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.”