Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Varieties of Religious Experience

I referenced this book in the horror & spirituality and creative madness threads, linking to a free e-copy. This is one of those pivotal and seminal tomes that in essence started the human potential and transpersonal psychology movements, ultimately leading to us here. I think it might behoove us to explore it, especially since it is free, and also quite deep and fascinating. Recall some of the insights it provided in the above threads. To kick off this thread, since we're exploring expressions of an integral postmetaphysical spirituality, let's see how James defines religion and divinity in Lecture II:

"Religion therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us 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. Since the relation may be either moral, physical, or ritual, it is evident that out of religion in the sense in which we take it, theologies, philosophies, and ecclesiastical organizations may secondarily grow. In these lectures, however, as I have already said, the immediate personal experiences will amply fill our time, and we shall hardly consider theology or ecclesiasticism at all."

(Recall recently this article that points to exactly this focus in transpersonal psychology, and to the neglect of the social aspect.)

"The sort of appeal that Emersonian optimism, on the one hand, and Buddhistic pessimism, on the other, make to the individual and the sort of response which he makes to them in his life are in fact indistinguishable from, and in many respects identical with, the best Christian appeal and response. We must therefore, from the experiential point of view, call these godless or quasi-godless creeds 'religions'; and accordingly when in our definition of religion we speak of the individual's relation to 'what he considers the divine,' we must interpret the term 'divine' very broadly, as denoting any object that is godlike, whether it be a concrete deity or not.

"But the term 'godlike,' if thus treated as a floating general quality, becomes exceedingly vague, for many gods have flourished in religious history, and their attributes have been discrepant enough. What then is that essentially godlike quality- be it embodied in a concrete deity or not- our relation to which determines our character as religious men? It will repay us to seek some answer to this question before we proceed farther.
"For one thing, gods are conceived to be first things in the way of being and power. They overarch and envelop, and from them there is no escape. What relates to them is the first and last word in the way of truth. Whatever then were most primal and enveloping and deeply true might at this rate be treated as godlike, and a man's religion might thus be identified with his attitude, whatever it might be, towards what he felt to be the primal truth."

Metaphysical? Post? Neither? Both? Combination?

James was obviously writing before the pomo revolution, so his metaphysical commitments seem obvious to us now. What is "divine" to him are not specific gods but what is godlike, and that entails first principles, what is primal and deeply "true." In other words, there is a given reality that can be discovered through personal experience. We see nothing of the postmetaphysical contention that truths are enacted and constructed. Granted even the latter accepts a "reality" as the base of our constructions but not a definite, given reality that is merely uncovered and experienced as it is.

Also note when he qualifies the divine as "be it embodied or not" he is here also pre-embodiment, another aspect of postmetaphysicality. According to his definition there doesn't have to be a concrete, embodied base to the divine. It can be like the disembodied Platonic ideals, already pre-formed and eternal. There is no differentiation between this and a very different program in say Buddhism, which has no primal forms like this. (Bracketing for the moment those Buddhisms that indeed have them too; broad generalization here). Indeed Buddhism has primal precepts, and it might be in this way they have a "divine" so broadly categorized by James, a primal truth as it were.

Looking over Balder's link to the previous post, James quoted Benjamin Blood:

“No words may express the imposing certainty of the patient that he is realizing the primordial Adamic surprise of Life.”

Realizing primordiality? It seems the critique of reason is accurate enough, that it tries to create certainty through an “all-pervasive unity.”  But this is rebuffed with the variegated pluralism of direct experience, the latter taken it seems at face value, that such experiences of altered states of consciousness are given, real and direct to the thing in itself, the mystery. The experience is sacrosanct and irrefutable. Granted each altered state might be unique (hence plural) but the experience per se is given authenticity and the reasons we create for it afterward are superfluous, quite possibly even a detriment to such experience. Again here we see the influence of the time period in which he writes, not accounting for the social construction and pre-disposition for the experiences themselves.

In Lecture XVI he deals with mysticism:

"One may say truly, I think, that personal religious experience has its root and centre in mystical states of consciousness."

Again we see the "primal truth" of transpersonal psychology that mystical states are the ballgame of spirituality. So what are they and how are they differentiated from other states? We discern by these properties:

"1. Ineffability.- The handiest of the marks by which I classify a state of mind as mystical is negative. The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words. It follows from this that its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others. In this peculiarity mystical states are more like states of feeling than like states of intellect. No one can make clear to another who has never had a certain feeling, in what the quality or worth of it consists. One must have musical ears to know the value of a symphony; one must have been in love one's self to understand a lover's state of mind. Lacking the heart or ear, we cannot interpret the musician or the lover justly, and are even likely to consider him weak-minded or absurd. The mystic finds that most of us accord to his experiences an equally incompetent treatment.

"2. Noetic quality.- Although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time.

