on william james, and against revelation

December 18, 2020
Last night Erika, the co-facilitator of the Science and Spirituality reading/discusson group I manage, led a discussion on the first 3 lectures in William James' 1902 book The Varieties of Religious Experience. I think most of the other folks in the group resonated with the James more than I did...

James speaks highly of an ecstatic form of religious moment, periods of deep wonderment that transcend thought, that can only be achieved by feeling. I think I did well laying out why this doesn't hit home for me during the zoom call. (And as co-facilitator, making sure we heard from everyone who was willing to share... 2 of the quietest people when given the floor had a lot of smart stuff to say!)

I put my stock in rationality, a rationality that's smart enough to realize it won't have all the answers at hand, and so respects other ways of knowing, even as it tries to analyze them. (Or dissect them, as the cynic might accuse!) To many people my approach seems almost inhumanly cold, but my argument is it has the potential to be MORE human + empathetic.

I am suspicious of any spirituality that leans so heavily on revelation - whether personal, as in the moments of ecstasy James lectures on, or parlayed into the institutional, like the organizations built on what God said to Moses, or to Paul on the Road to Damascus, or to Mohammed, or to Joseph Smith, or whomever. Make no mistake- the length of that latter list, and the variance of those revelations, is key to why I don't trust it. Like Omar Khayyâm put it:
And do you think that unto such as you
A maggot-minded, starved, fanatic crew
God gave a secret, and denied it me?
Well, well--what matters it? Believe that, too!
For me, a spirituality needs to be potentially universal, or it is nothing. (Even if any single faith path is incomplete - despite how those faiths so often claim to being universally and objectively true - and we have to go "meta" and accept a multi-path view, and/or say the the ultimate objective truth involves accepting a range of idiosyncratic and incompatible and even feuding paths) And language and rationality are how we can try to reach to one another. If we have a hope of building bridges that go beyond the subjective it is in that kind of honest, forthright, loving and empathetic analysis.

I think it's useful to see this in the lens of our general day-to-day psychology. One of my favorite metaphors for that is The Elephant and the Rider, posting our fragile logical and narrative self as hanging on top of the emotional Elephant providing all the energy, that rider-self claiming credit for where the Elephant goes but only having limited influence. The Rider plays a crucial role in explaining ourselves to ourselves and to others, and thus allowing social dialog and trust and co-operation to exist.

James of course seems to encourage the life of the elephant as the key to enlightenment. And although he's too reserved to say it, you start to suspect that he holds to it as a connection to something supernatural, a transcendence to connect outside of our system rather than an emergent something, a pattern miraculously rising from our base materials and energies.

Let me know if you're interested in joining the "Science and Spirituality" reading and discussion group at the Belmont UU Church! About 6-10 regulars meet the third Thursday of every month (these days by Zoom of course) and try and tackle a medium length read together - excerpts from a book or a collection of related articles, etc. It's a really thoughtful group of people, with artists and educators in the mix. We're able to find good readings and then the 90 minute session often ends up being one of the better parts of my month.