and Religious Experience:
by Jo Pearson
Our most unbelieving century . . . cannot
have done with Religion . . . Were men satisfied to be Atheists,
the melodius dithyrambs of Mr. Swinburne would never have awakened
curiosity .” ( Quarterly Review
, 1895: 51)
The mid- to late nineteenth century witnessed the emergence of certain attitudes and practices that together constitute the antecedents of contemporary Pagan and Magical religions. Algernon Swinburne1 was exhibiting a paganism as an attitude of mind2 from the 1860s onwards, the Theosophical Society (1875) and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (1888) 3 were founded, and William James was writing about the 'eccentric and spooky dark side of religion.'4 The 'constant and integral potential' of this dark side of religion cannot be ignored in our study of James, nor can it be rationalised as "irreligion" 5 as magic, witchcraft, and ritual often are. Psychology, as the study of the soul, did not arise ex nihilo but can be found within the currents of the Western Esoteric Tradition that underpins contemporary magic. But today, as in James' time, magic, ritual and witchcraft are ignored or treated as deviant irreligion; I cannot help but think that James would have been interested in their study! With James, 'we must be willing to forget conventionalities and dive below the smooth and lying official conversational surface' (1985: 145), and so my focus in this article will be religious experience facilitated by ritual in, specifically, English Wicca, which I shall at times extend into Paganism and magic in order to assess James’s Varieties in terms of the study of what are increasingly called contemporary 'alternative spiritualities.'6
Wiccan Ritual and Religious Experience
James does not talk at any length about ritual—he was writing at a time when ritual was still a ‘dirty word’; it was something far removed from the Protestant experience of the time, confined to the world of anthropology, existing only in ‘the primitive’ or as popery 7. James suggests that
However, religious experience is explicitly linked to ritual context by many ritual theorists9 who have witnessed at first hand or through their own experience the powerful emotions released by the posture and movement of the body and the transformations which are then carried through into everyday life. Following Roy Rappaport’s argument, ritual inverts the quotidian contexts in which thoughts dominate experience, and this displacement of thought by experience in the process of ritual is often claimed as one of the keys to mystical, spiritual or religious experience by contemporary magico-religious practitioners. To borrow a phrase from David Napier (1992:181), through ritual these practitioners aim to exchange ‘cognitive tyranny’ for ‘actual [religious] experience’.
Of course, this does not necessarily happen straight away, though it may do for some practitioners. 10 The exchange of ‘cognitive tyranny’ for ‘actual [some might say ‘authentic’] experience’ is facilitated by the central role played by ritual in Wiccan practice. And whilst rites may be written down, and some training may be given, there tends to be an acknowledgement that ritual can only be learned by doing, by opening oneself to the religious experience which ritual facilitates, beyond the intellectual faculty. Wicca’s emphasis on the experiential dimension allows for the learning of a mechanical, repetitive, organized framework, the function of which is to move the participants away from the practical and intellectual world of everyday experience and into the realm of feeling and intuition which facilitates the experience of the numinous. It involves, in a variety of ways, the casting of a circle (sacred space), calling of the four quarters (earth, air, fire and water), raising of energy (dance and chant), and the invocation of deity, utilising movement, music, incense, fire and candlelight, and often ritual nudity—a very obvious pointer to the importance of the physical body when approaching ‘the divine’. The carefully constructed, symbolic form of the ritual circle empowers the religious experience of Wiccan ritual by providing a protected space in which the participants may experience other, new modes of thought—it is ‘a bounded and ordered symbolic domain, an experiential context for exploring different instruments of cognition’ (Napier 1992:xxvi). But to focus only on this framework in studying Wiccan ritual is to miss the point. For ‘ritual’, in Wicca, is seen as a legitimate means of ‘knowing’ in its own terms, as an embodied, incarnate means of knowing, rather than as a reinforcing interpretation of something else, and this knowing occurs both within and beyond the ritual framework.
This view has been expressed by Rappaport, who claimed that ‘ritual is not simply an alternative way to express certain things, but that certain things can be expressed only in ritual’ (Rappaport 1979: 174 - emphasis mine). This is probably closest to the Wiccan emphasis on experiential knowing as the root of their religion. According to practitioners, the true meaning of their religion can only be expressed and experienced through direct participation in its rituals—rituals which are deemed to be an experiential mode of interacting with oneself and others, nature, the cosmos, and the divine in whatever construct the individual develops for him- or herself. There is an emphasis not just on what is experienced but on how experience occurs—the emphasis on the religious experience facilitated by ritual in Wicca reveals an attempt to manipulate and shape experience, as well as to actively undergo it.
