William James

An omnipotent and perfectly good creator will seek to interact with his creaturesand in particular with human persons capable of knowing him. He has reason, as we have seen, to interact in the public world- occasionally making a difference to it in response to our prayers for particular needs (Swinburne, 1996: 130). The religious experience argument for the existence of God is in some ways the basis for all religion. William James wrote that “in a world in which no religious feeling had ever existed, I doubt whether any philosophic theology could have ever been framed” (1902: ). All religion and religious belief owe their existence in some way to religious experience. For example, had God not covenanted with Abraham and aided Moses in the Passover and Exodus would we have Judaism today.

  1. What other religious experiences can you think of that are of crucial importance to religious groups?

The religious experiences of the individual have become crucial for the whole religion in shaping their idea of deity and how they respond to that deity. However, religious experience isn’t just for the “prophets”- individual people have religious experiences that confirm their religious belief or indeed change their religious belief. Religious Experience has been defined as “The contemplation of the pious is the immediate consciousness of the universal existence of all finite things, in and through the Infinite and of all temporal things in and through the Eternal” (Schleiermacher, 1799: 36).

The various types of religious experience have been categorised in different ways. Common groups include:


This is a feeling of awe and wonder, that there is something greater than you. E.g. when you enter a great religious building or go for a walk in the countryside.


When your life is changed by giving yourself to God.


Something which seems to break the laws of science and makes you think only God could have done it.


Gaining direct contact with God through things like visions and trances.

William James

William_James_b1842cKey Person: William James (1842-1910)

American psychologist and philosopher. Most famous for investigating religious experiences as a psychological phenomenon. His book Varieties of Religious Experience was published in 1902.

William James investigated the various mystical religious experiences people had. He found that most religious experiences shared common characteristics which he outlined in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience. What is interesting was that he did not investigate the objective validity of religious experiences but recognised that they were “true” for the individual and in some ways that is all that mattered. He noted that mystical experiences had the following in common:

  1. Ineffability.- The handiest of the marks by which I classify a state of mind as mystical is negative. The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words. It follows from this that its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others. In this peculiarity mystical states are more like states of feeling than like states of intellect. No one can make clear to another who has never had a certain feeling, in what the quality or worth of it consists. One must have musical ears to know the value of a symphony; one must have been in love one’s self to understand a lover’s state of mind. Lacking the heart or ear, we cannot interpret the musician or the lover justly, and are even likely to consider him weak-minded or absurd. The mystic finds that most of us accord to his experiences an equally incompetent treatment.
  2. Noetic quality.- Although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time. These two characters will entitle any state to be called mystical, in the sense in which I use the word. Two other qualities are less sharply marked, but are usually found. These are:
  3. Transiency.- Mystical states cannot be sustained for long. Except in rare instances, half an hour, or at most an hour or two, seems to be the limit beyond which they fade into the light of common day. Often, when faded, their quality can but imperfectly be reproduced in memory; but when they recur it is recognized; and from one recurrence to another it is susceptible of continuous development in what is felt as inner richness and importance.
  4. Passivity.- Although the oncoming of mystical states may be facilitated by preliminary voluntary operations, as by fixing the attention, or going through certain bodily performances, or in other ways which manuals of mysticism prescribe; yet when the characteristic sort of consciousness once has set in, the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power. This latter peculiarity connects mystical states with certain definite phenomena of secondary or alternative personality, such as prophetic speech, automatic writing, or the mediumistic trance. When these latter conditions are well pronounced, however, there may be no recollection whatever of the phenomenon and it may have no significance for the subject’s usual inner life, to which, as it were, it makes a mere interruption. Mystical states, strictly so called, are never merely interruptive. Some memory of their content always remains, and a profound sense of their importance. They modify the inner life of the subject between the times of their recurrence. Sharp divisions in this region are, however, difficult to make, and we find all sorts of gradations and mixtures (James, 1982: 380-382).

Key Word: Passive (the person having the experience doesn’t initiate it.  They feel ‘done to’ rather than proactive)

Key Word: Transient (the experience is fleeting, comes and goes, cannot be retained or prolonged by their own effort)

Key Word: Noetic(mystical experience generates knowledge, leaves people feeling sure in new ways, establishes personal certainty)

Key Word: Inexpressible (there are no words which adequately or completely make sense of the mystical: it is beyond description)

mlk-yousufkarshBelow is an extract from a speech by Martin Luther King. It might be good to look for the parts that could be expressed as passive, transient, noetic and inexpressible.

The problems of life will begin to overwhelm you; disappointments will begin to beat upon the door of your life like a tidal wave. (Yes) And if you don’t have a deep and patient faith, (Well) you aren’t going to be able to make it.

I know this from my own experience. The first twenty-five years of my life were very comfortable years… didn’t have to worry about anything.

I have a marvelous mother and father. They went out of the way to provide everything for their children, basic necessities. …And you know, I was about to conclude that life had been wrapped up for me in a Christmas package.

