Book Review: Varieties of Religious Experience (James)

The Varieties of Religious Experience by William JamesIn The Varieties of Religious Experience, a work based on his delivery of the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, William James sought to examine from the perspective of psychology the subject of religious experiences, seeking to understand man and his consciousness concerning religion.[1] Varieties has become a classic work in a number of fields, but especially so in the study of religious experiences and psychology of religion, a fact to which The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church attests.[2] In this work, James examines an enormous amount of data concerning religious experiences and concludes that religious experience constitutes a positive saving experience that appears to be literal and objective insofar as he can determine.[3] In this paper, we will review and examine James’ book, paying particular attention to facets that may need rethinking or revision in the current 21st Century religious and academic contexts. It should be noted that James provides in this work an astounding amount of evidence and that the scope and depth of his work remains such that we cannot consider every nuance of his presentation. Thus only major points, both for James and for our current consideration, will be examined. Upon reviewing this work, we will find that James has a great deal of insight and evidence to offer concerning religious experiences, but that his perspective needs revision and expansion before it can be considered normative for argumentation today.

James begins by discussing his goals for the lectures, namely, that he considers what religious experience is and how it occurs, as well as determining its meaning and significance in human life. The lectures generally focus on the practices of religion and the visible and written accounts of religious experiences, for James writes that “The roots of a man’s virtue are inaccessible to us. No appearances whatever are infallible proofs of grace. Our practice, is our only sure evidence, even to ourselves, that we are genuinely Christian.”[4] James writes as one particularly interested in personal religious experiences and does so by looking primarily at extreme forms of religious experience. Here we must ask whether the use of such materials constitutes an adequate method by which to survey religious experience. James pays little attention to the claims of those who have a ‘mild’ religious experience and thus the evidence that he mounts for his claims seems to be biased in favor of religious experiences that are generally both formative and transformative, as opposed to those that instigate mild or short-lived change.

As a result of the experiences that he considers, James concludes that those who have religious experiences understand that certain unseen realities exist and that for such people, the religion (which James ascribes here to the subconscious) holds psychological primacy in those individuals. Thus most people who have had a religious experience find that experience to be highly formative for their lives. Concluding that this affect remains highly positive, James writes that, “Religion thus makes easy and felicitous that which is in any case necessary.”[5] Such experiences can be externally focused or can result from such healthy mindedness practices as those who are ‘once-born’ (whom James characterizes as thinking little of themselves, generally happy and pleased with life, and focusing on God) or those patterns of thought associated with New Thought or transcendental thinking. At this point, a modern reader must consider the current implications of James’ position on this point. Transcendental thought has not been a monolithic entity in the century since James researched the religious experiences of New Thought, and thus we must reconsider the applicability of James’ criterion and conclusions concerning 21st Century New Age thinking.

After considering those whose religious experiences involve a certain “Luther-an” tone of melancholy and guilt, James turns to the topic of religious conversions and the meaning and value of saintliness. In considering a plethora of experiential datum regarding conversion experiences, James outlines several different theories of conversion, as well as implications of and for the instantaneous and dramatic form of conversion that was growing in popularity in his day. Moving to saintliness, James dwells for some time on the characteristics of ‘universal saintliness,’ namely asceticism, strength of soul, purity, and charity, as well as the overall human value of saintly behavior and example. Ultimately however, regarding both conversion and saintliness, while James presents a great deal of evidence, it remains too highly Christian-centric. While he includes examples of saints and saintliness from historical and Buddhist sources, the conceptions presented by James of both conversion experiences as well as the meaning and value of saints remains firmly embedded within the Christian tradition. However skewed his results, in these sections James does come to some conclusions concerning religious experiences, as he turns the focus away from hyper-individualism, writing that “only those who have no private interests can follow an ideal straight away.”[6] Additionally, he concludes that religious experience has had a largely positive function in the grand scheme of history, saying that, “our testing of religion by practical common sense and the empirical method, leave it in possession of its towering place in history.”[7]

William James
William James

A final topic that we shall briefly look at concerns the use of philosophy in discussing and defining religious experience. In this portion of Varieties, James argues that philosophical inquiry should abandon metaphysical constructions and turn to criticism, hoping that such a method will lead to a strong philosophy of religion. Fortunately for James, a good deal of religious scholarship in his time and for the duration of the 20th century has been directed towards forming a strong science of religion. Unfortunately, the very assumptions at the foundation of this scientific enterprise have been waylaid and are under sharp criticism in recent decades, leading the modern reader of Varieties to find James’ critique of philosophical considerations generally lacking in scholastically applicable substance for the modern context.

