The Metaphysical Jungle

William James: To Be Born Again



Philosophers of considerable reputation are usually more admired than loved, but William James inspired affection even among his fellow philosophers. Alfred North Whitehead referred to him as that “adorable genius.” His Harvard colleague and department head, George Herbert Palmer, said “We found in him a masterful type of human being, developed almost to perfection.” No one at Harvard in James’s years there — from 1873 when he was hired by President Eliot to teach anatomy and physiology, to 1907 when he resigned as Harvard’s world famous professor of philosophy — ever doubted that his personal charm contributed as much to his legend as his audacity as a thinker and his gift for making himself clear and peculiarly valuable to popular audiences. Eliot prided himself on his hunch in adding to the Harvard faculty a man whose only professional degree was in medicine, which he never practiced. Even George Santayana, who observed him for decades all too closely as James’s student and colleague, and in a famous sketch of James in Character and Opinion in the United States wrote “There is a sense in which James was not a philosopher at all,” recalled how in the midst of classroom routine “the spirit would sometimes come upon him, and leaning his head on his hand, he would let fall golden words, picturesque, fresh from the heart, full of the knowledge of good and evil.”

In our own day the philosopher Richard Rorty, reviewing Jacques Barzun’s rapturous A Stroll with William James, observes that

Everybody who reads William James’s letters falls in love with the man. He seems the companion nobody ever had: the one who never gets depressed or angry or bored, is always honest and open, always thinks you interesting. Somehow James, in his early thirties, managed to shuck off all his neuroses, all those fantasies that lead the rest of us to distort and manipulate other people for our self-protec­tion. After frightening bouts of melancholia during his twenties, accompanied by an inability to harness his own energies, suddenly he changes into Whitehead’s “adorable genius” – fluent, focused, and indefatigable.1

As I shall attempt to show in my consideration of The Varieties of Religious Experience, a book James published only eight years before his death in 1910 James was obsessed with what religion had clone and could still do for gifted persons he thought of as psychopathic – a clinical term from which he did not absolve several crises in his own history. He had by no means “managed to shuck off all his neuroses.” Like many another exquisitely and excruciatingly sensitive literary artist, he found much of his material in his so-called “neuroses.” But, as one philosopher commenting on another, it is amusing to find Pro­fessor Rorty impressed by the fact that “Even his marriage was happy; even his children liked him.” He then goes on to cite James’s extraordinary letter to his dying father (he could also have cited James’s equally astounding letter to his dying sister Alice) as an ex­ ample of “the charity and the courage to write we all wished we had or will have.” Rorty does not realize that it was not some psychic wholeness at last in a long disturbed life that made James write with such force, but his genius as a thinker turning his own terror into a message of salvation to a father and sister who shared his intense vul­nerability.

James’s charm for other people, starting with his brother Henry and his sister Alice, stemmed from the recognition that his extraor­dinarily complex temperament, whatever its occasional terror to him­ self, was a gift – his openness, candor, volatility, and enthusiasm were equalled only by his ranging intelligence and occasional lack of psychic balance. Such disproportionate qualities do not surprise us in the personalities of Carlyle, Melville, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, Pound. They do surprise us in original philosophers like Nietzsche and Wittgenstein. The first lived his thought, like a great tragic actor portraying himself as possessing godlike freedom from all prevailing conventions in bourgeois, democratic, and Christian society. The other, never presuming to attain such freedom in words,  portrayed his dilemma as the captivity of man to his language. “A picture held us captive, and we could not escape, for it lay in our language. lt pitilessly held us and kept us from getting away.”

What James did, very much in the American style, was to appeal his life, to open it up with the same candor and directness with which he opened up all his thought in its many successive stages, to save it, literally, by the power of his thought. As experience in all its possible departments and ratifications became the foundation of his philo­sophical doctrine, so personal experience became the arena of his work. One reason why he became as famous for his temperament as for his philosophy is that he pursued his thought – at first desper­ately, then more and more magisterially, for readers and listeners who obviously recognized his problems as their own. The most im­portant thing to recognize in this reliance on particular ideas for dealing with oneself as a creature always in crisis – James’s particular importance to us – is that it is religious. “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” This is different from the piety afforded by a particular religious tradition, or the orientation back to one’s earliest past taught by psychoanalysis. lt is the saving element in a particular idea that so impresses us in James’s famous letter praising the effect on him of reading the French philosopher Charles Re­nouvier. In persistent depression and even fear of insanity, in Janu­ary 1870, a year after getting his M.D., James was at such a low ebb that he wryly suggested that his friend Dr. Henry Bowditch become the keeper of an insane asylum so that he, William James, could find refuge there. Yet only a month later James could report: “I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life. I finished the first part of Renouvier ‘s second ‘Essais’ and see no reason why his definition of Free Will – ‘the sustaining of a thought because I choose to – when I might have other thoughts’ – need be the definition of an illusion.”

