Saturday, October 09, 2010

William James on Religious Experience

Linda, in Sioux Falls

Next week I'll begin teaching, in my MCCC Philosophy of Religion class, on the nature of religious experience, understood and evaluated philosophically. I am excited about doing this. I think the students will find this subject interesting. And, it's the first time I've taught this section, so I'm looking forward to learning a lot myself.

After looking at the writing of Teresa of Avila as representative of religious-mystical experience, we'll turn to William James' classic The Varieties of Religious Experience. James says that mystical experiences (MEs) have four qualities. They are:

a. An ME “defies expression.”
b. “No adequate report of its contents can be given in words.”
c. An ME is a “nondiscursive experience.”
d. Therefore “its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others.” (In Peterson, et. al., Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings; 43)
e. MEs are more like “feelings” than like “states of intellect.”

a. Even though MEs are like feelings, MEs “seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge.” (43)
b. They have a knowledge, or “noetic” quality. “They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect.”
c. “They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance.” But they are “inarticulate.” Yet they carry noetic weight, noetic importance.
i. MEANING: “I know… [e.g.]… that God spoke to me/guided me/appeared to me/answered my prayer/…”

a. MEs “cannot be sustained for long.”
b. …”Except in rare instances, half an hour, or at most an hour or two…” (44)

a. When an ME happens, “the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if she were grasped and held by a superior power.” (44)

James argues that MEs are authoritative for the persons who have them. "Mystical states, when well developed, usually are, and have the right to be, absolutely authoritative over the individuals to whom they come." But they do not necessarily carry authority for those who do have have a particular ME. "No authority emanates from them which should make it a duty for those who stand outside of them to accept their revelations uncritically."

I agree. I have had a number of God-encounters and experiences over the years, and have catalogued them in my journals. I also agree with James when he writes:

[Mystical experiences] "break down the authority of the non-mystical or rationalistic consciousness, based upon understanding of the senses alone. They show it to be only one kind of consciousness. They open out the possibility of other orders of truth, in which, so far as anything in us vitally responds to them, we may freely continue to have faith."

Precisely. Since I am not a philosophical naturalist or materialist I could not view reality or the knowledge of it to purely natural events. Philosopher William P. Alston says that the idea of having MEs will seem incredible, unintelligent, and incoherent to many. But Alston asks: “Why should we suppose that the possibilities of experiential givenness, for human beings or otherwise, are exhausted by the powers of our five senses.” (In Ib., 52)