A Walk with William James, Part 6: Ontological Emotion, Mysticism, and God as a Mere Boulder of Impression

To start, a confession. Although I love theology and all of the cerebral exercise associated with it, when it comes to faith I'm an irrationalist. A mystic.

This is not to say that I don't have good reasons for my faith. I feel I can articulate a variety of supports for my faith. But when push comes to shove and alternative formulations for my data are offered, I fall back on my subjective experience. James called this "ontological emotion." I like that phrase. Ontological emotion: The feeling that something exists. At root, I admit, that is all I have. I have this feeling that God exists. I can't explain it and can defend it only to a point.

William James is famous (and infamous) for taking mystical religious experiences seriously, as both a psychologist and as a philosopher. In this, he is, once again, remarkably unique in intellectual history. Further, this is one other place where we find convergence between James and the emerging church.

James, in his own life, experienced ontological emotions. In describing one significant event in 1898 he said that, concerning this experience, that he was unable to "find a single word for all that significance, and don't know what it was significant of, so there it remains, a mere boulder of impression."

A mere boulder of impression. Ontological emotion. God?

Peter Rollins in How (Not) to Speak of God, an articulation of the emerging church, again follows closely on James' heels. Specifically, Rollins contends that theology occurs in the aftermath of God: "While our religious traditions may not define God, they can be seen to arise in the aftermath of God, both as a means of provisionally understanding what has occurred in the life of the person or community that has been impacted, and as a response to God."

That is, theology does not describe God, it does not correspond with the divine. Theology (and the bible) is the chatter that follows after God has "left the building." In God's wake the witnesses begin to share stories and their excitement OF WHAT JUST HAPPENED. It's like God is this legendary rock star who pops into a Starbucks. The patrons fall silent.

Is that who I think it is?
No, well, maybe it is.
I think that is him.
It is him!

(Rock star departs and chatter breaks out.)
What was he wearing? What did he say? What did he order? Was he nice? Standoffish?
And on and on.

(BTW, this analogy came to me after having received an excited phone call from one of my friends who spotted and spoke to The Edge--of U2 fame--at a Starbucks in Malibu.)

The point is, this is the theological situation: Conversation in the aftermath of God. And this is, incidentally, how I read the bible.

Now compare Rollins' comment with these from James:

"What keeps religion going is something else than abstract definitions and systems of logically concatenated adjectives, and something different from faculties of theology and their professors. All these [abstract] things are after-effects, secondary accretions upon a mass of concrete religious experiences."

More: "These direct experiences of a wider spiritual life...form the primary mass of religious experience on which all hearsay religion rests, and which furnishes that notion of an ever-present God, out of which systematic theology thereupon proceeds to make capital in its own unreal pedantic way."

Lastly: "The mother sea and fountian-head of all religion lies in the mystical experiences of the individual, taking the word mystical in a very wide sense. All theologies, and all ecclesiasticisms are secondary growths superimposed."

What are these religious experiences? James states that some of them are "conversations with the unseen, voices and visions, responses to prayer, changes of heart, deliverances from fear, inflowings of help, assurances of support."

But if these experiences seem wishy-washy, too ethereal to be used as a strong foundation for a secure religious faith, James says you'd be wrong. Religious experience is the firmest bedrock we can stand upon: "Religion in this way is absolutely indestructible."

Theology is the rickety structure. Experience is the concrete and mortar.

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13 thoughts on “A Walk with William James, Part 6: Ontological Emotion, Mysticism, and God as a Mere Boulder of Impression”

  1. Richard

    Good post again... I think the hard part (for me anyway) is reconcilling this framework with the more current work on the evolved brain and the sociology of knowledge. From this, one could argue that we know that our emotions and probably spiritual experiences are systematically biased by a multitude of factors. Additionally, individuals like Pascal Boyer suggest that the cognitive systems to make religion believable are an evolved mechanism with some pragmatic value. So how do we reconcile the fact that 1) our beliefs are coping mechanisms to some degree, 2) these beliefs are inherently believable because of cognitive structure (Boyer) or additionally because of the social community we are in (Luckman and Berger) and finally that 3) the theological systems which lend many people the certainty they desire are built off these same mechanisms.

