The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James

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Written at the turn of the twentieth century, James’ famous work remains a classic and standard in the field of religious experiences. James approaches his subject from the realm of science as a psychologist, not as a Christian. His objective is to detail, analyze and evaluate the various experiences found commonly in all religions.

James demonstrates that certain experiences, feelings, practices and claims are shared by all religions from Christianity to Hinduism to the most grotesque forms of paganism. The question is how are these experiences to be evaluated? If a Hindu, a Protestant and Catholic (sounds like the beginning of a bad joke) all have similar visions or experiences upon which the validity of their faith is based, how are we to know which of these religions are true? Perhaps an even more fundamental concern for James (who is not particularly interested in truth) is from where did these experience come? If all religions claim similar experiences but have different beliefs how can that be possible? All religions cannot be true, yet all claim comparable occurrences.

James’ conclusion is that religion is not a matter of theology, but of feeling and experience (p. 431); our theology is formed as a result (p. 436). “Modern idealism, has said good-bye to dogmatic theology forever” (p.448), he claims. Truth is proven by pragmatism (p. 458); what works must be true. To James God is real, but not necessarily a divine all-powerful being. He is real in the sense that our beliefs have a pragmatic affect on our lives, not in the sense that God empirically exists. When all is said and done James believes that God is really our subconscious mind, which exerts influence on our conscious mind (pp. 512,513,519). God is an energy, which originates in the subconscious mind (pp. 524,525). Upon this thesis James can conclude that all religions can boast similar experiences and feelings, because those experiences originate in the subconscious mind not in a personal God. The final outcome is that many of the experiences, visions, healings, encounters and such that are reported from the various religions are valid. However, the source of these experiences is our own subconscious mind – which works just as well for the insane as for the saint (p. 426).

While obviously not in line with biblical teaching, Varieties remains an important work from the point of view of the secular mind. Even within Christian circles it would do us well to ponder how it is that all religions can lay claim to the same experiences. This should not drive us to despair but rather to remind us that our faith is based on the truth of God’s Word not the experiences of men. Rather than chasing experiences, which may come from any number of sources, we should become students of the infallible Word.

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