William James Commentary: 
2. Spiritual Reality


Jackson Snyder

In James' third lecture, "The Reality of the Unseen," he makes a case for the perceived reality of abstract ideas and objects, such as God and God's attributes, the spiritual form of the sacraments, spiritual places and entities, and concepts such as beauty and strength. The unseen are in fact more real and may illicit stronger reactions than things which are seen. They "form the background for all our facts, [and are] the fountain-head of all the possibilities we conceive of" (61).

Religion, being chiefly composed of abstract concepts and objects, may pick and choose its abstractions without even requiring the presence of a deity. Yet it can and does illicit real thoughts, sensations, and experiences in the lives of its practitioners. Thus the label "religion," in accordance with this inclusive definition, could characterize even the scientific and ethical societies of the period (62).

James discards the impericism and rationalism of the previous century, with its four-step approach, in evaluating the reality of the unseen. Rationalism is unable to account for the "cosmic;" for cosmic reality "is greater than human cogency" thus beyond the scope of rationalism (74). Moreover, religion as experiencing the unseen, goes beyond intellect, involving emotions and "moods that vary from one age to the other, one system of thought to the other, one individual to the other" (75).

As subjective proof, James sites the experiences of subjects, which include hallucinations, sensations of unseen entities, belief in a personal God, and feelings of possession by some Other. Descriptions of such encounters include "horrible sensation," "spiritual presence," "physical presence" (64), "feeling of superstitious dread," "exteriorized idea" (65), "It," "I felt the spirit of God," (68).

In lectures 4 and 5, "The Religion of Healthy Mindedness," James evaluates the experience of the "New Thought" movement, Walt Whitman's "natural religion," and Christian Science. These philosophies espouse what James calls the "once born" type of consciousness, which acknowledges no natural enmity against God (sin), and an inability to feel, or a renunciation of, the existence of evil (the involuntary way and the systematic way respectively) (80-3). He seems very enthusiastic about this trend, believing it to be a fruit of liberalism's "victory" over reformed theology (87). Summarily, James admonishes that "science and religion are both genuine keys for unlocking the world's treasure-house to him who can use either of them practically" (110).

I want to make several brief observations in the space I have left. (1) Historically, James was living in a time of no little religious fervor. It was perhaps the heyday of experiential religion. Just to name a few factors: Wesleyan holiness camp meetings, Dowie's Zion (103), New Thought and mesmerism, liberalism, religious communism (Mormons, Koreshanity, Oneida colony), Azuza Street pentecostalism, and on and on. Religious and supernatural experience was and is real, and these movements were very vocal about thier particular brand of it.

(2) An important development is omitted from the lecture. The experience of otherness, which rationalism could not prove, and which James tried to prove through subjectives, was being studied from a physiological/perceptional standpoint by Fechner (Elements of Psychophysics, 1860/1966). The Psychophysics of today is mainly concerned with sensory stimuli and how the brain perceives it, whether the stimulus is apparent or not. Experimentation in creating moods and feelings by applying electrodes to various areas of the brain's temporal cortex might be valuable in evaluating religious experience purely from a physiological perspective. Might one area of the brain contain the stuff from which a conversion or religious experience be recreated? There was, therefore, some empirical method that might have been used.

(3) The celebrated Carl Sagan, a secular humanist, mathematically makes a case for the for the possibility of a fourth-dimensional physical realm, the place from which religion has traditionally ascribed the messengers of religious experience (so I infer).

...A fourth-dimensional creature could ... appear and demater-ialize at will, change shape remarkably, pluck us out of locked rooms, and appear from nowhere, ... turn us inside out.