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Marc Fonda's Notes (Pt. 2) on William James: The Varieties of Religious Experience


  • "The highest flights of charity, devotion, trust, patience, bravery to which the wings of human nature have spread themselves have been flown for religious ideals."
  • Results of Christian grace:
    • Spirit of piety and charity
    • Love anf humility
    • Infinite confidence in God
    • Severity for one's self
    • Tenderness for others
  • Impulses vs inhibitions
    • Impulses war with inhibitions in the human mind
    • Earnestness overpowers inhibition. "Earnestness means willingness to live with energy, though energy brings pain."
    • Anger overpowers inhibition
  • Fruits of the religious state
    • Softness of heart "gift of tears"
    • Lower temptations annulled
    • Similar to effects of hypnotic suggestion
    • "...spiritual emotions are the habitual centre of the personal energy"
  • Features of saintliness:
    • "A feeling of being in a wider life... and a conviction ... of the existence of an Ideal Power."
    • "A sense of the friendly continuity of the ideal power with our own life, and a willing self-surrender to its control."
    • "An immense elation and freedom"
    • "A shifting of the emotional centre towards loving and harmonious affections"
  • Practical consequences
    • Asceticism
    • Strength of soul
    • Purity
    • Charity
  • Examples
    • Thoreau
    • Mr. Voysey
    • Mrs. Jonathan Edwards
  • Charity and brotherly love
    • Not specific to Christianity
    • Result from an "expansive affection"
    • M. Georges Dumas: altruistic impulses characterize manic phase of "circular insanity" (bipolar disorder)
    • Non-resistance, Ex: Richard Weaver
    • Love your enemies - rare in practise, "might conceivably transform the world"
    • Loving the repugnant. Examples: Francis of Assissi, Ignatius.
  • Equanimity, Resignation, Fortitude and Patience
    • " 'A paradise of inward tranquility' seems to be faith's usual result"
    • "In the somber it partakes more of resignation and submission..." Ex: Prof. Lagneau, Pascal
    • " the cheerful it is a joyous consent." Ex: Madame Guyon
    • Contempt of danger. Ex: Frank Bullen
  • Purity of life
    • Ascetic forms, Ex: Quakers
    • Extremism in purity leads to desire to withdraw from corrupt world, into monasteries and communities
  • Asceticism, different psychological levels:
    1. "Asceticism may be a mere expression of organic hardihood, disgusted with too much ease."
    2. "Temperance... simplicity.. chastity... and non-pampering genrally, may be fruits of the love of purity"
    3. "They may also be fruits of love... sacifices which he is happy in making"
    4. "...ascetic mortifications and torments may be due to pessimistic feelings about the self"
    5. "In psychopathic persons... as a sort of obsession or fixed idea"
    6. ...may in rarer instances be prompted by genuine perversions of bodily sensibility"
  • Asceticism, self-pampering, equilibrium
    • Society trending toward negative attitude toward enduring pain
    • "... in moderate degrees it is natural and even usual in human nature to court the arduous."
    • Point of equilibrium between hardship and ease, differs for each person.
    • When those who prefer hardship become religious, tend toward asceticism.
  • Different psychological levels of asceticism, various examples.
    • Tyndall and Thomas Carlyle - type 1
    • Roman Church, "merit"
    • Channing - types 1 and 3
    • John Cennick - type 4
    • M. Vianney - type 3
    • Cotton Mather - type 3
    • St. John of the Cross - type 4, a mystic
    • Suso - types 4 and 5, eventually was freed from compulsion
    • St. Teresa, type 5
  • Three minor branches of self-mortification in Roman church:
    • Chastity
    • Obedience. Ex: Ignatius Loyola, Rodriguez
    • Poverty - decoupling of possesions and self-image. Ex: St. Francis, Antionette Bourignon
  • "Piety and charity live in a different universe from worldly lusts and fears, and form another centre of energy altogether."

