Alfred North Whitehead put it best: William James is "that adorable genius." The Varieties of Religious Experience is not his best book--although there is matter for delight on every page--but it is our best book about religious experience, our best defense against skeptics, and our surest incitement to a genuine public dialogue about the significance of personal religious experience for our common life.
The Varieties is the text of James' Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion, delivered in 1901 and 1902 at the University of Edinburgh. Already suffering from the heart problem that would take his life in 1910, James was nearly done in by the effort of collecting the two hundred personal narratives that make the work a thick stew of "facts of experience" rather than a genteel consomme of philosophical speculation.
Partly an act of filial piety (James was conscious of having underestimated the spiritual impulses of his Swedenborgian father, Henry James, Sr.), the work was also a continuation of his study of unusual states of consciousness (in The Principles of Psychology and the Lowell Lectures on "Exceptional Mental States"), a sequel to the 1896 lecture on "The Will to Believe" in which James championed the legitimacy of religious belief against W. K. Clifford's naysaying, and an early manifesto for the pragmatism that is (for better or worse) the quintessentially American contribution to philosophy.
James begins the Varieties by clearing away intellectual obstacles. In his own day, it was fashionable to explain religious excitability as a form of autointoxication brought on by disordered digestion or nerves. (One thinks of Scrooge telling Marley, "There's more of gravy than of grave in you.") "Medical materialism," as James calls it, "finishes up St. Paul by calling his vision on the road to Damascus a discharging lesion of the occipital cortex, he being an epileptic. ... Carlyle's organ-tones of misery it accounts for by a gastro-duodenal catarrh." As the founder of the first psychology laboratory in America, an anatomist, and a sufferer from neurasthenia himself, James would be the last to deny the importance of physiological factors. But, humane Darwinist that he is, he is unwilling to discount mystical insights, whatever their source: "For aught we know to the contrary, 103 or 104 degrees Fahrenheit might be a much more favorable temperature for truths to germinate and sprout in than the more ordinary blood-heat of 97 or 98 degrees."
Today one is more likely to hear religious experience explained as the product of changing cultural fictions about gender, power, and selfhood; but the principle is the same. After one has counted up all the predisposing factors, James tells us, the real work of interpreting religious experience has just begun.
My students love the Varieties because they hear James making personal experience the arbiter of truth, rejecting institutions and dogmas, transforming religion into therapy, and indiscriminately validating everything from astrology to zazen. This is a common misreading of the Varieties for which James himself is partly to blame. He delineates his subject as "the …