So what happens beyond the ritual framework—what is the religious experience and how is it experienced? James’s method of gathering spiritual autobiography is a useful technique for understanding the religious experience facilitated by Wiccan ritual, and so I follow James by presenting an abridged excerpt from Vivianne Crowley’s account of performing a rite of initiation:
To gloss this account, what is happening here is the invocation of the Divine, in this case the Goddess, into the body of the practitioner; the body, in Roof and Taylor’s (1995) terms, is most definitely ‘embodied’, some might even say possessed. There is a sense in which the priestess is indeed ‘grasped and held by a superior power’ (1995: 201), even though she has been actively involved in a process of readying herself for such a state—cultivating a ‘mystical’ experience by using the body to facilitate feelings or mental states which facilitate a powerful religious experience. Roof and Taylor talk of James’s ‘transport’, the ‘mechanism by which an individual achieves a mystical state—that is, some sort of action, practice, or exercise that ‘brings you there’. To get ‘there’ involves mental and bodily exercises that trigger the experience, a catalyst for the emotion (1995: 201). In Wicca, these ‘transports’ include blood control through binding; scourging; rites, chants and spells; dance; sex (the Great Rite); incense, drugs and wine; meditation/concentration; trance, and are known as the ‘eight paths to realisation’ or the ‘eight paths of magic’. Fasting before a rite is also commonly practised.
All, we should note, involve the body 11 and are not far removed from the transports named by James (1985: 314), which he takes from Yoga: diet, posture, breathing, intellectual concentration, and moral discipline—preliminary voluntary operations which facilitate the oncoming of the mystical state (1985: 300). We might also note Crowley’s use of eastern terms borrowed from Saivite tantra (the notion of chakras) and also the description of her state as ‘samadhi’ 12. As noted earlier, this necessitates some training—learning and methodical practice that allows the practitioner to consciously manipulate the senses in order to achieve this state. And this, as Roof and Taylor point out, means that ‘religious experience can arise out of practice and that people have the capacity to learn to have religious experiences . . . they can learn how to create their own brain states, which are defined or labelled as religious’ (1995: 202), the aim being to cultivate qualities which imbue everyday life rather than merely to facilitate transient altered states of consciousness. This ability comes gradually from the practice of ritual rather than from rules or ideas about Wicca or its borrowings from tantra, and the experience enabled by it must be distinguished from the preliminary efforts by which it is preceded. 13 It does not mean that the experience itself is forced or controlled—it is often powerful and manifests in unexpected ways, and is as frequently terrifying (opening doors to demons which must be slain) as it is uplifting. For ‘beyond the threshold of waking consciousness, we have dimensions of experience not readily understood by the normal self’ (Taylor, 1996: 85) and there are good reasons why, as James argued in ‘The Hidden Self’ (and here I both rely on and quote from Eugene Taylor), ‘normal waking consciousness remains forever familiar only with itself and is fearful of anything beyond the margin of the known’ (Taylor, 1996: 42). Ritual is clearly one of the mechanisms by which consciousness beyond the margin might be tapped, a subconscious doorway through which we may experience the plurality of selves and of consciousness parted from our normal waking consciousness by only the filmiest of screens.
William James and the Study of ‘Alternative Spirituality’
It seems also to be the case that James’s
Varieties is itself separated
from us by the filmiest of screens. In his short essay that seeks
to revisit the Varieties
, Charles Taylor describes his experience
as he reread James’s Varieties :
The sense I had of treading in the footsteps of this trail-blazing predecessor was enhanced by the powerful recurring impression, in passage after passage of James’s work, that (style and topical references aside) it could have been written yesterday, as against almost a hundred years ago (2002: v)
At the beginning of Chapter 1, he continues
to stress the point:
It is astonishing how little dated it is. Some of the detail may be strange, but you easily think of examples in our world that fit the themes James is developing. You can even find yourself forgetting that these lectures were delivered a hundred years ago (2002: 3)
My own re-reading led me to the same conclusion, but to me the detail was not particularly strange and I did not feel myself to be entering another world. In large part, this is due to the fact that anyone studying Wicca, Paganisms, contemporary magical practitioners, New Age spiritualities etc. is required to enter the world of the late nineteenth century, the world of which and in which James is writing, in order to understand something of the context from which these ‘alternative spiritualities’ developed. Theosophy, mind-cure, mesmerism, and spiritualism are a part of this context. So too are western explorations of Hinduism and Buddhism (not only in Theosophical circles), as well as Protestant developments and anti-Catholicism. In fact, in many ways, James’s Varieties are an expression of a late nineteenth century Anglo-American zeitgeist which argues for a combination of vision and observation, the Romantic assertion of the importance of intuition and imagination, the theme of individual identity, 14 and a return to Hellenic Paganism15 as a protest against the ‘mechanical and graceless formalism of the modern era’16 and, according to Walter Pater (1839-1894) and Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), to redress the imbalance caused by Hebraic values, ‘where all sides of one’s being were sacrificed to the religious side, and where systems of conduct and moral codes threatened to become more important than the spirit which originally inspired them’.17
Pater maintained that the value of religion lay in the states of mind that worship induced rather than in any doctrinal element, and that these mental states could be maintained without the dogma which hitherto accompanied them.18 Religion, he argued, should not be informed by profound ideals imposed by the intellect but by those things which ‘arise gradually and directly from concrete experience, from a sensory and spiritual appreciation of nature and harmony’ (Uglow 1990: xiii). Pater’s Marius the Epicurean, published in 1885, contains many of these themes, and it was one of the most influential books of the era—he was one of the key writers whom everybody read, a kind of nineteenth century ‘life-style guru’ although he was not happy to be so positioned at the centre of a circle of influence. Whether James read it himself is not clear, but it is certain that his brother Henry was well acquainted with this philosophical novel and its influence, for he coined the adjective ‘Paternal’ to describe those writings that closely followed Pater’s ideas.19
Many of the themes contained within James’s Varieties are recognisable here: ideas of faith not reduced to a creed20; the Stoic and the Epicurean as narrative devices in philosophical debate; an acknowledgement that we cannot view anything from an objective stance—that there is no view from nowhere 21; a stress on feeling;22 ideas about the ‘twice-born’;23 the importance of the individual, indeed an individuality found in feeling, thus a valuing of the emotions; a celebration of plurality; an acknowledgement that different people react differently to, and need, different religions, suited to their own personality; and, of course, ‘religion’ versus institutionalised, established ‘church’.