In the same period James wrote in his diary:

[l]n accumulated acts of thought lies salvation. . . . Hith­erto, when I have felt like taking a new initiative, like dar­ing to act originally, without carefully waiting for contem­plation of the external world to determine all for me, suicide seemed the most manly form to put my daring into; now, I will go a step further with my will, not only act with it, but believe as well; believe in my individual reality and creative power. My belief to be sure can’t be optimis­tic – but I will posit life, (the real, the good) in the self­-governing resistance of the ego to the world.

The “dark night of the soul,” in the phrase of the Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross, is a familiar feature in William James’s writings that are supposed to be entirely philosophic when they are not purely scientific and educational. In the great treatise The Principles of Psy­chology (1890), James’s first book and based on laboratory research that James started at Harvard, one suddenly comes across statements that echo the most deeply personal sense of crisis, not just sensations testable and recordable. In the famous chapter on “Habit,” there is a hint of peculiar urgency when he names habit as society’s most pre­cious conservative agent. “It alone keeps us all within the bounds of ordinance, and saves the children of fortune from the envious upris­ings of the poor.” If this hints of some propertied smugness, James is anything but smug when he declares

[H]abit dooms us all to fight out the battle of life upon the lines of our nurture or our own early choice, and to make the best of a pursuit that disagrees, because there is no other for which we are fitted, and it is too late to begin again. . . . On the whole, it is best we should not escape. It is well for the world that in most of us, by the age of thirty, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again.

Yet James came to believe that it is never too late to begin again, that the character – especially his own, which he was in some sense always endeavoring to remake – is not set forever in life. The whole point of The Varieties of Religious Experience, a book ostensibly descrip­tive and objectively psychological, is that the truly religious character begins as a “sick soul,” is dominated by a sense of lack, of something basically wrong, but through the mysterious accession of faith in the world opened to the subconscious, is given – gives oneself – that second chance in life that only religion helps to provide.

Notice the quest for security in the ominously prudential sentences 1 have quoted about habit alone keeping “us all within the bounds of ordinance.” I don’t know if James knew Santayana’s saying that “we are all maniacs held in leash.” This was a considerable insight on the part of so essentially conservative and even classical a thinker as San­tayana, who practiced wisdom rather than adventurous living, re­mained a Catholic at heart without believing in Christianity, and was so careful a bachelor all his life that near the end of it he thought it was just possible that as an undergraduate he might have had some homosexual inclination. James said of his old student and colleague that his thinking reminded him of white marble. James knew well enough how close he had come to whatever it is we call mania. Years ago the famous Harvard psychologist Henry A. Murray revealed to me that at one point in his life James had put himself into McLean’s, the Boston asylum famous for its blueblood clientele, described by Robert Lowell in “Waking in the Blue,” as “figures of bravado, ossi­fied young.”

This marvelously intelligent and creative thinker was not afraid to admit in his Varieties of Religious Experience that

The normal process of life contains moments as bad as any of those which insane melancholy is filled with, moments in which radical evil gets its innings and takes its solid turn. The lunatic’s visions of horror are all drawn from the ma­terial of daily fact. Our civilization is founded on the sham­bles, and every individual existence goes out in a lonely spasm of helpless agony. If you protest, my friend, wait till you arrive there yourself!

The most publicized pathological episode in James’s life is note­ worthy for several reasons. In the crucial chapter “The Sick Soul” in The Varieties of Religious Experience an extreme case of panic fear is described in excruciating detail, but is ascribed to a source in French which James wryly describes as having evidently been in a bad ner­vous condition at the time of which he writes, but has otherwise the “merit of extreme simplicity.” It is particularly noteworthy because the panic and disorientation described are startlingly similar to that suffered by Henry James, Sr., in England, in 1844. The son admits to having edged out of the worst of the experience by clinging to scripture texts. The father felt he was saved by a lady who explained his “vastation,” his experience of being devastated, as a case familiar to followers of Emanuel Swedenborg and redeemable through his creed.

