(First in a six part series.)
Born January 11, 1842 William James, forefather of modern psychology and author of several works regarding religious experience, was by all accounts a pragmatist. Pastor Richard Grice of Calvin Presbyterian Church in Norfolk is not. In his time, James occupied circles with such influential seekers as Bertrand Russell, Dewey and Mark Twain. The good Pastor has a 250-member flock, and the poor. Of course, this says nothing of his intellectual prowess honed in the tradition of the Calvinist model.
James penned The Varieties of Religious Experience in 1905 amidst a widening sphere of fellow journeymen searching for a philosophy that spoke in modern minds like a fresh wind in the face of so much religiosity. He sought to apply the science of psychology to answer the question of whether religious experience came from within the human psyche or from outside the corporeal sphere. And he wrote:
“ Let me then propose an hypothesis, that whatever it may be on the farther side, the “more” with which in religious experience we feel ourselves connected is on its hither side the subconscious continuation of our concience life.”
He continues to state that the religious experience felt by the believer is literally true, in the sense that it is presented as such by the subconscious, a reality but a reality rooted in the mind through the body, not an external source.
Grice disagrees. “Experience shows that the subconscious is a very violent aspect of our psychological makeup. Normally the dream sequence takes the violence and proposes it in workable forms that allow us to flesh out the wounds of our experience, not normally the source of religious conversions or mystical epiphanies. God can instruct through the self-conscious but again, say in dreams, these instructions and our response is the result of a constant effort to follow the will of God after conversion through the conscious mind. An acceptance of grace comes before the revelation, not as James proposes as a direct result of the workings of the subconscious. In the AA program alone, millions have come to a lasting conscious contact with God through prayer and study- acceptance of a personal relationship with the God of their understanding.”
Grice doubts a collective subconscious would allow for such a movement to flourish had each one come to the same conclusion based on the corporeal experiences translated to the mind.
Then again, James may argue that that is exactly how it happens, the power of persuasion, the grasping at meaning, an answer proposed and ruminated on until the subconscious, the “more,” accepts it on faith. For Pastor Grice it is relationship with the other that opens the door through grace.
Over a century has passed since the death of James and still the debates continue. We should hope they always will.