Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Review Of George MacDonald's Thomas Wingfold Curate

As much as I love him as an author, I feel I am outgrowing much of George Mac’s theology. I’m much more familiar with up-to-date scholarship about comparative cosmogonies, religions, and mythology than I’ve ever been, and that makes some of MacDonald’s theology—very progressive in its own time for its overtones of universalism, inclusivity, and equality—feel outdated to me. It’s my fault for thinking of his theology as current in the first place; but I came from a very fundamentalist Christian background, and it took me a while. I am profoundly grateful to have discovered MacDonald as a source of liberation from my dogmatic heritage (thank you C.S. Lewis and John Eldridge for introducing us), yet I find myself increasingly distanced particularly from his Christian metaphysics, and this distance seems to increase each time I go back to read one of his works.

On the other hand, the unparalleled sweep of his imagination, his poetic grasp of beauty and existential significance, his love of nature, his authenticity, and his supreme literary intelligence far outshine the facets of his fin de siècle religious framework that are dated. I just keep getting the feeling that I haven’t yet plumbed the depths of all this guy has to offer beyond his Christianity. To be sure, there are so many gorgeous concepts and phrasing side-by-side with religious platitude, but his charm and range of vision blast through the time-worn ideas. Although he would probably claim that his profundity is borrowed from the deeper truths of Christianity, it seems to me that he is borrowing from something much older which Christianity itself borrows from, and perhaps from something further back  within his own self that recognized some corollaries within an established religion.

And I have to admire his honesty and attempt at integrating even his darkest doubts regarding the existence of God and the meaning of life into his faith. The protagonist of this book, Thomas Wingold, is a pastor who begins to question his own beliefs regarding the existence of God and the teachings of his sacred book. The entire work depicts a struggle between secular humanism, religious fundamentalism, and an honest faith. Wingfold, of course, represents an honest faith, and even though (spoiler alert!!) he ends up being predictably confirmed in the same faith he started questioning, still it is a purer, kinder, more honest sort of faith that cares for the lonely and outcast. Seems more right than wrong.

I truly believe that the polarized personalities of the work that represent the views of humanism (George Bascombe and Helen Lindgard), religious fundamentalism (Helen’s mother, oftentimes her brother, Leopold, and Wingfold’s own congregation), and an honest, inclusive Christianity (Wingfold and Polwarth) highlight MacDonald’s raging internal debate regarding the validity of each position, especially the contest between humanism and Christianity . It’s clear that MacDonald was not portraying his brain-child humanist in the most positive light—George Bascombe is conceited, selfish, and prejudiced against the weak and ignorant—but even so, he puts some pretty damn good munitions in the mouth of George against which to scrimmage. Perhaps if MacDonald didn’t work so hard to vilify him—probably an attempt to quell that voice in his own head—he could have been pretty close to creating understanding between people of faith and non-faith. But he was definitely playing a side, and gives some of the best apologias for the Christian faith—not bandying mere fact-based propaganda—that I have ever heard. It is philosophical jujitsu at its best with an understanding that the key to throwing an opponent isn’t necessarily data-bashing (“Evidence! All of it that was to be had was but such as one man received, another man refused…”), but rather using the weight of common human experiences, desires, and fears to compel, being diligent not to “weaken by presentation the force of a truth which, in discovery, would have its full effect.”

Though obviously predisposed, as are so many faithful believers, to think that all nonbelievers must be either deluded or dishonest, MacDonald was still extremely sympathetic to a sincere person whose heart seemed open to others; and he empathizes to a degree with the some of the points made by a more genuine secular humanism, namely, the lack of absolute certainty or assurance in matters of faith. Wingfold himself, though reinforced in his faith by the end of the story, is still a far way from absolute, untroubled certainty. But against losing hope in the face of uncertainty, he affirms his self-election:  “What mighty matter is it if, thus utterly befooled of Nature, we should also a little fool ourselves, by believing in a lovely hope that looks like a promise, and seems as if it ought to be true?” This sentiment reincarnates throughout the story, but the essence is the same: the best one can do is hope, and trust that the very best of what one believes is true. If there is a God, he or she will take care of the rest. This, I think, seems fair and even laudable, and would be a great common ground for people of different perspectives to meet if they could get past the need to declare absolute certainty over absolute hope or determination.

I was surprised, however, at my own disappointment with a tenor of poutiness on the part of MacDonald that I never noticed before in his writings. It seemed most pronounced when he mentioned the hypothetical absence of God in the universe. “Wingfold felt that if there was no God, his soul was but a thing of rags and patches out in the masterless, pitiless storm and hail of a chaotic universe.” World’s smallest violin ova’ heah. It was all very much in the spirit of William Wordsworth when he wrote:

“One adequate support for the calamities of life exist—one only—an assured belief that the procession of our fate, however sad or disturbed, is ordered by a being of infinite benevolence and power, whose everlasting purposes embrace all accidents, converting them to good” (from The Excursion).

