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The Religious Impulse And Christianity

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By DONALD DeMARCO

William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience is a classic in its field. It was originally delivered as the Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh between the years 1900 and 1901. A great deal has transpired in the study of religion since that time. Nonetheless, The Varieties of Religious Experience is extremely helpful in today’s world in which religion is increasingly dismissed as some form of superstition while atheism appears to be a growing phenomenon.
James is a fair-minded and meticulous thinker. Like his brother, Henry, the distinguished novelist, he also possesses a splendid gift for writing. Although he is not a Christian, he provides an important service not only for Christians but for all people who share in the experience of religion. After a thorough examination of many aspects of religion, he comes to the twentieth and final lecture in which he draws some interesting and pertinent conclusions.
The question he poses to himself is whether, among the many varieties of religious experience, there are any common denominators. Among all the discrepancies found in various religions, is there “a common nucleus to which they bear their testimony unanimously”? He answers this question in the affirmative along the lines of two essential points.
The first centers on a certain “uneasiness” people feel about themselves and their situation in life. It is a sense that there is “something wrong about us as we naturally stand.” James is primarily a psychologist and this factor is abundantly evident to him. People sense their finitude, their dependence, their lack of autonomy. They are uneasy about it. The Judeo-Christian tradition explains this condition in terms of original sin and its resulting alienation from God. James, however, wants to be fair to all religions and therefore avoids the particulars that distinguish one religion from another. Nevertheless, this uneasiness is simply an undeniable matter of fact.
Furthermore, it has a moral character. Consequently, it obliges us to do something about it. For the Christian, confession, prayer, and penance are appropriate ways of acknowledging the wrongness of the self and the aspiration toward self-improvement.
James’ second point follows from the first. Since this uneasiness is troubling and cannot be accepted as a satisfactory condition, people of all religions seek a solution. This solution must involve something higher than the individual. According to James, “There is a sense that we are saved from the wrongness by making proper connection with this higher power.” The author does not want to identify this power specifically with God, but he feels that he is well within universal agreement when he postulates this higher power.
James summarizes these two points in italics to indicate their significance: “He becomes conscious that this higher part is coterminous and continuous with a MORE of the same quality which is operative in the universe outside of him, and which he can keep in working touch with, and in a fashion get on board of and save himself when all his lower being has gone to pieces in the wreck.” If we fill in the particulars in accordance with Christian doctrine, we find that there is a perfect compatibility between what James is stating and what the Catholic Church is teaching. The Catholic believes that God is a Father who creates us and loves us. Therefore, there is a continuity, even a friendship between God as the “higher power” and man as the troubled self. In addition, man shares a life of grace with God. The alliance between the individual and the “more” for all Christians, is the path of redemption. The “higher power,” consequently, is a Redeemer.
James speaks of the “divided” self and credits St. Augustine with having provided a description of this condition with a passion and clarity that has never been surpassed. He also praises the saint for his maxim, “Dilige et quod vis fac” (if you but love [God], you may do as you incline) as “morally one of the profoundest of observations.” Yet, because James is unwilling to refine the particulars, he sees possible misinterpretations of this maxim as leading to “passports beyond the bounds of conventional morality.”
Psychology, of course, is not theology. Sigmund Freud rejected religion because he remained confined to psychology and therefore could not allude to any higher power. James is philosophical enough to recognize that man’s uneasiness is universal (St. Augustine referred to it as “inquietum” [restlessness], Pascal called it “inquietude,” while Goethe labeled it as “Rastlosigkeit” or “Unrast,” and Freud termed it “Discontent”). James has provided a “doorway” to religion but his opening must remain in agreement with science. Therefore, he offers a science of religion, but one that is compatible with all religions. What is missing from his treatise is faith, which, for Christians, is a supernatural gift. James avoids any affirmation of that he calls “overbelief.”
Professor James offers us a blueprint for religion, but not the particulars. A home, of course, is more than the blueprint. It requires finishing touches. Nonetheless, despite the fact that the finishing touches are not in the blueprint, the house could not be built without the blueprint.
The reader of The Varieties of Religious Experience (subtitled, A study in human nature), is assured that the basis of religious experience is not at odds with science. Therefore, it has a legitimacy that is often denied in today’s world. This is the overarching value of the book. James has given us the black and white version of religion. It is up to Catholics, for example, to colorize it and make it luminous. But by no means, is the religious impulse without a firm and universal basis.

  • + + (Dr. Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus, St. Jerome’s University and Adjunct Professor at Holy Apostles College. He is a regular columnist for St. Austin Review and is the author of 39 books. His latest book, The 12 Supporting Pillars of the Culture of Life and Why They Are Crumbling, is posted on amazon.com. His fortieth book, Glimmers of Hope in a Darkening World, is in production.)
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