William James

Just as theologians tend to steer clear of psychology, psychologists tend to avoid religion. The American, Harvard-based psychologist and philosopher, William James (brother of renowned novelist Henry James), who lived from 1842 until 1910, was among the first to buck this trend. Justifying his enquiry into human spirituality, he wrote, “To the psychologist, the religious propensities of man must be at least as interesting as any other of the facts pertaining to his mental constitution”. Asserting that there is something within people that seeks meaning in life beyond everyday concerns, James was the first significant writer on the subject of psychology and spirituality.

James’ highly influential book, “The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature”, published in 1902, was based on a series of lectures given at Edinburgh University (the Gifford Lectures). His even-handedness, plus a naturalistic style of observation and description, ensured a degree of compatibility with the aims and methods of the science of his time. Regrettably, purists considered his work too religious, and it did not therefore give rise to much further psychological research. Theologians, on the other hand, found it too psychological to influence religious enquiry.

Happily, wisdom prevails, and James is now considered one of the founders of modern psychology. He first entered Harvard as a medical student and, with a background in medicine, can be thought of as a pathfinder, applying the scientific methods of the time; observation and analysis. James used the following broad definition of ‘religion’: “The feelings, acts and experiences of individual men (people) in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine”. This seems to me consistent with the idea of ‘spirituality’.

After almost five hundred pages given over to description and definition of the deeply personal experiences of others – under headings including ‘healthy-mindedness’, ‘the sick soul’, ‘conversion’, ‘saintliness’, ‘mysticism’ and ‘repentance’ – James has a short chapter of ‘Conclusions’, which he summarises as follows:

1. The visible world is part of a more spiritual universe from which it draws its chief significance.

2. Union or harmony with that higher universe is our true end.

3. Prayer or inner communion with the spirit thereof is a process wherein work is really done, and spiritual energy flows in and produces effects, psychological and material, within the phenomenal world.

4. Religion brings a new zest, which adds itself like a gift to life, taking the form either of lyrical enchantment or of appeal to earnestness and heroism.

5. It brings an assurance of safety and a temper of peace, and, in relation to others, a preponderance of loving affections.

Aldous Huxley

The people of his time may not have been ready to fully embrace these ideas. James’s work linking psychology and religion was new, impressive and influential, but was not taken up directly in academic circles. Other writers came to similar conclusions and discovered similar obstacles to gaining widespread public acceptance. Aldous Huxley, for example, already known for his novels, probably had a significant effect on his readership, but privately. He lived into the early 1960’s, and may well have contributed to the start of the process of social liberalization with which that decade is associated. Who can say?

Born in Surrey, England in 1894, Aldous was the grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, an eminent zoologist at the time of Charles Darwin, with whom he is known to have collaborated. Two of Aldous’ brothers also became leading biologists, so his background in science was strong.

Like William James, Huxley seems to have been schooled within a Christian background, the tenets of which he outgrew. It was intended that Aldous, also like James, would study medicine, but he was prevented by an eye complaint in his late teens that left him nearly blind for more than two years. Instead, he studied English Literature at Oxford University; then his path turned to writing. His novels include ‘Antic Hay’, ‘Brave New World’, ‘Eyeless in Gaza’, and ‘Island’.

Huxley's novel - Brave New World

Huxley moved to the United States in 1937 where he was introduced to ‘Vedanta’, a relatively modern and streamlined version or school of Hinduism. In due course, he agreed to write an Introduction to a new version of the great Hindu scripture, ‘Bhagavad-Gita’, translated by Swami Prabhavananda and the English writer, Christopher Isherwood. In this Introduction, Huxley referred to the ‘Perennial Philosophy’ of humankind, first written down more than twenty-five centuries earlier. With almost scientific precision, he enumerated its four fundamental doctrinal principles, as follows:

1. The world of matter and of individualized consciousness is the manifestation of a Divine Ground within which all partial realities have their being, and apart from which they would be nonexistent.

2. Human beings are capable not only of knowing about the Divine Ground by inference; they can also realize its existence by a direct intuition, superior to discursive reasoning. This immediate knowledge unites the knower with the known.

3. Man possesses a double nature, a phenomenal ego and an eternal Self, which is the inner man, the Spirit, the spark of divinity within the soul. It is possible for a man, if he so desires, to identify himself with the spirit and therefore with the Divine Ground, which is of the same or like nature with the spirit.

4. Man’s life on earth has only one end and purpose: to identify himself with the eternal Self and so to come to intuitive knowledge of the Divine Ground.

These four principles obviously compare closely with James’ five conclusions, and Huxley suggests that the Perennial Philosophy is consistent with great truths espoused by all the world’s major religions.

A person’s life on earth “Has only one end and purpose”. Wow! That’s worth thinking about.

Copyright Larry Culliford

Larry’s books include ‘The Psychology of Spirituality’, ‘Love, Healing & Happiness’ and (as Patrick Whiteside) ‘The Little Book of Happiness’ and ‘Happiness: The 30 Day Guide’ (personally endorsed by HH The Dalai Lama).

Keep an eye open for Larry’s next book, ‘Much Ado About Something: Introducing a Vision of Christian Maturity’, to be published by SPCK London in 2015.

Listen to Larry’s Keynote Address to the British Psychological Society’s Transpersonal Section via You Tube (1 hr 12 min).

See Larry interviewing JC Mac about ‘spiritual emergence’ on You Tube (5 min).

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