William James’s critical experience was in 1872, when he was in a particularly unsteady state trying to decide on his vocation, and he related it in the Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh thirty years later, in 1902 when he was at the peak of his fame, with the terrible vividness with which people on the couch recall some particularly wounding psychic episode:

Whilst in this state of philosophic pessimism and general depression of spirits about my prospects, I went one eve­ning into a dressing-room in the twilight to procure some article that was there; when suddenly there fell upon me without any warning, just as if it came out of the darkness, a horrible fear of my own existence. Simultaneously there arose in my mind the image of an epileptic patient whom I had seen in the asylum, a black-haired youth with green­ish skin, entirely idiotic, who used to sit all day on one of the benches, or rather shelves against the wall, with his knees drawn up against his chin, and the coarse gray un­dershirt, which was his only garment, drawn over them in­ closing his entire figure. He sat there like a sort of sculp­tured Egyptian cat or Peruvian mummy, moving nothing but his black eyes and looking absolutely non-human. This image and my fear entered into a species of combination with each other. That shape am I, I felt, potentially. Nothing that I possess can defend me against that fate, if the hour for it should strike for me as it struck for him. There was such horror of him, and such a perception of my own merely momentary discrepancy from him, that it was as if something hitherto solid within my breast gave way en­tirely, and I became a mass of quivering fear. After this the universe was changed for me altogether. I awoke morning after morning with a horrible dread at the pit of my stom­ach, and with a sense of the insecurity of life that I never knew before, and that I have never felt since. It was like a revelation; and although the immediate feelings passed away, the experience has made me sympathetic with the morbid feelings of others ever since.

James concludes: “I have always thought that this experience of mel­ancholia of mine had a religious bearing. . . . The fear was so invasive and powerful that if I had not clung to scripture-texts like ‘The eter­nal God is my refuge,’ etc., ‘Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy-laden,’ etc., . . . I think I should have grown really insane.”

Here we come to the most interesting side of William James as a religious thinker, for it is so unexpected. He was the firstborn and the eldest son of a father who was immersed all his life in writing himself out of the harsh Calvinist Presbyterianism of his own Irish­ born father. William was the child who most duplicated the father’s speculative turn of mind. But if Henry James, Sr., despite his winning exuberance, was a curiosity to his contemporaries (he would have been totally forgotten if he had not been the father of Henry and William James), he was an object of powerful resentment to his son.

To begin with, the old fellow was always at home, writing; he had lost a leg as a boy trying to put out a fire; he had acquired, not with­ out a struggle, a significant inheritance from his father’s fortune in Albany and Syracuse real estate. Boasting that no one in his family was guilty of doing a single stroke of business and sure that his chil­dren could not get a proper education at home, he impulsively moved them around from school to school in Germany, England, and France. (This gave William in particular the fluent German and French that was to give him unique access to new schools of psychol­ogy and philosophy in Europe and make him a favorite chairman at international congresses.) But he dominated and directed his family as he could not his intellectual contemporaries; he was so fiercely lov­ing and possessive of his family that they could not get away from him. Worst of all, from the point of view of William James, brought up to an age of science, of Darwinism and positivism, was the father’s preoccupation not just with religion but with establishing his own brand of self-emancipating Swedenborgianism on a basis of utopian Socialism. Every time I read Henry James the elder, who can be vaguely exalting but bogs down just when the argument, if you can locate it, should go forward, I think of Emerson’s rueful remark in his journal, “After us, mysticism should go out of style for a very long time.”

William was lively like his father, but unlike the father, infinitely adaptable to everything under the sun. He had the curiosity of the true doctor, which in time was to make him come to religion not as a creed, religion as theism, but to religion as an individual psychologi­cal experience, as a way of extending the person’s hold on life by giving him the feeling of a second chance, of being twice born. From James’s scientific and psychiatric vantage point as an observer of “the sick soul,” a state he knew well, the many different creeds and posi­tions he quoted and examined at such length in The Varieties of Reli­gious Experience were just psychological documents. Religion was no longer a matter of objective certitude and truth. But in the last de­cades of the nineteenth century positivism and materialism as a world-view were becoming grossly intolerant. James had established the first psychology laboratory in America and had written his fa­mous textbook of psychology, he said, sentence by sentence in the teeth of irreducible facts. But laboratory psychology and mechanism in physics and biology could not account for the individual’s sense of the exceptionality in every sense of his own existence. Religion, as the only field of human thought and endeavor purporting to speak of life and death together, that even claimed to be the one bridge be­ tween them, at least satisfied James’s belief that the axis of reality goes through personal existence.

