Monday, October 13, 2008

Reflections on James' "Circumscription of the Topic"

I've selected a few quotes from William James lecture titled "Circumspection of the Topic" from his book The Varieties of Religious Experience. I believe these quotes give a gentle, yet concrete example of what James believes religion represents to humans.

"the word 'religion' cannot stand for any single principle or essence, but is rather a collective name. The theorizing mind tends always to the oversimplification of its materials. This is the root of all that absolutism and one-sided dogmatism by which both philosophy and religion have been infested…we may very likely find no essence" (31). Here, James attacks the one who generalizes and over simplifies ideas and concepts in life. James, in his lectures courageously attempts to help us hone our definition of religion. This is quite a difficult task, as the lazy mind rarely wants to work, thus sloppily places ideas into broad categories.

I enjoy James' quote which he says "The man who knows governments most completely is he who troubles himself least about a definition which shall give their essence." James uses the example of government, but I think that theory applies to all aspects in life. James continues, "enjoying an intimate acquaintance with all their particularities in turn, he would naturally regard an abstract conception in which these were unified as a thing more misleading than enlightening" (32).

"Religious awe is the same organic thrill which we feel in a forest at twilight, or in a mountain gorge; only this time it comes over us at the thought of our supernatural relations; and similarly of all the carious sentiments which may be called into play in the lives religious persons" (33). Here, James claims religious awe can be felt similarly to natural environments. However, I'm not sure that religious awe is the "same organic thrill" that we feel in nature. It may be possible that because I've never experienced religion in the same manner James is describing, but that could be my own shortcoming.

"As there thus seems to be no one elementary religious emotion, but only a common storehouse of emotions upon which religious objects may draw, so there might conceivably also prove to be no one specific and essential kind of religious object, and no one specific and essential kind of religious act" (33).

"the question of definition tends to become a dispute about names. Rather than prolong such a dispute, I am willing to accept almost any name for the personal religion of which I propose to treat. Call it conscience or morality, if you yourselves prefer, and not religion—under either name it will be equally worthy of our study" (35)

James continues, suggesting that the "personal religion will prove itself more fundamental than either theology or ecclesiasticism. Churches, when once established, live at second hand upon tradition; but the founders of every church owed their power originally to the fact of their direct personal communion with the divine" (35).

"Religion, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine" (36).

James takes a similar approach to Freud, when he says "For one thing, gods are conceived to be first things in the way of being and power. They overarch and envelop, and from them there is no escape. What relates to them is the first and last word in the way of truth…Religion, whatever it is, is a man's total reaction upon life" (40).

"There must be something solemn, serious, and tender about any attitude which we denominate religious. If glad, it must not grin or snicker; if sad, it must not scream or curse. It is precisely as being solemn experiences that I wish to interest you in religious experiences.

James concludes "Things are more or less divine, states of mind are more or less religious, reactions are more or less total, but the boundaries are always misty, and it is everywhere a question of amount and degree. Nevertheless, at their extreme of development, there can never any question as to what experiences are religious" (45).

"The essence of religious experiences, the thing by which we finally must judge them, must be that element or quality in them which we can meet nowhere else" (52).

James continues speaking about people who yearn for religious comforting: "what he craves is to be consoled in his very powerlessness, to feel that the spirit of the universe recognizes and secures him, all decaying and failing as he is. Well, we are all helpless failures in the last resort. The sanest and best of us are of one clay wit lunatics and prison inmates, and death finally runs the robustest of us down. And whenever we feel this, such a sense of the vanity and provisionality of our voluntary career comes over us that all our morality appears but as a plaster hiding a sore it can never cure, and all our well-doing as the hollowest substitute for that well-being that our lives ought to be grounded in" (54).

"If religion is to mean anything definite for us, it seems to me that we ought to take it as meaning this added dimension of emotion, this enthusiastic temper of espousal, in regions where morality strictly so called can at best but bow its head and acquiesce. It ought to mean nothing short of this new reach of freedom for us, with the struggle over, the keynote of the universe sounding in our ears, and everlasting possession spread before our eyes" (55).

As James concludes his lecture, he describes a painting in the Louvre, painted by Guido Reni, of St. Michael, with his foot on Satan's neck. James says "the richness of the picture is in large part due to the fiend's figure being there. The richness of tis allegorical meaning also is due to his being there—that is, the world is all the richer for having a devil in it, so long as we keep our foot upon his neck" (57). I like this analogy—it seems to teeter on the teachings of Taoism. The balance is imperative, also in Christian theology.

"In the religious life, on the contrary, surrender and sacrifice are positively espoused: even unnecessary givings-up are added in order that the happiness may increase. Religion thus makes easy and felicitous what in any case in necessary; and if it be the only agency that can accomplish this result, its vital importance as a human faculty stands vindicated beyond dispute. It becomes an essential organ of our life, performing a function which no other portion of our nature can so successfully fulfill" (59).

No comments: