The Two Families of God

If you are a regular reader you know I'm a huge fan of the American psychologist and philosopher William James. In fact, James's most famous work--The Varieties of Religious Experience--plays a key role in my most recent book The Authenticity of Faith.

The part of The Varieties that captivated me so many years ago is James's descriptions of what he calls "the two families of God"--two distinct religious experiences James called the "healthy-minded" and "sick soul" experiences.

James begins his analysis in The Varieties with the healthy-minded experience. According to James the healthy-minded believer is positive and optimistic, willfully even intentionally so. The healthy-minded believer actively ignores or represses experiences that are morbid, dark or disturbing. As James describes it: “[W]e give the name of healthy-mindedness to the tendency which looks on all things and sees that they are good.”

James goes on to distinguish between two different origins of healthy-mindedness. The first is a dispositional, trait-like healthy-mindedness, an optimism and positive affectivity that is rooted in a person’s innate psychological wiring--the sort of congenial good-cheer many people seem to have. By contrast, there is also a more decisional sort of healthy-mindedness, an active choice to see the world as good where, according to James, a person “deliberately excludes evil from [the] field of vision.” This isn't as easy as it sounds. As James notes, an extreme healthy-minded stance may be “a difficult feat to perform for one who is intellectually sincere with himself and honest about facts."

Why, then, do people indulge in this experience? According to James, people might opt for healthy-mindedness because it is an "instinctive weapon for self-protection against disturbance.” James summarizes how this works:
[Healthy-minded] 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. 
According to James this tendency toward “deliberately minimizing evil” can become almost delusional where “in some individuals optimism can become quasi-pathological." James suggests that healthy-mindedness can appear to be “a kind of congenital anesthesia.”

In contrast to the experience of healthy-mindedness James goes on in The Varieties to describe the second of the "two families of God"--the experience of the sick soul.

If the healthy-minded experience is typified by a “blindness” that seeks to minimize evil, the sick soul is a religious type involved in “maximizing evil.” According to James, the sick soul is driven “by the persuasion that the evil aspects of our life are of its very essence, and that the world’s meaning most comes home to us when we lay them most to heart.” Sick souls are those “who cannot so swiftly throw off the burden of the consciousness of evil.” Consequently, sick souls are “fated to suffer from [evil’s] presence.”

Of great interest to me in The Authenticity of Faith James describes the sick soul as being very preoccupied with death awareness. According to James the sick soul lives with a regular awareness of death, that at the “back of everything is the great spectre of universal death, the all encompassing blackness.” In light of this death awareness the sick soul knows that “all natural happiness thus seems infected with a contradiction” because “the breath of the sepulcher surrounds it.”

For James, this death awareness seems to be a key difference between the healthy-minded and the sick soul:
Let sanguine healthy-mindedness do its best with its strange power of living in the moment and ignoring and forgetting, still the evil background is really there to be thought of, and the skull will grin in at the banquet.
The sick soul does not seem to be engaged in a denial of death, to use Ernest Becker's phrase. And because of this, despite the apparent "sickness" of the sick soul, James suggests that the experience of the sick soul provides a “profounder view" of life. More, the sick soul confers a degree of resiliency in the face of tragedy, setback and pain. Critical to the argument I make in The Authenticity of Faith James's summary assessment comparing the two types:
The method of averting one’s attention from evil, and living simply in the light of good is splendid as long as it will work…But it breaks down impotently as soon as melancholy comes; and even though one be quite free from melancholy one’s self, there is no doubt that healthy-mindedness is inadequate as a philosophical doctrine, because the evil facts which it refuses positively to account for are a genuine portion of reality; and they may after all be the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth.

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14 thoughts on “The Two Families of God”

  1. Unmitigated existential awareness of evil and death would be too much for most of us to take.  I think we all must consciously or unconsciously depend on some degree of existential defensiveness just to get through a good day.  And that's saying nothing about the really horrible, awful, no-good days!  I appreciated that this reality was acknowledged in 'The Authenticity of Faith.'

    The resurrection, from a Christus Victor view, is a hopeful consolation to my sick soul.  The idea that love triumphed (and triumphs, eventually and always) over evil and death helps me to make some sense of suffering in this life.

