The Varieties of Human Experience

The Varieties of Human Experience

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

William James and Sir John Templeton

Religion is an essential part of the human condition, more deeply rooted and more widely shared than science. The question that I am addressing is whether our advancing knowledge of biology can lead us to a better understanding of religion. I begin with a quotation from William James’s Gifford Lectures, given at Edinburgh in the years 1901-2 with the title “The Varieties of Religious Experience”:

Is the existence of so many religious types and sects and creeds regrettable? . . . I answer No emphatically. . . . No two of us have identical difficulties, nor should we be expected to work out identical solutions. . . . If an Emerson were forced to be a Wesley, or a Moody forced to be a Whitman, the total human consciousness of the divine would suffer. . . . Each attitude being a syllable in human nature’s total message, it takes the whole of us to spell the meaning out completely. . . . We must frankly recognize the fact that we live in partial systems, and that parts are not interchangeable in the spiritual life.

My copy of The Varieties of Religious Experience is a little book bound in sky-blue cloth and bought in 1938 for seven shillings and sixpence; it has been my constant companion ever since (James 1937). This last chapter will be squarely based on James’s way of thinking. Even the title is borrowed from James. James looked at religion from the inside. He was a professor of psychology, and he looked at religion as a psychologist looks at a patient, doing his best to see the world through the patient’s eyes. He was convinced that religions are an important part of our understanding of the world, that spiritual truths exist and can be apprehended by humans, and yet he insisted that the varieties of human experience lead us to a variety of truths. There was no place for exclusiveness or for claims of infallibility in his view of religion. There was no place for dogmatic certitude. James’s God was a presence that could sometimes be felt but never described. He was revealed more in people’s lives than in their thoughts. James was not interested in theology, and neither was James’s God.

I find it illuminating to compare William James with another great man who is embarked upon a similar quest, Sir John Templeton. Sir John recently celebrated his ninetieth birthday and is still actively engaged in supporting and encouraging the study of religion. He has a personal philosophy which he calls Humility Theology, based on the notion that we shall understand much more about God if we begin by admitting our ignorance. William James would certainly have agreed with this notion. But William James and Sir John go about the study of religion in very different ways. James studied religion by studying the individual soul. His raw material was the lives of the saints and the writings of mystics. He made no attempt to be scientific. His insights came from personal narrative, not from scientific analysis. His aim was to explore the byways of religious experience, not to reduce them to a set of scientific conclusions.

Sir John follows a different road, hoping that spiritual wisdom may be found by combining the insights of religion with the tools and methods of science. The John Templeton Foundation spends a major part of its resources in the support of research and teaching in the field of science and religion. Science and religion is a new academic discipline still in the process of defining itself. Its practitioners may be theologians, philosophers, psychologists, medical doctors, biologists, or physicists. They engage in a great variety of studies with diverse methods and purposes. But the central purpose of Sir John in supporting such studies is clear. His purpose is to rejuvenate the ancient discipline of theology by bringing into it people and ideas from the new disciplines of science. His dream is to see experts in science and religion making new discoveries in religion, as revolutionary as the discoveries that have been made during the last century in science. He uses the phrase “spiritual information” to define the goal that he is seeking.

One of the central new ideas in the physical sciences is complementarity, introduced by Niels Bohr in the 1920s as a way to describe the new world of quantum mechanics. Complementarity means the existence of two pictures of a physical process that are both valid but cannot be seen simultaneously. The best-known example of complementarity is the dual nature of light. Light sometimes behaves like a continuous wave and sometimes like a hailstorm of discrete particles. To see the wave nature of light, you do an experiment to observe its diffraction by a grating. To see the particle nature of light, you do an experiment to observe it kicking out electrons from a metal surface. The two experiments are complementary. Light is both waves and particles, but you cannot see a wave and a particle at the same time. The nature of light is richer than any of the pictures that we use to describe it.

When the idea of complementarity is applied to atomic processes governed by quantum mechanics, the idea is mathematically precise and is verified by a wealth of experiments. But Bohr liked to extend the idea to more general contexts where its use has remained controversial. Bohr introduced complementarity into biology, pointing out that a living creature can be studied either as an organic whole or as a collection of chemical molecules, but its behavior as a living organism and the behavior of its constituent molecules cannot be studied in the same experiment. In fact, the attempt to locate precisely all the molecules in a living creature would probably result in its death. He also spoke of the complementarity between justice and mercy in ethics, between thoughts and sentiments in psychology, between form and substance in literature, between frame and content in scientific theories. He spoke in an even more general way of “the mutually exclusive relationship which will always exist between the practical use of any word and attempts at its strict definition.”