MacDonald complained through his protagonists about life not being worth living if there were no God to control every little contingency, in which case all good experienced or hoped for were a complete illusion. It was as if he reasoned, “If I can’t have life all my way, with a god of my own perfect ideal, then I would rather not have life or god at all!” This whining reverberates throughout this book, although I can’t say I don’t sympathize in some ways.  Nietzsche’s ‘does-a-mother-get-paid-for-her-love?’ rebuff against those whose virtue consists in a desire to receive a reward for their love and goodness might well apply here:

“At you, ye virtuous ones, laughed my beauty to-day. And thus came its voice unto me: ‘They want—to be paid besides!’... Ye want to be paid besides, ye virtuous ones! Ye want reward for virtue, and heaven for earth, and eternity for your to-day?...Ye love your virtue as a mother loveth her child; but when did one hear of a mother wanting to be paid for her love?” (from Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

But, again, a universe without a traditional concept of God, immortality, and reward is a very hard thing for some who’ve been conditioned to think of happiness with strings of very concrete, eternal guarantees. I won’t begrudge a man or woman their prerogative to construct a system of metaphysics or mysticism. It’s very…human. Happiness ‘with strings’ is what we all want; it’s what we all work towards in one way or another; but when a string breaks, we can either cry over spilled milk, or we can try to enjoy what we have while searching for new strings. Simone DeBeauvoir, the French philosopher, said that losing a god through disbelief hurts too much to come to terms with easily. “After having lived under the eyes of the gods, having been given the promise of divinity, one does not readily accept becoming simply a man with all his anxiety and doubt” (Ethics Of Ambiguity).  This, she said, goes hand in hand with the difficulty people have in “living without a guarantee.” Still, even without a sharply defined guarantee, we are yet alive for this moment, and to waste our only moment with the people we love is tantamount to wasting eternity.

In the end, Wingfold is content to “cast in my lot with the servants of the Crucified”, despite his parishioners’ disapprobation concerning his “lack of absolute assurance.” He lives what feels most real and hopeful to him, and that, at the very least, sounds authentic for many Christians and non-Christians alike. That is something a lot of us can get behind. Regardless of MacDonald’s conscious message, the grandeur of his style and grasp of the significance of human existence which lives on hope—on a chance—makes his works thoroughly enjoyable reads.

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Sunday, December 28, 2014

Review of Raymond Smullyan's The Tao Is Silent

About a year ago I read the experimental philosophy of “The Mind’s I” and enjoyed it so much that I decided to follow up with some of its selected authors, and Raymond Smullyan was a first stop. To be honest, at the start of The Tao Is Silent, I wasn’t sure if Smullyan was a joke or not. No doubt, as a mathematician he’s clearly a genius, but the tenor of the book seemed so blithe that I didn’t know how seriously he expected his readers to take him. I’m still not entirely sure he doesn’t think Taoism is completely hilarious as a philosophy of non-philosophy and an absurd parody of religion. The book is full of existential riddles, punchlines, and paradoxes that stretch the mind and loosen our grip on our stubborn biases about what life is, who we are, who god is, and what the ‘answers’ to our problems are. After getting used to his style, I realized that Smullyan is smiling straight through the confused questioning of humanity, and asking his readers to breathe for moment, and think in a purer air before working towards answers. At the end of the book, I was pretty sure he was legit as a thinker and philosopher, even though I never successfully determined which parts were sarcastic and which were completely sober. As far as the latter, probably none were entirely so.

His treatment of Taoism is less like a lesson than a game. Smullyan unasks more questions than he answers, but I think that is EXACTLY his point, and the point of Taoism. It is a perfect demonstration of the unraveling of tangled logic. In the style of Alice In Wonderland, he helps us see what fools we become when dogmatism creeps into ethics, religion, philosophy, politics, education, etc.  He uses Taoism to illustrate that we know more than we think [sic], and that the good is often much nearer to us than social reform theories might lead us to believe. He wants us to believe that we do what we do because it’s who we are and we can’t help it. Except when we can. Yeah, it gets tricky, but Smullyan is not interested in resolving contradictions for anyone. He loves it this way, and he makes me think that he loves it this way because he loves life, and life is this way. Matter of fact, he seems completely satisfied with apparent contradictions, believing that there may or may not be an explanation after all. “I wish to accept all religions, even though they contradict each other...pick the finest veins, and synthesize them as well as I can.”

I thought at first that he was an absolute pacifist, and possibly an absurdist, but I think he’s simply interested in breaking down illogic and dispelling presumption before proposing a solution. He quotes George Berkeley’s criticism of philosophers, “They first raise a dust, and then complain they cannot see.” Of course, Smullyan would be the one to play games and antagonize others in the dust storm before helping to clear people’s view, yet even that may be a very strategic move in motivating people to sit still long enough for their confusions to settle so he can help. It’s no jest to say that this is one of the most playful books from a very serious thinker that I have read in a long time, and it almost threw me completely, as it may others. One could very nearly miss the real gold here.

Smullyan is an optimist. It is evident he believes that people will be more effective if they are happy in life, and they will be more happy if they believe in themselves and do what comes natural (and that paradoxically includes what often appears to be ‘going against nature’). It is very Buddhist in that it attempts to go beyond mere right thinking and right action, to reestablishing right view. “When the wrong man does the right thing, it usually turns out wrong.” Taoism, he says, may not always change the practical lifestyle of some, but they may now live “with less fear and anxiety.” There is no coercion in Taoism. “The whole idea of Taoistic politics is that the sage-ruler influences the people to voluntarily do that which is good for them.”

