy or goodness.  In the depths of despair, everything is colored black.  Life is suffering, and redemption is impossible, so it seems. 

Some may fall into such a state of despair that there is no more feeling at all.  Nothing affects them, and they do not care if they live or die.  They exist. There is no real pleasure.  Perhaps this can push people into irrational and unpredictable actions in our modern age.  An individual is seeking a way to feel drug use, unsafe sex, whatever it may be—filling the existential vacuum.

A more comprehensive look into a state of despair can be read in this excerpt.  The Catholic philosopher, Father Alphonse Gratry, in his autobiographical recollections, writes of mental isolation and excessive study at Polytechnic school.  Young Gratry fell into a state of nervous exhaustion with symptoms which he thus describes

“I had such a universal terror that I woke at night with a start, thinking that the Pantheon was tumbling on the Polytechnic school, or that the school was in flames, or that the Seine was pouring into the Catacombs, and that Paris was being swallowed up. And when these impressions were past, all day long without respite I suffered an incurable and intolerable desolation, verging on despair. I thought myself, in fact, rejected by God, lost, damned!

I felt something like the suffering of hell. Before that I had never even thought of hell. My mind had never turned in that direction. Neither discourses nor reflections had impressed me in that way. I took no account of hell. Now, and all at once, I suffered in a measure what is suffered there.

“But what was perhaps still more dreadful is that every idea of heaven was taken away from me: I could no longer conceive of anything of the sort. Heaven did not seem to me worth going to. It was like a vacuum: a mythological Elysium, an abode of shadows less real than the earth. I could conceive no joy, no pleasure in inhabiting it. Happiness, joy, light, affection, love- all these words were now devoid of sense. Without doubt I could still have talked of all these things, but I had become incapable of feeling anything in them, of understanding anything about them, of hoping anything from them, or of believing them to exist.

There was my great and inconsolable grief! I neither perceived nor conceived any longer the existence of happiness or perfection. An abstract heaven over a naked rock. Such was my present abode for eternity.” (A. Gratry: Souvenirs de ma jeunesse, 1880, pp. 119-121)

James’s life came to a turning point quite similar in 1870. This event he wrote as someone else’s experience in the book.  According to his “anonymous report,” this incident occurred during a period of “the worst kind of melancholy’ that took ‘the form of panic fear.”

It consisted of “a horrible fear of my own existence that came out of the darkness”, accompanied by “the image of an epileptic patient whom I had seen in the asylum, a black-haired youth with greenish skin, entirely idiotic, who used to sit all day on one of the benches…with his knees drawn up against his chin’, moving ‘nothing but his black eyes and looking absolutely non-human”.

James realized at the center of his panic: “This image and my fear entered into a species of combination with each other. That shape am I, I felt, potentially. Nothing that I possess can defend me against that fate, if the hour for it should strike for me as it struck for him” 

This left James “a mass of quivering fear…with a horrible dread at the pit of my stomach”.  He was only able to escape by clinging to scripture like “The eternal God is my refuge’, ‘Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy-laden’, ‘I am the resurrection and the life”, and so forth.  Perhaps this is where his faith in God came in.  At the hour of his dire need, his only redemption came through calling out to this higher power? 

At the end of his description of this life-changing incident, James asserted: ‘Without clinging to these phrases rather than submit to the image of the idiotic patient, I think I should have grown really insane”.

We then come across those that are “Twice born.”   Indeed, this sounds like born again. Some of the experiences of “twice-born” are remarkably similar to the stories shared by those born again. In a sense, some have hit an emotional and spiritual “rock bottom” where they reach such depths that they must recover or, for some, they commit the final act.

James writes, “Happiness often comes after a Crisis of Meaning: throughout history, the happiest people often record going through a deep depression caused by a sense of the loss of meaning… these events should not be repudiated but welcomed since only through them is the ‘Twice-born’ sense of renewal possible.”

There is often a phrase for those going through crises, “The dark before the dawn.”  Perhaps this is true for some of the “twice-born” if they can hang on long enough.  Sadly, some cannot, but that suffering can lead to significant meaning. 

Tolstoy is, I think, an ideal of the twice-born.  James elaborates on this, and the Russian novelist’s successful effort to restore himself to mental health led to more than returning to his original condition.  In his case, he was a man with everything a person could desire, yet suicide was always on his mind.

“Yet,” says Tolstoy, “whilst my intellect was working, something else in me was working too, and kept me from the deed—a consciousness of life, as I may call it, which was like a force that obliged my mind to fix itself in another direction and draw me out of my situation of despair…. During the whole course of this year, when I almost unceasingly kept asking myself how to end the business, whether by the rope or by the bullet, during all that time, alongside of all those movements of my ideas and observations, my heart kept languishing with another pining emotion.”