"These two characters will entitle any state to be called mystical, in the sense in which I use the word. Two other qualities are less sharply marked, but are usually found. These are:

"3. Transiency.- Mystical states cannot be sustained for long. Except in rare instances, half an hour, or at most an hour or two, seems to be the limit beyond which they fade into the light of common day. Often, when faded, their quality can but imperfectly be reproduced in memory; but when they recur it is recognized; and from one recurrence to another it is susceptible of continuous development in what is felt as inner richness and importance.

"4. Passivity.- Although the oncoming of mystical states may be facilitated by preliminary voluntary operations, as by fixing the attention, or going through certain bodily performances, or in other ways which manuals of mysticism prescribe; yet when the characteristic sort of consciousness once has set in, the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power. This latter peculiarity connects mystical states with certain definite phenomena of secondary or alternative personality, such as prophetic speech, automatic writing, or the mediumistic trance. When these latter conditions are well pronounced, however, there may be no recollection whatever of the phenomenon and it may have no significance for the subject's usual inner life, to which, as it were, it makes a mere interruption. Mystical states, strictly so called, are never merely interruptive. Some memory of their content always remains, and a profound sense of their importance. They modify the inner life of the subject between the times of their recurrence. Sharp divisions in this region are, however, difficult to make, and we find all sorts of gradations and mixtures."

Regarding #1. We see once again the strict distinction between reason and experience, as if they are two completely different realms. The Cartesian dualism is not so subtle here but rather is the basis for defining the worth of said mystic experience: it is ineffable. And not only that but privileged because one who has not had the same or similar experience could never understand. It must be rare and only those who undertake special religious practices, ostensibly in a "community of the adequate," can know this experience directly. But like the other experiences he references, like falling in love, so-called mystic experience too is quite common and just about everyone has such experiences. So of course we all know that experience and we can certainly put it into words, and quite accurately. Especially when we acknowledge the bodily-environmental, nondual connection between experience and linguistic formation and reason. Of course this de-mystifies the experience to a degree, and this de-metaphysicalizing said experience is akin, if not identical, to religious heresy not only to supposed fundamental religious adherents but to the transpersonal and developmental psychologists.

#2 is really an extension of #1, for the intellect in incapable of such direct truth. The irony here is that the illuminating and revelatory aspects of said experiences comes from the interpretative apparatus, which of course develops from culture, language, thought; all those things that are ignored by this phenomenological path.

For more see our IPS discussion.


  1. On the other hand Rohrer & Johnson claim James is of the embodied school. For example this from "We are live creatures":

    "The fundamental assumption of the Pragmatists’ naturalistic approach is that everything we attribute to 'mind'—perceiving, conceptualizing, imagining, reasoning, desiring, willing, dreaming—has emerged (and continues to develop) as part of a process in which an organism seeks to survive, grow, and flourish within different kinds of situations. As James puts it:

    'Mental facts cannot be properly studied apart from the physical environment of which they take cognizance. The great fault of the older rational psychology was to set up the soul as an absolute spiritual being with certain faculties of its own by which the several activities of remembering, imagining, reasoning, and willing, etc. were explained, almost without reference to the peculiarities of the world with which these activities deal. But the richer insight of modern days perceives that our inner faculties are adapted in advance to the features of the world in which we dwell, adapted, I mean, so as to secure our safety and prosperity in its midst' (James 1900: 3)."

  2. James might reply, from Lecture I:

    "It is sure, just as every simple man is sure, that some states of mind are inwardly superior to others, and reveal to us more truth, and in this it simply makes use of an ordinary spiritual judgment. It has no physiological theory of the production of these its favorite states, by which it may accredit them; and its attempt to discredit the states which it dislikes, by vaguely associating them with nerves and liver, and connecting them with names connoting bodily affliction, is altogether illogical and inconsistent. Let us play fair in this whole matter, and be quite candid with ourselves and with the facts. When we think certain states of mind superior to others, is it ever because of what we know concerning their organic antecedents? No! it is always for two entirely different reasons. It is either because we take an immediate delight in them; or else it is because we believe them to bring us good consequential fruits for life."

  3. And this from Lecture III regarding Kant's transcendental idealism:

    "It is not only the Ideas of pure Reason, as Kant styled them, that have this power of making us vitally feel presences that we are impotent articulately to describe. All sorts of higher abstractions bring with them the same kind of impalpable appeal.... The whole universe of concrete objects, as we know them, swims, not only for such a transcendentalist writer, but for all of us, in a wider and higher universe of abstract ideas, that lend it its significance.

    "Such ideas, and others equally abstract, form the background for all our facts, the fountain-head of all the possibilities we conceive of. They give its 'nature,' as we call it, to every special thing. Everything we know is 'what' it is by sharing in the nature of one of these abstractions. We can never look directly at them, for they are bodiless and featureless and footless, but we grasp all other things by their means, and in handling the real world we should be stricken with helplessness in just so far forth as we might lose these mental objects, these adjectives and adverbs and predicates and heads of classification and conception.

    "Plato gave so brilliant and impressive a defense of this common human feeling, that the doctrine of the reality of abstract objects has been known as the platonic theory of ideas ever since."

    If James was "embodied" it doesn't seem to appear in this book so far.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.