Oh, William James!

“…Good-humor is a philosophic state of mind; it seems to say to Nature that we take her no more seriously than she takes us. I maintain that one should always talk of philosophy with a smile. We owe it to the Eternal to be virtuous; but we have the right to add to this tribute our irony as a sort of personal reprisal.”

William James writes these words in his work to circumscribe of the topic of religion. There is no final word on “Religion” – with the capital “R” and the quotation marks and all. What seriousness “Religion” conjures! What gravity! The topic is never final; it extends beyond the boarders of definition and demarkation. Still, it is not that funny. It’s more serious than funny, and it’s not only ironic, if at all; after all, religious commits itself often: “All is not vanity in the Universe.” Religion is more human, even more than human.

It is a circumscription of the topic as James suggest. Religion is met through our experience, personal and institutional, social, isolated, in order and through chaos. More than an identity, religion is the circumscription. James wouldn’t go this far. He’s interested in the religious experience and he suggests his readers take religion to mean, albeit arbitrarily, “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.”

At the beginning of James’ work, my introduction marks what James affirmed as the perennial meaning of religion,

1) That the visible world is part of a more spiritual universe from which it draws its chief significance;

2) That union or harmonious relation with that higher universe is our true end;

3) That prayer or inner communion with the spirit thereof –be that spirit “God” or “law” –is a process wherein work is really done, and spiritual energy flows in and produces effects, psychological or material, within the phenomenal world.

Perhaps the matter is mute. With such anonymity and power it should speak silently – out of a sign language, an embodied gesture without words.


Oh, William James!