William James Commentary: 
1. Personal Religion


Jackson Snyder

William James defines personal 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 (42).

The divine is a "primal reality the individual feels impelled to respond to solemnly and gravely, and neither by a curse nor a jest" (48). Further, religion is a transcendent, emotional condition that is superior to mere moralism or philosophy; it is characteristically a condition of happiness and contentment in spite of circumstances, an "absolute addition of emotion," an "enthusiastic temper of espousal" (55).

The subjective religious experiences that James uses in his lectures are validified through the "two orders of inquiry concerning anything": "What is the nature of it?" (an "existential judgment") and, "What is its significance?" (a "spiritual judgment") (23-24). The mind answers such questions separately, then combines answers. James illustrates by applying these questions to the Bible. Through literary criticism, one might get a better notion as to the origin, authorship, and history of the book (its nature). Nevertheless, such impericism cannot explain why the Bible is generally considered a holy book, having almost universal spiritual value (its significance).

Likewise, although religious "geniuses" often show nervous instability (George Fox, a "psychopath of the deepest dye") (25), religious experiences cannot be judged as mere manifestations of psychological disorders or "medical materialism" (29). They may originate from pathology; but this does not alter the value of their fruit (32). Indeed, religious experiences may be superior states of mind, judged by two criteria: "we take delight in them," and "we believe they bring good fruits [to] life" (31). Opinions are never refuted on the physiology of the authors, but are tested by logical means. Religious opinions should be judged by immediate feeling, and value in fulfilling moral needs (33).

In my middler year at Candler, I submitted a long paper, "Charismata on a Wesleyan Framework," to fulfill one of my course requirements. I used 70 documented case histories of religious experiences to illustrate a particular view of the theology of a branch of Wesleyanism.

In my religious tradition, there is something of a biblical criterion for evaluating religious experience ("test the spirits"); I tried to validate the case histories I included in the thesis by limiting inclusion only to those that I personally witnessed.

James makes a profound case for the validity of religious experience, especially considering his own claim of expertise limited to psychology (21). He builds his case based on classical logic, and takes into consideration the opinions of both the religious and non-religious in the process. His examples are only from those subjects that he deems are of high intellect.

Although he seems to take great pains not to attribute such experience (necessarily) to deity, he nevertheless validates religious experience by "the way in which it works on the whole" (34). He means, I think, that religious experiences are valid despite their origin because they are felt. And religious experience of whatever stripe does feel beneficial; It is delightful, fruitful, and enhances the life of the subject.

The anemnesis of compiling then setting my case histories to paper was a very pleasant feeling - it caused me to want to regain spiritual ground, revive, re-quest for the face of God - recapture what sociologists call "effervescence." I was surprised by the comments of the professor, including, "This is a powerful, at times moving, compilation of testimonies." In further comments, it was clear that he confirmed the value of "testimonies," and had vicariously felt some of their power merely by reading them. In my own reading of Varieties, James warned me that George Fox was a psychopath, yet he validated Fox's experience by including a rather long description of Fox's condemnation of the "bloody city" of Lichfield. Being "religious," I could verify Fox's experience by feeling the profundity of it even through the printed page and after hundreds of years.

So, through definition, methodology, and "circumscription of the topic," the subject of our study with William James is introduced, and the ground-rules are laid.