The value of saintliness

  • The approach to judging:
    • Cannot divide man neatly into an animal and a rational part.
    • Avoid temptation to presume existence of God
    • Must take empirical approach
  • Why do people believe or disbelieve?
    • Pagan gods, at first believed in because of powers of nature, presumed to be thir power.
    • Specific cults adhered to because they met psychological needs of believers.
    • When society's values changed, the old gods came to seem ridiculous.
    • Same thing now happening to ethical monotheism.
  • Two attitudes re ritual:
    • "Ritual worship in general appears to the modern transcendentalist... as if addressed to a diety of an almost absurdly childish character"
    • "...the formless spaciousness of pantheism appears quite empty to ritualistic natures"
    • "Luther, says Emerson, would have cut off his right hand rather than nail his theses to the door at Wittenburg, if he had supposed that they were destined to lead to the pale negations of Boston Unitarainism."
    • " religion has ever in the long run established or proved itself in any other way. Religions have approved themselves; they have adminsistered to sundry vital needs which they found reigning."
  • Empiricism leads to systematic skepticism?
    • Make allowances for imperfections of empiricism, and will come closer to truth.
    • Claim only reasonable probability
    • Reject dogmatism, to be open to higher insights.
      "Heartily know, when half-gods go, the gods arrive."
    • First hand religious experience may conflict with organized religion.
  • Things for which organized religion is blamed are actually due to man's character:
    • Spirit of corporate dominion
    • Spirit of dogmatic dominion
  • Better to be a hypocrite than to have no standard at all. "...hypocrisy also imposes obligations, and with the pretext usually couples some restriction; and when the passion gust is over, piety may bring a reaction of repentance which the irreligous natural man would not have shown."
  • Extravagance of saintly impulses
    • Devoutness, in excess is fanaticism "...only loyalty carried to a convulsive extreme"
    • Motivates invention of legends around revered figures
    • Jealousy for the diety's honor leads to intolerance and persecution.
    • "Fanaticism is found only where the character is masterful and aggressive."
  • "Theopathic saintliness"
    • Absorbtion in the love of God
    • Found most frequently among "gentle characters, where devoutness is intense and the intellect feeble"
    • No room for "human loves and human uses", "absolutely worthless fruits"
    • Ex: Margaret Mary Alacoque
    • Ex: St. Gertrude
  • St. Teresa, example of theopathic saintliness
    • Powerful intellect, put at service of paltry ideals.
    • Dr. Jordan describes "shrew-type" as "active unimpassioned temperament"
    • St. Teresa was a shrew-type.
    • Egotism, lack of true humility
  • Excess of purity
    • Less agressive sort of pietist withdraws from disorderly world, makes his own order.
    • Ex: St Louis of Gonzaga
  • Excess of charity
    • "Here saintliness has to face the charge of preserving the unfit, and breeding parasites and beggars."
    • "Perfect conduct is a relation between three terms: the actor, the objects for which he acts, and the recipients of the action."
    • Herbert Spencer: the perfect man's conduct will appear perfect only when the environment is perfect.
  • Saintly excess of charity may create a more perfect environment - "prophetic"
    • Stimulates unworthy recipients to become worthy
    • "...genuinely creative social force"
    • "This practical proof that worldly wisdom may be safely transcended is the saint's magic gift to mankind."
      (Here we touch on an area of vast importance to the ethical monotheistic religions. For further study, I recommend Reinhold Niebuhr's An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, particularly Chapter 4, "The relevance of an impossible ethical model". Also, The Political Meaning of Christianity, by Glenn Tinder, and A Different Drum, by M. Scott Peck.)
  • Asceticism
    • "...keeps the outer nature too important"
    • If you only love God enough, you may safely follow all your inclinations.
    • "For in its spiritual form asceticism stands for nothing less than for the essence of the twice-born philosophy."
    • Once-born method of ignoring evil "leaves the general world unhelped."
    • Heroism - metaphysical mystery, gives meaning to life
    • The crucifiction: example of heroism
    • War: congruous with need for heroism
    • Needed: "moral equivalent of war", without the irrationality and violence of war
    • Willingness to suffer poverty gives us strength in hard times
  • Saintliness as a whole
    • Combination of virtues, each individually found independent of saintliness, but in combination, springs only from spiritual center.
    • Saint shows all virtues in completest possible measure.
    • When intellectual outlook is narrow, leads to excesses of individual virtues.
  • Nietzche: critic of saintly impulses
    • Heroes are aggressive leaders, saints are too tame
    • Male vs female styles - saintliness if womanlike, "the sophisticated invalid"
    • The weak are a danger to the strong, because they sap resources.
  • Response to Nietzche:
    • "Shall the seen world or the unseen world be our chief sphere of adaptation?"
    • "...must our means of adaptation in the seen world be aggressiveness or non-resistance?"
    • "The saint's type, and the knight's or gentleman's type, have always been rival claimants of this absolute ideality."
    • The saint is adapted ot the future, to a "millenial society".
    • The saint is a visionary, helping to bring about this society.
    • Ex: "From the biological point of view, St. Paul was a failure, because he was beheaded. Yet he was magnificently adapted to the larger environment of history."


