What James Knew

By Madsen, Catherine | Cross Currents, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

What James Knew


Madsen, Catherine, Cross Currents


Neuroses differ from age to age and culture to culture, but the brain operates in certain consistent patterns. William James, speculating on the psychology of religion, saw how these patterns repeat themselves in both religious and irreligious people: how the experience of spiritual paralysis can be called a sense of sin or a sense of shame, the experience of release can be called "leaning on Jesus" or regeneration, and the effect on the personality is much the same either way. James's critics accuse him of excessive individualism, of so private and Protestant an approach as to make The Varieties of Religious Experience useless as a general guide, but the book's immediacy is striking: if it is "private" it is private like literature. To read it is to plug into a live current of intelligent scrutiny and active compassion that can alter one's thinking. The book does not claim to be a guide to religious experience in the anthropological or sociological sense; it is a map to the availability of transformation from any approach at all.

There is still disagreement on whether James should be placed with the "healthy-minded" or the "sick souls," so evenhandedly and sympathetically did he write of both, and so conscientiously did he attempt to pull himself up by his emotional bootstraps when beset by despair. I class him among the sick souls; the healthy-minded have trouble comprehending the condition of the sick, and James had no such trouble. The wide streak of Emersonian optimism in his character sat uneasily with his recurrent inability to choose and to do his work.

His appreciation for the "pessimistic elements" of Christianity points to his wider sense of the agonal nature of profound religious experience; he fought a war between paralysis and freedom, and he studied transformation as evidence that the war could be won.

The Gifford lectures, which became The Varieties of Religious Experience, were given in 1901-1902. James died in 1910. Four years later the Armenian genocide and the outbreak of the First World War initiated the series of political upheavals that would mark the twentieth century as peculiarly destructive to optimism. How, if James had lived and written during those times, they would have changed his outlook and his philosophy, it is impossible to know. The robust pragmatism that became his eventual position would certainly have been severely tried. But his observations of mental brokenness would only have been confirmed as one after another example emerged into public knowledge--the shell-shocked soldier of the First World War, the "Mussulman" of the Nazi camps, the Vietnam veteran destroyed from within by memories, the battered woman and the molested child. The threats of atomic warfare and ecological catastrophe that marked the latter half of the century undermined our sense of the future more effectively than the fear of the apocalypse had ever done, and introduced a subtler sense of paralysis. …

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