My Summer with William James

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Summer is a great time to catch up on all of those novels, mysteries, and thrillers that have piled up over the year. Sometimes it can be a time to reacquaint oneself with favorite authors from the past, read long ago while in school, knowing that a rereading can bring out many more themes.

One of the objectives of The American Mental Health Foundation is to examine further the role of religion in mental health. We believe it is an untapped and positive force that can be useful for many.

Psychologists interested in these questions are often members of Division 36 of The American Psychological Association, Psychology and Religion. The William James Award is given to psychologists that honor his tradition of trying to understand psychology, religion, and mental health through a scientific basis, whether via empirical studies using many persons or a thorough and intensive case study of an individual.

I remember reading William James and his classic The Varieties of Religious Experience while in Dr. Frank. J. Kobler’s class. The years have passed, so I thought maybe I would pick out wisdom I had not recognized before.

These are my thoughts as I summarize and respond to the book this summer….

Introduction by Martin E. Marty

Martin Marty is one of those rare scholars that will be remembered and read in the future. He is the author of many books and articles and for many years writer for “The Christian Century.” A professor at the University of Chicago, Marty has had a hand on the pulse of the religious life in the U.S. for decades.

Marty begins his introduction:

“The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature is a classic too psychological to have shaped most religious inquiry and too religious to have influenced much psychological research. Never mind, say amateurs and experts on both sides of the psychology/religion fence. William James spoke with such passion and eloquence that, precisely because it is a classic, they have kept consulting and enjoying his book for eight decades.”

In the 21st century we value knowledge of borne of diversity. People from many nations and cultures have become our neighbors, friends, and fellow citizens. The mental-health disciplines are particularly sensitive to these matters.

Yet how many therapists show expertise or even familiarity with even a few of the religion represented in the United States today? Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, Christian Scientist, the Eastern Churches, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jewish, Shakers, and persons of many other faiths. How much does any of us in the profession truly know about our brothers and sisters of Islam?

James offers tools to hone our empathy when trying to understand the religions of others. He values interdisciplinary thought. He stresses phenomenology: getting inside the other’s personality and experience. He observes with respect and objectivity. I suspect he would love the Internet. His book is based on two years, not only of academic study, but of boxes of clippings and stories he collected from contemporary media.

He always tried to understand each person’s experience of their religion, and as such was less interested in religious institutions as mediators of the spirit. At the beginning of the 20th century, his work became an antidote to the cynics and skeptics of our age. Don’t we face this same outlook now?

James placed extraordinary emphasis on distinguishing between “the religion of health mindedness” versus “the sick soul.” He had direct personal experience with the latter, having experienced a powerful “nervous breakdown” around 1870, which included elements of depression, and which he overcame without the help of modern therapy and medication.

Finally, Marty notes that William James was interested not in whether a religion was “true” or “false,” but rather was intrigued by the act of understanding and respecting experience in itself.

In his next chapter, James examines “Religion and Neurology,” one of the essential areas of research at the beginning of this 21st century, which may one day become known as “the century of the brain.”

Lecture 1: Religion and Neurology

When William James was studying and writing about religion and psychology at the turn of the 20th century, a philosophical viewpoint that cut across many different philosophies was that of materialism. This philosophy goes back in history to the Epicureans, thinkers that found everything in the universe to be composed of tiny elements of matter called atoms. Over time, all things would dissolve, including all human beings. Contrasting this view were philosophers such as Plato or Aristotle, who believed or at least hinted at a spiritual component to human beings that survived after death, and instilled in each person the capacity of free will. Throughout 20 centuries, these two viewpoints have been argued with varying levels of intensity or complexity.

When James wrote, materialistic philosophies provided a zeitgeist for intellectual life in the United States and Europe. The material forces of nature were being controlled and chaneled. These included steam engines, trains, mills, factories, and most notably electricity. Soon, there would be cars and airplanes. Medicine, and particularly psychiatry, emphasized powerful forces at work within each human being. Sigmund Freud called these the id, ego, and superego, noting that much of human behavior was determined by antecedent causes (just as occurs in the physical universe), but hoping that some freedom could be given to an individual through psychoanalysis. But to Freud, like the Epicureans, the human being was the sum total of its physical properties. Charles Darwin’s thoughts on evolution further affirmed that humans were merely a part of the ongoing evolution of the physical universe.

As this occurred, proponents of philosophies emphasizing free will, choice, and an underlying spiritual component of human personality became less and less included in academic discourse or intellectual life.

Following Freud, many saw religion either as a manifestation of neurotic behavior or as merely a symptom of a more basic biological process. James gives us many examples of this throughout the chapter.

