Contemporary Varieties of Religious Experience. By Lynn Bridgers

Book Review


Contemporary Varieties of Religious Experience. By Lynn Bridgers. Lanham MD: Lanham, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2005. Pp. 227. $65.00.
    The study of William James’s views on religious experience is difficult to separate from an examination of his views on psychology, yet such overtly psychological examinations of James’s religious ideas are rare. This is what Lynn Bridgers, trained in divinity, attempts.
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    Her approach involves two aspects of modern psychology. First there is resiliency, the idea that many of us are able to bounce back from life’s difficult experiences, rather than be humbled by them. She links resiliency to the response to trauma: for some trauma leads to illness, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); for others even the possibility of trauma produces anxiety and pain (some have called it pre-traumatic stress disorder); yet, in the most resilient, trauma actually leads to new experiences and transformation in one’s personality that makes one stronger and, in some healthier, i.e., post-traumatic growth. Bridgers sees some of James’s descriptions in Varieties to be of such persons who experienced personal trauma, through conversion experiences, as religiously transformative events, to their own benefit and the benefit of mankind.
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     The other major concept is, of course, the idea of temperaments. Here James was perhaps at his most original, dividing religion into the two types of the healthy-minded and the sick soul. After all the many varieties of religion that one could define based on dogmas and doctrines, James cut through the confusion by describing the two basic psychological types. Bridgers relies on the work of Jerome Kagan to relate James’s typology to more recent work. James’s thoughts about both types remain insightful and consistent with the ideas of Kagan. For instance, James himself received the mind-cure treatment, though he grew skeptical of its claims; Bridgers gives a good deal of attention to James’s views on the mind cure and Christian science.
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    James observation that the key to the religion of the healthy-minded is the deliberate minimalization of evil takes on new meaning when one sees the popularity and persistence of the kind of honey-soaked preaching that tops our bestseller lists. All the world is fine, and you are fine too, and God loves you, and that is all there is to it. We all feel good with this kind of preaching, if we are healthy-minded, but James leaves us the impression that this kind of thinking is based on illusions. Only the sick souls have drunk of the pain of reality, and even if they recover, they can never again become healthy-minded. 4
    James invented the concept of being born again, or twice born as he put it, but not in today’s sterilized evangelical version, where Christ does all the suffering and we reap all the benefits, but rather in the real-world suffering of the traumatized individual, who bounces back through transformation by faith. Real religion, James implies, is the twice born kind, though he does not deny the strength and value, for many, of simple positive once-born healthy-minded faith (Emerson is his exemplar). Bridgers discusses the connection between despair and faith, the benefits of trial by doubt, a perspective influenced by James Fowler’s concept of stages of faith (Fowler wrote her foreword). 5
    Perhaps the greatest influence of James’s view of the sick soul is in the rise of 12 step programs. Bridgers briefly examines this link, including the view that Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), may have directly consulted James; it is at least likely that Wilson was influenced indirectly by James’s ideas. The souls of few are more sick than those of down and out alcoholics, and to this day, no approach has been as successful as AA’s decidedly non-positive, twice-born approach to spirituality.
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    Overall, despite overly simple juxtaposition of James’s thoughts with selected modern psychologists, some useful analogies are made, some new territory is explored, and the reader is left wanting more. A hundred years later, we have yet to fully plumb the psychological depths of James’s insights into religious faith.
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S. Nassir Ghaemi
Dept of Psychiatry
Emory University

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