Friday, February 09, 2018

Varieties IV-VII: Cracking nuts

Our adventure with, and through, James Varieties of Religious Experience continues, and continues to be revelatory. The lectures we read for today were those on "The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness" and "The Sick Soul," lectures often read together as a sort of set, representing optimistic and pessimistic religious types or temperaments. But is that how James' original audience encountered them? How did he introduce them? What roadsigns did he give of where he was going with and from them?

It's true healthy-minded and sick souled are developed contrastively. One ignores the evil in experience, the other the good. But they're not really parallel, as reading them as if for the firsts time makes clear. The "sanguine" "once-born" "healthy-minded" are doing just fine with their "practical" response to life's challenges, "relaxing" "expansively" into an unruffled flourishing. The "melancholy" "morbid-minded" "contractive" sick souls, unsurprisingly, are not fine. At one stage paralyzed by vast "philosophical" questions, debilitating "anhedonia," self-loathing and "panic fear," most of them don't stay in that state - at least not most of the ones we encounter in James' lectures. Through conversion, James lets on, they will later come to arrive at a deeper kind of flourishing. "Twice-born," their faith will be like a "two-story house," recognizing the reality of evil - of a universe that doesn't fit comfortably into any meaningful system - without being undone by it. That's in later lectures, but James lets us know it's coming. There's another act to the stories of Leo Tolstoy, John Bunyan and the eloquent Nova Scotia evangelical Henry Alline: stay tuned!

We found a lot to say about all this. I insisted on going lecture by lecture asking what James' listeners will have expected going into each one, and what they might expect would come after them. The Varieties' first three lectures, which we read last week, set up James' psychological (rather than theological), individual (rather than institutional), fruits (rather than roots)-related enquiry into religion. He explains why more pathological cases show us more about human religious proclivities, but assures us that the same thing is going on in all cases - a person's total reaction upon life, the somber joy in responding to whatever people hold to be divine. It's only with the lectures on healthy-mindedness (IV and V) that we encounter the variety of religious experience, and it will have been something of a shock for at least some in James' Edinburgh audience to hear case after case of people whose lives were happy because they found joy everywhere, put negativity out of mind, realized illness wasn't real, learned they were one with God, etc., etc.

Was this American professor really arguing that these happy-go-lucky "New Thought" healings (ancestors to today's New Age) should be taken seriously? Indeed he was. James argues that "mind cure" works, and that this is a "fact" not just religion but science needs to make way for. What's more, he suggests that this isn't new: it's to be found in Wesley, in Luther, and, perhaps, in Jesus too, who never dwelt on illness or blame but performed healing left and right and proclaimed that the Kingdom of God had arrived. What happened to the "somber," "solemn," and not a little uncanny religion of Lecture III's "Reality of the Unseen"? James doesn't quite spell it out, but in insisting that "healthy mindedness" was a religious phenomenon he indicated that it was an individual's total response to life, a true "surrender." If not very "complex" it is nevertheless a "complete" response. It has more than a little in common with the monistic sense of peace afforded the mystics, whom he will come to many lectures hence, but for now he eschews familiar cases in safely established old traditions, perhaps playing up their cloyingly credulous Americanness.

Instead, moving into Lectures VI and VII, James turns to the melancholy "sick souls" of , who are - as James intimates most in his audience must be - appalled at how easily the healthy-mindedness claim to dispense with the tragic realities of life. He swiftly reassures us (its "we" here, where the earlier lectures were about "they"), that the melancholy brooding on the fact of evil and suffering is deeper. By the end of these lectures we're back with somber religion, though not just that of the Presbyterian divines. "The completest religions would seem to be those in which the pessimistic elements are best developed" he observes, "Buddhism, of course, and Christianity" (165). Yet, without the as yet unexplained rebirth of these sad cases, the picture seems pretty grim. The "sick soul" look the pain, waste and meaningless of human existence in the eye, and are laid low by it, as we all will be laid low by death. James has assured us that most of the cases he mentions will come out the other end as "twice-born" but not how. And he hasn't assured us that they all will. There was no indication that James' final example of the sick soul, who supposedly evidenced the "worst kind of melancholy," was saved.

At this point I broke my rule of bringing nothing into our discussions besides the text. I had to, as one of the students who took "Theorizing Religion" last semester remembered my mentioning it there. It turns it that this final case, a person haunted by having seen a catatonic epileptic patient and being leveled by the awareness that "That shape am I, potentially," was James himself. It wasn't advertised as such - it was revealed some years later, and not publicly - but for an enterprise as focused on individuals as the one James is initiating us into, it's impossible not to jump at this revelation. It's certainly guided my understanding of James' project for years: a sick soul who appreciates what a comfort religion brings to others' lives because he knows our powerlessness without it - but has not, at least not yet, found the variety that will work for himself. The original hearers, and most readers, of the Varieties, though, didn't know this. The James they were coming to know was a kind of Anna Deavere Smith of the world of religious types, able, in his own voice and proposed system, to channel the religious discoveries of all kinds. And the poor fellow who had the panic attack? Though we learn that the crisis passed, not to return, it's lear he remains haunted by it, quivering still. In the unfolding adventure of the Varieties this was the nut that might never crack. It offered a different reason to keep listening/reading. Was there hope for every sick soul or only for some?

Discussing these today with six millennials was illuminating, too. One, impressed by the results of the healthy-minded, couldn't figure out what James meant by the sick soul. (Why was one a soul, the other minded?) Another, who found the sick soul so painfully true to read it brought tears to their eyes, couldn't fathom the healthy-minded. Another observed that today's mindfulness craze sounds just like mind-cure - a telling indication of how Buddhism's place in the popular American imagination as changed since the days when it was thought to epitomize pessimism. As we wrapped up our discussion with the question "if you'd left James' lectures at this point, what would it have given you?" I was struck that our religious landscape is pretty much exhausted by these two. What's coming next in James' lectures, a few hints dropped but not more, is "The Divided Self and the Process of its Unification" and the famous discussion of "Conversion," where the second story of the twice-born's house is built - but our sense of the variety of religions and religious appetites seems mostly bungalows. Let's see what we make, next week, of the epic fact of conversion - the towering mountain in James' landscape but no longer, I think, in ours, where people convert, and convert, and convert on their personal journeys, never finally at rest.

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