Trying to put life in perspective makes me curious about the experiences of others. How do people relate to—or wrestle with—God and all things spiritual?
The Varieties of Religious Experiences by psychologist and philosopher William James is one of the few books I’ve read multiple times. Originally given as a series of lectures at the University of Edinburgh and published more than a century ago, the language is academic and arcane but the insights are timeless.
Based on encyclopedic research, James concludes that religious experiences are ubiquitous and essential:
When all is said and done, we are in the end absolutely dependent on the universe; and into sacrifices and surrenders of some sort, deliberately looked at and accepted, we are drawn and pressed as into our only permanent positions of repose. … Religion thus makes easy and felicitous what in any case is necessary; and if it be the only agency that can accomplish this result, its vital importance as a human faculty stands vindicated beyond dispute. It becomes an essential organ of our life, performing a function which no other portion of our nature can so successfully fulfill. – Lecture II, Circumscription of the Topic
Distilled into one sentence, James is saying: religion is our attempt to come to grips with the universe in which we find ourselves. The expressions of this primal urge vary depending on one’s temperament, training and worldview.
It makes a tremendous emotional and practical difference to one whether one accepts the universe in the drab discolored way of stoic resignation to necessity, or with the passionate happiness of Christian saints. – Lecture II, Circumscription of the Topic
Personal mysticism and scientific materialism are opposite ends of this continuum. The mystic seeks intimacy with a personal Creator; the materialist seeks understanding of the first principles of creation. Differing a priori assumptions lead to different conclusions and disparate lifestyles but the search is the same.
Prominent among the treasures we seek above all else are happiness and truth. More about these in future posts.