  • Four marks of mysticism:
    1. Ineffability - defies expression, must be directly experienced
    2. Noetic quality - feeling of insight or knowledge
    3. Transiency
    4. Passivity - sometimes sense of other personality taking over
  • Examples of mystical experience, from least 'religious' to most 'religious':
    • "..deepened sense of the significance of a maxim or formula", "..strangely moving power of passages"
    • Deja vu
    • Charles Kingsley - "feeling of being surrounded with truths which I cannot grasp"
    • J.A. Symonds, sense of naked Self, without form or content, very unpleasant, "verge of the abyss"
    • Chemical intoxication, esp. by alcohol, nitrous oxide
  • Characteritics of intoxication
    • "sense of a profound meaning"
    • Discontinuous with ordinary consciousness
    • Sense of opposites being reconciled into unity ("monistic insight")
  • Mystical moods brought on by nature
  • Cosmic consciousness - term coined by Dr. R. M. Bucke.
    • "...superaddition of a function" onto ordinary consciousness
    • "..consciousness of... the life and order of the univrse"
    • Intellectual enlightenment
    • Heightened moral sense
    • Sense of immortality
  • Methodical cultivation of cosmic consciousness
    • Yoga, calls state "samadhi"
    • Vedantists: test of purity of samadhi is that the prophet remains "enlightened.. his whole character changed"
    • Buddhists: dhyana. Stages:
      • Concentration of the mind on one point
      • Intellectual functions drop off
      • Satisfaction relaced by indifference, memory and self-consciousness
        "(Just what 'memory' and 'self-consciousness' mean in this connection is doubtful)"
      • Indifference, memory and self-consciousness are perfected
      • Higher stages - a region where there exists nothing
  • Sufism
  • Roman church, "orison". Ex: St Teresa, Ignatius, St. John of the Cross
  • Fruits of mysticism, suggests two distinct types:
    • Stupefaction. Ex: Margaret Mary Alacoque
    • Emboldened and inspired. Ex: Ignatius, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa
  • Optimism and monism characterize mystical states
  • Paradoxically, can only describe it with negatives. Specifics would limit and thus lessen it. Ex: Dionysius the Areopagite
  • In Christian tradiction, amounts to becoming nothing before God so God can be All.
  • In Eastern traditions, amounts to identifying with God, negating the distinction.
    (Note the very different and incompatible inferences derived from the same sensation.)
  • Music closely associated with mystical states.
  • Is mystical experience authoritative? Three points:
    1. Absolutely authoritative over the person experiencing the state
    2. There's no reason why anyone else should believe in it
      • Appeal to numbers not logically compelling
      • Classic religious mysticism is a "privileged case", trainees are pre-selected for fitness
      • Mysticism as a whole is not at all unanimous...
      • Can be either ascetic or self-indulgent
      • Can be either dualistic or monistic
      • "The fact is that the mystical feeling of enlargement, union, and emancipation has no specific intellectual content whatever of its own."
      • There also exists: delusional insanity / paranoia, amounting to a sort of "diabolical mysticism", equally compelling to those who experience it, but pessimistic and unpleasant.
    3. Competes with rationalistic consciousness for authority
      • "...overthrows the pretension of non-mystical states to be the sole and ultimate dictators of what we may believe."
      • "...there never can be a state of facts to which new meaning may not truthfully be added, provided the mind ascend to a more enveloping point of view."