“I can call this by no other name than that of a thirst for God. This craving for God had nothing to do with the movement of my ideas—in fact, it was the direct contrary of that movement—but it came from my heart. It was like a feeling of dread that made me seem like an orphan and isolated in the midst of all these things that were so foreign. And this feeling of dread was mitigated by the hope of finding the assistance of someone”

Tolstoy had a spiritual depth and vocabulary of the mind. It’s not an instantaneous conversion kind but more of the intellectual type that grew in him as it does in many people who conclude that this may be the route they must go. An inward yearning guides them, although there may be no natural way to explain it logically.

In this case, for some, the thought of suicide can be reassuring because it gives one the power over themselves and their own will and when to choose their end.  People often dwell on it, and it is a soothing thought.  Something that gets them through the day is another topic altogether. 

And then others follow through with the final act. Many will make a judgment, but you will never know that feeling until you are on the precipice. At least for me, I cannot condemn those that do. I can only empathize. 

“La tristesse durera toujours”. Vincent Van Gogh

Vincent suffered from severe mental deterioration. He was well aware of this condition and tried to address it by admitting himself to an asylum, hoping it might help him. There he painted one of his most iconic paintings, The Starry Night.

He suffered from relapse after relapse, some lasting months. The last portrait he painted at the asylum speaks for the state he must have been:

In a letter to his sister, after Vincent’s suicide Theo told of his brother’s feelings just before his death: “He himself wanted to die. When I sat at his bedside and said that we would try to get him better and that we hoped that he would then be spared this kind of despair, he said:La tristesse durera toujours“.   (The sadness will last forever).  

Something happened for some people that could hang on, and here we hear more about conversions.” A chapter is dedicated to this metamorphosis.  Assessing history, conversions may have been more frequent or stories, although more than a hundred years later may have been heard more frequently due to preachers like Jonathon Edwards and others like him that spread the gospel through revivals. 

To be twice born, there had to be a break in the spirit, and something had to give and usually in a radical way. Extreme unhappiness and sorrow needed a revolutionary kick.  The sick soul needed healing.  For them, an unexamined life is not an option, life was thrown at them, whether they liked it or not, and they had to face it. 

James, in his lecture on conversion, writes, “The real witness of the spirit to the second birth is to be found only in the disposition of the genuine child of God, the permanently patient heart, the love of self-eradicated. And this, it has to be admitted, is also found in those who pass no crisis, and may even be found outside of Christianity altogether.” 

James does say it can be for all.  Even those that did not have the crisis or the non-Christians can all be reborn.  We know that those beaten down often rise and become remarkable in what they have done throughout history. 

As for a conversion, I have grappled with whether I wanted one of the dramatic in-your-face manners.  If this did happen, perhaps I would not be where I am. I could be like a Paul turned to a Saul, maybe a man inspired by God, but not perhaps this is not necessary for a man with an infant and a wife at the moment.

Most of the stories of conversions we hear about are non-volitional.  These are not voluntary conversions.  Like Tolstoy, I would say my “conversion” came after seeking a solution to unhappiness.  A gradual process.  Private and internal, and even though I attend a church with baptism, my baptism has been personal.  

He provides a wealth of individual personal conversion stories of different types for the listener/reader.  They can make up their own opinion about how they feel.  Many are conversions of alcoholics, and the importance of this should be pointed out.  In his “Big Book” for Alcoholics Anonymous, the head writer, Bill W., attributes this book as an influence.   The importance of AA in the salvation of alcoholics cannot be understated. 

All of this is based on self-surrender, which I will quote in full as he identifies the evolution:

“One may say that the whole development of Christianity in inwardness has consisted in little more than the greater and greater emphasis attached to this crisis of self-surrender. From Catholicism to Lutheranism, and then to Calvinism; from that to Wesleyanism; and from this, outside of technical Christianity, to pure liberalism or transcendental idealism, whether or not of the mind-cure type, taking in the medieval mystics, the quietists, the pietists, and quakers by the way, we can trace the stages of progress towards the idea of immediate spiritual help, experienced by the individual in his forlornness and standing in no essential need of doctrinal apparatus or propitiatory apparatus.”

James concludes the lecture on conversion with a few different overarching ideas about how an individual will feel after the event. The loss of all the worry, the sense that all is ultimately well with one, the sense that the perceiving truths not known before are known. There is also a sense of clean and beautiful newness within and without. And a feeling of happiness and ecstasy is produced

The stories, especially from the father of psychology, prove that his belief in a higher power and the ability to connect is hopeful for me. Knowing this is inspiring for me as someone who has relied on faith as a part of a philosophy for my life.