Again, the real gem here is the permission to release our death-grip on sanity and logic, and to simply live with the confidence that the mechanism of our body and the world is rolling in the right direction somehow. This confidence in ourselves, and a simple acceptance of and joy in existence, is what Smullyan thinks will right most wrongs—wrongs which accumulate into the only real ‘evil’: suffering. He willingly accepts that this is a form of mysticism, stating that “metaphysics is the necessary ripening process of the human race to prepare it for mysticism.”

And what mysticism doesn’t cover, a buoyant absurdity does. “Someone asked a Zen-Master, ‘What is the ultimate nature of reality?’ The Master replied, ‘Ask the post over there.’ The man responded: ‘Master, I don’t understand!’ The master said, ‘Neither do I.’”

 My favorite chapters, and well worth an isolated read by curious people, are:

Is God a Taoist?
An imaginary Zen story.

The Evening Cool.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Review of Varieties of Religious Experience by William James

William James—father of American psychology, author of stream-of-consciousness, popularizer of the subconscious— was an absolute beast to take on religion the way he did, considering that religious fundamentalism was in thick ferment, social Darwinism still womb-wet and hungry, and global ignorance still blocking the sun. The task of outlining and appraising religious belief and practice is a prodigious task in any age— mindboggling in its scope and potential offenses. I’m sure we all grow weary of people who flippantly blame religion for world problems and societal ills, and no doubt there is a growing number of experts, and people in general, who think that the world can and should be purged of religious belief altogether, and that we’d all be more happy and healthy for it. The staggering lack of understanding aside which these assumptions betray of what religious belief is and is not—reducing religious belief to an antiquated and now useless, eradicable behavior that has had its day in the sun and is positively harmful for modern people— religious belief is not so easily peeled from our humanity. A study of religion and the origins and effects of religious belief reveals that the fundamental nature of religious sentiment connects in at the level of raw human desire, subsuming all intellectual pursuit.

So William James steers us and all religion-deniers straight. Here’s a guy, at the turn of the 20th century, who was light years ahead of thinkers, theologians, and philosophers even in the 21st century—probably due to a combination of genius AND honesty and courage. He was a Harvard’s resident physician-philosopher-psychologist par excellence, lecturing with the latest information in psychology and the psychology of religion; but he was also towered over his peers in his bravery to explore an area crawling with so much social taboo, challenges of obscurity in definition and origin, and risks of fanning false hopes or snuffing those which weakly flickered in the gale force winds of dehumanizing science. At some point in my reading of this work, my skepticism of his 19th century limits curtailed significantly. It quickly became clear that James was a cerebral giant, and seems to have truly grasped the essential nature of religion as a universal and irreducible trait of humanity that recurs in every age, culture and individual; as ineradicable as hope; as unquenchable as love and desire.

Defining Religion
James commences by attempting to define religion. This is no easy task because colloquial uses change even from person to person, not to mention culture to culture. But James narrows his task by insisting that the real pith of religion is the personal religious experience, not qualified or classified by institutionalized dogma or communal requisites. In other words, James decided that the pure ore of religion is acutely individual and first-hand, and must be studied anecdotally and not merely statistically or systemically as described by religious histories of the masses or tradition—which James’ calls “second-hand religious life”—because they have been censored and sanctioned by governing bodies of one sort or another intent on filtering raw perspective and reproducing very limited and constrained viewpoints and experiences for the purposes of control. These “original experiences” he focuses on exclusively in this work, and summarily ignores all dogma. With that clean chop of the cleaver, his work is focused and unbothered by zealous fundamentalism which amounts to sheer scare tactics in the first place. He ultimately classifies these original experiences, for the purposes of his study, as mystical and ecstatic because they belong to the unique experience of each individual, are unassailable by mere reason alone, and they produce revelations and assurances that are unattainable any other way. 

Having set the parameters for his subject, James offered three tests for the value of a religious experience(s):
Immediate luminousness
Philosophical reasonableness
Moral helpfulness
All are predicated upon the subjective experience of the individual, though number two may seem to imply otherwise. James’ point here is that a religious experience or viewpoint offers a believer illumination, ordered thought, and moral resources which appeared unavailable before the religious encounter. The value of these experiences are primarily weighed subjectively, and corroboration by outside observers are a subsidiary concern. James wards off detractors by saying, “If the mystical truth that comes to a man proves to be a force that he can live by, what mandate have we of the majority to order him to live in another way? absolutely escapes our jurisdiction.”

Regarding moral helpfulness, James quotes a Dr. Maudsley to affirm that it is “the way in which it works on the whole” that defines whether a belief is helpful or not. By demanding that his readers “judge a religious life by its results exclusively”, he has again preemptively narrowed his field of study to not merely vet the universality or cogency of a conviction itself, but to concentrate on the effects convictions and illuminations have on the lives of those who hold them.