For example,”Fanny’s extraordinary conscientiousness is merely a matter of over-instigated nerves. William’s melancholy about the universe is due to bad digestion: probably his liver is torpid….For the hysterical nun, starving for natural life, Christ is but an imaginary substitute for a more earthly object of attention. And the like.”

He provides further examples: “Medical materialism seems indeed a good appellation for the too simple-minded system of thought which we are considering. Medical materialism finishes up Saint Paul by calling his vision on the road to Damascus a discharging lesion of the occipital cortex, he being an epileptic. It snuffs out Saint Teresa as an hysteric, Saint Francis as an hereditary degenerate.”

Rather than becoming entangled in the materialism/immaterialism debate, James offers a creative approach that validates all religious experience, despite its origin. He offers three criteria to judge authentic religious experience: immediate luminousness, philosophical reasonableness, and moral helpfulness. ”

This restates Christ’s words. When asked by his disciples how they would know who was for them and who was against them, he advised “by their fruits you shall know them.”

James frees us from this exact philosophic impasse we are embroiled in today. In our time, there is a tendency to reduce and explain human behavior, including spirituality, as the results on a CAT scan or MRI, the composition of amines within the brain, or as the unfolding of inherited genes. One good doctor I knew, obviously not of the materialist bent, summed up what he viewed as a strong theme in medicine: the misery is in the protoplasm.

In our century, James encourages us yet again to avoid philosophical swamps, to study each person’s spirituality with empathy, and to ascertain whether this experience indicates immediate luminosity, philosophical reasonableness, and moral helpfulness. These will help mental-health workers better understand those with whom they work.

Lecture 2: A Circumscription of the Topic

This is a short lecture but an important one since it explains James’s method. Circumscription sums it up. James ambles through written and experiential accounts of religious experience, looking for common factors that will define “religious experience.”

This is a scattered approach, but a disciplined search for all the particulars in order to understand, in depth, what is going on. It reminds me of old-time mapmakers, who hiked, climbed mountains, waded through swamps and streams, and finally organized these many excursions into a drawing that represented a vast amount of land on earth. This approach is the key to understanding phenomenological psychology. One must enter into the experience of “the other” and be able to understand it thoroughly.

Most modern psychologists and re-imbursers of psychological services eschew this approach. Modern psychology prides itself on being a “science” and defines the science of psychology as “the prediction and control of human behavior.” Therapists are mandated by insurance reimbursement to quickly note one or several problem-behaviors that can be dealt with through behavior therapy. A person with a bridge phobia will confront this fear by moving closer and closer and finally over the bridge.

When this happens, therapy is deemed to be successful.

Important areas not related to the specific behaviors often are ignored. What other fears does the person have? Is there an experience of separation and loss related to the phobia? Most importantly, will the fear related to the phobia emerge somewhere else? This is called symptom substitution and even behavior therapists admit they haven’t the data to answer this question.

Returning to William James: he offers both a practical and philosophical approach needed to understand complex psychological phenomena as religious experience. We need more of this outlook among psychologists as we try to understand and treat all of the maladies defined today: depression, anxiety disorders, substance-abuse disorders, psychoses, and so many others as well.

After reviewing different religious experiences from Christianity to Buddhism to Emersonian Naturalism or Deism, James identifies the following as one of the most important element of any religious experience, and it turns out this attitude can be important to positive psychological functioning as well.

“There is a state of mind, known to religious men, but to no others, in which the will to assert ourselves and hold our own has been displaced by a willingness to close our mouths and be as nothing in the floods and waterspouts of God. In this state of mind, what we dreaded most has become the habitation of our safety, and the hour of our moral death has turned into our spiritual birthday. The time for tension in the soul is over, and that of happy relaxation, of calm deep breathing, of an eternal present, with no discordant future to be anxious about, has arrived. Fear is not held in abeyance as it is by mere morality, it is positively expunged and washed away.”

Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step groups have discovered that this outlook is a key to healing many emotional problems, and they state James’s conclusion in this way: “STEP TWO: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. STEP THREE: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.”

Through his methodology of “circumscription of the topic,” James discovered an outlook important to mental-health healing, and this same outlook continues to guide those who in the 21st century are seeking enhanced mental health.

Lecture 3: The Reality of the Unseen

Here James recapitulates and reinforces important themes from the first two chapters. This was especially important because these were originally delivered as lectures, not as printed format.

The life of religion assumes that there is an unseen order to the universe, and that the supreme good for human beings lies in a harmonious adjustment to this order.

Once again, James brings the great debate between philosophers into view to demonstrate that the psychological study of religion and mental health is a critical one, even in spite of great philosophers who hold an opposite view. Although Immanuel Kant said that words such as God, soul, and freedom are not true objects of knowledge, James argues that human beings act as though they were; and he once again cites Plato’s “brilliant” defense of the reality of abstract objects. According to James, our interest lies in the “faculty” being studied rather than its “organic” basis.

