[WilliamJames] Lecture 3, third and final chunk

Eric Purdy epurdy at uchicago.edu
Wed Feb 5 21:59:53 CST 2014


I subjoin some more examples from writers of different ages and sexes. They
are also from Professor Starbuck's collection, and their number might be
greatly multiplied. The first is from a man twenty-seven years old:--
"God is quite real to me. I talk to him and often get answers. Thoughts
sudden and distinct from any I have been entertaining come to my mind after
asking God for his direction. Something over a year ago I was for some
weeks in the direst perplexity. When the trouble first appeared before me I
was dazed, but before long (two or three hours) I could hear distinctly a
passage of Scripture: 'My grace is sufficient for thee.' Every time my
thoughts turned to the trouble I could hear this quotation. I don't think I
ever doubted the existence of God, or had him drop out of my consciousness.
God has frequently stepped into my affairs very perceptibly, and I feel
that he directs many little details all the time. But on two or three
occasions he has ordered ways for me very contrary to my ambitions and
plans."

Another statement (none the less valuable psychologically for being so
decidedly childish) is that of a boy of seventeen:--
"Sometimes as I go to church, I sit down, join in the service, and before I
go out I feel as if God was with me, right side of me, singing and reading
the Psalms with me. ... And then again I feel as if I could sit beside him,
and put my arms around him, kiss him, etc. When I am taking Holy Communion
at the altar, I try to get with him and generally feel his presence."

I let a few other cases follow at random:--

"God surrounds me like the physical atmosphere. He is closer to me than my
own breath. In him literally I live and move and have my being."--

"There are times when I seem to stand in his very presence, to talk with
him. Answers to prayer have come, sometimes direct and overwhelming in
their revelation of his presence and powers. There are times when God seems
far off, but this is always my own fault."--

"I have the sense of a presence, strong, and at the same time soothing,
which hovers over me. Sometimes it seems to enwrap me with sustaining arms."

Such is the human ontological imagination, and such is the convincingness
of what it brings to birth. Unpicturable beings are realized, and realized
with an intensity almost like that of an hallucination. They determine our
vital attitude as decisively as the vital attitude of lovers is determined
by the habitual sense, by which each is haunted, of the other being in the
world. A lover has notoriously this sense of the continuous being of his
idol, even when his attention is addressed to other matters and he no
longer represents her features. He cannot forget her; she uninterruptedly
affects him through and through.

I spoke of the convincingness of these feelings of reality, and I must
dwell a moment longer on that point. They are as convincing to those who
have them as any direct sensible experiences can be, and they are, as a
rule, much more convincing than results established by mere logic ever are.
One may indeed be entirely without them; probably more than one of you here
present is without them in any marked degree; but if you do have them, and
have them at all strongly, the probability is that you cannot help
regarding them as genuine perceptions of truth, as revelations of a kind of
reality which no adverse argument, however unanswerable by you in words,
can expel from your belief. The opinion opposed to mysticism in philosophy
is sometimes spoken of as *rationalism*. Rationalism insists that all our
beliefs ought ultimately to find for themselves articulate grounds. Such
grounds, for rationalism, must consist of four things: (1) definitely
statable abstract principles; (2) definite facts of sensation; (3) definite
hypotheses based on such facts; and (4) definite inferences logically
drawn. Vague impressions of something indefinable have no place in the
rationalistic system, which on its positive side is surely a splendid
intellectual tendency, for not only are all our philosophies fruits of it,
but physical science (amongst other good things) is its result.

Nevertheless, if we look on man's whole mental life as it exists, on the
life of men that lies in them apart from their learning and science, and
that they inwardly and privately follow, we have to confess that the part
of it of which rationalism can give an account is relatively superficial.
It is the part that has the *prestige* undoubtedly, for it has the
loquacity, it can challenge you for proofs, and chop logic, and put you
down with words. But it will fail to convince or convert you all the same,
if your dumb intuitions are opposed to its conclusions. If you have
intuitions at all, they come from a deeper level of your nature than the
loquacious level which rationalism inhabits. Your whole subconscious life,
your impulses, your faiths, your needs, your divinations, have prepared the
premises, of which your consciousness now feels the weight of the result;
and something in you absolutely *knows* that that result must be truer than
any logic-chopping rationalistic talk, however clever, that may contradict
it. This inferiority of the rationalistic level in founding belief is just
as manifest when rationalism argues for religion as when it argues against
it. That vast literature of proofs of God's existence drawn from the order
of nature, which a century ago seemed so overwhelmingly convincing, to-day
does little more than gather dust in libraries, for the simple reason that
our generation has ceased to believe in the kind of God it argued for.
Whatever sort of a being God may be, we *know* to-day that he is nevermore
that mere external inventor of 'contrivances' intended to make manifest his
'glory' in which our great-grandfathers took such satisfaction, though just
how we know this we cannot possibly make clear by words either to others or
to ourselves. I defy any of you here fully to account for your persuasion
that if a God exist he must be a more cosmic and tragic personage than that
Being.