As an aside, the felt benefit of religious belief is the emphasis of my research in Awakenings: Felt Benefit In Personal Values ( James’ focus on the end results of religious belief underscores the misguided tendency so many have to witch-hunt and mock those who have ‘strange’ beliefs, instead of working to understand if those beliefs increase the wellbeing of believers and those around them despite the beliefs’ plausibility or normality. “If the mystical truth that comes to a man proves to be a force that he can live by, what mandate have we of the majority to order him to live in another way? absolutely escapes our jurisdiction.” The western mindset insists that everyone be reasonable above all things, without a thought as to whether or not a person’s logic, however flawed in others’ opinion, can enable them to enjoy life and love adequately. The existence of hope belies our devotion to facts, efficiency and all impersonal science. Science is just another tool that helps us realize our hopes, and cold data will never substitute for the heat of human desire. In other words, like it or not, science will always be at the behest of our hopes—translated into illuminations, stories, systems, dogmas, and even the gods and no-gods of our religions. 

Mysticism and Religion
James believed that the “root and center” of religion is a mystical state of consciousness. These mystical states are primarily responsible for the deep convictions of the religious because through them subjects feel as though they have experienced something more real, more personal, and more hopeful than what their mundane existence has disclosed thus far. One study James cited involved an individual who summarized their conviction of truth gained in an ecstatic moment: “…the memory [of this mystical experience] persisted as the one perception of reality. Everything else might be a dream, but not that.” Myriad examples of profound assurance such as this exist both within and beyond James’ work (see Eban Alexander’s descriptions of near-death-experiences and their corollary persuasions in “Proof Of Heaven,” or Christopher Bache’s psychedelic-induced impressions in “Dark Night, Early Dawn”), and they confirm that mystical states of consciousness deeply shock a person’s sense of reality, sometimes to the point of a complete denial of quotidian sensory data in favor of impressions received during non-ordinary states of consciousness. At those times, the inner vision becomes more real than physical sight.

James’ restrictive use of the word ‘religion’ excludes mere morality and institutional conformity which he felt were offshoots of original religious experience. James believed that, as far as our ideas of reality go, “Instinct leads, intelligence follows.” That means at the bottom of our persuasions and rationalizations regarding reality, there’s lies an abstract and fluctuating sense of the way things are and the way things ought to be. Considering alone the haziness of memory and the inconsistent glue of logic, I can completely agree that the myth of crystal-clear reality is a sham, and can even become a defense against the ultimate and unknowable. “Our impulsive belief is…always what sets up the original body of truth, and our articulately verbalized philosophy is but its slow translation into formulas.” In other words, our “inarticulate feelings of reality,” as James calls them, are the best we have! Here James has home court advantage in the realm of the psychology of religion. Again and again he reminds the reader that if religion or theology were really dependent on reason and not feeling, then the universal appeal of reason would probably do a better job of convincing people of the truth of a particular religious belief over another. “Feeling is the deeper source of religion…philosophic and theological formulas are secondary products, like translations of a text into another tongue.” Religion, then, is founded on feeling; but James is fair in pointing out that religion isn’t the only thing founded on feeling. So is…well…everything else. But religion is closer to the source of “immediate experiences” and feeling, and makes its home there.

Being a man of extraordinary reason and charging intellect, James was, and still is, a rare species in that, being brilliant, he yet understood the limits of his reason (aaaaand…everyone else’s). Reason arranges and classifies information gathered by the senses, but it does not supersede the senses or other faculties that it partners with, including the emotions and imagination. “Conceptual processes can class facts, define them, interpret them; but they do not produce them…perception [is] always something that glimmers and twinkles and will not be caught, and for which reflection comes too late…” This is not to say that blind will or raw emotional processing is all that is necessary for human functioning, or that the intellect is a completely ancillary and discrete process. Intellection is a generally considered to be a more refined filtering and categorization of data, but it is in some degree present in all the holistic operations of a person. In no way is the intellect a process detached from the will or emotions that commission the body’s scavenging for intel. “The intellect is not independent of what it ascertains.” All this to say, reason is not the crackerjack of mental functioning, though it may be a sophistication that evolved more recently; nor are the religious out of their minds for living closer to their spinal cords.

Religious Temperament: Once-Born and Twice-Born
James differentiated between two types of the religious temperament: the once-born, and the twice-born. The Once-Born person is born into life and immediately takes to it, is happy with life’s potential, and finds it to be meaningful and fulfilling as it is. The Once-Born has warm fuzzies about the world, and might say, like Margaret Fuller of old, "I accept the universe"—hearing which, Thomas Carlyle is reported to have commented, "Gad, she'd better!”

The Twice-Born person, on the contrary, is born into life a ‘sick soul’—sick with pessimism—needing to be symbolically born into life a second time (“born again”) via a religious conversion or some other altering crisis before they can find the world to offer a meaningful experience for them with potential for joy and fulfillment. The label of twice-born is no epithet—distinguished thinkers and writers throughout the ages have suffered as ‘ sick souls’ with severe depression and often torturous despair, yet with the courage to face life and affirm it even in the midst of misery. These tremendous sufferers I knew to exist, but I took it for granted how many people before the 20th century, both anonymous and renown, have suffered and bore with existence as if it was a sore test of endurance and one’s sanity merely to live and think.

Consider a quotation from the 18th century genius Johann Wolfgang von Goethe—whom so many in his day idolized, and many who currently know of him still do—in which he likened his life to Sisyphus and the futile and meaningless rolling of a rock up a hill again and again without end: “I will say nothing against the course of my existence. But at bottom I has been nothing but pain and burden, and I can affirm that during the whole of my 75 years, I have not had four weeks of genuine well-being. It is but the perpetual rolling of a rock that must be raised up again forever.”