See also:

General Theory of Religion by

There is an astounding quantity of organized mysticism being promoted on the Net. The web pages just keep coming in. I'm not going to keep cataloging them all, so here's a representative sample:

Free Daism
Alan Watts

And here are some newsgroups (via gopher)...



  • Religious feeling precedes philosophical arguments
  • "Feeling is private and dumb, and unable to give an account of itself."
  • "We are thinking beings", and therefore are compelled to clothe sentiment with concrete ideas.
  • Intellectualism "...assumes to construct religious objects out of the resources of logical reason alone."
  • "Feeling valid only for the individual is pitted against reason valid universally."
  • Philosophy attempts to construct arguments for God's existence, without success.
    • Cosmological - first cause
    • Argument from design
    • Moral argument
  • Philosophy attempts to deduce qualities of God from existence a-se
    • Necessary and absolute
    • Unlimited
    • One and only
    • Spiritual (not composed of parts)
    • Simple metaphysically (nature and existence not distinct)
    • Purely actual, no potentiality
    • Immutable
    • Immense, boundless, omnipresent, eternal
    • Intelligence and will, personhood
    • Both object and subject of His own activity
    • Omniscient, present in all time, omnipotent
    • Purpose in creating: love
  • In practise
    • "'s thinking is organically connected with his conduct."
    • "...every difference must make a difference"
    • For God to be real in a pracical sense, his existence must make a difference.
    • Kant: inventor of "critical method"
    • Charles Sanders Pierce, introduces "pragmatism"
    • For God's existence to matter, belief in him must make a difference in our conduct.
    • Qualities of God must have defifnite connection with our life.
  • God's moral attributes
    • Holiness: can will only the good
    • Omnipotent and omnisicent, can secure the good
    • Just and loving: can punish or pardon
    • Unalterable: can be counted on
    • Philosophy cannot prove these attributes
    • Book of Job: must have faith (trust) in absence of proof
  • Transcendental world soul
    • Origins
      • Kant's transcendental ego of apperception: an object must be perceived, in order to exist.
      • Hegelian school developed in world soul. Two principles:
      • Every object implies distinction between it and everything else.
      • "...the mere asking of a question ...proves that the answer... is already imminent"
      • These add up to a propulsive force, logical causality and self-awareness.
    • As reasoned by Principal Caird:
      • Omnipresent universal consciousness must perceive things in order for them to exist, this is God.
      • Man's consciousness can choose to identify with the world soul.
      • Religion itself is oneness with God in actu.
    • But is it proof?
      • Caird describes the religious experience well.
      • Majority of scholars find the arguments unconvincing. [appeal to authority?]
      • Criticisms: Fraser and Pringle-Pattison
      • Only feeling can convince us of the reality ("thisness") of a thing.
      • A science of religion, used to narrow the fields of credible religions, would be much more useful than philosophy's attempts to prove religious truths.