James’s first book in philosophy was called The Will to Believe. He later said it should have been called “The Right to Believe.” What he could not call it was “The Ability to Believe.” America, despite its high rate of church observance, is a peculiarly secular culture. The proof is the mechanistic and even commercial vocabulary in which, more than ever, Americans talk and write. Even William James, in his most famous book, Pragmatism, gave a falsely material reputation to the term by speaking of the “cash-value” of an idea. What he meant — and it was his central idea — is that the true end of life is realization, not hugging one’s internal consciousness. And realization in the deepest sense is the realization of some sense of immortality in those endeavors — the commitments, loyalties, and affections that inevita­bly break the heart through the narrowness of our perspective, the deficiency of our belief, the persistence of our childhood’s egotism.

James understood the power and penetration of secularism be­cause he was a part of it. As a psychologist he had helped to create it through the pioneer laboratory he had founded at Harvard, and he naturally adhered to the scientism of a generation whose emancipa­tion from supernaturalism had been considerably strengthened by the brutal experience of the Civil War. His two younger brothers, Garth Wilkinson (named after an English Swedenborgian) and Rob­ertson, had both been wounded in the war from which the father had carefully shielded his two older and more promising sons. It was in the hothouse of his parental home, so strangely dominated by an al­most too loving father, always writing away at ideas that were out of date, and as William duly noted, were always the same ideas from book to book, that William certainly learned what belonged to his mind and not to his father’s. As a young man thinking he might be­ come an artist, he had to endure his father’s Godlike reproaches, as from Mount Sinai, about adopting an aesthetic attitude toward life – hardly William James’s weakness! And he could have said, even be­ fore Nietzsche brought the news of God’s death, that his father’s at­ tempt to locate God entirely in man was an admission that he had given up not only Calvinism but the old God who was no longer an­yone’s father or lawgiver or conscience. He had become a reflex for the faithful, just a slogan for the emancipated.

Nevertheless, the sons of ministers like Nietzsche, the son of a God­ intoxicated man like William James, were haunted by a possible fail­ure in man if the death of God as an objective entity led to a shallow materialistic outlook in all things. James saw this more closely than any of his scientific peers at the close of the century. The important side of Nietzsche’s dictum is not just that God is dead but that man must now transcend his old dependent self, must in truth become more than man. This of course is the Emerson-Carlyle idea of the hero as original, born to become the representative man or the par­ticular genius of his era.

William James was actually too democratic minded to fall into the poses of superior wisdom that led Freud, for example, to derogate followers who were no longer, as he says about Otto Rank in Moses and Monotheism, “under my influence.” And unlike Freud, who treated everyone but himself as a possible patient (which is why he left himself open to so much posthumous gossip and even scandal), Dr. William James regarded himself as a sort of patient to the end, unfinished business. He always felt that he had to make up for the professional indecisions of his young manhood, for his deep depres­sions and, as his brother Henry did, for having been kept out of the Civil War. “The moral equivalent of war,” as he put it in a famous essay, was a big thing in his mind, especially by contrast with the un­ bearable self-confidence of his friend Oliver Holmes, wounded thrice, and of his annoying old student Theodore Roosevelt, “noisy proponent of the strenuous life,” which in his case meant imperial­ ism, a love of war that helped to launch the Spanish-American War and led to his demand of Woodrow Wilson in 1917 that he lead a whole division to France.

Still, James identified more with brashly assertive Americans like Holmes and Roosevelt than he ever could have with the pessimist Freud. He believed like a good American in remaking himself, something different from making it, meaning money. James, always worried about his health, might not have died of heart disease at sixty­ eight if he had not strained his heart in mountaineering. And he would not be the James whom readers fall in love with and identify with if he had not written, along with The Varieties of Religious Experi­ence, so many other things, even in technical philosophy, that are re­ally tracts for living, guides to wider and deeper experiences of life.