    I'm reminded of 'The Hunger Games' trilogy.  My children have been reading the books, and I've been following along with them in the reading.  We also saw the first movie together.  One of the themes that emerges is the psychological trauma suffered by the survivors/victors of the games.  The children have seen too much, done unspeakable acts, in order to survive.  This reminded me of veterans of our wars who suffer PTSD and are unable to assimilate back into "normal" society.  Does one confront all that happened and talk about it in order to be "healed," or does one try to forget and repress the horror of it in order to survive?  Maybe sometimes it's an act of mercy on God's part to allow those who have seen too much to live in denial as a healthy-minded / summer type?  Truth should always be preceded by the grace to receive it.  KWIM?  ~Peace~

  2. I'm a bit confused, isn't the point of faith that it allows us to face death/evil/melancholy with optimism? And doesn't James recommend healthy-mindedness, as the opposition healthy vs. sick suggests? By contrast, the New Atheists relabel the same opposition delusion vs. realism and often say that they "would rather face facts than be happy"...?

  3. Great questions. The Authenticity of Faith is my attempt at some answers.

  4. Yes! Got a not from the publisher that it should be showing up in a few days. I'll put up a post when it happens.

  5. I've only read excerpts from Robert Augustus Master's book, titled Spiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects Us from What Really Matters, but it seems similar to James' description of the healthy-minded Christian.

  6. James' description of the sick-soul's perspective guts me because it hits so close to my own experience: “all natural happiness thus seems infected with a contradiction” because “the breath of the sepulcher surrounds it.”

    The recognition of death has troubled--and on plenty of occasions has terrified--me since I was in late elementary school.  (Part of it stems from my ambivalence toward what follows death. Annihilation means death and evil win, rendering everything else ultimately pointless; the thought of eternity though--even spent in whatever heaven would entail--scares the hell out of me.) As an adult, I've had a handful of episodes (usually a few days in length) in which the anxiety forced its way into seemingly every thought. I'd be carrying on conversations with friends and thinking the entire time, "I'm going to die some day." I'd be in crowded public places and think, "Eventually everyone here will be dead."

    Even when the "soul sickness" isn't acute, it often has a way of tainting joy. Last weekend I laughed and played with my children as they delighted in the time-honored euphoria of playing in the backyard in the sprinkler and kiddie pool. And yet in the midst of that moment, I felt a pang of sadness that the moment wouldn't, couldn't, last and that one day my children's innocence would fade, that they, too, would know life's bittersweetness.

    I agree with James' suggestion that a sickness of the soul may be "possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth." But I wonder if my agreement is little more than a rationalization of my melancholic disposition. Undoubtedly, the optimism of some healthy-minded believers is a defense mechanism, yet I've known people who don't offer glib dismissals of evil and suffering, who possess a great deal of empathy, and still affirm a deep hope. I know non-Christians who seem perfectly at peace with their mortality, too.

    I confess that even if my soul-sickness affords me a "profounder view of life," there are plenty of times I wish I were one to embrace joy and nothing else.

  7. Be careful, Jason.  Normal people will call you a "buzz kill", and they will avoid you.

    The day my only child was born was one of the happiest of my life.  And yet, in the midst of my joy this thought popped unbidden into my consciousness:  "Someday this person -- now so new -- will be laying in a coffin".  I was deeply ashamed that I could even think such a thing, but there it was.  I dealt with it.

    Life goes along in its routines and rituals, and yet each day there is some pain, some distress, some sorrow, some upset, and we must stop and somehow handle it on many levels.  The default of this life is sorrow and pain.  I do not know why.  But I DO know that only those who recognize it are the people I can trust with my own level of sharing, on either my terms or theirs.  Because only they are the honest ones.  For the rest I feel only pity.

  8. Sam, somehow I've managed to avoid the "buzz kill" moniker. Maybe I mask my melancholy around people I fear will label me as such. I'm grateful that I'm a member of a church (a quasi-house church) whose members either have a perspective akin to mine or at the very least understand that such people exist and don't aim to be Debbie downers.

    I can relate to the story of your child's birth. I have very similar thoughts sometimes, and it grieves me.

    I am hesitant to suggest only the sick souls are honest. Sure, I'm inclined to think so, but as I mentioned earlier, I wonder of part of that isn't my rationalizing of my emotions. People routinely engage in that sort of rationalizing. My disposition goes hand in hand with my questioning and doubting as a "winter Christian." I get irked by the arrogance and glibness of some healthy-minded/summer Christians' proclamations of certitude, but then I find I grow arrogant myself, proud of my more humble, nuanced worldview, certain of my uncertainty.

    At times I pity healthy-minded believers; increasingly I envy them.

  9. Somewhat off topic, albeit there are some links to be made...

    I heard last night that Walter Wink had died. Many here will appreciate his work, and a good few may well have been introduced to Wink through some of Richard's synthesis. Somehow I feel that here is an ok place to be sad this morning.

  10. I had not heard about his passing. It is sad news. Dr. Wink's work has been a great blessing to me.

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