Following Bohr’s broad use of the word, I propose that religion and science are also complementary. The formal frame of traditional theology, and the formal frame of traditional science, are both too narrow to comprehend the totality of human experience. Both frames exclude essential aspects of our existence. Theology excludes differential equations, and science excludes the idea of the sacred. But the fact that these frames are too narrow does not imply that either can be expanded to include the other. Complementarity implies exclusion. The essence of complementarity is the impossibility of observing both the scientific and the religious aspects of human nature at the same time. When we are aware of the universe through a religious experience, nothing is quantitative, and when we are aware of the universe through scientific observation and analysis, nothing is sacred. To astronomers with a religious turn of mind the heavens may proclaim the glory of God, but the glory will never be captured in their computer models of star clusters and galaxies. There is a danger that the academic discipline of science and religion may become a frame that excludes both genuine science and genuine religion. If frame A and frame B are mutually exclusive, then a frame C that tries to include both A and B is likely to end by excluding both. If science and religion are complementary, it is better that they should live apart, with mutual respect but with separate identities and separate bank accounts.

Contemporary discussions of science and religion often have a narrow focus, as if science and religion were the only sources of knowledge and wisdom. In fact, science and religion belong to a wider array of human faculties, an array that also includes art, architecture, music, drama, law, medicine, history, and literature. Several of these faculties have closer ties than science with religion. Every great religion has great art and great literature associated with it from ancient times. The connections between science and religion are by comparison recent and superficial. I find it strange that science should be singled out as the partner of religion in Sir John Templeton’s vision. If we look for insights into human nature to guide the future of religion, we shall find more such insights in the novels of Dostoyevsky than in the journals of cognitive science. Literature is the great storehouse of human experience, linking together different cultures and different centuries, accessible to far more people than the technical language of science. William James was trained as a medical doctor and was familiar with the science of his time, but he paid far more attention to literature than to science in his study of religion. His book is full of marvelous quotations from writers ancient and modern, and has hardly a single reference to scientific journals.

For many years, ever since the personal computer became ubiquitous, we have heard prophets proclaiming that books will soon be obsolete, that the new generations raised on video images will no longer be interested in reading books. Nevertheless, books survive, and new books are still being written and read. Even if books become obsolete in the future, the content of books will be transferred to some other medium and literature will survive in another form. No matter how far we look into the future, humans will need a way to share stories, and the sharing of stories is the essential basis of literature. Literature enables us to share the passions of Greek and Trojan warriors in the twelfth century before Christ, and of Hebrew prophets and kings a few hundred years later. Literature will remain as the way we embalm our thoughts and feelings for transmission to our descendants. Literature survives when the civilizations that gave birth to it collapse and die. All through our history, literature and religion have been closely tied together. It is literature that gives longevity to religion. Religions that have no literature may come and go, but the Jewish Torah and the Christian Gospels and the Muslim Koran endure through the millennia. The more successful of the new religions of recent times also have their sacred books. Latter-day Saints have their Book of Mormon, Christian Scientists have their Science and Health with a Key to the Scriptures, and the Marxists have their holy scriptures too.

Elaine Pagels is an example of a scholar who has enlarged our view of religion by detailed study of the associated literature. She translated and elucidated the collection of ancient scrolls that were discovered hidden under the desert sand in a wine jar at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. Her book The Gnostic Gospels (1979) is a popular account of her work, explaining the origins of these early noncanonical Christian texts and the new light they throw on the canonical texts which later became the Christian Bible. Pagels is not a scientist. Her skills and her tools have little to do with science. She is a linguist and a historian. Her skills are intimate knowledge of the Coptic and Greek languages, and her tools are literary and historical analysis. Her work has given us a new picture of the Christian religion as it existed in early times before orthodoxies were rigidly imposed and heresies stamped out. This glimpse of a different Christianity has had great influence in broadening the scope and style of Christian thinking. It helps to free Christianity from the dogmatism of past centuries and resonates well with the new generation of students who call themselves Christian but feel more at home with heresy than with orthodoxy. The notion of complementarity can also be used to reconcile heresy with orthodoxy, to reconcile the view of Jesus seen in the Gnostic Gospel of St. Thomas with the view seen in the orthodox Gospels of the New Testament. The various Gospels give us different views, but they are views of the same Jesus.

Elaine Pagels has been a discoverer of spiritual knowledge according to Sir John Templeton’s definition. I hope there will be more scholars like her, learned in the languages and histories of other cultures and other religions, who will devote their lives to discovering and interpreting other documents that were forgotten long ago or condemned as heretical. All religions have a tendency to become rigid and intolerant. Every religion has, buried in its past, heretical views that were suppressed. If we could recover some of the ancient heretical literature of other religions and make it accessible to students in the modern world, as Pagels has recovered and explained the suppressed literature of the Christian religion, we might succeed in broadening the outlook of all religions. With a broadened outlook, our diverse religions might be better able to live together in peace. Believers in each religion might come to see that all religions are complementary, giving us views of the same reality seen from different angles.

