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  • The Neglected Lectures on Conversion and Saintliness in The Varieties of Religious Experience:William James's Search for Redemptive (Saving) Facts
  • Dan D. Crawford (bio)

The question that is front and center at the outset of William James's great work The Varieties of Religious Experience is What is religion?1 He opens his discussion of this question in the second lecture, "Circumscription of the Topic," with the observation that the field of religion is so "wide" and the definitions of it so varied that it would be "foolish" to try to find a single definition that formulates its essence. Even if, instead, we look for a defining characteristic of religion within the self or mind, we find the same disagreement among authors "in the psychologies and in the philosophies of religion": "One man allies it to the feeling of dependence; one makes it a derivative from fear; others connect it with the sexual life; others still identify it with the feeling of the infinite; and so on."2

However, in spite of this cautionary note, in the ensuing discussion James does seem to be searching for a definition that cuts across all religions. He begins his inquiry by narrowing the field to what he calls "personal religion" as distinct from "institutional religion." Personal religion, he says, has to do with the "inner dispositions" of the self, indicating that in his study the subject's internal experiences will take precedence over the outward expression of those states. The institutional side of religion that he excludes from his discussion consists of the various ways in which these interior experiences are expressed [End Page 56] outwardly and formally in "worship and sacrifice, … theology and ceremony and ecclesiastical organization." He then proposes a working definition of personal religion "for the purpose of these lectures" as "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine" (32, 34, James's emphasis).

James declares that he will confine himself "as far as [he] can to personal religion pure and simple … and consider as little as possible the systematic theology and the ideas about the gods themselves" of institutional religion. However, he admits that insofar as religion is a matter of gaining or forfeiting "the favor of the God" (the God's favor is later explained in terms of gaining salvation), his account of religion will involve some constructive theology and hence some ideas about the gods themselves and their actions (32).

James's initial aim, then, in his capacity as philosopher of religion, is to describe a core religious experience that exhibits the distinctive features of the individual's apprehension of his or her relation to the divine, stripped as much as possible of any overlay of theological interpretation. He found this central religious experience, somewhat surprisingly, in the transformative experiences that occurred in the context of religious conversions and in their fruition in the character of saintliness that flowed from these experiences. His immediate task, then, was to delineate what was distinctive, and distinctively religious, about these experiences.

It was relatively easy for James to strip away the theological interpretations that converts and saints placed upon their life-changing experiences—for example, that God, or Christ, or the Holy Spirit had entered their lives and effected this change in their very nature or being. James had never accepted the traditional theistic (Christian) God, but even while rejecting orthodox Christianity, James steadfastly held on to a belief, or faith, in some sort of God-like divinity (or divinities) whose chief function, he thought, was to uphold the moral order, thereby providing metaphysical backing for humans to pursue their moral and religious ideals, as well as practical help in achieving them.

James's beliefs about God and about religion were always open-ended and indefinite, never completely settled in his mind. He viewed them as hypotheses, akin to the provisional constructs and theories of science, which needed to be continually revised and improved in the light of new data coming in. In all his writings about religion, he seems to be engaged in a continuing search for a...


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pp. 56-81
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