Vincent Van Gogh, ‘A Crab on its Back,’ 1887 (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam / Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

For a long time, The Varieties of Religious Experience (Penguin Classics, 576 pp., $17) sat on my shelf unread, a classic that I assumed was worth owning but not worth reading. From a bit of skimming, I’d determined that William James’s alleged masterpiece catalogued religious belief with a dry and intellectualizing gaze that would only minimize or dismiss my own experiences of actual faith and real doubt. Not for me, I decided.

But my favorite writers kept quoting James, from Marilynne Robinson and Francis Spufford to a bar scene in a Tom Drury novel, so I finally decided to give The Varieties a real try, if only to momentarily escape the 2020 news cycle. I fell in love within the first ten pages, mostly because of a crab:

The first thing the intellect does with an object is to class it along with something else. But any object that is infinitely important to us and awakens our devotion feels to us also as if it must be sui generis and unique. Probably a crab would be filled with a sense of personal outrage if it could hear us class it without ado or apology as a crustacean, and thus dispose of it. “I am no such thing,” it would say; “I am MYSELF, MYSELF alone.”

That outraged crab made my day. So much of what makes James great, I would discover, is evident in this passage: his regard for individual experience, his sense of humor, his eloquence, his tendency to push back against obvious intellectual currents. In other words, my assumptions were way wrong. (And I suspect I’m not the only Catholic—or “Catholic voter,” for that matter—who has felt some kinship with the crab.) 

Believing that “a large acquaintance with particulars often makes us wiser than the possession of abstract formulas,” James quotes from and reflects on a constant stream of autobiographical narratives, accounts of belief and disbelief, of optimism and “the sick soul,” of saintliness and “the divided self.” Thus, reading The Varieties also means encountering the words and worldviews of Whitman and Emerson, Tolstoy and Voltaire, Martin Luther and Jonathan Edwards, St. Teresa of Ávila and St. John of the Cross, plus countless conversion stories of lesser-known or anonymous figures. The effect is overwhelming and enlivening, a reminder of the range and irrevocable significance of “our soul’s vital secrets.”

“All is not vanity in this Universe, whatever the appearances may suggest.”

But for me, James’s own thought and personality is the book’s biggest charm. I’ve treasured his surprising, aphoristic sentences (“But take the happiest man, the one most envied by the world, and in nine cases out of ten his inmost consciousness is one of failure”) and the way he poses the most fundamental of questions (“What is the character of this universe in which we dwell?”), and then refuses the certainty of simple answers. While I don’t always agree with his conclusions, I find genuine insights on nearly every page. What a revelation to belatedly discover this witty and intelligent philosopher-psychologist-writer who directly acknowledges the claims of science, the problem of evil, the reality of despair, the diversity of belief, and the general uncertainty of the universe. He does this while remaining open-minded and empathetic enough to recognize the ways that religious belief—and the real sense of a higher power in one’s life—can sustain, shape, and maybe even save us despite all of this. For James, this is the ultimate message of every religion: “All is not vanity in this Universe, whatever the appearances may suggest.”


“Nothing poisons truth so quickly as an assurance that one has found it.” These words could fit easily into William James’s complete works, but they’re from a much more recent book: Christian Wiman’s He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art (Picador, 128 pp., $16), published in 2018.

A poet and professor at Yale (as well as a Commonweal contributor), Wiman has wrestled with faith, doubt, mortality, and the possibility of modern belief in several works of poetry and prose. Like James, Wiman seeks “some flicker of spirit among the adamant facts” (as he vividly puts it in this new book). And like James, he’s allergic to certainty, especially his own. But unlike James, Wiman explores these issues by examining his own experiences and beliefs.

He Held Radical Light covers much of the same ground—sometimes the exact same ground—as his widely praised 2013 book, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. Both are prose works full of poetry (from a variety of poets, including Wiman himself); both explore Wiman’s life as a poet, his family, and his painful and intense experience with cancer; and both offer theological insights that are brilliant in both senses of the word. But for me, at least, this newer book is more captivating—more grounded in concrete particulars, to use a Jamesian word.

When we write about literature, we often pretend that we’ve read the work in an abstract vacuum of objectivity, when the actual experience of reading is deeply personal and often connected to our particular circumstances at the time we encounter it. One of the meaningful joys of reading Wiman’s book is how he ties each poem to the details of his actual life and his own struggles with faith, art, and illness. For Wiman, poetry is an act of faith, even when a writer claims to have no faith at all, and a way to experience something beyond the self. He’s interested in how writing and reading poetry can lead to those rare “moments of mysterious intrusion, that feeling of collusion with eternity, of life and language riled to the one wild charge.”

While poetry can hint at the “persistent, insistent mystery at the center of our existence,” Wiman suggests that, ultimately, “art is not enough.” No art form can solve our “quest to figure out what it is, exactly, we want when we can’t stop wanting.” For this, we have to look beyond ourselves and seek out faith, despite every unanswered and unanswerable question. In the end, Wiman observes, “One either lives toward God or not.”

Burke Nixon is a lecturer in the Program in Writing and Communication at Rice University, where he teaches a course called Fiction and Empathy.

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Published in the December 2020 issue: View Contents
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