Especially in such cases, and for such people, religion becomes a booster vaccine loaded with adrenaline to help ease the agony and panic of being. “Here is the real core of the problem [which religion answers to]: Help! Help!.. [and] deliverance must come in as strong a form as the complaint.” It is a sad reality that, for many, the heart of life is pain; and fear is, as Jack London put it, “coiled around the roots of our being.”

 James was brave to fully admit the horror of life as it manifests to some, and to recognize that humanity must have something to cope. “The lunatic’s visions of horror are all drawn from the material of daily fact… [and] every individual existence goes out in a lonely spasm of helpless agony.” Well tell me some good news doc.

“…there is no tooth in any one of those museum-skulls that did not daily through long years of the foretime hold fast to the body struggling in despair of some fated living victim.”

That’s not what I had in mind Billy.

“Old age has the last word: the purely naturalistic look at life, however enthusiastically it may begin, is sure to end in sadness.”

Egads, man! Make like Marley and speak some friggin comfort to me! Okay, so, I get it. Religion is a potent and equally grotesque response to the severe cruelty and horror of the world which we seldom allow ourselves to consider or confront. So, at least religion is a good fallback. Right?...right? James, where you at? Come at me Bro!!!

“It may indeed be that no religious reconciliation with the absolute totality of things is possible. Some evils, indeed, are ministerial to higher forms of good; but it may be that there are forms of evil so extreme as to enter into no good system whatsoever, and that, in respect of such evil, dumb submission or neglect to notice is the only practical resource.”

I think I’m going to be sick. But I get what he’s saying.

Religious Phenomena:  Saintliness and Asceticism
James addresses many forms of religious expression and phenomena, and spends a lot of time on the qualities and value of the paragons of religious life—saints whose traits range from blind optimism to asceticism—and the lifestyles that provide different solutions for boredom, danger, and pain. It becomes quickly clear that James labored over the meaning of suffering in the world, and was profoundly intrigued with what potential answers religion seemed to produce, consciously or otherwise.  “Our ancestors looked upon pain as an eternal ingredient of the world’s order”, although, it seems to me the ancients weren’t so satisfied as all that, and clearly believed in its ultimate eradication in one doctrine or another. Even so, James takes very seriously the different ways in which people deal with pain and boredom, and he’s sees deep significance in the ‘yes’ and ‘no’s’ of the saintly towards being.

“Some men and women can live on smiles and the word ‘yes’ forever. But for others (indeed for most), this is too tepid and relaxed…some ‘no! no!’ must be mixed in, to produce the sense of an existence with character and texture and power.”

Perhaps some austerities and deprivations are often required to produce a contrast which surfaces beauty and love. Without this contrast, some would feel that life comes too cheaply, or that materialism drowns out the spiritual.

“…some are happiest in calm weather; some need the sense of tension, of strong volition, to make them feel alive and well. For these latter souls, whatever is gained from day to day must be paid for by sacrifice and inhibition, or else it comes too cheap and has no zest…In short, lives based on having are less free than lives based either on doing or on being… Naked came I into the world…My own bare entity must fight the battle—shams cannot save me.”

Well, you have to respect that. I’m not much for cutting, but I imagine a person can find some justification for variations of self-denial. And that’s what began to shock me about this book: so many religious experiences and ideas—no matter how different from mine, or how harmful they are purported to be—have a very specific reason for being, and many rationales and lifestyles foreign to me (read: “us”) may have enabled the survival and prosperity of entire civilizations. The sooner people like Richard Dawkins can acknowledge this and stop overreacting against faith and even fetish, the sooner he will be acknowledged and taken more seriously by traditional thinkers who feel attacked by his belligerence.

The New War: Poverty
Religion definitely seemed to emerge in James’ mind as a ward against materialism—one of the more positively salutary effects of religion as far as he was concerned—and it accomplished this by becoming chummy with poverty. Poverty is the war against fat and insulating materialism. He actually develops this brilliantly. Let’s watch the author at work in his natural environment as he builds his case:
“Ancestral evolution has made us all potential warriors.”
“The most barbaric tendencies in men come to life again in war, and for war’s uses they are incommensurably good.”
“What we now need to discover in the social realm is the moral equivalent of war: something heroic that will speak to men as universally as war does, and yet will be as compatible with their spiritual selves as war has proved itself to be incompatible.”
“It is certain that the prevalent fear of poverty among the educated classes is the worst moral disease from which our civilization suffers.”
“Poverty indeed is the strenuous life. Among us English-speaking peoples especially do the praises of poverty need once more to be boldly sung. We have grown literally afraid to be poor.”
“A man for whom poverty has no terrors becomes a freeman.”

And there you have it, the voluntary poverty and self-denial that religion offers is the new war that we all apparently want! Of course, this brand of poverty-appeal is for very specific temperaments that desire the stress of combat of some kind; but hey, Henry David Thoreau would have been proud of this poverty-mongering, having said himself, “None can be an impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage ground of what we should call voluntary poverty.” Bro, meet bro.

