The Varieties of Religious Experience
, by William James
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Acclaimed as one of the greatest works of nonfiction published in the twentieth century, William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience was revolutionary in its view of religious life as centered not within the Church but solely within the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude.”
Using the language of psychology, James tries to explain religious phenomenasuch as conversion, repentance, mysticism, and saintlinessas psychic energy that arises from the unconscious mind in times of trouble. To support his theories, James turns to the autobiographical writings of a wide variety of mystics and writers, including Walt Whitman, Martin Luther, Voltaire, Emerson, and Tolstoy. The result is a colorful and wide-ranging collection of recorded experiences that James compares, categorizes, and analyzes. Many of his categoriesincluding the sick soul, the divided self, and healthy-mindednesshave become standard in the study of religions.
Exquisitely written, The Varieties of Religious Experience has had a profound influence on modern spiritual thought, including the psychology of religion and recovery programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous.
Wayne Proudfoot is Professor of Religion at Columbia University, specializing in the philosophy of religion. He has published Religious Experience, as well as articles on William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and American Protestant thought.