Now of course I was religious; I grew up in the church. …My father is a preacher, my grandfather was a preacher, my great-grandfather was a preacher, my only brother is a preacher, my Daddy’s brother is a preacher. So I didn’t have much choice, I guess. (laughter)

But I had grown up in the church, and the church meant something very real to me, but it was a kind of inherited religion and I had never felt an experience with God in the way that you must have it if you’re going to walk the lonely paths of this life. Everything was done, and if I had a problem I could always call Daddy, my earthly father; things were solved.

But one day after finishing school, I was called to a little church down in Montgomery, Alabama, and I started preaching there. Things were going well in that church; it was a marvelous experience. But one day a year later, a lady by the name of Rosa Parks decided that she wasn’t going to take it any longer. She stayed in a bus seat, and you may not remember it because it’s way back now several years, but it was the beginning of a movement…

Things were going well for the first few days, but then about ten or fifteen days later, after the white people in Montgomery knew that we meant business, they started doing some nasty things. They started making nasty telephone calls, and it came to the point that some days more than forty telephone calls would come in, threatening my life, the life of my family, the life of my children. I took it for a while in a strong manner.

But I never will forget one night very late. It was around midnight. And you can have some strange experiences at midnight.

I had been out meeting with the steering committee all that night. And I came home, and my wife was in the bed and I immediately crawled into bed to get some rest to get up early the next morning to try to keep things going. And immediately the telephone started ringing and I picked it up. On the other end was an ugly voice. That voice said to me, in substance, “Nigger, we are tired of you and your mess now. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow your brains out and blow up your house.” (Lord Jesus)

I’d heard these things before, but for some reason that night it got to me. I turned over and I tried to go to sleep, but I couldn’t sleep. I was frustrated, bewildered. And then I got up and went back to the kitchen and I started warming some coffee, thinking that coffee would give me a little relief.

And then I started thinking about many things. I thought back on the theology and philosophy that I had just studied in the universities, trying to give philosophical and theological reasons for the existence and the reality of sin and evil, but the answer didn’t quite come there.

I sat there and thought about a beautiful little daughter who had just been born about a month earlier. We have four children now, but we only had one then. She was the darling of my life. I’d come in night after night and see that little gentle smile. And I sat at that table thinking about that little girl and thinking about the fact that she could be taken away from me any minute. And I started thinking about a dedicated, devoted, and loyal wife who was over there asleep. And she could be taken from me, or I could be taken from her. And I got to the point that I couldn’t take it any longer; I was weak.

Something said to me, you can’t call on Daddy now, he’s up in Atlanta a hundred and seventy-five miles away. You can’t even call on Mama now. You’ve got to call on that something in that person that your Daddy used to tell you about. (Yes) That power that can make a way out of no way. (Yes)

And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me and I had to know God for myself. (Yes, sir) And I bowed down over that cup of coffee. I never will forget it. (Yes, sir) And oh yes, I prayed a prayer and I prayed out loud that night. (Yes) I said, “Lord… I must confess that I’m weak now; I’m faltering; I’m losing my courage. (Yes)

…And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, (Yes) “Martin Luther… lo I will be with you, (Yes) even until the end of the world.”

And I’ll tell you, I’ve seen the lightning flash. I’ve heard the thunder roll. I felt sin- breakers dashing, trying to conquer my soul.

But I heard the voice of Jesus… He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No, never alone. No, never alone. He promised never to leave me, (Never) never to leave me alone.

And I’m going on in believing in him. (Yes) You’d better know him, and know his name, and know how to call his name. (Yes)

You may not know philosophy. You may not be able to say with Alfred North Whitehead that he’s the Principle of Concretion. You may not be able to say with Hegel and Spinoza that he is the Absolute Whole. You may not be able to say with Plato that he’s the Architectonic Good. You may not be able to say with Aristotle that he’s the Unmoved Mover.

But …you begin to know that our brothers and sisters in distant days were right. Because they did know him as a rock in a weary land, as a shelter in the time of starving, as my water when I’m thirsty, and then my bread in a starving land.

And then if you can’t even say that, …you have to say, “he’s my everything. He’s my sister and my brother. He’s my mother and my father.” If you believe it and know it, you never need walk in darkness.

Don’t be a fool. Recognize your dependence on God. (Yes, sir) As the days become dark and the nights become dreary, realize that there is a God who rules above.

And so I’m not worried about tomorrow. I get weary every now and then. The future looks difficult and dim, but I’m not worried about it ultimately because I have faith in God.

Centuries ago Jeremiah raised a question, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?” He raised it because he saw the good people suffering so often and the evil people prospering. (Yes, sir)

Centuries later our slave foreparents came along. (Yes, sir) And they too saw the injustices of life… But they did an amazing thing. They looked back across the centuries and they took Jeremiah’s question mark and straightened it into an exclamation point. And they could sing, “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. (Yes) There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.” And there is another stanza that I like so well: “Sometimes (Yeah) I feel discouraged.” (Yes)

And I don’t mind telling you this morning that sometimes I feel discouraged.

(All right) …Living every day under extensive criticisms, even from Negroes, I feel discouraged sometimes. (applause) Yes, sometimes I feel discouraged and feel my work’s in vain.

But then the holy spirit (Yes) revives my soul again. “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.” God bless you. (applause).