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Varieties of the Religious Experience

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The Varieties of Religious Experience

Twentieth century philosopher and psychologist, William James, set forth to bring "religion" into new light before very prestigious, scientific and religious leaders during the early 1900's. Influenced by both his father's republican theories of religion, and his study of psychology at Harvard University, James presented religion in a pluralistic approach that considered both existential and spiritual judgments. In his writings, The Varieties of the Religious Experience, religion embodies the "feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men... in relation to whatever they may consider the divine," (31). This pragmatic approach directly challenged traditional Christian beliefs, and many of my own today.

At times, it seems difficult to understand James' exact position on the religious experience, and what he believed to be true about the divine, but the role of evil in relation to the spiritual life, was developed over the course of the text into a more definitive position. In lectures VI and VII, James compares two psychologically variant human temperaments: the healthy minded and the sick soul. Although I believe James recognizes the benefit in the healthy-minded train of thought, I believe he finds the perception of evil through the eyes of the sick soul to exist more completely because of its ability to develop pessimistic elements, such as pain, sorrow, and death. Evil through the eyes of the healthy-minded individuals is present, but focus lies upon repentance and detachment from relation to sin, thus preventing negative emotions from ever developing. These individuals are "those who, when unhappiness is offered or proposed to them, positively refuse to feel it, as if it were something mean and wrong," (79). By consciously choosing happiness, health, or success for example, these people believe their outward being capable of soon reflecting their choice, a process James terms the "Mind-cure movement," (94).

These differences in perceptions of evil develop differing perceptions of the divine. James recognizes the healthy-minded approach of avoiding evil as an essential piece to life as enabling one to also avoid certain burdensome difficulties. Healthy-mindedness takes on a pluralistic approach to the universe, which allows it to exist as higher and lower principles, rather than absolute unitary fact (132). This allows the existence of evil to be independent of God, fitting with the idea that God is absolutely good. On the contrary, theism is monistic, presenting God as All in All and creator of all things, including evil. This perspective forces religion to bring forth questions on the origin of sin. For many religious persons, the idea that God allows trials to occur in a person's life to provide teaching opportunities or periods of joy, serves to protect the possibility that our God is not essentially good. With this argument, James presents the mind-cure movement as beneficial and a respectable form of religion, as it seeks to keep God and sin independent from one another.

Though James accepts the healthy-minded approach, he continues to make greater reference to the importance of the sick soul. At the end of lecture VII, he foreshadows the healing and unification process for the morbid-minded. Evil, as discussed before, exists for the these individuals in one of two ways: as a maladjustment with things, curable by altering the self or the evil; or as a state deep within their nature that is only curable by way of a supernatural remedy (134). In order to achieve healing, the sick soul however must progress through a second birth, a strenuous process that requires unification of the conscious and unconscious. Because the healthy-minded are not distressed by their own imperfections, they in contrast are only able to exist as once-born individuals, and thus maintain a child-like, effortless relationship with God (81).

To better describe this movement, James discusses the concept of threshold as the point at which one state of mind is able to pass into the other. Those with a high difference threshold have a divided subconscious and conscious unable to resolve conflict, whether recognized or not: "The spirit wars with the flesh, they wish



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