Essay: Varieties of Religious Experience by William James

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James undertook to give, and then to collect, these lectures in part as an act of tribute to his father, who had been a dedicated Swedenborgian. The senior Henry James was a believer in the writings of the 18th-century Swiss scientist Emanuel Swedenborg, who fairly late in life began to have what he believed were divine visions.

The nature of these visions was that the natural world must be seen as being directly derived from the mind of God. The highest goal of all humans should be to join with God through an attempt to understand the world around us as well as to be compassionate: Love must be joined to knowledge for humans to join with the divine.

James had grown up with these ideas of his father’s but had not considered them to be “true” religious ideas and so had dismissed their importance. The lectures, as is clear from the first chapters of this book, were in no small part an attempt to undo this fact and to consider the nature of the core of religious experience – whether it manifested itself as a traditional religion or in what we might today consider to be a New Age spiritualism.

These same ideas – that religion must be taken seriously as a core factor in shaping personality in many people – also arise in James’s The Principles of Psychology. In both books, although in greater detail in The Principles of Psychology, James argues that religious experience (from the relatively mundane act of praying in church to the far more intense experience of receiving divinely inspired visions) is simply one state of consciousness that must be acknowledged as legitimate – and “normal” as others.

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