As for the loss of comfort, this goes back to James’ explanation that not everyone wants comfort. This is, again, an example of different ways in which people are fulfilled by embracing different measures of the pain-pleasure tension. The various balances people strike between simplicity and complexity in ideology play a part as well. For some, the desire for beauty outweighs the risk of poverty, discomfort, and chaos, and may even be enriched by difficulty. “Although some persons aim most at intellectual purity and simplification, for others richness is the supreme imaginative qualification.” So many reasons to be poor!

In his chapters covering conversions, James explored the changes and confirmations that occur in a person’s life that lock them into an idea or a way of living. He cleverly dissected the psychology of conversion, and identified several contributing factors:
A desire for a unified self
Regular successions of selves in a desire for unification
Catalysts for new successions
Desire or excitement for the new
Absolute exhaustion with the old

He builds slowly from an understanding of the complex nature of the need for a unified sense of self—despite heterogeneous qualities that make up every self—to the common vacillations that occur unconsciously between multiplied states and identities coexisting, converging, and conflicting within each person. Conversion becomes, in James’ estimation, a “succession of self” which is quite frequent though often unconscious. Some successions-of-selves are given more notice by the psyche than others, and some are valued more.

“As life goes on, there is a constant change of our interests, and a consequent change of place in our systems of ideas, from more central to more peripheral, and from more peripheral to more central parts of consciousness...all we know is that there are dead feelings, dead ideas, and cold beliefs, and there are hot and live ones; and when one grows hot and alive within us, everything has to re-crystallize about it.”

These changes and conversions are typical for all people, but the contrast can be sharper in sudden conversions due to various factors such as:
Pronounced emotional sensibility
Tendency to automatisms (neurotic behavior/obsessions)
James would say that conversion is actually a very normal adolescent phenomenon, indicating a “passage from the child’s small universe to the wider intellectual and spiritual life of maturity.” Conversions later in life may signify internal volatilities such as a changing perspectives, changing needs, and new skills that have reached critical mass and require new challenges; or external fluctuations as simple as a change in environment, or a crisis. Herman Hesse stated that the myth of a unified self contributes to the myth that conversions are rare and isolated events.

“It appears to be an inborn need of all men to regard the self as a unit. However often and however grievously this illusion is shattered, it always mends again…In reality, however, every ego, so far from being a unity, is in the highest degree a manifold world, a constellated heaven, a chaos of forms, of states and stages, of inheritances and potentialities” (from Steppenwolf).

More recently, author Gail Sheehy, in her book Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life, marks many common later-in-life transitions that would qualify as Jamesian ‘conversions’ because they are successions of selves induced by transitions of states, consciousnesses, and crises, very much like the adolescent changes that James spoke of. By acknowledging and educating others on the reality of adult passages that often go unrecognized—due to pop opinion and urban legends about the adult ego being cemented and irrefragably one, and the taboo of the unnaturalness of adult crisis (consider the label of ‘mid-life crisis’ that is considered more a failure than a normal passage)—Sheehy broke down the misunderstanding that conversions, successions of selves, and passages are abnormal or unhealthy. My point here is that Jamesian conversions are not exclusive to the domain of religion, but are consistent with psychological transitions experience by all healthy people, religious or not. Understood in this light, it is a shame that so many view conversions as phenomena associated with neurosis and delusion.

The Subconscious 
By slow degrees James approached the topic of the subconscious, which was an extremely new idea and in its infancy of proving its mettle as a legitimate point study in psychology. The subconscious was introduced to the world of psychology in 1886—James wrote his work in 1902, a mere 16 years with the new science— and the application of this concept in the field of the psychology of religion was an experiment that we now know yielded incredibly persuasive results, helping to solidify its tenure. James was wicked-smart in administering the findings of the subconscious—which he called “memories, thoughts, and feelings which are extra-marginal and outside of the primary consciousness altogether”—to illuminate the monster-gods that religion had produced in many instances, and thereby ushered the world into a new era of empowerment and independence. Once he worked up to its theme in Varieties, it was all downhill, opening up the deeper recesses of religious influences to be scrutinized and subsequently demythologized. They never knew what hit them.

Much to my surprise and delight, James ultimately took his subject all the way to the limits of ‘decency’ and actually attempted to appraise the value of a few specific beliefs, most notably the idea of an infinite God and doctrinal orthodoxies such as ecclesiastic rule and Scriptural inerrancy.  He used, of course, the meritocratic metric of results—of the amount of good these beliefs seemed to accomplish in the life of their adherents—and not the metric of how reasonable a creed or belief appeared to others. The deities a person keeps around play some kind of role, however poorly, in protecting and reinforcing something that they think they need. The commands of a sovereign god would hardly be noticed, much less revered, if they were antithetical to the needs of the devotee.  “The gods we stand by are the gods we need and can use, the gods whose demands on us are reinforcements of our demands on ourselves and on one another.” Some of his conclusions regarding specific beliefs were intriguing—an infinite god is a monstrosity, and orthodoxy is a scare tactic—but his willingness to weigh particular faith tenets was brazen and timely. Love this guy’s stones.

And because he spent a lot of time critiquing cherished beliefs, he spent some time developing an apologia for his right to do so, lest he be accused of a form of iconoclasm which he himself denounced. Even his claim that human reason is prone to error resolved into a barricade, knowing that he would be criticized by dogmatists for what appeared to be a relativistic standpoint. Times haven’t changed much, and fundamentalist Christians are still fighting with the same outmoded arguments against ‘higher criticism.’ James would counter naysayers by declaring that his honesty about the limits of reason and science only made him more believable. The burden of proof remained incumbent on those who claimed to apprehend absolutes with a finite mind. James was unassailable when he said he feared to “lose truth by this pretension to possess it already wholly.”

