William James on Spiritual Experience
After a careful reading of William James Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature I am left with a profound respect for James erudition, compassion, modernity, and his admission of his own somewhat unremarkable spiritual beliefs. James’ documents extensively the “spiritual experiences” or “spiritual awakenings” of many diverse individuals who, like Bill Wilson, had one or more very dramatic, moving and compelling spiritual experiences. The emphasis is on the subjective experience and what we can learn from that experience. James is very clear that only certain types of individuals, he coins the term “twice born,” can have these very profound spiritual experiences. He notes they often occur in such individuals when very strong emotional turmoil is present. He actually notes that he never really intended to provide examples with such intense emotional content, but that is what is present in these situations. He ranges among very diverse examples, from very traditional Christian examples well known to his audience, e.g., St Paul getting knocked off his horse on the way to Antioch, and God commanding him, through Hindu, Buddhist, and Sufi examples, to the experience of “cosmic consciousness,” spiritual experiences evoked by substances, and the transcendental experiences of the Concord School described by Emerson and Thoreau. He argues that the only way to determine the value of these experiences is by their “fruits,” i.e., results. For example he describes the spiritual experiences of George Fox, founder of the Quakers, which were indeed very startling and dramatic, much more so than Bill Wilson’s, yet he was regard as an exemplary individual by his contemporaries, e.g., Oliver Cromwell, though they disagreed with him, and his legacy the Society of Friends or the Quakers, is widely regarded as a beneficent spiritual group.
In summing up all these diverse subjective experiences he says that contain several common elements: the idea that things are not as they appear, that the unseen is actually more important than the seen, that there is some force, energy, higher power, or God in the universe that wants to communicate with us, that wants to be helpful to us and that whatever “It” is, James resorts at one point to calling it the “MORE,” assures us, through these unusual and uniquely talented spiritual individuals, that “everything will ultimately be OK.” He also says that prayerful communion with the “MORE” or “God” can give us access to great energy, power, or grace, that can and does actually have an effect in this world. James also notes that while a detached scientific observer can describe the people and the characteristics of these spiritual experiences such a written statement is analogous to a restaurant menu and the “experience” itself is like eating the food on offer. Thus he notes that it is only through practice and our own spiritual experiences that we can identify with the world of spiritual awakenings.