Religious Expeience

William James-

Arguably the most famous commentator on religious experience. He was an American doctor, not a theologian, and was a pragmatist. He seems unconcerned to prove whether God exists or not, but believes that religious experiences have some practical value for humanity. Thus for James, the reality of God may be said to be seen in the degree to which God changes the life of the believer through such experiences.
Works- lectures make up, ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’. He used a variety of case studies and first-hand experience.

He aimed to take an objective stance and to make observations about religious experiences. As a pluralist, James does not directly speak of God but of the spiritual and ‘higher aspects’ of the world and the self. He was especially interested in the effects of religious experience on people’s lives.

There are four characteristics which he claims helps us to identify mystical experiences: (PINT)

1.    Passivity- the final aspect suggests that while undergoing the experience, one loses control to a more powerful being, namely God. The effects of this include individuals assuming entirely different personalities, writing or drawing certain prophetic visions or speaking in a different voice or language.

2-    Ineffability- arguably the most easily recognisable. Religious experiences are private events beyond verbal description- they are unutterable. St Teresa of Avila said, ‘I wish I could give a description of at least the smallest part of what I learned (…) I find it impossible’. Alfred Tennyson- ‘I am ashamed of my feeble description’.

3-    Noetic quality- mystical experiences provide insights into unobtainable truths- although not through the intellect. Knowledge is grasped through intuition and perception. The noetic quality is therefore the knowledge of information gained.

4-    Transiency- most mystical experiences last between a few minutes and about two hours. However, the significance and effects of the experience are out of proportion to its physical duration. Example of dreaming- can dream for an hour but about a several day/ week/ year experience.

James’ aims-
- To take an objective stance and make observations
- Including first-hand accounts, testing experiences for validity.
- He bases his work on 3 key principles:
Pluralism- his experiences in different faiths led him to conclude that they were similar. Each person experiences the same ultimate reality i.e. the presence of the Holy Spirit.

James’ conclusions-
- The fact that there is a common core (i.e. people experience the same characteristics of a religious experience, suggests they are valid). However, this may simply be human nature.
- Spiritual value of REs are not undone even if we find a psychological explanation- he also rejected the idea that REs were from sexual repression or perverted sexuality, as Freud suggested.
- Not a single feature that defines a RE.
- PINT (see above).
- Real test of genuineness of mystical experiences are their long term effect.
- A religious experience does not have to be


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