William James: The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) Summary. The aim here is to summarise the work generally, highlighting ideas of particular interest.

Lecture 19: Other Characteristics

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In this lecture, James offers some additional considerations. There is a paragraph each on sacrifice and confession, which we shall ignore. The main topics are the aesthetic motive, prayer and manifestations from the subconscious.

The aesthetic motive

James suggests that, in spite of the spiritual superiority he finds in Protestantism, Catholicism succeeds with some people because what we might call its pomp and pageantry fill aesthetic needs:

The strength of these aesthetic sentiments makes it rigorously impossible, it seems to me, that Protestantism, however superior in spiritual profundity it may be to Catholicism, should at the present day succeed in making many converts from the more venerable ecclesiasticism. [pp 460-461]


The writer takes prayer to mean every kind of inward communion or conversation with the power recognized as divine. [p 464] Following a recent French Protestant theologian, he sees prayer as essential to genuine personal religion:

The religious phenomenon, studied as an inner fact, and apart from ecclesiastical or theological complications, has shown itself to consist everywhere, and in all its stages, in the consciousness which individuals have of an intercourse between themselves and higher powers with which they feel themselves to be related. [p 465]

Spiritual energy

James puts forward the idea that genuine prayer is about the transfer of spiritual energy from the supernatural to the natural world. [1]Whether the impact of this energy is subjective or objective, he leaves open:

[A]t all stages of the prayerful life we find the persuasion that in the process of communion energy from on high flows in to meet demand, and becomes operative within the phenomenal world. So long as this operativeness is admitted to be real, it makes no essential difference whether its immediate effects be subjective or objective. The fundamental religious point is that in prayer, spiritual energy, which otherwise would slumber, does become active, and spiritual work of some kind is effected really. [p 477]

Religion and the subconscious

James points to a particular connection between religion and the subconscious. He distinguishes different types of manifestation of the subconscious that are associated with religion. For example:

The whole array of Christian saints and heresiarchs, including the greatest, the Bernards, the Loyolas, the Luthers, the Foxes, the Wesleys, had their visions, voices, rapt conditions, guiding impressions, and openings. [p 478]

The writer also mentions automatic writing, as in Hebrew prophets and Joseph Smith.

He concludes that the subconscious has been an important force in the development of religion:

In persons deep in the religious life, as we have abundantly seen, - and this is my conclusion, - the door into this region seems unusually wide open; at any rate, experiences making their entrance through that door have had emphatic influence in shaping religious history. [p 484]


1 Spiritual Energy

For comment, go to Spiritual Energy on the Issues page. [Back to Article]

(c) John C Durham, 2002 - 2004

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