One of the finest Christian heretics was William Blake, whose poems and prophesies were not suppressed but ignored when he published them in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (Blake 1939). His orthodox contemporaries considered him insane, and he narrowly escaped being put in prison for treasonable remarks against the British monarchy. Two hundred years later he is honored as an artist and as a poet and as a spokesman for the oppressed. His poem “The Everlasting Gospel” is another heretical gospel to put beside the Gospel of St. Thomas:

The Vision of Christ that thou dost see
Is my Vision’s greatest enemy:
Thine has a great hook nose like thine,
Mine has a snub nose like to mine:
Thine is the friend of All Mankind,
Mine speaks in parables to the blind:
Thine loves the same world that mine hates,
Thy Heaven doors are my Hell’s gates.
Both read the Bible day and night,
But thou read’st black where I read white.

In another place he wrote:

How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way
Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?

William Blake, this crazy poet who invited us

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour,

gave us more spiritual information in a few lines than all the theologians and scientists of his time in their learned volumes. In the future too, if we are searching for spiritual information, we are more likely to find it among poets than among scientists.

Theology and Theofiction

In my thinking about religion, writers of science fiction play a larger role than either poets or scientists. Science fiction is generally despised both by scientists and by literary scholars as a bastard discipline combining bad science with bad writing. Much of it deserves their contempt, but some of it does not. Some of the best writing is done by a small number of writers who have adapted the style and conventions of science fiction to tell stories that have little to do with science but much to do with theology. Their stories are found on the shelves of bookstores among the classics of science fiction, but they truly belong to a different genre to which I give the name theofiction. Writers of theofiction present a vision that is primarily religious rather than scientific. Their characters are exploring the meaning and purpose of the universe rather than the geography of particular places. They confront age-old problems of good and evil, not paying serious attention to the astronomical vistas and technological devices that serve as stage scenery for their dramas. The writers that I shall discuss are Olaf Stapledon, Clive Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, and Octavia Butler. I chose these four only because I am familiar with them. There are other writers of theofiction that I do not know, many of them writing in languages other than English. Perhaps the greatest works of theofiction in the literature of Europe are Dante’s Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost. The limits of the genre are arbitrary, and I will not try to trace its history. I am asking whether the modern writers of theofiction may have raised important new questions that traditional theology ignored.

Olaf Stapledon is the most analytical of my four writers. When he was not writing fiction, he was a professional philosopher. At many places in his fiction, the philosopher is speaking through the mouths of his characters. The most explicitly theological of his stories is Star Maker, published in 1937 (Stapledon 1968). The hero is a nondescript character who sits down to rest on a hill overlooking his home and unexpectedly finds himself embarked on a tour of the universe. The first stop is a planet similar to Earth, where he finds a kindred soul to share his journey. From there he travels on to other worlds, enlarging his view of the cosmos and collecting a diverse group of fellow travelers to explore further. He travels like Dante, through realms of horror and degradation, into realms of gradually ascending philosophic calm and understanding, until he stands finally in the immediate presence of the Star Maker. He then experiences the mystical union of the cosmos with the mind of the Star Maker. But that supreme moment is tragic rather than harmonious. Like God answering Job out of the whirlwind, the Star Maker strikes him down and rejects him. The Star Maker judges his creation with love but without mercy. In the end, our entire universe, in spite of all its majesty and beauty, is a flawed experiment. The Star Maker is already busy with designs for other universes in which our flaws may be repaired.

Seven years after Star Maker, Stapledon wrote Sirius, a less ambitious but more persuasive venture into theology (Stapledon 1972). As a work of literature, Sirius is far superior. The story is more gripping, and the characters more finely drawn. The most memorable of the characters is Sirius, a superdog with a superhuman brain. Stapledon was writing in the 1940s, before the chemical structure of DNA and the technology of genetically modified embryos had been discovered. A modern writer writing a story about a superdog would naturally assume that the animal must be genetically modified. Stapledon did not need genetic engineering to imagine a superdog. He imagined old-fashioned growth hormones infused into the dog’s brain by an old-fashioned dog breeder. The setting of the story is sheep-dog country, the hills of North Wales during the Second World War, a time and a country where dogs and humans lived and worked together with mutual respect.

The story of Sirius is a tragedy. Sirius understands both the world of dogs and the world of humans, but he can find no place for himself in either world. Searching for a place and a purpose for his life, he becomes increasingly frustrated and angry. Then, in a moment of desperation, he is overwhelmed by a religious experience. A mystical peace descends on his soul, and an awareness of God that he is unable to describe in words. Afterward he talks to his human owner and attempts to formulate a theology. The theology of a superdog is necessarily different from human theology. Sirius’s God is a supreme hunter rather than a supreme judge or redeemer. Stapledon does not develop Sirius’s theology in detail. Sirius’s intellectual explorations are cut short, and the story ends in tragedy, because humans who do not know Sirius regard him as a dangerous monster. At the end of the story, we are left with the theological moral. God may have more qualities than we humans are capable of imagining. If we could enlarge our senses and our emotions beyond the human range, we would experience a very different God.