James summarizes his work with five characteristics of the religious life, writing that religious experience consists of, “the invisible world is part of a more spiritual universe from which it draws its chief significance; That union or harmonious relation with that higher universe is our true end; That prayer or inner communion with the spirit thereof—be that spirit ‘God’ or ‘law’—is a process wherein work is really done, and spiritual energy flows in and produces effects, psychological or material, within the phenomenal world… [Psychologically] A new zest which adds itself like a gift of life, and takes the form either of lyrical enchantment or of appeal to earnestness and heroism. [And] An assurance of safety and a temper of peace, and, in relation to others, a preponderance of loving affections.”[8] Such conclusions speak well to those concerned with the veracity of religious experience and an answering of the primary concerns presented at the outset of the lectures. However, upon reading these conclusions, there seems some indication that James drifted slightly from the thrust of the evidence that he presented. This is not to say that the conclusions presented could not follow from his evidence, only that they seem somewhat forced in this conclusion. Additionally, James proposes that the reality of religious experiences finds itself manifested in the human subconscious, allowing him to posit a ‘scientific’ explanation that intersects with the metaphysical claims of religious experience as interaction (in some form) with the ‘Other,’[9] a claim that continues to be investigated by modern scientists and scholars. Finally, James concludes concerning the varieties of religious experience that his research demonstrates that “we have in the fact that the conscious person is continuous with a wider self through which saving experiences come, a positive content of religious experience which, it seems to me, is literally and objectively true as far as it goes.”[10]

Before entering any final conclusions concerning this work, we must note several broad areas of critique. First, it should be noted that the vastness of materials that James employs may present readers with a general feeling of being inundated instead of using the evidence to support an overarching conclusion, as the section above concerning his five concluding points demonstrates. Second, the evidences presented are far too Christian, and more specifically far too often American Protestant in nature for the work to be holistically applicable to religious experience. In his postscript, James admits that his understanding and use of Buddhist experience was misinformed. In light of a century of study concerning the various traditions of world religions that include facets of religious experience, one can only conclude that the evidence presented in Varieties remains in need of considerable updating and inter-religious expansion. One wonders how different James’ understandings of religious experience and his interpretations of evidence would look in today’s pluralistic and multilayered religious context. Third, by focusing on extreme forms of religious experience, James has allowed his conclusion (that religious experiences are real at least in some manner) to focus on those experiences that are truly transformative without adequately considering those claimed experiences that have short-lived effects. Thus we must consider if those experiences are similarly real or if they differ from ‘real’ experiences in some quantifiable way aside from their impactful duration.

Here we can finally say that the general tone of James’ work towards religion and religious experience can only be summarized as descriptive and positive, both in terms of the depth of his evidence as well as his conclusions concerning the personal veracity of religious experience. Overall, James does an excellent job recognizing that studying religious experience must entail a highly individual-based study, as speaking in overly broad strokes of religion or religious experience would both minimize and obfuscate the personal integrity and psychological reality of a religious experience. As noted above, James concluded that religious experience is in some form a real experience of the human being and that, “Religion, occupying herself with personal destinies, and keeping thus in contact with the only absolute realities which we know, must necessarily play an eternal part in human history.”[11] However, as also noted above, it must be concluded that a number of James’ materials and perspectives, especially the reliance on Protestant Christian evidences and extreme forms of religious experience, designate Varieties of Religious Experience as a wealth of knowledge and evidence that must be updated for its conclusions to be agreeable to the general academic community. Thus upon reviewing this work, we can commend the further reading of The Varieties of Religious Experience for its insights and evidences concerning religious experiences, but urge that before its conclusions be taken as normative and authoritative in today’s scholarly climate that the perspective of William James found herein may be revised and updated in light of a broader evidential scope of religious experiences.

[1] William James. Varieties of Religious Experience. Penguin: New York, 2010. 28. It should be noted here that James defines “religion” on page 36 as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitudes, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” [2] The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Ed. F.L. Cross. Oxford University Press: London, 1966. 714. [3] James, 460. [4] Ibid., 26. [5] Ibid., 53. [6] Ibid., 292. [7] Ibid., 340. [8] Ibid., 435. [9] Ibid. 457-8. [10] Ibid., 460. [11] Ibid., 449. This review was originally written for Dr. Bill Leonard of the Wake Forest University Divinity School.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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