Exhumator Esoterics

Encyclopedia of Spiritual — Letter J - JAMES, WILLIAM

Exhumator Esoterics
Exhumator Esoterics

The Civil War's atrocities taught James and his colleagues that those who are most certain are also those who most often resort to violence. The struggles of his day-between abolitionism and antiabolitionism, science and morality, evolution and theology- demanded solutions. Faced with such dichotomies, James's pragmatism sought a new way of thinking that would dissolve the apparent contradictions. In his 1906 lecture and 1910 essay, James pointed to the need for "The Moral Equivalent of War," a substitute for war's toughening and maturing functions, that would involve the conscription of each generation of youth for a couple of years to provide nonmilitary service for the common good. William James died in Chocorua, New Hampshire in 1910 at the age of 68. In his final ideas, however, is a forecast of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Peace Corps, and similar forms of public morality and community service.


Each intellectual stream in James's life allowed him to develop specific skills that enhanced his contributions to the study of religion. But it is through his second psychological masterpiece, The Varieties of Religious Experience, that James made his most vital and enduring contribution to the psychology of religion.

Neuropsychology of Religion

The Varieties opens with a chapter entitled "Religion and Neurology." While the beginning may seem unusual, it is consistent with James's understanding that psychology is grounded in human anatomy and biological temperament. James believed that every human phenomenon, including religious experience, was derived from natural antecedents, and that religious experiences have neural foundations, as do all human behaviors. In this sense, James believed religious phenomena originated in and were derived from nature. Thus, he explains that in The Varieties he draws his data from documents humains, the document of the living human organism.

James was also keenly aware, however, of the limitations of the biological sciences. The second purpose of his chapter on neurology and religion was to undermine the reductionistic claims of "medical materialism" that religious states of mind can be explained fully by the person's physical constitution. Thus, for example, a religious experience might be said to be "nothing but" the result of neural pathology, a poor digestive system, one's sex life, or epilepsy. James argues, in contrast, that religious experience cannot be reduced to mere biology and that the natural origins of religious experience are insufficient to determine their spiritual value.

James's contemporaries, such as G. Stanley Hall, questioned whether religious experience was better understood as purely physiological or secular and not religious. Believers debated whether such experiences were supernatural and subsequently not natural. Contemporary historians believe that James represented a mediating third tradition that asserted religious experience could be both natural and religious, that authentic religious experience and naturalistic accounts of an experience did not have to be mutually exclusive.

Person-Centered Psychology of Religion

The aim of James's psychology of religion was to focus on "interior" personal spiritual experience. His person-centered functional psychology allowed him to analyze the varieties of "firsthand" religious experience, which, in turn, highlighted religion's many functions in terms of meeting human needs. James argued that, when "judging of the value of religious phenomena," one must "insist on the distinction between religion as an individual personal function, and religion as an institutional, corporate, or tribal product." Ecclesiastical institutions were of little interest to James. The religious experience which he studied was "that which lives itself out within the private breast." Original, firsthand individual religious experiences, James observed, have "always appeared as a heretical sort of innovation to those who witnessed its birth." James was particularly interested in the experience of religious innovators, reformers, and founders who demonstrate extremes of religious intensity. In many ways, his work predated and predicted the American interest in "spirituality" as distinct from "religion."