Split Mysticism: William James’s Democratization of Religion

PAUL CROCE

ABSTRACT

James’s approach to religious experience has a reputation for appealing only to the spiritual elite. After all, he set aside average churchgoers in favor of those with “direct personal communion with the divine”; not many live up to that lofty standard. But his approach to this “personal religion,” in The Varieties of Religious Experience and in less direct ways throughout his work, shows another side to his religion. Within church structures and even without institutions, he maintained, there is spiritual potential in all humanity. While traditional Western religion looks for the deepest meaning in realms transcendent, James suggested the significance of depth psychology within each person, a kind of “inscendent” realm, the beyond within—he even subtitled The Varieties itself as “A Study in Human Nature.” His insights into religion also leached into his other philosophical ideas as he approached even science with humility. He was eager to engage in the scientific method, and deeply respectful of scientific facts, but unwilling to accept the claims of scientific enthusiasts ready to reduce religion to materialist phenomena; yet he welcomed their focus on naturalistic ways to understand religious experiences, since their physical focus presented a first step toward understanding the life of the spirit. The “mystical germ,” so dramatic among religious founders, is widely available, deep within every human consciousness. Just as he wrote his psychology for practical use, and his pragmatism as a philosophy of use, so he maintained that spirituality is ready for use.

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