My aim here is not to dismiss James as simply reiterating the thoughts of others—clearly, he does far more, particularly in terms of his work with psychology and his specific focus on religion. My point is merely this: that James’s Varieties is not a voice crying in the wilderness but in fact belongs in part to that highly-educated class known as ‘the Latter Day Pagans’. And by this I am not claiming James as a ‘pagan’ either, which in any case meant something very different in 1890 than it did in 1950, 1990, or 2003! Nevertheless, the antecedents of contemporary Paganism are to be found coalescing in the 1890s, and any serious scholar of this field would do well to take far more notice of this era. It is here that I include William James, although I would not hesitate to guess that far more people involved in the study of religion have read Varieties than have read Pater’s work. Yet, despite the stress laid by James on the religious experience of the individual, ‘religion’ beyond a church ‘contaminated by the spirits of corporate and dogmatic domination’ (Wulff 1997: 485), and methodological practices24 still followed by many scholars25 working in the area of ‘alternative spiritualities’, it is surprising that Varieties has been largely ignored—a perfunctory look through indices confirms this, and I might add that here I am recognising a failure in my own work as well as offering a criticism of other scholars working in the field.
This dismissal of James is perhaps in part due to his perceived focus on Protestant Christianity, but this is to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water and fails to take into account the lack of testimonies from practitioners of other religions available in James’ day. We would do well, for example, to look again at James’ testing of religious experience in terms of ‘fruits for life’, particularly in light of Steve Bruce’s ‘significance theory’ which argues that some sort of critical mass must be attained if a religion is to be considered significant.26 When this charge is levelled at Wicca, Paganism, and magical groups (or any other religious group for that matter), it absolutely fails to take into account those fruits for life which practitioners claim to derive from their religious experience. Rather, with James, the language for understanding religious experience is to be found in literature, art, and music, in the operation of the poetic imperative rather than in numbers,27 and the methods of study must be hospitable to the religious experience of others.28 As James argued,
thing we should bear in mind (especially if we belong to the clerico-academic-scientific
type, the officially and conventionally ‘correct’
type, the ‘deadly respectable’ type, for which to
ignore others is a besetting temptation) is that nothing can be
more stupid than to bar out phenomena from our notice, merely
because we are incapable of taking part in anything like them
ourselves (1985: 108-9).
The tendency towards jargon and number-crunching
accentuates a world- weariness in some religious studies scholarship
which is not found in James’s Varieties
. We need to retain (or regain!) James’s fascination and wonder
so that we too can offer not only an examination, but a celebration,
of the varieties of religious experience expressed by our contemporaries
in the twenty-first century, for our own ‘most unbelieving
century’ has not yet done with religion. We need to see
again with ‘fresh wonder . . . with a conviction of the
profound enigma in things.’29 For as James argued, ‘a mere textual analysis of his writings
leads nowhere . . . [without] an imaginative grasping of his center
of vision’ (Wulff, 1997: 482). We shall never find ‘the
fancied gift of absolute or transcendental knowledge,’
30 nor exhaust religion ‘in a solid something, complete where
Instead, it is by ‘losing the beauty of academic neatness’
32 and using imperfect devices that we shall be able to ‘detect
the passion and strangeness and dramatic contrasts of [religious
experience]’, always as exquisite amateurs!33
‘Latter-Day Pagans’ in The
Quarterly Review, vol.
182, London: John Murray, 31-58.
1. It is interesting to note the fascination with the sea evident in the work of both Swinburne and James. Indeed, James uses Swinburne’s poem ‘On the Verge’ to illustrate ‘the verge of the mind . . . whispers therefrom mingle with the operations of our understanding, even as the waters of the infinite ocean send their waves to break among the pebbles that lie upon our shores.
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