This is where the message of the twice-born, the idea of giving our­ selves that second chance in life of which conversion is the paradigm, becomes so important to the Varieties. What we may or can convert to is not a new idea of God or faith in Him, but a suddenly charged realization of possibilities in ourselves withheld by the restrictive for­mulae of our culture – meaning scientism as necessary objective judgment superimposed on and restraining the throb of our actual experience, the truth we come upon only within our individual exis­tence.

According to James, we liberate ourselves first of all by being totally disenchanted with the manner and shape of our lives. This is the great thing about the arduous saints, mystics, penitents, original ec­centrics, and what-not, from St. Paul to Tolstoy, whose neuroses, if you insist on that Freud-flavored word as disparagement, were really criticisms of their civilization. Often, as with Tolstoy, you get the re­markable example of a man who had everything — genius, aristo­cratic position, wealth, who possessed and relished the most crucial experiences of his time as soldier, lover, and national leader in Rus­sia — and was driven by the wildest dissatisfaction with everything and everyone until, in terms that no one in his family shared, he tried to throw it all away to live the life of a humble pilgrim trudging the earth alone. James, dying the same year as Tolstoy, missed the slightly comic picture of the world-famous writer and feudal aristo­crat dying as a tramp — surrounded by the world press. But if he had known it, he would have pronounced perfect Tolstoy’s anguished cry over the misery of the poorest and most rejected, those called “the dark people”: “It is impossible to live so! It is impossible to live so!”

James helped to found the Anti-Imperialist League in protest against the brutal suppression of Philippine independence. (Santayana thought imperialism the natural posture of big powers, like his native Spain, and scorned James’s supposed naiveté.) But James was an active citizen, aware of the growing bitterness of the immigrant working class in the big cities. He alarmed his Harvard colleagues by attending seances and investigating psychic phenomena. He alarmed brother Henry by climbing a ladder to have a peek at the home of G. K. Chesterton, that super-militant convert to Catholic orthodoxy whom, typically, James admired for his wit. He was so unusual a Har­vard eminence that he went out of his way to look up Walter Lipp­mann in his student room after encountering a brilliant paper by the young freshman.

These unconventional and remarkably open attitudes in every department of life are not equal to those radical examples in the Varie­ties whose need of God, and ability to achieve Him, so to speak, radi­cally enlarged not only their own lives but the lives of many devoted to their example. Enlargement, “more,” more to ourselves, is the key word in the conclusion of The Varieties of Religious Experience, and for this he relied on evidence of our subliminal faculties. His proof of their existence was the power of revelation, the sudden knowledge of another world than the one we mistakenly think exclusive. This, fun­damentally, was the significance of religion to James. It was the prin­cipal evidence he had, as a psychologist, that while the first step of the significantly religious consciousness is uneasiness, the “sense that there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand. The solution is a sense that we are saved from the wrongness by making proper connection with the higher powers.”

Here, at last, after devoting so many acute and sympathetic pages to those who were delivered from their “wrongness,” or whatever it is that made them feel that the whole universe itself was lacking to them, that they were withholding it from themselves by withholding their subconscious belief in God, James is at last confronting his own case on the essential question. How can a natural believer like himself believe when the age in its best minds denies everything about belief in God — except its psychological efficacy, which has so impressed James and has transparently applied to himself? This is a question that does not come up today, when among the intellectual leaders of American society a deeply personal belief in God is tolerated as harmlessly personal, like a taste in food or a passion for the Red Sox. Religion even among the faithful, like American literature today, has left cosmology to the physicists. Nobody argues about God today. It is enough that Americans go to church and synagogue in record numbers.

But James was writing about religion in the tag end of the nine­teenth century, which intellectually brought the issue to rest and so welcomed a descriptive study of The Varieties of Religious Experience: the title alone could have put the material into the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Nevertheless, James had to make some positive conclusion of his own. What he comes out with is this:

The individual, so far as he suffers from his wrongness and criticises it, is to that extent consciously beyond it, and in at least possible touch with something higher. . . . He becomes conscious [all this in italics] that the higher part is con­terminous and continuous with a MORE of the same quality which is operative in the universe outside of him, and which he can keep in working touch with, and in a fashion get on board of and save himself when all his lower being has gone to pieces in the wreck.

