The Fruit of Religious Experience

As Congress reconvenes this week, it will soon resume the debate over whether the federal government should encourage and fund faith-based solutions. Joe Loconte, an outstanding Christian journalist, has done a great service by reminding us in a splendid Weekly Standard article that no less a secularist than the famous psychologist William James would likely have urged Congress to encourage faith-based solutions -- after all, they work. James wrote his exhaustive and classic study, Varieties of Religious Experience, one hundred years ago. The Harvard psychologist and philosopher was a pragmatist, believing in "a system which tests the validity of all concepts by their practical results" -- that is, as he famously put it, by "the cash value of an idea." But surprising to many, James wrote, "The highest flights of charity, devotion, trust, patience, bravery to which the wings of human nature have spread themselves, have been flown for religious ideals." Loconte observes, "Coming from a devoted pragmatist, such observations rocked the secular academy." Academia was dominated by naturalism. Freud was getting ready to dismiss religion in The Future of an Illusion. "From this academic tower of Babel," Loconte says, "James sounded a sober and penetrating defense of religious conviction." University of Chicago professor emeritus Martin Marty called Varieties of Religious Experience the century's "most influential book on religion in America," adding that "it would be hard to think of a number two!" "BreakPoint" managing editor Jim Tonkowich adds, "The book could be called Varieties of Personal Religious Experience. Its experience-centered approach probably opened the way to sentiments like, 'That may be true for you, but this is true for me,' overriding 'Thus saith the Lord.'" Nonetheless, Loconte makes a crucial point that is often overlooked: William James's "attention to the transformation undergone by individuals claiming an encounter with a . . . personal God. . . . [A]t least a third of his [chapters] . . . analyze stories of conversion and saintliness. In most of the life histories he examines, . . . what did the trick was the old-time Gospel religion." Some examples: David Brainerd described his experience, "My soul rejoiced with joy unspeakable, to see such a God," and then devoted his life as a missionary to Native Americans. Frenchman Adolphe Monod wrote, "My melancholy . . . had lost its sting. Hope had entered into my heart." And former alcoholic S. H. Hadley exulted, "I felt I was a free man, . . . Christ with all His brightness and power had come into my life." The ex-drunk then helped found the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions. William James's pragmatic "By their fruits you shall know them" approach forced him to admit that the Christian faith was genuinely fruitful which, of course, is the test of the validity of a worldview: Does it conform to reality -- that is, the way things actually are? Christianity does. As Congress returns, William James's classic analysis argues for more religious influence in the public square, not less. Faith-based solutions provide outstanding results, as the agnostic professor James tells us. For further reading and information: Joseph Loconte, "The Book of James: William James's lectures on religion, a century later," Weekly Standard, 30 December 2002. Joseph Loconte, "The Case for Faith-Friendly Government," Heritage Foundation, 19 December 2002. Joseph Loconte, God, Government, and the Good Samaritan: The Promise and Peril of the President's Faith-Based Agenda (Heritage Foundation, October 2001). William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (the Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion Delivered at Edinburgh in 1901-1902). First published in 1902, it was published more recently by The Modern Library in 1936. (A 1994 version is available.) See especially Lectures IX and X, "Conversion." Charles Taylor, The Varieties of Religion Today (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002). Don Richardson, Eternity in Their Hearts (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1984). Mark Gauvreau Judge, "Twelve Steps to Man: Christianity and the Origins of Alcoholics Anonymous," BreakPoint Online, 2002. "Putting Faith to Work: Enabling the Church" -- In this special "BreakPoint" broadcast, Managing Editor Jim Tonkowich talks with Jim Towey of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and Joe Loconte of the Heritage Foundation about the positive impact people of faith can have on their community.


Chuck Colson


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