See also:

Hall of arguments
Philosophy of religion

Other characteristics

  • Aesthetics of religious worship
    • Roman "high church" ceremony has much aesthetic appeal.
    • Protestantism, by contrast, is rather bleak in its outward manifestations.
    • It's a question of differing values.
  • Essential aspects of worship:
    • Sacrifice
    • Confession
    • Communion/prayer
      • The most important aspect
        • "The genuineness of religion is thus indissolubly bound up with the question whether the prayerful consciousness be or be not deceitful."
        • " which but for prayer would be bound is by prayer set free and operates in some part... of the world of facts."
        • Ex: George Muller
        • Ex: Dr. Hilty
      • Theory of receptiveness:
        • Prayerful attitude helps us perceive God's already working in things.
        • Ex: Martineau.
        • Ex: Father Grarty
    • Religion connected with subconscious
      • Prevalaence of psychopathic temperament
      • Automatisms are neurotic symptoms
      • Automatisms, visions et al, strengthen faith
    • Inspiration
      • Prophets feel an "overpowering influence from without", the "hand of God"
      • Examples from Old Testament: Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah
      • At one time, the Israelites cultivated the prophetic gift
      • Ex: Mohammed - visions
      • Ex: Joseph Smith - automatisms
      • Ex: George Fox - impressions


    • Characteristics of the religious life:
        (1) That the visible world is part of a more spiritual universe from which it draws its chief significance
        (2) That union or harmonious relation with that higher universe is our true end
        (3) That prayer or inner communion with the spirit thereof... is a process wherein work is really done, and ...produces effects ...within the phenominal world.
        Psychological characteristics:
        (4) A new zest which adds itself like a gift to life
        (5) An assurance of safety and a temper of peace, and... a preponderance of loving affections
    • Must study extreme cases ("experts") in order to understand religion.
    • Different personalities need different types of religion.
    • Toward a science of religion - difficulties
      • Purpose: to evaluate different religious approaches objectively
      • "Knowledge of a thing is not the thing itself."
      • "For this reason, the science of religions may not be an equivalent for living religions."
      • Problem: the typical scientist is biased against religion
      • "Survival theory" - the assumption that relgion is an atavistic survival from more primitive times.
      • Being value-neutral, science is unable to see meaning or purpose in man's life.
    • Need to respect subjective valuations of experience:
      • Experience had both objective and subjective components.
      • "The axis of reality runs solely through the egotistic places."
      • "Individuality is founded in feeling; and the recesses of feeling... are the only places in the world in which we catch real fact in the making, and directly perceive how things happen"
      • Religion should concern itself with personal destinies.
      • "Both thought and feeling are determinants of conduct"
    • The "faith-state"
      • What Kant calls"sthenic affection", Leuba calls "faith-state"
      • Gives zest and meaning to life
      • When intellectual content is added, results in belief, and passionate loyalty to creeds.
      • "The love of life, at any and every level of development, is the religious impulse."
    • Intellectual content of religion, universal components:
      • Uneasiness - "something wrong about us as we naturally stand"
      • Its solution - "we are saved from the wrongness by making proper connection with the higher powers"

      • To be aware of the problem is the beginning of the solution.
      • The higher power is somehow contiguous with oneself, "more of the same quality"
      • What is the objective truth behind the "more" (higher power)?
      • It represents the subconscious, part of the Self unmanifested
      • "Over-beliefs", the details of the religion, encrust themselves around the vague notion of "something higher".
      • "... the most interesting and valuable things about a man are usually his over-beliefs."
      • "...when we commune with [the subconscious], work is actually done upon our finite personality, for we are turned into new men"
      • "God is real since he produces real effects."
    • But is it objectively God of the universe?
      • Belief in God as such inspires hope end confidence
      • Moves beyond subjective notions, brings "a real hypothesis into play"
      • Transcendentalists dodge the issue, making their "God" just the natural universe as a whole.
      • "I believe the pragmatic way of taking religion to be the deeper way. It gives it body as well as soul."
      • James is willing to believe that the higher realms really exist.
      • "By being faithful in my poor measure to this over-belief, I seem to myself to keep more sane and true."
      • "Humbug is humbug, even though it bear the scientific name, and the total expression of human experience, as I view it objectively, invincibly urges me beyond the narrow 'scientific' bounds."

Return to the index to Marc Fonda's notes on The Varieties of Religious Experience