Our Need for Religious Experience: Part 2, William James on Religious Experience

That we need to bump into God from time to time, that religious experience vitalizes faith, came home to me this semester as I taught William James to my students in my Psychology of Religion class.

Religious experience is the focus of James' magisterial The Varieties of Religious Experience. James describes religious experience as our "direct personal communion with the divine." Bumping into God.

James goes on to make religious experience central to his definition of religion: Religion is "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they many consider the divine."

What is "the divine"? James' response is that the divine is that which we approach and respond to "solemnly and gravely." The divine is associated with experiences of wonder, reverence and awe. 

Teaching The Varieties of Religious Experience to my students this semester reminded me just how important religious experience is to faith. For James, religious experience--bumping into God--is primary. All our God talk, all our debates about theology and doctrine, are secondary to religious experience. This is important because, for many of us, we spend a lot of time and effort engaging in, monitoring and improving God talk. Faith reduces to theology. But theology without religious experience, God talk without "direct personal communion with the divine," eventually becomes an empty intellectual exercise, a chess game we play with other theological hobbyists.

In a related way, James is also keen to point out how religious experience is different from morality. This is important for Christians who reduce faith to activism and ethics. There are many who identify as "Christian" because they follow Jesus as a moral, humanistic exemplar. Christianity reduces to "following Jesus" as a moral guide, a model for how to live as a human being.

Let me be clear here, I'm not being judgmental about this. For many people, belief is hard and "following Jesus" is the only thing keeping them tethered to the faith and identifying themselves as a "Christian."

But the point William James makes in The Varieties of Religious Experience is that religious experience--bumping into God--is different from following a moral exemplar like Jesus, as praiseworthy as that may be. This is what I meant in the last post about how many Christians, in reducing their faith to "following Jesus," have cut themselves off vitalizing sources of faith.

For James, religious experiences are fundamentally emotional. Religious experiences stun, stop and interrupt us. Religious experiences inspire wonder, awe and reverence. Religious experiences fire our passions and imaginations. Religious experiences fill us up with joy and peace. Religious experiences make us fearless and courageous.

Bumping into God from time to time vivifies and vitalizes faith.

If William James is right, and I think he is, when we don't have direct, personal experiences with the sacred and divine--experiences that move, stun and shake us--faith becomes unsustainable. We come to lean on secondary structures--God talk and morality--that eventually collapse without the foundation of religious experience.

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