The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James

The Varieties of Religious Experience (Dover Value Editions)The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This classic on the experiential aspects of religion is as fresh, relevant, and authoritative as when it was published in 1902.

The qualities of James’s mind made him superbly well equipped to write a book such as this, for as a thinker he was penetrating, perceptive, objective, skeptical, candid, courageous, and open-minded. He was also deeply read in philosophy and science, and expressed himself with clarity and humor.

The book is composed of a series of talks James gave as Gifford Lecturer on Natural Religion at the University of Edinburgh, and covers the key experiences and attitudes that we tend to call religious: the sense of the “reality of the unseen”, for example, and the feelings of sin and beatitude, as well as conversion, saintliness, mysticism, and the relationship of philosophy to religion.

James treats all these phenomena with interest and respect. His attitude is scientific and impartial, and from these lectures it is not possible to tell where his own spiritual convictions lie.

In all, James demonstrates with a wide range of striking examples and case studies the breadth, depth, and power of the human experience of religion in its widest sense, and shows why scientific and philosophical critiques of “religion” invariably miss their target and never succeed. The experience of religious feeling is a distinct and powerful class of human emotions, and efforts to rationalize this away are never convincing, certainly not to those who have experienced the emotions. Rudolf Otto, in his landmark book The Idea of the Holy, even as he patronizes James as a “rationalist” and a “pragmatist”, nonetheless leans on him for support in his own argument that the experience of the sacred is a unique and all-important aspect of human life.

This is one of the best books on religion or spirituality ever written, and it is all the better for not being written by a cleric, mystic, practitioner, or other apologist for any branded faith. One of the most important books of the 20th century.

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