How Belief Works
The psychology of belief enters into chapter 18 with beautifully simple yet elegant summaries of belief and thought in religion. The idea of belief being ‘thought at rest’ is poetic, and maybe a bit revolutionary.

“Thought in movement has for its only conceivable motive the attainment of belief, or thought at rest. Only when our thought about a subject has found its rest in belief can our action on the subject firmly and safely begin. Beliefs, in short, are rules for action…to develop a thought’s meaning we need therefore only determine what conduct it is fitted to produce.”

That statement goes far to establish parameters for thought and belief. Giving thought the sanction and time to do its business, without rushing it to crystallize into any form for a span of time, helps it get its job done right. When thought has finished its recon of a given subject and available data, then settling on a decision—a commitment to believe which is an act of the will—would be in order because, as James noted, settled decisions guide future action. Thought, then, is the scout, and belief is the general giving out orders. Understanding thought as belief at rest keeps thought and belief from being confused, and in doing so gives thinkers and believers the right to operate differently—thinkers in gathering and analyzing, believers in creating rules for action—and both will feel the freedom and necessity to cross over into alternate operations routinely. A believer must not always be a believer only, nor a thinker a thinker, but each must in turn explore and decide for human cognition to have the greatest advantage. It grieves me how little this is understood or employed by those who call themselves thinkers and believers. A thinker who believes nothing fails to act and live; a believer who no longer thinks critically or independently can no longer change direction but barrels down a path that they no longer choose. Both seem infatuated with an early death.

What I didn’t like
For all of William James’ genius, there were still a few things that proved him a man of his times. I’m not one to excuse the past for being the past, so I’ll mention what I found to be disagreeable to me personally, since I—let the minutes reflect—am the one reading it. As Nietzsche once said, “It is my sympathy with the past that I see it abandoned.” So, please humor me, and allow me the gratification of taking William James to task for being—how shall I say—a stiff.

To start with, the author’s Insistence,  towards the beginning of the book, that a religious outlook must always be a solemn and serious look at life overshoots just a tad. This, along with his praise of the ascetic trait in the section titled “saints”, extols too highly the austere demeanor, even if it is well-suited for some. I have to cry foul at this rhapsodic appraisal of the benefit of solemnity. “[Religion] favors gravity, not pertness; it says ‘hush’ to all vain chatter and wit.” In a way, I understand. He is trying to communicate that the thrust of religion is that “all is not vanity in this Universe, whatever the appearances may suggest”; but I and many others believe that wit , cynicism, humor—even black comedy and gallows-humor— are staples of human personality and hope, especially in extreme conditions. I know James didn’t have the pleasure of meeting Mel Brooks, but from the sound of it, he may not have been thrilled with Brook’s jab, “Humor is just another defense against the universe.” Why could James not acknowledge that a cathartic cynicism inherent in dark humor was replete through all religious texts in the form of laughter, irony, sarcasm, tales of suffering and retribution, caustic apologia, polemical retort, poetry, hyperbole, and in the will to pass on outlandish stories which essentially evoke pleasure in paradox. I see no need to pitch religion against the more sophisticated forms of intellectually satisfying humor (can you tell how I get my kicks?). Even the line that James borrowed from Renan to epitomize and condemn cynical authors, using their own words, is brilliant and defeating to the intention of his use, “Good-humor is a philosophic state of mind; it seems to say to Nature that we take her no more seriously than she takes us” (Renan). We’ve all heard it before, but you can laugh, or you can cry. I always thought the response to that aphorism was obvious, but I guess some would rather cry. Go figure.

Some of James’ defenses of religion and asceticism sounds reaching, and throughout the book tautologies abound. “We can count upon the saint lending his hand with more certainty than we can count upon any other person.” Huh? I know a lot of ‘saints’, and they aren’t all the lend-a-hand types. Many are aloof, disrespectful, and oftentimes downright adversarial towards anyone who is unlike them. I’m not saying that a sweeping justification of unbelievers or a condemnation of so-called saints is in order, but neither do I feel that an unqualified endorsement of believers solves any real problems. Might actually create a few.

I also found James’ defense of choosing examples of extreme religious passion to form the basis of his studies of the religious temperament to be bizarre and not as helpful as he would have us believe. “The essence of religious experiences, the thing by which we finally must judge them, must be that element or quality in them which we can meet nowhere else. And such a quality will be of course most prominent and easy to notice in those religious experiences which are most one-sided, exaggerated, and intense.” It appears he wanted to have clearly defined boundaries for his research and reportage, but unfortunately when it comes to religious experience, the varieties are legion; and allowing the categories to be too sharply focused, when in reality the issue is much more broad, cuts out a lot of relevant material that the greater portion of humanity finds relatable.  Don’t get me wrong, I have often used the phrase “the extremes help define the moderate,” but I think the absolute exclusion of the mean skews results, as extreme examples can often jump categories and detract from generalized applications. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein knew this well, saying that in the realm ideas and language we must be careful not to attempt to sharpen a mental picture or a word when a vague idea is more faithful to the reality we experience. “Is it even always an advantage to replace an indistinct picture by a sharp one? Isn’t the indistinct one often exactly what we need?...Imagine having to sketch a sharply defined picture ‘corresponding’ to a blurred one” (from Philosophical Investigations). The real problem James ran into was trying to go back and justify his critique of religious experience based on exaggerated examples of neurotic, highly sensitive personalities that actually only constitute a very small percentage of those who consider themselves to have religious sensibilities. Besides that, he neatly severs all those from his study who self-style themselves as religious by virtue of second-hand belief and doctrinal fidelity (not having had a mystical experience themselves, but desiring one), and this faithfulness is a very real facet of religious experience as most people understand it, and which I happen to think is a very useful and valid division of religious categorization.