    I think you have addressed this concern before through talking about how the realization of this is the first step... but how do we take that next step. I don't know if we can rely solely on pragmatism, as pragmatism is in itself communally defined (loving one's neighbors may make sense in my community, but protecting a virtue at all costs may make sense in yours... I think this is the point of conflicting narratives that MacIntyre makes so well). So our pragmatism is communally defined as well.

    I know this post is a bit scattered, but I'd be interested your take on it.


  2. Richard,

    James sheds light to be sure--ours is always an after the fact reflection on theophany. But mystical experiences may be misjudged as indigestion or indigestion may be misjudged as mystical experience. It is the meaning involved (or which we assign), and that's where thinking and reflection, if not in good theology, at least in poetry, language, and ritual.

    T. S. Eliot expresses it this way in the first of his marvelous
    "Four Quartets" called "Dry Salvages':

    "The moments of happiness--not the sense of well-being,
    Fruition, fulfilment, security or affecton,
    Or even a very good dinner, but the sudden illumination--
    We had the experience but missed the meaning,
    And approach to the meaning restores the experience
    In a different form, beyond any meaning
    We can assign to happiness."

    Those who accompanied Saul on the road to Damascus shared the experience but missed the meaning. Even he did not "get it" all but learned and relearned its meaning over his lifetime.

    Another poet, Francis Thompson, proclaims: "The angels keep their ancient places--
    Turn but a stone and start a wing!
    'Tis ye, 'tis your estrangèd faces,
    That miss the many-splendored thing."

    God grant us eyes with which to see and ears with which to hear the presence of God incarnated in all creation.


    George C.

  3. PB,
    As a psychologist I obviously love Boyer's work. But as I read him, his main thesis concerns the mimetic contagiousness and social utility of fully strategically informed agents that are characterized by ontological violations. The strategic knowledge of the gods/spirits makes them socially and morally useful regulation devices. And the ontological violations of the gods/spirits makes them memorable and salient (i.e., mimetically contagious).

    I readily grant all this. But I don't think Boyer's ideas get to the mysterium tremendum that is at the root of the religious experience that James is speaking of, the ontologically emotional. That experience isn't agent-based or particularly relational. In the aftermath of these experiences our human psychology will kick in and begin to "package" those experiences. And, for better or worse, the only cognitive packages we have are those given to us by evolutionary history. Thus, I can accept Boyer's thesis and analysis: In response to the mysterium tremendum we will anthropomorphize (how can we not?), along with other conceptual packaging, and those packages which prove to be most useful (pragmatically speaking) or mimetically contagious (memorable) get transmitted and propagated.

    I agree. Religious experience cannot be the trump card of the individual over the community (living and dead). Thus, experience must be intermingled, critically discerned, and communally adjudicated. Only then can we sort indigestion from the Voice of God, and even this process is fraught with error and conducted with great fear and trembling.

    My favorite biblical example of this is Galatians 2: 1-2, 7-10 when Paul intermingles his experience of the Risen Lord (fearing he may have run in vain; or be the result of indigestion on the Damascus road) with the experiences of Peter, James and John. In the end, they agree that they are talking about the same Jesus. The experiences are allowed to touch, reciprocally critique, and reinforce each other creating a fuller tapestry of experience. Isolated experience are mere threads, weak and prone to error. The interwoven communal experience (of the living and the dead: Current experience interaction with church tradition) is a much stronger and more holistic tapestry.

  4. Richard,
    "All these [abstract] things are after-effects, secondary accretions"

    I wonder if it is possible at all to experience God without concepts. Maybe one could say that you experience "transcendence" for the first time but later you'll talk about it and people give you certain linguistic tools, concepts; maybe they say: "God convicted you" or "This was God's love". I think it is probably impossible to 'live with God' without tradition, which simply hands down words. Without theese linguistic tools you would't experience God. I tried to forget everything my evangelical tradition learned me but I dindn't work out; instead of expereiencing the "real thing" I experienced nothing. So in a sense your linguistic concepts predate your experience with God.

