A Walk with William James, Part 7: The Healthy-Minded and the Salvation through Self-Despair

In Lectures 4-7 of The Varieties of Religious Experience William James sets out his famous typology of the religious experience: The healthy-minded believer (lectures 4-5) and the sick soul (lectures 6-7). Needless to say, I have been profoundly influenced by this typology. In my own research, I've called the types Summer Christians versus Winter Christians and Defensive versus Existential Believers.

The healthy-minded believer is the optimistic, happy, and hopeful believer. My Summer Christian type. James says that this kind of believers possess "a constitutional incapacity for prolonged suffering." Further, "This religion directs [the believer] to settle his scores with the more evil aspects of the universe by systematically declining to lay them to heart or make much of them, by ignoring them in his reflective calculations, or even, on occasion, by denying outright that they exist."

This congenital optimism bothers many of us (the sick souls among us). And this optimism might not be altogether healthy. James recognizes this when we states that "In some individuals optimism may become quasi-pathological." Or as the psychologist Richard Bentall quipped, Happiness might be a form of mental disease best diagnosed as Major Affective Disorder (Pleasant type).

But one of James' amazing qualities was his openness and curiosity about all kinds of people and all kinds of experiences (which remains a behavioral ideal to me, not just as a psychologist but as a human being). Unlike the leading intellectuals of his day (or ours) James was never dismissive of people. Thus, James warns us academic types to not giving in to the temptation (as we so often do) of being dismissive of our more optimistic brothers and sisters:

"[W]e ourselves belong to the the clerico-academic-scientific type, the officially and conventionally 'correct' type, 'the deadly respectable' type, for which to ignore others is a besetting temptation."

James goes on to chastise us "deadly respectable" academic types for being downright unscientific in our dismissal of other people's experiences: "[N]othing can be more stupid than to bar out phenomena from our notice, merely because we are incapable of taking part in anything like them ourselves."

Thus, James is at pains in Lectures 4-5 to point out all the positive effects of optimistic religion on its adherents. However, James does admit that, "one must be of a certain mental mould to get such results."

But beyond his description of the healthy-minded type, I love Lectures 4-5 of The Varieties as they contain one of the great psychological descriptions of religious surrender. What James calls "a salvation through self-despair." I resonate deeply with this passage, as it traces my religious trajectory growing up in the Churches of Christ. As James describes, the moral rigor and works-based righteousness of my youth ruined my spiritual machinery. My bearings overheated for the belts were too tight:

"Official moralists advise us never to relax our strenuousness. 'Be vigilant, day and night,' they adjure us; 'hold your passive tendencies in check; shrink from no effort; keep your will like a bow always bent.' But the persons I speak of find that all this conscious effort leads to nothing but failure and vexation in their hands, and only makes them two-fold more the children of hell they were before. The tense and voluntary attitude becomes in them an impossible fever and torment. Their machinery refuses to run at all when the bearings are made so hot and the belts so tight."

At some point, I just couldn't do religion in this manner. It was killing me. Thus, I reached a moment of moral futility that, in hindsight, led to my laying a great burden down. James describes this experience beautifully as he continues:

"Under these circumstances the way to success, as vouched for by innumerable authentic personal narrations, is by an anti-moralistic method, by the 'surrender' of which I spoke in my second lecture. Passivity, not activity; relaxation, not intentness, should be now the rule. Give up the feeling of responsibility, let go your hold, resign the care of your destiny to higher powers, be genuinely indifferent as to what becomes of it all, and you will find not only that you gain a perfect inward relief, but often also, in addition, the particular goods you sincerely thought you were renouncing. This is the salvation through self-despair, the dying to be truly born, of Lutheran theology, the passage into nothing of which Jacob Behmen writes. To get to it, a critical point must usually be passed, a corner turned within one. Something must give way, a native hardness must break down and liquefy; and this event is frequently sudden and automatic, and leaves on the Subject the impression that he has been wrought on by an external power."

