William James: “Varieties of Religious Experiences” (1902): Part One

Even a sick man, unable to be militant outwardly, can carry on the moral warfare. He can willfully turn his attention away from his own future, whether in this world or the next. He can train himself to indifference to his present drawbacks and immerse himself in whatever objective interests still remain accessible. He can follow public news, and sympathize with other people’s affairs. He can cultivate cheerful manners, and be silent about his miseries. He can contemplate whatever ideal aspects of existence his philosophy is able to present to him, and practice whatever duties, such as patience, resignation, trust, his ethical system requires. Such a man lives on his loftiest, largest plane. He is a high-hearted freeman and no pining slave. (48—49)

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Psychologist and philosopher William James delivered the lectures that became The Varieties of Religious Experience in 1899 and 1900.  As I am working on a book on Philip K. Dick, I read this book with great interest. Dick’s religious experiences have become the center of scholarship and have been offered up as the key to understanding his work. I explored Dick’s works earlier in this blog from a more political and sociological point of view. But with James, I can appreciate the attraction that those religious experiences have for readers. James’ central argument in The Varieties of Religious Experience is that religious experiences are historically real in that they seem to happen. What matters is the result of belief, not their origins. This is his pragmatism. James worked on this idea in some of his earlier writings as well (I looked at them before in this blog). For him, what matters in psychology is action when precedes thought and habits. (To be simple, one learns to play the piano by playing the piano, not by thinking about how to play the piano.) In the same way, it may be true that George Fox was crazy, but this does not make Quakerism theologically wrong or even factually untrue. It certainly does not make the good feelings and actions that Quakerism inspires delusional. In short: “Religious happiness is happiness.” (30)

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I was raised Lutheran and I recall having religious experiences as defined by James (both the positive and negative aspects he mentions). I no longer have such experiences and am an atheist. But I accept James’ point that there are numerous experiences that I am not having, many feelings I may be missing out on, because of that choice. Is this not true of any lifestyle or intellectual choice one makes?

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One important point James makes is that if what really matters is the religious experience rather than truth, religious can be studied scientifically through the regular tools of psychological, biological, and social scientific research. Since James day many—including many atheists—have embraced this approach. The controversial point is here. “To plead the organic causation of a religious state of mind, then, in refutation of its claim to possess superior spiritual value, is quite illogical and arbitrary, unless one have already worked out in advance some psycho-physical theory connection spiritual values in general with determinante sorts of physiological change. Otherwise none of our thoughts and feelings, not even our scientific doctrines, not even out disbeliefs, could retain any values as revelations of the truth, for every one of them without exception flows from the state of their possessor’s body at the time.” (22)

The first three lectures map out his general thesis about the nature of religious experiences, the definition of religion (which he defined quite broadly), its role in creating states of mind that are not “logically deducible from anything else,” and creating positive action in the world. This final point James summarizes under “The Reality of the Unseen.” He borrows from Kant the following idea. “We can act as if there were a God; feel as if we were free; consider Nature as if she were full of special designs; lay plans as if we were to be immortal; and we find then that these words do make a genuine difference in our life.” (56) One thing that is noticeable in leftist Internet culture is the willingness to attack thought (because what else can one discuss when we exchange ideas instead of actions) rather than action. I think something that we can learn from American pragmatism is that we should focus less on the thought that leads to good actions than we should focus on actions. In this sense, imagining prefigurative politics is less important than actually tearing down the institutions of power. There is some value when prefiguarative politics is acted out (as in Occupy Wall Street), but it is objectively a failure if it cannot undermine power. This is a bit off of James’ point, but seems to flow from his perspective on religion.

The next two lectures examine “The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness,” which is general are religious belief that seem to creative positive emotions and healthy living in human beings. At this point in the lectures, James moves to giving quite a few case studies of various religious experiences documented in psychological practice and in history. If is of this type. “It is to be hoped that we all have some friend, perhaps more often feminine than masculine, and young than old, whose soul is of this sky-blue tint, whose affinities are rather with flowers and birds and all enchanting innocencies than the dark human passions, who can think no ill of man or God, and in whom religious gladness, being in possession from the outset, needs no deliverance from any antecedent burden.” (79) Well, I can agree that the more religious thought promotes happiness, self-sacrifice, solidarity, and beauty the better. I am less certain it always does so, which brings us to the next set of lectures.

Lectures six and seven are titled “The Sick Soul.” Bad thoughts and bad actions can be as easily derived from religion as the positive “healthy-mindedness.” To the degree religion promotes obsessions on sin, guilt, death, and punishment they promote what James is calling the “sick soul.” Religious melancholy is very real in the world, James points out with several case studies. Significantly, James likens materialism and atheism to promoting the “sick soul.” I am not sure that can be empiraclly sustained now.

In the next three lectures, James looks at the experience of religious conversion. Conversion is yet another religious experience like the positive expressions of religious joy and the religious melancholy. Conversion allows a rapid and dramatic change in a person’s values and perspective on life. The actual role of some spiritual agent is irrelevant to the truthfulness of those experiences and emotions. “It is natural that those who personally have traversed such an experience should carry away a feeling of its being a miracle rather than a natural process. Voices are often heard, lights seen, or visions witnessed; automatic motor phenomenon occur; and it always seems, after the surrender of the personal will, as if an extraneous higher power had flooded in and taken possession.” (211)

I will look at the rest of this book and try to reach some more conclusions in my next post.

James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw: “Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of” (1772)

We met with a great deal of ill treatment after this, and found it very difficult to live—We could scarcely get work to do, and were obliged to pawn out cloaths. We were ready to sink under our troubles. (33)

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The first in the series of ten slave narratives collected by the Library of America is the 1772 pamphlet Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw. This was the first slave narrative published in English. What first strikes us is that this small book was presented to the public as a story of religious awakening and not as an anti-slavery tract. The sufferings that Gronniosaw endured (at least from the perspective of the publishers) existed only to clarify the religious transformation of being lifted out of the darkness of idolatry and superstition in Africa into Christianity. This is, anyway, the point of view offered up in the preface by a Walter Shirley.

In what Manner will God deal with those benighted Parts of the World where the Gospel of Jesus Christ hath never reach’d? Now it appears from the Experience of this remarkable Person, that God does not save without the Knowledge of the Truth; but, with Respect to those who hath fore-known, though born under every outward Disadvantage, and in Regions of the grosses Darkness and Ignorance. (3)

That is the opinion of the editor, and as far as we believe the text this is shared by Gronniosaw, who starts the narrative not with his captivity but his feelings that the traditional religious beliefs that he was born with were misguided.

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Gronniosaw is a fully Atlantic figure, having been born in Africa, working as a slave in Barbados and New York, working as a sailor, and finally settling in England. He was a working class figure, often struggling to survive and constantly looking for work to support his family. It seems that his story was told orally to several people, including Calvinist ministers in Holland. It comes to us as an oral tradition. The full title specified “related by himself,” whereas other slave narrative often clarified “written by himself/herself” (Douglass, Bibb, Jacobs). Despite this, Gronniosaw was literate.  Like Equiano we see claims of being an African Prince before being sold into slavery. As doubts have been cast on Equiano’s past we may doubt these as well, but Gronniosaw was slightly older when taken into slavery and may have had more accurate memories of Africa.

According to the narrative, Gronniosaw was the grandson of a king around Lake Chad. A Dutch trader visited the area and he was invited to see the Gold Coast. He was eager to see ships (floating cities with wings) and the vibrant commercial environment on the coast. While he was there, he was taken for a spy and sentence to death, which was late commuted to enslavement. As a slave, Gronniosaw was sold in Barbados and brought to New York. He was later sold to a Dutch minister, who freed Gronniosaw at his death, although he continued to serve the family. It is at this point, so to speak, that his troubles begin. It is important to notice that Gronniosaw says nothing against slavery or expresses much regret at his circumstances as a slave. His post-enslavement poverty is more troubling and presented as more of a spiritual test than slavery.

One approach to this slave narrative is to stress the importance of slavery in the exploitation of working people in the Atlantic without forgetting that exploitation was broad for many different social groups. Insurgent capitalism imposed horrendous work regimes, terrible poverty, and desperation on free and enslaved alike. That Gronniosaw experienced the worst of this as a free man may be outside of the norm with most slaves being worked to death in Caribbean plantations, yet it does speak to the broader experience of working class oppression.

Another approach is to read the narrative in line with Mary Rowlandson’s account of her captivity among Indians during Metacom’s War. In both of these works suffering, the death of loved ones, and huger are presented as the will of God and a lesson speaking to God’s goodness and his ultimate plan. “The boundless goodness of GOD to me has been so very great, that with the most humble gratitude I desire to prostrate myself before Him; for I have been wonderfully supported in every affliction. My GOD never left me. I perceived light still through the thickest darkness.” (29) Even the death of his child and the constant struggle for basic survival is presented with thanks to God. At one point he expresses more hostility to the idea of his wife working on the Sabbath than the economic exploitation that formed the narrative of his life.

Gronniosaw’s experiences on a privateer after the end of his enslavement is interesting. It does cause us to question the belief (common among some leftist maritime historians) that the ship was a space of solidarity for a transnational working class. He speaks more of persecution by fellow sailors during his time on the privateer than he does about either of his masters or the early capitalist system that was consuming most of his working life.

Gronniosaw likely wanted his reader to see his life as a morality tale narrating the spiritual darkness of his birth and his coming to know Christ. Slavery is merely a background to the story, only covering a handful of pages (7 out of the 30 pages that make up the narrative). In this sense, it is a far cry from the abolitionist narratives of the nineteenth century. More importantly it is very different from the work by the politically conscious Olaudah Equiano, whose narrative was clearly an ant-slavery tract.