  5. Richard, Arne,

    When Arne says that "your linguistic concepts predate your experience with God," I think he is on to something related to what St. John says: "In the beginning was the word . . . ." We name something into meaning and existence. Except for God, who is truly nameless and predates creation--and we think we can even with God. (Rilke puts what we do this way in his 9th Duino Elegy: "Sind wir vielleichet hier, um zu sagen: Haus, Bruecke, Brunnen, Tor, Krug, Obstbaum, Fenster,--hoechstens: Saeule, Turm . . . . aber zu sagen, verstehs, oh zu sagen so, wie selber die Dinge niemals innig mmeinten zu sein." ["We are perhaps here to say: house, bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit tree, window--most important: pillar, tower. . . . but to say, you understand, to say them more fervently than the things themselves ever could BE.(my translation)"

    Adam names the animals and Eve and so they exist for him.

    By the way, I don't think we forget what we learn by willing to forget. I think we forget what is hurtful and not helpful by praising God and the ordinary as well as the extraordinary things of God's creation and by finding a way to love others. Singing moves us (or at least me) toward transcendence too.


    George C.

  6. Well expressed, Richard. I, too, am an irrationalist at heart - I have this feeling, which I can't explain away, that God exists. And ultimately that's all I have to fall back on - which is why I often find it so difficult to argue about theology, though I learn a lot from listening to others do it. Thanks for putting in a plug for experience and emotion - I think we tend to discount those too often in our pursuit of "reason" and "truth."

  7. I believe in God because a worn out mother with one too many arms and legs asked me if I wanted to go ahead of her in line at Wal-Mart. Her beautiful black face was worn from darkness in her life but was bright from the experiences she had chosen to focus on. Of course I refused, pointing out the fact that she had much more going on in her cart than me. And yet..I felt this wanting to ask ..will you be my friend because I want a friend like you. I smiled all the way home and felt I had seen more character in that precious young mother than I had seen all year.

  8. I've recently begun to think that belief in God really just depends on what side of the fence you fall on (i.e., your experiences in life, over which you have little control). This is a serious problem when your religious tradition implies a God who "desires relationship with you." He is conspicuously absent from those who lived without this experience.

  9. Agreed pecs.... that that the hard part to reconcile and I think the part you have addressed nicely richard in your posts on Moral Luck. I am interested to see your thoughts as well on how mystical tradition points us to a certain conception of God... i.e. the Christian concept of God. If our theologies are forks, and our forks act as barriers to entry for people into our tradition, how do we understand and reconcile different forks... is this addressed pragmatically? I think Lindbeck at Yale talked about how he thought one could only experience God through the tradition/ language/ concepts they were born into? What does the "experience" of God look like for someone raised without the tradition... or is it like Pecs said something that is conspicuously absent?

  10. Another question you have to answer is regarding those who ARE born into a religious tradition but still don't have this mystical experience and end up as nonbelievers. I think it is safe to say that there are lots of people, who have been raised to subscribe to religious faith and given it an honest chance, in fact wanted to have this mystical experience, but God gives them the deaf ear.

  11. I think that William James would have asked? "What difference should belief in God make for Christians?"

    And I think the answer is clear, even if it's not what James said: the difference that belief in God should make for a Christian is that s/he treats everyone as if s/he were Jesus, or a child of God, or made in the image of God.

    Beverly's story above gives a good account of how that experience feels. Could it be that that kind of experience is the one to focus on as authentically "Christian," whether we are thinking from a Jamesian perspective or any other?

  12. It's been encouraging, reading this. I've called myself an agnostic theist; I don't know which side of the fence is objectively true, but subjectively I *feel* like a God is more true, even while acknowledging that I really have no good reasons or evidence for it, the more I look.

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