This volume presents in full measure the characteristic features which have caused William James' writings to be so widely read and appreciated — an engaging style, an abounding wealth of concrete material, a complete and sympathetic understanding of the common experiences of life, the touch of nature which makes the author kin to all his readers, and, above all, the power of acute analysis and of bold constructive generalization. The task which he has set himself in these Gifford lectures, is an inductive study of the varieties of religious experience with the purpose of ascertaining their common elements, of assessing their value, and of discovering a basis for their rational justification. He restricts the sphere of his observation for the most part to the human documents of the neurotic type, on the ground that the extreme and abnormal cases bring into high relief the essential elements of religious experience, and that the intense emotional tone of such states of consciousness emits not only heat but light as well.
In this connection, he insists that religious experience should be tested not by its origin, whether under normal or abnormal mental conditions, but solely by the three following criteria:
(1) Immediate luminousness
(2) Philosophical reasonableness
(3) Moral helpfulness
The utility of a religious experience is after all its supreme warrant.
The author further circumscribes the field of research by the exclusion of institutional religion with its variety of creed, ritual and rubric, and by confining his investigation solely to the various manifestations of personal religion. The def1nition of religion in the line of this purpose is as follows: "Religion, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as -they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine".
The prevailing types of religious experience fall into two classes, the so called 'once-born,'and 'twice-born' souls. The former are those fortunate spirits to whom religion is a second nature.
This, William James calls the religion of healthy mindedness. The present day representatives of this class he finds strangely enough among the Christian Scientists, inasmuch as they deny the existence of evil, sin or disease, and claim that their religion is one of health and repose. Although not an avowed adherent of the 'mind-cure' doctrines and practice, James is nevertheless most sympathetic and appreciative in his estimate of this new cult. The phase of this movement which appeals to him with special force is that of its close connection with the phenomena of the subconscious life.
The second class of religious experiences embraces all the 'sick souls' who need a new birth. They present invariably the phenomenon of the 'divided self,' with an accompanying consciousness of friction, struggle and a desire for some form of unification. As regards this process of unification, the author discusses at length the experience of conversion, in which there is always the existence of transmarginal or subliminal consciousness. In instantaneous conversions there is evidence of the more intense activity of the subconscious self. This phenomenon is always accompanied by a highly wrought emotional 'faith-state' which is characterized by a sense of peace, consciousness of the possession of truth, and of ' an appearance of newness beautifying every object'.
James proceeds in the next place to discuss the subject of the fruits of the religious life which appear in their most complete form as the state of saintliness. This type of character is treated in its various phases at considerable length; five chapters are devoted to it, which abound in significant illustrations of a most interesting nature. The characteristics of saintliness are as follows:
1. Consciousness of the existence of an ideal power.
2. A sense of the friendly continuity of the ideal power with one's own life.
3. An immense elation and freedom, as the outlines of the confining self-hood melt down.
4. A shifting of the emotional center towards loving and harmonious affections, manifested in an increase of charity and tenderness for fellow creatures.
The practical results attending the phenomena of saintliness are summarized as follows: "Economically, the saintly group of qualities is indispensable to the world's welfare. The great saints are immediate successes; the smaller ones are at least heralds and harbingers, and they may be leavens also, of a better mundane order. Let us be saints, then, if we can, whether or not we succeed visibly and temporally".