This is not the kind of testimony likely to have assuaged the broken heart of faith in the nineteenth century, but it goes down perfectly in the twentieth. James has not yet arrived at the sublime faith in re­pression as the only threat to our bourgeois narcissism. He knows he cannot get away with proclaiming the “new life” opening up for those who find new spiritual strength as “a place of conflux where the forces of two universes meet.” He has to meet the question of objec­tive certitude, once easy for those who believed that God was more than a metaphor. As he says, “Is such a ‘more’ merely our own no­tion, or does it really exist? If so, in what shape does it exist? Does it act, as well as exist? And in what form should we conceive of that ‘union’ with it of which religious geniuses are so convinced?”

James’s answer is to fall back on the “subconscious self’ (italicized) as “a well-accredited psychological entity” and “exactly the mediating term required. Apart from all religious considerations, there is actu­ally and literally more life in our total soul than we are at any time aware of. The exploration of the transmarginal field has hardly yet been seriously undertaken. . . . ” So we come to the hypothesis that “whatever it may on its further side, the ‘more’ with which in religious experience we feel ourselves connected is on its hither side the subcon­scious continuation of our conscious life.” So that

Starting thus with a recognized psychological fact as our basis, we seem to preserve a contact with “science” which the ordinary theologian Jacks. At the same time the theo­logian’s contention that the religious man is moved by an external power is vindicated, for it is one of the peculiari­ties of invasions from the subconscious region to take on objective appearances, and to suggest to the Subject an ex­ternal control. In the religious life the control is felt as “higher”; but since on our hypothesis it is primarily the higher faculties of our own hidden mind which are control­ ling, the sense of union with the power beyond us is a sense of something, not merely apparently, but literally true.

As James admits, this “doorway into the subject seems to me the best one for a science of religions.” As for himself, “Those of us who are not personally favored with such specific revelations must stand out­ side of them altogether and, for the present at least, decide that, since they corroborate incomparable theological doctrines, they neutralize one another and leave no fixed result.”

This is fine for the “science of religions,” but if you ask James for bread in this matter, he gives you a stone – meaning an hypothesis. Why should this be in the least a disappointment in a book that offers itself as a psychologist’s scientific study of the “varieties” of “religious experience?” Because the whole basis of the book is personal experience, because the so-called “science of religions” is not what enters into James’s wonderfully close and sympathetic analysis of each experi­ence, because James is too evidently seeking a solution to his life-long problem, beginning with his relation to a father who, whatever his lack of interest for James as a thinker, most deeply influenced James by seeing himself and no other as the occasion of God’s presence and intervention, thus the proof that He exists. William James found himself writing to his dying sister Alice that he was surprisingly more in sympathy with father than he had expected. James incorporated into the underlying passion of his “scientific” book what remained of an age of faith: faith is a personal gift, and if you have it, you are beyond argument.

Freud in The Future of an Illusion dismissed religion as an outworn form of dependency dating from childhood. Either the Deity was real or He was not: end of the subject, which left a Jew fascinated by the survival of his people, but whether he admitted it or not, attributing the survival to anti-Semitism. Christianity, being more plastic and openly mythological, not to say polytheistic, made it easier to adapt to the vanishing of Jehovah. As the maverick educator Ivan Ilyich, while still a priest, put it to me: “God became smaller and smaller so that we could at last see Him.” Jews were not supposed to “see” Him at all. Faith was absolute or just tribal loyalty. Kafka: “He who has faith cannot talk about it; he who has no faith should not talk about it.” What a difference from Alfred North Whitehead, who near the end of Science and the Modern World, in the chapter called “Religion and Science,” admitting that “the presentation of God under the as­pect of power awakens every modern instinct of critical reaction,” went on hauntingly to say

Religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realised; something which is a remote possibility, and yet the great­est of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest.

This is the argument for The Varieties of Religious Experience that William James did not make, but which explains the power and en­during popularity of his book. As the Son became far more real than the Father, so “religion” is forever real, especially to those for whom “God” is not. As things go nowadays, you might almost say that “re­ligion” as a subject of the most intense personal interest has replaced “God,” which after all is or is not a matter of objective existence and truth — or so it used to be. But if the triumph of “religion,” especially comparative religion, over “God” explains our personal gratitude for James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, no one seriously interested in the actual content of religion can doubt that James finally wins us as a therapist, not as a believer. Which is ironic, since the most impressive case histories he presents are those for whom faith came to be as real as the personal hell from which they were delivered.


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