Who knows, maybe the only available data for such a study was primarily reportage from extraordinary cases of mystical transport in neurotic and ultra sensitive people. Or maybe James simply wished his topic to remain proscribed, thereby reducing the perceived influence of religion by narrowing it in definition. But when he makes statements that suggest he believes religion is a boon to mankind, and that it is here to stay, I wonder if he has forgotten his narrow criteria for eccentric religious experience. Later in the book he even swallows up the confines of his definition by referring to the universality of religious reality, “By being religious we establish ourselves in possession of ultimate reality at the only points at which reality is given us to guard. Our responsible concern is with our private destiny, after all…The love of life, at any and every level of development, is the religious impulse.” He blows his category even wider by the statement, “The ‘more’ as we call it, and the meaning of our union with it, form the nucleus of our inquiry.” Who doesn’t want to be united with the ‘more’? In these sentiments his rubric begins to slip and he thinks, correctly in my opinion, of religion for the masses and not for the peculiar few. But I’ll cut him some slack. After all, he’s dead, and I’m not. So…there’s that.

 James concludes quite rightly that there are a multitude of ways to view and live life, and of these ways there are different combinations and alternations of ideas, methods, wants, and needs of different people in different places at different times. How could there possibly be only one right way to think or act for so many different contingencies? Our ideas and practices should be as diverse as the sundry ways we each experience reality.

 “What, in the end, are all our verifications but experiences that agree with more or less isolated systems of ideas that our minds have framed? But why in the name of common sense need we assume that only one such system of ideas can be true?...And why, after all, may not the world be so complex as to consist of many interpenetrating spheres of reality, which we can thus approach in alternation by using different conceptions and assuming different attitudes, just as mathematicians handle the same numerical and spatial facts by geometry, by analytical geometry, by algebra, by the calculus, or by quaternions, and each time come out right?”
James deftly illustrates the validity of various ways of believing and living by asking his readers to consider alone the way people experience pain differently. “Does it not appear as if one who lived more habitually on one side of the pain-threshold might need a different sort of religion from one who habitually lived on the other?” Intolerance of religion betrays a basic failure to understand the global variety of human temperament and value expressions directly related to all the diverse factors that make us unique. Again, it would be a huge step towards understanding each other if we could at least acknowledge that  there are some people, maybe much more than we are comfortable in admitting, who can’t find the same simple pleasure in existence as everyone else.

We have to get it into our skulls that we all need to believe and express ourselves differently to manage our very unique lives. In this central theme of the work, we hit the payload. DON’T MISS THIS!! Here, James brings us to the crux of his interest in mystic states that he believes are the quintessence of the authentic, because personal, religious experience:

“Some years ago I myself made some observations on this aspect of nitrous oxide intoxication, and reported them in print. One conclusion was forced upon my mind at that time, and my impression of its truth has ever since remained unshaken. It is that our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.”

So there it is. James was religious himself, not in terms of believing specific things about God or a Holy Book, but in so far as he had an experience with nitrous oxide that had touched him profoundly, and helped him see something new which had given him an unshakable confidence. What is this new thing he realized through laughing gas?

“The keynote of it [nitrous illuminations] is invariably a reconciliation. It is as if the opposites of the world, whose [paradoxes] and conflict make all our difficulties and troubles, were melted into unity.”

Doesn’t sound so bad. So this is what James thinks people are chasing, and what, I believe, he was chasing and seeking to validate in this work. But really, generalizes the lesson in a way anyone can take something home.

“No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded…At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.”

Now that is fantastic. Why would we shut each other out—each person being a window to other worlds, feelings, hopes, dreams, loves—when we could be seeing everything new through each other? Why would I only limit myself to one way of viewing the world, one defined and unchangeable self to experience it, one mode of expressing the joy, struggle, and courage of my existence? It makes perfect sense that we should all experience the universe in as many different ways as we are each different, and report back to each other in words and images that are faithful to the extraordinary and unspeakable ways it feels to BE ME. Why would we limit that???…unless we are afraid. Fear is as valid an experience and view as any other, but it is just ONE! How sad when fear is the only view we allow. In shutting out discomfort and even the possibility of danger to our egos, we risk shutting out hope, love, and beauty. I don’t want to shut any window that might bring a word or a vision from beyond the walls of my skin. It appears James didn’t want that either. The Other is a chance for salvation from a very limited life and perspective.

“For practical life at any rate, the chance of salvation is enough. No fact in human nature is more characteristic than its willingness to live on a chance.”