The truth is that in the metaphysical and religious sphere, articulate
reasons are cogent for us only when our inarticulate feelings of reality
have already been impressed in favor of the same conclusion. Then, indeed,
our intuitions and our reason work together, and great world-ruling
systems, like that of the Buddhist or of the Catholic philosophy, may grow
up. Our impulsive belief is here always what sets up the original body of
truth, and our articulately verbalized philosophy is but its showy
translation into formulas. The unreasoned and immediate assurance is the
deep thing in us, the reasoned argument is but a surface exhibition.
Instinct leads, intelligence does but follow. If a person feels the
presence of a living God after the fashion shown by my quotations, your
critical arguments, be they never so superior, will vainly set themselves
to change his faith.

Please observe, however, that I do not yet say that it is *better* that the
subconscious and non-rational should thus hold primacy in the religious
realm. I confine myself to simply pointing out that they do so hold it as a
matter of fact.

So much for our sense of the reality of the religious objects. Let me now
say a brief word more about the attitudes they characteristically awaken.

We have already agreed that they are *solemn;* and we have seen reason to
think that the most distinctive of them is the sort of joy which may result
in extreme cases from absolute self-surrender. The sense of the kind of
object to which the surrender is made has much to do with determining the
precise complexion of the joy; and the whole phenomenon is more complex
than any simple formula allows. In the literature of the subject, sadness
and gladness have each been emphasized in turn. The ancient saying that the
first maker of the Gods was fear receives voluminous corroboration from
every age of religious history; but none the less does religious history
show the part which joy has evermore tended to play. Sometimes the joy has
been primary; sometimes secondary, being the gladness of deliverance from
the fear. This latter state of things, being the more complex, is also the
more complete; and as we proceed, I think we shall have abundant reason for
refusing to leave out either the sadness or the gladness, if we look at
religion with the breadth of view which it demands. Stated in the
completest possible terms, a man's religion involves both moods of
contraction and moods of expansion of his being. But the quantitative
mixture and order of these moods vary so much from one age of the world,
from one system of thought, and from one individual to another, that you
may insist either on the dread and the submission, or on the peace and the
freedom as the essence of the matter, and still remain materially within
the limits of the truth. The constitutionally sombre and the
constitutionally sanguine onlooker are bound to emphasize opposite aspects
of what lies before their eyes.

The constitutionally sombre religious person makes even of his religious
peace a very sober thing. Danger still hovers in the air about it. Flexion
and contraction are not wholly checked. It were sparrowlike and childish
after our deliverance to explode into twittering laughter and
caper-cutting, and utterly to forget the imminent hawk on bough. Lie low,
rather, lie low; for you are in the hands of a living God. In the Book of
Job, for example, the impotence of man and the omnipotence of God is the
exclusive burden of its author's mind. "It is as high as heaven; what canst
thou do? deeper than hell; what canst thou know?" There is an astringent
relish about the truth of this conviction which some men can feel, and
which for them is as near an approach as can be made to the feeling of
religious joy.
"In Job," says that coldly truthful writer, the author of Mark Rutherford,
"God reminds us that man is not the measure of his creation. The world is
immense, constructed on no plan or theory which the intellect of man can
grasp. It is *transcendent* everywhere. This is the burden of every verse,
and is the secret, if there be one, of the poem. Sufficient or
insufficient, there is nothing more. ... God is great, we know not his ways.
He takes from us all we have, but yet if we possess our souls in patience,
we *may* pass the valley of the shadow, and come out in sunlight again. We
may or we may not! ... What more have we to say now than God said from the
whirlwind over two thousand five hundred years
ago?"[9]<http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Varieties_of_Religious_Experience/Lecture_III#cite_note-9>

If we turn to the sanguine onlooker, on the other hand, we find that
deliverance is felt as incomplete unless the burden be altogether overcome
and the danger forgotten. Such onlookers give us definitions that seem to
the sombre minds of whom we have just been speaking to leave out all the
solemnity that makes religious peace so different from merely animal joys.
In the opinion of some writers an attitude might be called religious,
though no touch were left in it of sacrifice or submission, no tendency to
flexion, no bowing of the head. Any "habitual and regulated admiration,"
says Professor J. R. Seeley<http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Author:J._R._Seeley>
,[10]<http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Varieties_of_Religious_Experience/Lecture_III#cite_note-10>"is
worthy to be called a religion"; and accordingly he thinks that our
Music, our Science, and our so-called 'Civilization,' as these things are
now organized and admiringly believed in, form the more genuine religions
of our time. Certainly the unhesitating and unreasoning way in which we
feel that we must inflict our civilization upon 'lower' races, by means of
Hotchkiss guns, etc., reminds one of nothing so much as of the early spirit
of Islam spreading its religion by the sword.

In my last lecture I quoted to you the ultra-radical opinion of Mr. Havelock
Ellis <http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Author:Havelock_Ellis>, that laughter
of any sort may be considered a religious exercise, for it bears witness to
the soul's emancipation. I quoted this opinion in order to deny its
adequacy. But we must now settle our scores more carefully with this whole
optimistic way of thinking. It is far too complex to be decided off-hand. I
propose accordingly that we make of religious optimism the theme of the
next two lectures.


-- 
-Eric
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