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6 thoughts on “A Walk with William James, Part 7: The Healthy-Minded and the Salvation through Self-Despair”

  1. I'm not sure if I understood all of what I read, but if what I've read is what I think I've read then I must say that I am glad to hear that being a Christian isn't always something optimistic or "happy." Sure as the story unfolds we know how it ends, but as it unfolds there isn't always happy endings and it isn't one big feast. Sometimes when we call the weak to come and join us and accept Christ as their savior we talk as though coming to Christ will end their hardships and their weaknesses, and when it doesn't happen they think something is wrong with them. But we fail to mention that it is in our suffering that we are made perfect. It is in our hardships that we build character. It does seem unhealthy that week after week someone has this hanger stuck in their mouth who always replies, "If I were any better I couldn't stand it." Or maybe I'm just one of those sick souls who can't stand the optimist at times because I'm so caught up in self pity and depression I can't see why there is a reason to smile, all the while the one smiling can't stand the one who is depressed because they are caught up in the experience that they don't understand why someone can't smile and just be happy. It's hard to be understanding of someone else while experiencing something entirely different. But I suppose that's what's hard about loving one another. I tend to find it harder to rejoice with those who rejoice then to weep with those who weep...

    But I can see why you can say that the moral rigor and works-based rightesouness of your youth ruined your spiritual machinery.... I can really understand that even though I myself did not grow up in the churches of Christ, I tend to find that true for new Christians as well. We come with burdens and weaknesses already on our belt only to come to have more demanded of us instead of having help carrying our burdens and weaknesses. It took me awhile to realize that my faith is based on a person and not my works or my beliefs, and it isn't based on his teachings either, it is based solely on Him who claims authority. But I didn't claim Him until I realized that I was completely broken and useless.

  2. Richard,

    Some self-reflection before my morning walk.

    In some ways, as a refugee from academia's safe, secure, structured, and respectible setting with its profound temptation to ignore suffering and pain--especially if it wears a "Christian" label. James critique of the clerico-academic-scientific speaks to their behavior but appears to ignore the sources of that behavior. My experience--being a cognitive type--is that many of my former colleagues and those with whom I feel most cormfortable are actually more concerned with the Beauty, the aesthetics of truth as a kind of self-protection from the wounds and trauma of their earlier lives. Nietzsche: "We have beauty in order not to perish from truth." Native childhood curiosity mixes wonder with the personal incongruence and sadness as we lose or are forced to lose our innocence. That particular mix seeks resolution--beauty, symetry, form--in answering the ultimate questions affecting life and meaning. It is my (maybe our) way of coping with and managing the suffering that we fear but must engage. Byron once wrote: "If I laugh at any mortal thing, 'tis that I may not weep." Laughing, talking, thinking, writing about suffering--our own and others--is easier than experiencing it. "The way is hard and few there be who find it": words from "a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief."

    You quote James regarding surrender and passivity in order to gain relief. That, I think, is the dark night of the soul from which we, like Dante, can emerge whole and hopeful and ready for, if not for beatitude, then for joy.

    Yesterday, I sat with a World War II combat soldier, a retired teacher and school superintendant, who had been told that his cancer had metasticized and that he had less than three weeks to live. He will probably not live that long. He wept that he was alientated from his son and that his grandson was in prison. In his numbness, he blaims himself, maybe to feel that he is still alive. He is enduring his own inferno, his own dark night of the soul. My hope is that I can be his Virgil.

    But the truth is, much in me rebels against that and I am tempted to flee into my head, with its domesticated, academic categories rather than into prayer and surrender. Such prayer and surrender is something I am learning and the "way is hard" even with the unnamed One who walks with us.



  3. Richard
    Though not related to this post... found an article that I thought you may find interesting in the recent American Scholar.



  4. Roxanne,
    Well, I'm a sick soul myself. And this is obviously a sick soul blog. So you're not alone!

    Thanks again for a thoughtful and moving comment. I, too, flee into my head. This blog: Exhibit A.

    Thanks. I try to find interesting angles on things.

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