Although the ideas in this chapter may seem redundant to modern readers, their presence indicates the high level of close-mindedness among medical and psychological professionals toward the study of mental health and religion.

He offers two examples to illustrate “the reality of the unseen”:

“There was not a mere consciousness of something there, but fused in the central happiness of it, a startling awareness of some ineffable good. Not vague, either, like the emotional effect of some poem, or scene, or blossom, of music, but the sure knowledge of the close presence of a sort of mighty person, and after it went, the memory persisted as the one perception of reality. Everything else might be a dream, but not that.”


“God is more real to me than any thought or thing in person. I feel his presence positively the more I live in closer harmony with his laws as written in my body and mind. I feel him in the sunshine or rain; and awe mingled with a delicious restfulness most nearly describes my feelings. I talk to him as a companion in prayer and praise and our communion is delightful. He answers me again and again, often in words so clearly spoken that it seems my outer ear must have carried the tone, but generally in strong mental impressions. Usually a text of scripture, unfolding some new view of him and his love for me, and care for my safety. I could give hundreds of instances, in school matters, social problems, financial difficulties. That he is mine and I am his never leaves me, it is an abiding joy. Without it life would be a blank, a desert, a shoreless, trackless waste.”

For me, and I hope for others as well, James has made his point strongly and rationally that “religious phenomena” and their relationship to mental health are important areas of scientific study for the psychiatrist, psychologist, the counselor, and others.

The next two chapters offer the core of this book, in that they present “The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness” and “The Sick Soul.” I comment on these chapters and to update their meaning for the 21st century.

Lectures 4 and 5: The Religion of Healthy Mindedness

James raises questions here that have not received a full or satisfactory answer, even in the early part of the 21st century. Not only does he seek to define “healthy mindedness” but also to link this quality with healthy religious functioning. An ambitious task!

Although in the 21st century we have cataloged and described more than 250 psychological maladies in the DSM IV TR, have we discovered at least 250 subtypes of healthy mental functioning? Perhaps Tolstoy had it right in the first sentence of Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

James suggests that one of the key elements of a religion of healthy mindedness is a sense of gratitude and admiration for the gifts in so happy an existence. The entire movement of cognitive behavioral therapy, starting with Aaron Beck and then becoming popularized in books by David Burns (Feeling Good) and Martin Seligman (Positive Psychology) inspires individuals to work toward this outlook by substituting positive thoughts for negative thoughts. Of course, their approach is far more complex than this and it includes other factors such as homework assignments, pleasure-predicting schedules, and transforming hot angry thoughts into cool, calm ones.

James further describes the healthy-minded individual and emphasizes, through different examples, how these fortunate individuals have been this way since birth:

“I always knew God loved me, and I was always grateful to him for the world he placed me in. I always liked to tell him so, and was always glad to receive his suggestions to me….I can remember perfectly that when I was coming to manhood, the half-philosophical novels of the time had a deal to say about the young men and maidens who were facing ‘the problem of life.’ I had no ideas whatever the problem of life was. To live with all my might seemed to me easy; to learn where there was so much to learn seemed pleasant and almost of course; to lend a hand, if one had a chance, natural; and if one did this, why, he enjoyed life because he could not help it.”

In another interesting observation, James posits that a key feature of healthy-mindedness is to IGNORE negative elements:

“In the first place, happiness, like every other emotion, has blindness and insensibility to opposing facts given it as its instinctive weapon for self-protection against disturbance. When happiness is actually in possession, the thought of evil can no more acquire the feeling of reality than the thought of good can gain reality when melancholy rules. To the man actively happy, from whatever cause, evil simply cannot then and there be believed in. He must ignore it; and to the bystander he may then seem perversely to shut his eyes to it and hush it up.”

Today we may call this quality denial, but most would agree that this is important to do when a bad situation cannot be changed and one must deal with it, as in the Serenity Prayer: “Lord, help me to change the things that must be changed, to accept the things that can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

James gives his full approval to what he calls the “Mind Cure Movement.” This might be inspired by many sources, including the four Gospels, but the common denominator for all of these is learning to substitute positive thoughts for negative thoughts.

In an uncanny way, these writers espoused an approach that is very similar, if not as developed, as those who practice cognitive behavioral therapy in the 21st century. William James has provided a link to a tradition of thinking that is crucial to one of the major forms of mental health treatment today: cognitive behavior therapy.

I mentioned Lev Tolstoy’s assessment of happy families at the beginning of our discussion. I believe all happy individuals and happy families are different and that in mental health we haven’t recognized this enough and it keeps us from discovering and practicing inspiring paths to mental health and happiness. What do you think?

(Please also see my column, “Visions and Voices,” on James in America.)

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